CD Reviews 29
Here we have the first venture into recorded Shostakovich for UK-based German pianist Annett Busse and the new label Music Chamber. There’s no denying that the short programme leaves much spare room on this full-priced CD. To these same two works, disc 3 of Caroline Weichert’s 4-CD survey of Shostakovich piano works adds the tenAphorisms (Accord 4428213), while Volume 1 of Boris Petrushansky’s Shostakovich piano intégrale manages to squeeze in not only Aphorisms, but also the early Five Preludes, Three Fantastic Dances, and the Polka from The Golden Age (Stradivarius STR 33727 or 5-CD set STR 33763). Enough said; Busse’s debut album is not a mass-produced commodity, and her recordings can be downloaded economically from www.music-chamber.com, so let’s turn to the music.
The oft-recorded Twenty-four Preludes have elicited a range of interpretations, some sticking close to the score, others striking out idiosyncratically. Busse and Weichert fall into the former camp; Petrushansky, the latter.
Busse’s preludes are generally light-footed, less sharply articulated than Weichert’s. In contrast, Petrushansky imposes unsteady rhythms with exaggerated accenting. This difference is conspicuous in the A minor prelude, No. 2, which lasts 50 seconds in all three versions, but in which Busse’s fluid delivery contrasts with Weichert’s airier, more staccato style and Petrushansky’s brittle construction.
Weichert is a strong contender in opus 34. She reigns in the G major prelude, No. 3, with a central squall more tempestuous than Busse’s and less drawn out than Petrushansky’s. She also earns points in the Eb minor prelude, No. 14, for the tension-building accelerando she introduces, and in her playful approach to the Db major prelude, No. 15.
In general, though, Busse poses stiff competition, her lone blemish being a slip of the finger at 0:24/bar 25 in Prelude No. 20. She bests both Weichert and Petrushansky with her impetuous scale runs in the G# minor prelude, No. 12. Music Chamber’s natural-sounding recording transmits Busse’s tinny accent in No. 6 in B minor, lending it a delightful Wild West saloon air (in this movement, Petrushansky succumbs to parkinsonian spasms). Listen for the glassy sheen on her trills closing the C# minor prelude, No. 10, evident also across her otherworldly F major prelude, No. 23. Busse betrays no hesitation in the daunting E major Presto, No. 9, and concludes the work with jaunty confidence in the D minor Allegretto.
Dances of the Dolls comprises seven tuneful piano solos for children, compiled in 1952 (not 1950 as stated in Stradivarius’ notes, nor 1953 as stated in Music Chamber’s) from material in the composer’s ballet and stage scores of the 1930s. Over half a dozen pianists have previously recorded the complete piano suite, though the only two still residing in the current catalogue are Weichert and Petrushansky. Many who have never heard Dances of the Dollswould nevertheless recognise these pieces from their orchestral incarnations in the Ballet Suites Nos. 1 and 3 and the Suite for Variety Stage Orchestra (previously mislabelled Jazz Suite No. 2).
The first dance, Lyrical Waltz, is No. 5 in Ballet Suite No. 3, and originated as The Ballerina’s Waltz in the 1935 balletThe Limpid Stream. Busse invests it with just enough romance to render sepia colours that are only glimpsed in Weichert’s swift traversal, and blackened over by Petrushansky’s arrhythmias. Busse’s gentle nostalgia persists through the following Gavotte and Romance, where Weichert supplies crisp rhythms and Petrushansky verges on the lethargic. These dances hail from Shostakovich’s incidental music to the play The Human Comedy and The Limpid Stream, via No. 2 in Ballet Suite No. 3 and No. 3 in Ballet Suite No. 1, respectively.
All three pianists delight in the central Polka, familiar as No. 2 in Ballet Suite No. 1, from The Ballerina’s Variation inThe Limpid Stream. Busse’s recital is exhilarating, with strong forward drive, and Weichert’s account is even more electric. Petrushansky’s sparkling take is notable for the insane gallop at its core, nestled between the restrained outer segments.
Busse’s delicacy suits the Waltz Scherzo, No. 5 in Ballet Suite No. 1, adapted from Scene and Waltz – Entr’acte in The Limpid Stream. Petrushansky’s plodding gait and Weichert’s strongly demarcated phrasing both obscure the softer elements of this piece. Busse is also sprightlier than Petrushansky or Weichert when cranking the Hurdy-Gurdy, No. 4 in Ballet Suite No. 1, previously Dance of the Milkmaid and the Tractor Driver in The Limpid Stream.
The final piece, Dance, better known as Dance No. 2 in Suite for Variety Orchestra, is drawn from Invitation to a Rendezvous in The Limpid Stream. Busse and Petrushansky are evenly matched for jollity, whereas Weichert’s demeanour is rather too serious.
A subset of listeners may be distracted by audible pedalling (this holds true for Accord’s reverberant acoustics for Weichert), but overall Music Chamber can be commended for these recordings. Any future reissue should be granted more extensive and better-copyedited notes than the single page on offer, and it would be helpful to have the keys of the preludes in the track listing. That said, don’t hesitate to add this worthy newcomer to your shelves if the programme appeals.
W. Mark Roberts
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Shostakovich: The 15 String Quartets
String Quartets No. 1 in C major, opus 49[a]; No. 2 in A major, opus 68[b]; No. 3 in F major, opus 73[c]; No. 4 in D major, opus 83[d]; No. 5 in Bb major, opus 92[e]; No. 6 in G major, opus 101[f]; No. 7 in F# minor, opus 108[g]; No. 8 in C minor, opus 110[h]; No. 9 in Eb major, opus 117[i]; No. 10 in Ab major, opus 118[j]; No. 11 in F minor, opus 122[k]; No. 12 in Db major, opus 133[l]; No. 13 in Bb minor, opus 138[m]; No. 14 in F# major, opus 142[n]; No. 15 in Eb minor, opus 144[o]; Two Pieces (Prelude and Scherzo) for String Octet, opus 11[p].
Beethoven Quartet: Dmitri Tsyganov (violin 1)[a-p], Vasili Shirinsky (violin 2)[a-j], Nicolai Zabavnikov (violin 2)[k-p], Vadim Borisovsky (viola)[a-h], Fyodor Druzhinin (viola)[i-p], Sergei Shirinsky (cello)[a-n,p], Yevgeny Altman (cello)[o]; Komitas Quartet[p]: Avet Gabrielyan (violin 1), Raphael Davidyan (violin 2), Genrikh Talalyan (viola), Armen Georgian (cello).
Doremi Legendary Treasures DHR-7911-5. ADD. 5-CD set, TT 5:01:18.
Listed as recorded 1956-1974.
As is well documented, all of the Shostakovich cycle of string quartets bar two (Nos. 1 and 15) were premiered by the Beethoven Quartet. The ensemble was founded as the Moscow Conservatory Quartet in 1923, becoming the Beethoven Quartet in 1931. The founding soloists were: violins – Dmitri Tsyganov (1903–1992) and Vassily Shirinsky (1901–1965), viola – Vadim Borisovsky (1900–1972) and cello – Sergei Shirinsky (1905–1974). The succeeding members were Fyodor Druzhinin – viola (from 1962), Nicolai Zabavnikov – 2nd violin (from 1965), Yevgeny Altman – cello (from 1974) and Oleg Krysa – 1st violin (from 1978).
As quoted in this CD collection’s extremely uneven booklet notes, Tsyganov described the quartet’s preparation for the first performances of Shostakovich’s string quartets: “First [Shostakovich] would play his new work on the piano from the score. Then he would give us the parts and beg us not to begin playing without him. He needed rehearsals not in order to test his new opus, and still less to change any of its details. He needed them in order to make the performers grasp his idea of the actual sound of the music. Our interpretations were authorised by Dmitri Shostakovich.”
If I mention the unevenness of the booklet notes, this is but an overture to a succession of diverse, dispersed and sometimes despairing production and interpretative qualities that seep into this valuable enterprise. The collection has the listener at times enthralled and transfixed, at others appalled and bemused. The recordings are not dated individually, and despite requests to Doremi, they were not forthcoming. All we are told is that the collection has recording dates that span from 1956 to 1974, the upper limit of which is likely incorrect, as previous issues of these recordings have dated Quartet No. 15 to 1975, the first year in which the Beethovens performed this work publicly. Recordings and pressings range from old and scratchy to young and clean, as described below.
String Quartet No. 1: Although, as mentioned, individual recording dates are not given, this recording’s dry acoustic, completely lacking the aural depth to which modern audiences have become accustomed, points to an early recording date – the Hulme catalogue states 1947, though previous releases on Consonance (81-3005; deleted) and Russian Compact Disc (RCD 16617) claimed 1961 and 1960, respectively. Notwithstanding the acoustics, the recording benefits from a good balance and an absolutely correct focus.
The articulation throughout the piece is extremely fine, although stylistically (for example in phrasing and the use of vibrato) this performance emanates from a bygone era.
The soloists’ take on the emotional layers that underpin the entire cycle is a constantly changing one; if this set has a failing it is certainly in the irregular nature of the Beethoven Quartet’s perception and execution of the works, from an interpretative point of view. The First Quartet forms the perfect introduction to the set as a whole: no fireworks, no histrionics; never banal, never dull. One remarkable feature that pervades the entire set is the ad libitum nature of Tsyganov’s playing – within reason of course, but the occasional grace note, slide or sforzando lends many of the pieces an unexpected and delightful edge. The (here monophonic) recording quality is average to poor, with LP-type surface noise occasionally blighting the erstwhile silent background. Listening to this set on headphones is not advised.
String Quartet No. 2: Sadly, the first impression here is of the very poor, booming acoustic that throws the balance into disarray. The audio remastering process is of dubious origins – the ‘thump, thump’ of an LP stylus bouncing around in its groove is quite unacceptable for a post-war recording of a mainstream chamber work played by a world-renowned ensemble. Fortunately, the emotionally soaring energy levels throughout are able sufficiently to vanquish the ‘noises-off’, and the musicians’ evident affinity with the dramatic core of this piece is absolutely without question, to tremendous effect. If the opening movement’s rhythmic impetus could be raised a notch, the extended solo Recitative that dominates the second movement typifies the ensemble’s approach to the underlying emotional weight of this quartet – one of restrained rawness. The highly charged final movement is splendidly executed, despite the tragically poor recording quality inflicted on the listener. If I have deliberately chosen not to offer up comparative notes with respect to other recorded versions available today, the Beethoven Quartet’s recording of this quartet is typical of the best justification possible – their uniqueness.
String Quartet No. 3: ‘Hurtling’ is the term that sprung to my mind when I first heard this performance of a very familiar work. The first movement sears, with fierce intonation from all instruments (leading to the occasional instability, but who cares?!) The opening statement’s cello accompaniment might strike one as rather flat and plodding, but what follows is a disarmingly brilliant development section led by Tsyganov’s exceptional insight into the movement’s enigmatic motives and passages. Considerations of ‘former-era’ phrasing and intonation that might perturb a lesser performance (see also my remarks above regarding interpretation in this set) are here banished in the fourth movement’s stunning oscillations between the plaintive and electric. The dramatic effect that the highly restrained fifth-movement finale provokes was surely a deliberate design on the interpreters’ part, and to have conceived and executed this performance thus is astounding. Overall, the audio quality here is improved – we even have stereo (albeit primitive) sound, and an adequate balance is restored.
String Quartet No. 4: A notable change occurs with this performance of the Fourth Quartet: the violins’ increased use of vibrato. This is a work that of course lends itself to timbral contrasts between the four voices, notably through the opening deeply driven drone effects in the lower strings, and the implicit dramatic layering of the work. Once again a very dry, highly focused aural stage is employed for the recording, heightening the dramatic effect rather than detracting from it. The second movement’s lament, with delicately dissonant accompaniment, swells and contracts through a landscape of doloroso designs brought to reality by each musician. The brisk Allegretto movement leads to what Valentin Berlinsky describes as “grotesque elements” in and around the Jewish motifs in the final movement; these, along with the Allegretto are here exploited with pointed vigour through hushed and muted strings. The audio quality is acceptable (there is a pronounced absence of acoustic bloom in many of these earlier recordings, although this does not unduly detract from the performance).
String Quartet No. 5: Once again the dated sound with close-microphone techniques serve to enhance the very intimate feeling of the performance. Sadly, the higher instrumental registers have been filtered out at the time of recording, or through the transfer to CD; perhaps this contributes to what I found to be an excess of self-restraint in places, although the occasional lapse of ensemble cannot be so explained. Also, LP surface noise (albeit at very low level) returns to the fore, notably in the hushed second movement Andante. All the same, and through those particular flavours of adversity, I noted: “massive levels of self assurance – under-the-skin” whilst auditioning the disc. Not the best of the set.
String Quartet No. 6: The Sixth Quartet inspires or provokes little in the way of debate or conjecture, apart from the ‘hanging’ chords that conclude each movement, the composer’s way, perhaps, of bringing the disparate threads of the work together.
Whatever the compositional foundations, treading the Shostakovich interpretative minefield is here reduced to a gentle countryside meander. Whilst the audio reproduction assigned to this Quartet is much improved, my overall impression is of a less involved performance, with perhaps the exception of the third movement Lento, whose simplicity of structure and thematic vocabulary produces an astonishingly touching interpretation. Although the final movement climaxes provoke some tight ensemble playing, my sense is of a lack of ‘ferment’ in the music, though whether this trait is circumstantial or deliberate is unclear.
String Quartet No. 7: Rather bizarrely, we are flung back into the monophonic world as the producers of this collection presumably were obliged to revert to a secondary studio source? As a partial consequence we are presented with a fine, tightly balanced aural staging, with adequate clarity. The performance here is exceptional, a quantum leap away from the previously reviewed work. Passion and pain in the first movement are accompanied by a sense of ambiguity; mellowness intersperses with the highly strained tones of the first violin and the viola. A deep sense of mystery drifts into an eerily sparse, understated (although slightly weakly intoned) opening to the second movement. The third movement benefits (or suffers, according to personal taste) from some extremely exposed and abrasive playing, and despite some ensemble problems the music builds to the monumental tutti climaxes through to the end of the movement, culminating in an exhausted, hushed finale that exhales a sublime numbness. Overall, this interpretation possesses a dreadful quality: that of art through pain, of suffering, of the massively uncertain.
String Quartet No. 8: What to say? This is, for me, the highlight of the set. Omnipresent or no, this Eighth Quartet is – and should be – capable of purveying extreme tension, through the composition’s intrinsic layers of dramatically programmatic chamber writing. The performance here not only abounds with lyricism and power, but contains some quite wonderful nuances, phrasing, even semi-improvisatory passages (the semiquaver ‘DSCH’ intonations on first violin in the third movement are unique). This is dense, searing drama without reversion to exaggeration or caricature. One can well imagine the early rehearsals during which the musicians would have been exposed to Shostakovich’s extreme, personal ruminations – and the pain that led him to compose the work. The recording is in stereo, although with relatively limited space and dynamic range.
String Quartet No. 9: Sadly, the first word has to refer once more to audio quality rather than to musical considerations. The recording is in stereo but contains a high background noise (from an LP surface) particularly noticeable in the first movement. This phenomenon mars, but thankfully doesn’t ruin. In addition, the outer movements contain several poor edits that distract annoyingly.
The greatest hazard in this underrated and seminal work is glibness. Predictably, the Beethoven Quartet’s interpretation steers a course in a quite opposite direction. The playing is extremely taut, the music’s rather mystic lyricism interweaving with Shostakovich’s folk-like themes, through overt dance-like qualities to hushed, haunted passages. There are many highlights – Tsyganov’s plaintive voice in the Adagio fourth movement, the extended pizzicato passages, the frenzy of the final climax, and a conclusion to this underestimated work that is very fine indeed.
String Quartet No. 10 – This quartet benefits (at last) from a richer acoustic offering a much fuller body of sound. The transfer emanates from an analogue tape source that suffers from a certain number of stereo image shifts at the opening.
The performance is a well-articulated, well-controlled one, although I was unconvinced by the first violin’s phrasing at the onset of the second movement. The third movement would have benefited from a more tearing, strained edge. Overall, I found the tempi slightly too fast, but the tutti are massively powerful and well articulated. The transition from the third to the fourth movements jolts, lacking a logical transition. Once again the over-eager tempo adopted by the ensemble steals much of the underlying tension in the final movement (e.g., the lower strings’ drone effect). In short, something of a neutral rendition in the midst of so much passion and inspiration.
String Quartet No. 11 – ‘The advent of late Shostakovich’, or so I read in a reputable musical encyclopaedia recently. This is indeed a long way from the early quartets, and so is the ensemble that is the subject of this review. Each of Quartets Nos. 11–14 bears a dedication to a founding Beethoven Quartet member and spotlights his instrument: No. 11 honours the ensemble’s original second violinist, Vassily Shirinsky, and is ground-breaking in its 7-movement structure and overall recitative style.
The ensemble playing on this CD had already changed twice down the years, with Fyodor Druzhinin and Nicolai Zabavnikov joining Tsyganov and Sergei Shirinsky. Notwithstanding this change in performers and the ‘late’ nature of the work, the soloists’ phrasing and overall conception of the final five quartets has changed little from the earlier part of the cycle. Tsyganov’s stridency might surprise advocates of the Brodsky, Fitzwilliam or Danel schools; for example, the forthrightness with which he enunciates the second movement of the Eleventh brims with tension and doubt. Nevertheless, I did not find myself moved by this performance, assured though it may be. This is typified by the opening attack of the third movement fortissimo, whose phrasing I found awkward and without conviction. Technically, the CD quality is clean, with adequate focus on the individual instruments whilst retaining an aura of ensemble.
String Quartet No. 12: This quartet is dedicated to Dmitri Tsyganov, and is one of the most individual and original of the fifteen. The challenge here is to define an architectural framework within which the music’s 25 minutes can grow, evolve, surge, recede and finally conclude in a tumultuous fortissimo tutti, whilst permitting the work’s many extraordinary moments the range of impact the score demands. The ‘new’ Beethoven Quartet’s approach is strident, classical up to the point at which the score demands timbral innovations or the slightest of rhythmic improvisations. The second movement’s overall architecture is splendidly assured throughout its 18:49, and at no moment do the trepidation levels fall. The performance is not flawless, but this is inevitable with so much electricity in the air. Ultimately one’s choice will relate to personal preferences and expectations. Sound quality has thankfully ceased to be an issue and the final five quartets benefit from ‘normal’ ADD performance.
String Quartet No. 13: Druzhinin referred to this piece as “a hymn to the viola” (his predecessor, Borisovsky, is the work’s dedicatee); the Doremi booklet employs a different quote: “The musical conception of this piece continues the sequence of subjects, thoughts and feelings presented in Shostakovich’s earlier works. I perceive the Thirteenth Quartet to be an inspired and sincere narrative dealing with people’s lives, where even the most mournful pages lack hopelessness and despair and the author takes the audience into the bright world of lofty thoughts and pure feelings.”
Again the playing isn’t flawless here – even Tsyganov suffers from uncharacteristically approximate moments – but the overall dramatic impetus is entirely convincing, especially the intuitive nature of the Quartet’s ensemble playing, which almost always gives the listener the impression of a live performance during the recordings that make up this set. The three-note motive that dominates the piece reaches its most terrifying at the lead-in to the viola’s extended solo that precedes the recapitulation; this is one of the moments of the cycle. The Moonlight reference that was to become Shostakovich’s final utterance in the Viola Sonata is exquisitely played by Druzhinin, leading to the dramatic chasm of the final bars.
String Quartet No. 14: Dedicated to the Beethoven’s Quartet’s cellist Sergei Shirinsky, the Fourteenth’s altogether more (apparently) amenable first movement opens the final disc of the set. The playing in the first movement is strident, if lacking in a sense of direction, dramatically-speaking. The Beethoven Quartet’s attitude throughout this set is one of firmness, of a sense of forward movement – fine in the earlier pieces and even in the Ninth Quartet, but more introspection may have been beneficial to the overall structure that Shostakovich conceived around each of the movements here. Of the impassioned second movement Adagio, whose obsessive rhythmic dialogues ‘at once caress, at once dig and delve into the depths of consciousness,’ to paraphrase a commentator from the 1970s, the musicians revel in the neo-classicism that pervades the section. The final movement’s fitful protestations, evocations and prevarications are handled with power and brilliance; this is as assured a final movement as has been committed to disc – it is knife-edge playing until finally, a figurative night falls.
String Quartet No. 15: Speaking of night falling, we arrive at the final quartet that Shostakovich was destined to complete. Indeed the theme of death clings to the work: during rehearsals for the premiere of the piece, cellist Sergey Shirinsky died and the performance by the Beethoven Quartet had to be cancelled (the quartet was premiered instead by the Taneyev Quartet in Leningrad, in November 1974). The Beethoven Quartet, with their new cellist Yevgeny Altman gave their first performance in Moscow in January 1975.
The intensity that pervaded the Fourteenth is immediately in evidence, the only real distinguishing factor being the mellower timbre here produced by Altman’s instrument, as compared to his mentor Shirinsky. As to the interpretative challenges that this unique work sets, with its seven successive Adagio movements, I prefer to quote Alan George, the Fitzwilliam Quartet’s viola player, who was privileged to have played for the composer: “… it is pointless making any other observations, as each player can only respond to the notes he sees and the emotions these generate, together with that uncanny awareness that each situation in which this piece is performed is more than usually unique, special – almost final…”
The first movement’s lamentations lead into a searing, tearing, second movement that pleads, shrieks and finally leads to the virtuoso Intermezzo movement, a Nocturne, a night-black Funeral March and finally the Epilogue – arguably the most poignant of all Shostakovich’s quartet writing – all played with immense passion and artistry by the ensemble.
In addition to the 15 quartets, the set includes Two Pieces for String Octet (double string quartet), opus 11. Thankfully (to my mind at least) the quartets are arranged chronologically over 5 CDs. Enough has already been written regarding the sound quality; the booklet notes are rather poor – in microscopically small-print, in indifferent English (no other language) and signed only ‘J.H.’ (presumably, Doremi’s Music Director, Jacob Harnoy). The overall style of writing is officious and unoriginal. The buyer is also ‘treated’ to scans of the original Melodiya LPs that correspond to the CD releases. These are oddities, rather than being of use to all other than the most rabid Melodiya LP collector.
The set is relatively easy to find on-line, and in certain countries’ CD stores; for all its blemishes, it comes with a high recommendation – these are historic performances that have stood, and will stand the test of time.
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Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, opus 35[a]; Concertino for Two Pianos in A minor, opus 94[b]; Piano Quintet in G minor, opus 57[c].
Alexander Vedernikov[a], Orchestra Della Svizzera Italiana[a], Martha Argerich (piano), Sergei Nakariakov (trumpet)[a], Lilya Zilberstein (piano)[b], Renaud Capucon (violin)[c], Alissa Margulis (violin)[c], Lyda Chen (viola)[c], Mischa Maisky (cello)[c].
EMI Classics 50999 5 04504 2. DDD. TT 66:09.
Recorded live at the Progetto, Lugano Festival, Switzerland, 2006.
Performing before a live audience at Switzerland’s 2006 Lugano Festival, Martha Argerich offers an all-Shostakovich program that cuts across genres. Although Argerich’s name appears alone on the front cover, she is abetted by a superb cohort of musicians, including two who have made notable contributions to the Shostakovich repertoire: conductor Alexander Vedernikov and cellist Mischa Maisky.
This disc has received glowing notices in the November Gramophone, The Guardian, and BBC Music Magazine, which, in its December issue, designated the disc an orchestral finalist for its 2008 Awards. While the performance of the Quintet deserves its many plaudits, not so Argerich’s take on the concerto, which renders this a rather mixed program.
Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, for all its poise, offers a bounty of unexpected riches. Bach’s shadow looms over its five movements, three of which move with great lyrical beauty from shores of quiet contemplation to solemn depths of revelation. The players at this Lugano festival shape its pages with the might and dignity they deserve. But it is dignity of a rugged sort. Argerich’s opening flourish sets the tone for the ensemble and establishes her full-fisted grip on the piano part. The other players invest a similar level of physical energy.
Teamwork is what gives this performance a real edge. Everywhere one finds intense communication and interaction between players, as well as gestures of the most accommodating generosity. Take, for example, the moment in the second movement, Fugue, where the violin and viola, admirably played by Renaud Capucon and Lida Chen, spiral around each other in an utterly tender embrace; or how Maisky, after taking his cello solo at 6:30, gently surrenders the spotlight to the other players; or the manner in which his strolling pizzicato at the top of the Intermezzo is attentively contoured to the entrances and retreats of the other players. In the Intermezzo, the work’s expressive nucleus, the long solo lines in the upper strings bare their soul with complete candor as if addressing the listener one-on-one.
This uninhibited intimacy leads to richly rewarding moments of revelation. The impact of these peak passages is multiplied by the sympathetic and lucid give-and-take among the players. Further enhancing the overall impression is the core placement of the microphones, situating the listener at the very heart of the music making. Mr Maisky’s occasionally audible grunts in the thicker passages only add to the in-the-moment vitality.
Concurrent with this EMI Classics release, another live 2006 performance of the Quintet has been issued with Mischa Maisky and a completely different set of performers playing at the Musikverein in Vienna (Onyx 4026). Here we have a bird of a very different feather: a light and lively version of the work. The playing and direction are exuberantly taut, yet flexible enough to admit silvery sweet solos, an affecting romantic ardour in the slow movements, and surges of exultation elsewhere. This will do as a curiously upbeat alternative, but by no means the definitive recording. Those seeking a meatier survey with proper due given the darker, more complex hues would be advised look elsewhere. Another recent release featuring Martin Roscoe and the Sorrel Quartet reaches majestic summits and is worth seeking out (Chandos CHAN 10329; reviewed in DSCH 24).
Two historic performances that still rise to the top of the list are the versions by Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet (BMG/Melodiya 74321 40713 2; deleted) and Vladimir Ashkenazy with the Fitzwilliam Quartet (Decca 472 807-2; reviewed in DSCH 21). The Richter/Borodin version, with its aristocratic bearing, is elegant, often airborne. In the latter half it projects a proud defiance that has yet to be equalled. The warmer, more humane tones of the Ashkenazy/Fitzwilliam version are no less elevated and are just as meticulously crafted. Truly the work of the gods, its dynamic contours do justice to the deeply stirring climaxes.
While Argerich and colleagues do not quite capture the bittersweet restraint of the Ashkenazy/ Fitzwilliam version, nor the princely solidity of the Richter/Borodin, they project the music’s most vital elements with rare visceral immediacy.
Though on the periphery of the Shostakovich catalogue, the Concertino has never suffered from a lack of recordings. With its light weight and 8- to 10-minute duration it comes ready-made for inclusion in surveys of the two-piano literature. We’ve even had arrangements of the work for accordion duet, and a fully “concertised“ version for piano and orchestra. As far as the original version is concerned, the refreshingly brisk rendition by composer and son sets something of a benchmark, if not an authoritative record of the composer’s preferred tempi (Classical Treasures CT-10022; reviewed in DSCH 17). Yet one would have to look far and wide to find a performance as crisp and sparkling as that given by Seta Tanyel and Jeremy Brown on Chandos (CHAN 8466). For a more weighty and wistful approach, one may try the nurturing account by Sabrina Alberti and Luisa Fanti Zurkowskaja on Dynamic (CDS464). And for a performance with verve and unexpected spotlighting, there is the version by Phillipe Entremont and Laura Mikkola, found on their remarkable recording of the two-piano version of the Fifteenth Symphony (Cascavelle VEL 3102, reviewed in DSCH 27).
In the current recording, Lilya Zilberstein joins Martha Argerich in a performance that moves along with clarity and strength. Their rather formal approach accords the work a good middle-weight bearing. The thoughtful introduction leads to the main theme in a jovial tempo, neither too fast nor too slow. Peak moments are nicely punctuated and the duo make the most out of the contrast between the tender and lively moments.
There is no doubting the power and intensity of Argerich’s virtuosity. But in the case of Shostakovich’s whimsical First Piano Concerto, there is an unfortunate mismatch of temperaments. Some listeners may take well to her aggressive interpretation, and may find her tempi comparable to those of Shostakovich’s own quirky readings of the work. However, throughout the performance I wanted Argerich to lighten up, to embrace the free-wheeling spirit of the score and to release its charge of playful little demons. Instead, she bears down on the puckish passagework with sadomasochistic fury, turning what should have been a high-spirited encounter into a virtuosic wrestling match. She does manage to produce some poetic moments in the slow movement, with plenty of vented steam in the central climax, abetted all the while by fine, mood-sensitive entries by trumpeter Sergei Nakariakov.
In the latter movements, however, we find an even more brutal continuation of Argerich’s earlier assault, as the episodic inserts are joylessly pummelled to the finish line. By contrast, Nakariakov captures the high spirits of his part with admirable vigour and virtuosity.
He earns bonus points in the finale for his polished execution of the Ach du Lieber Augustin-like theme and its notoriously difficult flourish. If the strings are not accorded the most balanced recorded sound, the piano and trumpet are given a strong up-front presence.
Listeners looking for a performance that delivers the playful acrobatics the piece is due might seek out one of Eugene List’s celebrated performances; or, more recently, the infectiously enthusiastic version of Oleg Marshev (Danacord DACOCD 601; reviewed in DSCH 20).
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Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, opus 77[a]; Sonata for Violin and Piano, opus 134[b].
Ruth Palmer (violin); Benjamin Wallfisch, Philharmonia Orchestra[a]; Alexei Grynyuk (piano)[b].
A People’s Music, a film by Tim Meara[c].
Quartz Music QTZ2045. DDD.
CD TT 71:52[a,b].
Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, London, 23 & 24 March 2006[a]; The Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, U.K., 6 & 7 May 2006[b].
Much has been written about the circumstances surrounding Ruth Palmer’s recording of the First Violin Concerto: driving ambition, an obstinate refusal to say ‘no’, appeals to all manner of financial institutions and to individual benefactors and so on and so on… Rather less ink has been dispensed on the result of her artistic tenacity, this recording of opus 77 and, it shouldn’t be overlooked (although it has in the press reviews) of the Sonata, opus 134.
As can be assessed from the interview I conducted with the soloist (see page 22 of this edition), Palmer has not only studied the work from musical and historical standpoints, but she also spent time in St. Petersburg, speaking with musicians whose life has been spent in full awareness of Shostakovich’s artistic legacy and of the importance of Russian history to that legacy. Limited immersion in a strongly alien culture, one might argue, but immersion, or exposure, all the same.
The performance of the concerto is exceptional on many fronts. Palmer’s almost nonexistent vibrato in the opening movement is shockingly effective, and not without risk. Her phrasing, too, is exceptionally fluid, often deviating from what appears in the score. Take the opening piano figure: the soloist flattens out both timbre and dynamics in almost apologetic fashion, a hushed and timid voice emerging. The leap from the fourth note of the opening solo passage, from a low E to Bb typifies Palmer’s approach: the tone wavers slightly, secreting uncertainty. The tempo she chooses is slow, at around crotchet = 58, and this emphasises the ‘unsafeness’. In the same way, her use of bridging slides, rather than leaps, injects into the opening pages a sense of cowering (to paraphrase Palmer, the work’s consignment to the composer’s drawer, a public performance of such a dark piece being impossible in 1948, constitutes the Concerto’s soul).
At the first real orchestral climax, Rehearsal 3, the soloist’s tone hardens just sufficiently to sustain the melodic line against the strings and bassoon accompaniment. Vibrato is still a selective commodity, increasing its impact when present.
One of the most sensational moments in the piece occurs just after Rehearsal 7, where a poco rit and the gradual fading away of woodwind and horns reveals a simple melodic line that Palmer barely articulates, but whose fragility is deeply moving. The passage is followed by a crescendo leading to a forte appassionato for soloist and strings; the sheer intensity of this short passage, and others that follow, is heightened as a result of Palmer’s broad tenutoapproach.
The orchestral balance during the movement’s few tutti moments is impeccable, the soloist not dominating the sound stage, rather surviving within it. This opening movement is, after all, a Nocturne, and Palmer’s conclusion conveys a whispered, terrifying eeriness. Her final high E defies belief.
The frantic nature of the Scherzo, in Palmer’s view, emerges from elements of burlesque and caricature, rather than from any perceptibly physical manifestation of a person or persons. Her approach here is forthright, sharp but never acerbic or overly bitter. The ‘DSCH’ motif at Rehearsal 35 is weighted perfectly, almost imperceptibly – again Palmer’s approach is not to exaggerate, to allow the composer’s narrative to emerge through his work.
That said, Palmer’s use of dynamic iterations that don’t necessarily appear in the score might alarm or surprise. Her expert manipulation of dynamics is a notable feature of this movement; take Rehearsal 48, where subtle changes nonetheless drive the music almost imperceptibly forward. At Rehearsal 67, for once the soloist’s voice does recede to almost obscurity at the tutti, but this is a rare blemish.
The impact of the Passacaglia owes a great deal to the orchestral introduction prior to the piano, espressivo solo entry at Rehearsal 71. Wallfisch and the Philharmonia oblige wonderfully, neither undervaluing nor over-anticipating the imminent drama. Palmer’s attack at this point disappointed me slightly; the plaintiveness of her opening phrases devoid of the expressiveness Shostakovich directs. The soloist is again in danger over being obscured by the orchestral voices throughout the long, taut section from Rehearsal 73 onwards. More f rather than mf with a little more strenuous bowing would have helped. Similarly, the ff at Rehearsal 75 lacks biting power. Notwithstanding these slight blemishes, the movement retains its dramatic shape, building and ebbing to Rehearsal 78, where the winding thematic material concludes, accompanied by a timpani roll. The level of anticipation Palmer generates here matches anything available on disc, through her understated approach and her insistence (my perception) that the music itself carries all the ‘meaning’ one needs as a soloist.
One person’s perception of the ideal cadenza is likely to be different from his or her neighbour’s; Oistrakh, Kogan, Repin, Midori – each artist peels away the dramatic layers that constitute this movement in their own fashion, through a combination of mood, technique, age, experience, culture and expectation. Palmer’s approach is predictably guarded and hushed, building slowly and inexorably through the movement’s various episodes. She is utterly respectful of the score in this section, notably with regard to phrasing and bowing (Shostakovich’s directions for the latter are very explicit). Followers of the exhibitionist movement are likely to be frustrated; those that prefer control and reason will appreciate Palmer’s performance here.
The whirlwind final movement passes in a flurry of orchestral brilliance. Palmer’s tone is resolutely controlled although it does finally tend towards the exasperated at Rehearsal 98, and dare I say, the unbridled from Rehearsal 105 to the end. A stunning conclusion to a splendid and unique performance of the work.
Whilst the opportunity to add a new version of the Violin Sonata to the catalogue is welcome, the over-eagerness of Quartz, who provision only a few seconds between the two works, is unfortunate, so be warned. The performance is thoroughly accomplished; both Palmer and accompanist Alexei Grynyuk bring measured levels of darkness and light to the work’s multi-faceted design, along with impressive degrees of virtuosity. As Palmer’s own booklet notes explain:
“Shostakovich’s Sonata for Violin and Piano … is a piece that seems to express an acceptance of finality. For me, this Sonata has a detachment expressed through the very Classical style of the piece. Perhaps this is because the Sonata was composed after his recovery from his first heart attack, and that for eight years, Shostakovich had been fighting illnesses which the doctors were unable to diagnose; he was unable to play the piano, and had great difficulty with climbing stairs. The character of the music speaks to me of the sobriety of old age in the way that it begins and ends with quiet and relatively slow movements. The power of these movements is created by an unrelenting sense of pulse and long drawn out phrases which exhaustively stretch the listener. This sense of pulse, teamed with the third movement’s theme and variation structure is also a major factor in the neo-Classicism of the piece. In the second movement Shostakovich tries to rediscover the energy of his youth, and throws all manner of dances at the listener, hoarsely shouting out furious Marches, Waltzes and Tarantellas desperate to expel the poison eating at the heart of the piece.
“Shostakovich’s rebellious streak had not completely disappeared; the Sonata makes some use of dodecaphony, where all 12 notes are treated as equals. This was a controversial move by Shostakovich, because this compositional technique had been declared ‘anti-Soviet’, and was banned. The Sonata was composed between August and October of 1968 in honour of the 60th birthday of David Oistrakh, who is also the dedicatee of the 1st Violin Concerto.
“…Throughout this recording my intention has been to bring my own perspective to these pieces.”
And she indeed succeeds.
A word, finally, for the ‘other disc’ that comes with the CD reviewed above: A People’s Music, to which Ruth Palmer alludes in her interview and which relates her voyage to Russia, the overriding impressions the place and the people made on her, through the lens of Tim Meara’s video camera (the film was ultimately produced in black and white). As Palmer states:
“In A People’s Music I am confronted by people with so many different ideas of who Shostakovich was, and what his music stands for politically, music-ally and aesthet-ically that I could remain in a state of total confusion. The only way out of this is to find my own voice in the most personal way I can; with the violin.”
An exceptional and highly recommended release.
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Symphony No. 9 in Eb major, opus 70[a]; Symphony No. 12 in D minor, The Year 1917, opus 112[b].
Mark Wigglesworth, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.
BIS SACD-1563. DDD hybrid Direct Stream Digital 5.0-surround sound/stereo SACD/stereo CD. TT 63:17.
Recorded at the Music Centre for Dutch Radio & Television, studio MCO5, Hilversum, the Netherlands, December 2004[a], April 2005 [b].
The pairing of Shostakovich’s Ninth and Twelfth Symphonies is oddly appropriate. The two works stand out as the renegades in Shostakovich’s mature symphonic output. Polished and paradoxical, each one traces a coyly subversive path that compels the listener as much for what it is not as what it is. The Ninth Symphony of 1945 emerged as a giant dig in the ribs of Stalin, who expected from Shostakovich a mighty paean in celebration of the victorious war efforts. Instead, a cheery Haydnesque raspberry turned up, one filled with all sorts of internal musical jokes and political innuendo that, even for an unsuspecting Stalin, could hardly be construed as congratulatory. And then there’s the Twelfth of 1961, written a year after Shostakovich, with fervent regrets, joined the Communist Party. The work rings as hollow as the public speeches he was obliged to deliver before the Politburo. Subtitled The Year 1917 and cast in four movements, each with its own descriptive subtitle, the work appears to be offered as an ode to Lenin and the triumphs of Communism. Yet in the listening, one empty gesture follows another, a mere shell of a symphony that still defies explanation.
Shostakovich’s Ninth may take its place on the lighter end of the symphonic scale, but it has nevertheless lent itself to a wide variety of interpretations. The classic versions of Kondrashin (Aulos AMC2-043-1-10) and Svetlanov (Russian Disc RD CD 11 109; deleted) are crisp accounts with driving, catch-your-breath tempi in the outer movements and passages of unexpected sensitivity in between. Some conductors convey the levity of the opening movement with an all-out party-like atmosphere. One such example is the superb version by Efrem Kurtz (CBS Masterworks Portrait MPK 45698; deleted) in which the woodwinds chirp gleefully against the sneering brass and the trombone delivers devilishly lingering cadences (they also loiter roguishly in the Ladislav Slovak version; Naxos 8.550632; reviewed in DSCH 20). Herbert Kegel’s equally fine version (Weitblick SSS0036), on the other hand, carries an ominously militant undercurrent that lends an acidic bite to the humour.
Wigglesworth adopts Kurtz’s perspective. One imagines his Dutch players having indulged in champagne and chocolate prior to the performance, as they bring ebullient spirits to the work. The opening movement owes its glib and giddy momentum to fine playing, with lower brass and strings particularly eager to show their enthusiasm. If there is a slight drawback it is that the lead trombone might have been more forwardly placed, given its very prominent cadential outbursts throughout. However, when those cadences do come along, the bouncing timpani strokes rise up like peals of Falstaffian laughter, compensating somewhat for the rather shy trombone.
Tempo is of the essence in the sombre Moderato movement, as it is in the all-important wind solos. Again we find a wide range of interpretations. Kondrashin (timing in at 6:46) gives a tautly reflective reading while Svetlanov (at 7:51) favours a more expansive mood. Tempi can be stretched to excess as in Bernstein’s second account on DG (at 8:22; 6-CD set 477 519-3GB6 or DVD 00440 073 4170GH; reviewed in DSCH 26), or to dirge-like extremes as in the version by Efrem Kurtz, at an agonizing 11:45! I rather like Rahbari at 8:52 (Naxos 8.550427), who takes the movement far more seriously than does Wigglesworth (6:09), as he delineates a deeply reflective landscape, building strong crests. Herbert Kegel’s Moderato lunges forward with wicked determination and, following in the character of his first movement, builds urgency as it accelerates toward the peaks. Wigglesworth’s tempo favours pastel shades that convey the not-so-unbearable lightness of being of the opening movement. The winds and the rising figure in the strings seem to smile, trouble-free, at the listener, offering silky playing that soothes rather than stirs the senses.
After the short whirlwind scherzo comes one of the defining features of the Ninth Symphony, the Musorgskian repartee, in the style of Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, between the pompous brass and the humble bassoon. In some recordings the bassoon passages take the mood of the symphony to an entirely different level, as in the arrestingly mournful solos of Rahbari and Svetlanov. Though Wigglesworth doesn’t aspire to the same gravity, the finest moments in his recording comprise the beautifully doleful tones of lead bassoonist Jos Lammerse, who is duly given credit on the titles page.
The final prank in the symphony occurs in the final movement where Shostakovich embarks upon a full-scale wind-up, swinging his pre-climactic cantilever with all the might in his technical armamentarium. Here he spins out a cyclone of slowly gathering tension, escalating as only Shostakovich can, leading the listener to expect a majestic pronunciation, the symphony’s Grand Olympian Summary Statement. When we finally arrive at the moment of delivery, the facade suddenly drops and instead we hear a gawky little rat-a-tat between solo trumpet, snare drum, and strings. It is one of music’s swiftest moments of deflation, a brilliant symphonic rug-pull from under the feet of a vaguely suspicious Stalin.
Some conductors play up this elaborate musical joke more than others. Slovak’s Bratislava players can barely contain their glee at the anti-delivery point. Rahbari, on the other hand, holds the flimflam at arm’s length by taking a sudden diminuendo. Kurtz and the earlier Bernstein version with the New York Philharmonic (Sony SMK61841) follow a push-release agenda by dropping into a more relaxed demeanour. Svetlanov delivers the gag in exactly the opposite manner by leading up with large rubati-inflected gestures followed by a sudden punchline acceleration. Wigglesworth, regrettably, makes no particular effort to highlight the teaser, but he does keep the spirits buoyant through to the end.
Though the Twelfth does not rank among the most popular or frequently performed Shostakovich symphonies, we have had a few beautifully shaped interpretations. Haitink’s sumptuously polished version with the Concertgebouw (Decca 475 7413) stands among the finest of his complete cycle. Kondrashin can always be relied upon for a lively idiomatic interpretation. However, no one has yet been able to match the consummate drive and excitement achieved by Mravinsky’s various performances, especially in the all-important first movement (e.g., Melodiya MELCD1000770). With every note sharply accented and every instrumental solo placed within direct earshot of a microphone, the Mravinsky/Leningrad/Melodiya combination was the ideal vehicle for the best movements of this oddly conceived work.
That being said, Wigglesworth again allows the virtuosity of the Netherlands orchestra to shine. The lumbering introduction lacks the weightiness found in other performances and seems a bit hurried, especially by Wigglesworthian standards. Yet once the allegro section commences, the fast-flying episodes are strapped into place and the piece moves along briskly. The vigorous precision of the lower strings is particularly thrilling, as are the thunderous culminating passages. As in the Ninth Symphony, the percussion section provide a strong backbone to the performance, especially in the well-punctuated first and third movements. Wigglesworth elicits some fine solo playing in the second movement, whose principal features are the extended solos for horn, flute, bassoon, and trombone. He also emphasizes the recurring chorale-like motif, establishing it as a point of reference – gratifyingly so, in a meandering movement that seems to search in vain for solid footing. The build-up toward the peroration of the third movement has sounded more menacing elsewhere. Once the dam bursts, however, percussion and brass again show their strengths. Few conductors have been able to make a convincing case for this symphony’s interminably repetitive finale. If nothing else, Wigglesworth and his band show that they have the stamina to sustain high spirits, even for rejoicing of the forced kind.
While these may not be the most distinguished performances in the Wigglesworth Shostakovich cycle, they offer good, sturdy playing with much fine musicianship to recommend them.