CD Reviews 32
§ = World Première Recording
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Symphony No. 9, opus 70; Russian River, opus 66[a]; Native Leningrad, opus 63[b]
Alexander Titov, St Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Choir of Smolny Cathedral[a, b], Boris Stepanov (tenor)[b], Andrei Slavney (baritone)[b].
Northern Flowers NF/PMA 9976. DDD. TT: 49:49
Recorded at St. Catherine’s Lutheran Church, St. Petersburg, March 4-6, 2009
The second instalment of Vasily Petrenko’s complete Shostakovich symphonic cycle on Naxos, plus two world-premiere recordings on Northern Flowers, should do well to warm the hearts of devotees this season. Each release is graced with a performance of the Ninth Symphony, one that shines and one that sparkles.
Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool PO launched their survey with the unorthodox choice of the mighty Eleventh Symphony, reviewed in DSCH 31. They now continue on more familiar ground with the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies. Petrenko’s Eleventh reveals a conductor deeply in touch with the volatile core of Shostakovich’s music and in command of its architecture. In the oft-performed Fifth, arguably the standard-bearer of the canon, Petrenko delivers a performance marked by passionate determination. Every page of this emotionally charged work is probed in scrupulous detail, revealing new insights and, especially in the finale, unavoidable political undercurrents.
There is something of the Wigglesworth approach in Petrenko’s broad tempi and wide-ranging dynamics. Yet here the music seems to be experienced by the conductor on the most intimate level. Petrenko’s interpretation is elegantly subjective and unabashedly romanticised. As we find in the slower movements of his rendition of the Eleventh Symphony, Petrenko tends to tighten the noose around peak moments by holding back dynamic levels in the surrounding valleys and then clasping those moments for dear life. The same propensities are found in this performance. The themes of the first movement exposition are muted to the point of suggesting a personal confession to God himself. Among these, the Carmen theme, with a hint of portamento, is whispered as if it were the tender love-song from which it was derived. Fortifying these exquisitely tender passages are the peaks, which rally and shimmer with the radiance of Anton Bruckner’s musical epiphanies. Petrenko somehow manages to accomplish the nearly impossible feat of revelling in one indulgence after another while at the same time laying a foundation of formal solidity. The similar extravagances of Rostropovich’s reading with the LSO seem operatic by comparison.
In the development section Petrenko steps up to pace by way of a well-drawn accelerando. The brassy march variant of the first theme, the moment of blazing contradiction in the midst of the mêlée, sneers with such vehemence that one almost hears it as Shostakovich’s musical reply to the notorious personal assaults of the time. The subsequent climactic utterance is so strappingly expansive that some may find it a bit over the top. Yet Petrenko has earned this full-scale indulgence, as he delivers the passage as if it were the revelation of a lifetime. And after all, isn’t that the point of the music?
Winds and brass come on strong in the rhythmically accentuated Scherzo, where pizzicati get plenty of pluck, and the iambically inflected waltz cavorts with curiously heavy-footed grace. The rhetoric of irony is spotlighted in the central violin solo, which performs its little dance as if innocently oblivious of its portentous surroundings.
Petrenko’s interpretation of the Largo may have taken a cue from Richard Taruskin’s description of the movement as being “saturated with… the ‘imagery’ of leave-taking and of funerals”. Accordingly, the movement is stretched to dirge-like limits, overwhelmed with grief, nearly stilled to silence, delivered as if one’s dearest companion were being eulogised. The solo passages – the duet for flutes, the vibrato-laden oboe solo – share the same agonising intimacy. Petrenko’s peaks more than add heat to the already white-hot furnace of the movement: here they go so far as to redefine the terrain. The Largo harbours not one but two emotional centres, the first being the mighty crescendo in the strings early in the movement (fig. 81) that follows the section for solo flutes and harp. Petrenko elevates this crescendo to such a majestically eruptive exorcism of the soul that it overshadows the subsequent xylophone-adorned climax, ostensibly the movement’s emotional centre. While that latter crowning point is given its Olympian due, the experience of the earlier climax lingers as the more penetrating catharsis. The air of infinite sorrow surrounding the peaks, especially in the post-climactic pages, provides a poignantly haunting backdrop for what is perhaps the most profoundly moving Largo on disc.
If political edges are to be found lurking in the previous three movements, Petrenko makes their presence all too apparent in the finale. Here is the dissident point of view taken to its extreme, the ultimate embodiment of ‘forced rejoicing’, the phrase used to describe this movement by the Shostakovich of Testimony and expounded upon in Ian MacDonald’s path-breaking book The New Shostakovich. What may be heard as subtext in other interpretations comes boiling to the surface from the very opening measures. The timpani figure sounds less like a release of exuberant energy and more like a fit of exploding temper; and the pounding rhythms of the accompanying march theme are accentuated just a little too violently for comfort. When the music moves on to the more relaxed lyrical material, Petrenko shuns the usual valedictory tone in favour of a strained, icy, even shrill timbre in the strings. Taking liberties with the score’s dynamic markings, he then subjects these flowing themes to a gradual yet unremitting diminuendo so that upon reaching their last and most moving variant, the music is barely audible – signifying, perhaps, the fading from view of all that is good and beautiful. The coda that immediately follows is just as emblematic of political content. It plods cumbersomely, agonisingly, as a monstrous mockery of itself. The brass groan the four-note toreador theme in timbres that sound like intentionally soured microtonal pitches, a most extraordinary manifestation of bitter reluctance. The final strokes on timpani and bass drum drive the point home with murderous brutality. Anyone not clued in to the political background of this enigmatic coda from hell might well be perplexed by the aural assault.
Yet those in the know will understand. Suffice to say that if Ian MacDonald were alive today he well might rejoice upon hearing it – as vindication of his dissident vision of Shostakovich’s music. And if Shostakovich himself were alive to hear it, he might, and then again he might not, have twitched his ear once or twice and remarked: “Finally, someone got it right. “
Whether or not one buys this finale as Petrenko construes it, it makes a stunning impact. It forms a fitting capstone to a performance of the Fifth that will have you sitting on the edge of your seat from the first to the very last bars. Don’t miss it.
The premiere recordings of two Shostakovich rarities, Russian River and Native Leningrad, paired with a glittering performance of the Ninth Symphony, are a highlight of a distinguished series of CDs from Northern Flowers, entitled “Wartime Music: 1941-1945”. The series includes a remarkable roster of first-time recordings of major works by the prominent Soviet composers of the day: Lev Knipper, Valeri Gavrilin, Gavriil Popov, Revol Bunin, and Mieczyslaw Weinberg. The Weinberg disc merits notice for its haunting rendition of his 1948 Cello Concerto (previously recorded on Melodiya), and the premiere recording of his First Symphony from 1942, the work with which Weinberg introduced himself to a much-impressed Shostakovich. With their musical and historical payload, the programmes document the tone and temper of a country wracked by the ordeal of the Great Patriotic War.
The two suites recorded on this disc reflect the call of duty on Shostakovich, as responses to commissions from the NKVD Song and Dance Ensemble. Both are scored for the fairly large forces of orchestra, chorus, and soloists; each lasts less than a quarter of an hour; and each contains a purely instrumental scherzo of original material that breaks away from the prevailing patriotic character.
The incidental music to the patriotic spectacle Native Country, written in 1942, takes the form of the suite that comprises Shostakovich’s Native Leningrad. The dedication inscribed in the score, “Written as a tribute to the courage of the citizens of Leningrad”, provides a heads up as to musical content. The opening Overture is built around the choral settings of two Revolutionary folksongs that follow each other in developmental fashion: Boldly, Friends, On We March, familiar to listeners from its subsequent use in the finale of the Eleventh Symphony, and The Warsaw March. The chest-thumping exchanges of orchestra and chorus build toward a final high note. The tenor solo takes centre stage in the final Ode for Leningrad, and in the Song of October Victory, with its lively alternation between triple and duple meter. Both numbers are based on original tunes that are as musically straightforward as their patriotic texts suggest (e.g., from the October Victory song, “Our brave boys of Petrograd/ Walk a new bold way now/ Cheer up, be happy, belle/ The old world has kicked the bucket”). The orchestral third movement, Dance of Youth, scampers its own way with a sequence of fast and fidgety thematic transitions that recaptures the madcap mirth and tuneful inventiveness of earlier Shostakovich scores such as Age of Gold.
Shostakovich’s music for the stage spectacle Russian River (which is also listed under the titles The Great River andThe Volga), is likewise cast in a heroic vein. The original tune that Shostakovich would use sixteen years later as the basis for his patriotic miniature Novorossiisk Chimes (1960) crowns the final two movements in rousing displays of solemnity, struggle, and celebration. They are preceded by the blustery march tune of the first movement that lasts all of fifteen seconds; and a little orchestral gem entitled Football, whose quick thematic passes and agile manoeuvres kick up a lively musical depiction of the game as only Shostakovich can.
Alexander Titov commands the multiple forces with no shortage of vitality. For a conductor whose 70-plus CD discography thus far has avoided Shostakovich, he turns in one of the most effervescent and politically savvy versions of the Ninth Symphony on record. Titov evidently enjoys a particular affinity with the music as he misses no opportunity to bring out the work’s joviality and sundry musical jokes. As in the suites, the St Petersburg SO boasts excellent ensemble playing, here marked by sharp accents and exceptionally high spirits. The strings in the openingAllegro skip euphorically; the woodwinds, especially the piccolo figures, chirp gleefully. The last note of the trombone’s repeated cadential figure derisively lingers after each statement; this, as if to hold the musical jab in Stalin’s side as long as possible. Compare Petrenko’s more stately exposition, with its more combative jabs in the trombone cadences, and aggressive percussive energy. His is a no-nonsense Allegro where the bouncing timpani figure that follows each cadence explodes, not so much with jolly derision as with resolute vengeance. Petrenko’s percussive determination leads to a development section that is raised to more ominous heights, though it misses the irrepressible buoyancy that gives Titov’s reading its unique lustre.
Both Titov and Petrenko get directly under the skin of the grey but clear-eyed Moderato. Titov manoeuvres through this eerie terrain with circumspection; Petrenko, taking a broader pace, elicits more sinister sonorities and a mournful mood of vigilance, the chromatically rising footsteps arriving at their peaks in a more darkly unsettled fashion.
The Spanish-inflected trumpet solo that crowns the Presto is an overt flashback to similar trumpet-as-toreador moments in the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, and comprises one of the connective tissues of Shostakovich’s wartime trilogy of symphonies. It can also be heard as a mockery of militaristic hubris, underscoring the anti-tribute to Stalin’s war victory that the Ninth so trenchantly represents. Nowhere is the travesty of the moment made more biting than in the Titov performance where the trumpeter, in a wonderfully expressive delivery of his keynote solo, manages to play as if he is guffawing through his teeth. It is a sound bite that summarily encapsulates Titov’s wickedly free-spirited rendition, one that fully embraces Shostakovich’s evident intentions in this work of leaving deep teeth marks on Stalin’s glorified self-image. Petrenko adopts a different approach as he leads with demonic velocity, making his point with more thunderous punctuation marks and a punchier trumpet solo.
In the following Largo Titov raises the level of bravado by concluding each of the blustery brass declarations with a cymbal crash as grand and mighty as they come, a fitting flourish for these symbolic pronouncements of the Great Leader and Teacher. In the bassoon solos interspersed between each pronouncement, Petrenko’s bassoonist evokes a mood of icy suspicion in contrast to Titov’s self-effacing warmth – a matter of interpretation, perhaps, of humanity stilled as opposed to humanity humbled in the face of oppression. Each provides a set of well-cast contrasts in the implied repartee in this movement, à la Goldenberg & Schmuyle, between the high-and-mighty and the low-and-humble.
In the final Allegretto Petrenko offers a more sinister reading than the consistently tongue-in-cheek Titov. Each conductor builds toward the bait-and-switch non-climax in thrilling swoops of escalating tension. Petrenko accords the section a slightly higher platform by taking an expansive ritardando in the last winding gesture, then accelerating straight through the anti-peak like a Thunderbird racing through hell.
The close microphone placement in the Titov recording, handsomely spotlighting each individual instrument, adds to the lustre of his recording. Mr Titov is enthusiastically requested to serve up another Shostakovich helping.
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It may not be immediately obvious why this latest recording of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony is one of the most distinguished in recent years. From the outset, Mark Wigglesworth seems to be taking a deliberately pedestrian approach to one of the most aggressive symphonic openings movements in the repertoire. It’s not a start that grabs the listener’s attention: the snarling first theme marches stoically along, phlegmatically refusing to indulge in shock tactics of any kind. And this approach characterises the whole performance. There are no surprises here: no exaggerated grotesquery, no sinister ‘squeezing’ of chords, no climaxes so monumental that they have to be sound-engineered into submission. In fact, the engineering work deserves praise in its own right, with a bright and clear, distinctly ‘live’ sound. The playing of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra is also exemplary: taut and crisp without being dull.
By the end of the first movement, Wigglesworth has kept his powder dry. And this is no bad thing: though a listener used to being overwhelmed by it could feel disappointed, the best is still to come. The second movement has similar strengths: Wigglesworth is at his best in the hypnotic passages of both first and second movements, where the whole tone switches from the corporeal to the dreamlike. He does this particularly well in the first movement second subject group, where the waltz fragments float past hazily, veiled and strangely unreal. And in the Moderato we find the same quality, with glassy strings and hypnotically thrumming bass.
Once the finale starts, it becomes clear that the restraint of the first two movements has been carefully planned. While the Mahlerian tone of the moderato was perhaps underdone, in the finale it comes into its own: wind solos are no longer smoothed over, but become angular and militaristic. There is a very restrained sense of menace underpinning the opening march, with its meticulously controlled tempo and subtly nuanced bassoon phrasing. Abrupt changes of mood bedevil every performance of this work, but here, after the first brash climax, the effect is magical. With wonderful sensitivity, Wigglesworth allows the music to draw its first breath of sweeter air: for a moment it is wistful and sincere. Then – again for the first time – Wigglesworth lets the orchestra really have its head, plunging into a whirlwind scherzo and emerging into a bewildering gallery of masks: puppet-like, funny, clownish, clumsy. All are characterised with peppery relish. When the masks smile, the music smiles too, which is precisely what makes the final dropping of the mask so overwhelming at the end. Not all conductors manage to play this section straight: some evidently feel that such humorous or lightweight music is too incongruous in a Shostakovich symphony to be taken at face value. But such music is real enough if accepted for what it is: a series of masks, assumed and discarded at will.
The work’s ‘grandiosomania’ that apparently embarrassed Shostakovich in later life (that is, before he heard it performed in 1961) comes violently to the fore with the first coda. Grim-faced in its stretched-out tempo, this is an insane and ugly peroration; then we are suddenly dropped into the abyss. Powerful percussion becomes a faint heartbeat, illuminated by pinpricks of light on wind. Then we sink even lower into the darkness, where only harp, strings and celesta are left. It is an unforgettable ending, and its execution here is about as perfect as any I have heard.
There is just one flaw in this disc, and it is probably one that will not disturb most listeners. Wigglesworth’s own liner notes are riddled with errors, and this is such a shame: it really does detract from an otherwise very distinguished CD. To read quotations from the discredited Testimony in 2009 – thirty years after doubts were first cast on Solomon Volkov’s probity – is unbelievable enough. But this is the least of Wigglesworth’s mistakes. Nadezhda Mandelstam was indeed a contemporary of Shostakovich’s, but not a personal friend; and Wigglesworth is quite wrong when he asserts that Shostakovich had made no attempt to have his symphony performed until 1961. In fact, the composer made a concerted effort to have it published in the 1940s, and the piano duet score was eventually issued in several copies in 1946. This was the very reason why the hostile composer Marian Koval troubled to denigrate the ‘formalist snakes’ of the symphony’s first movement fugato in his slanderous article on Shostakovich in 1948: had nothing been seen or heard of the work since 1936, no one would have been in a position to criticise it. All these facts are published, and easily available in English: the new edition of the symphony’s two-hand arrangement issued by DSCH Publishing in 2000 gives full details. As a conductor of this symphony, Wigglesworth is unquestionably outstanding: but he should leave history to the historians.
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Symphony No. 5, opus 47 version for piano four-hands (world premiere recording); Franz Schubert: Sonata in C major, D 812 Grand Duo for piano four-hands.
Grau Schumacher Piano Duo (Andreas Grau and Götz Schumacher).
NEOS 20801. DDD.
Recorded at the Hans-Rosebaud-Studio, Baden-Baden, Germany, 21-25 November 2005.
Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony makes a stunning new appearance in a form we have never heard before: a reduction for piano four hands. Duo Andreas Grau and Götz Schumacher take charge of this imposing score (presumably the one by Lev Atovmyan; the notes do not specify) and proceed to show how a single piano can convey the force and drama of this epic orchestral masterpiece. Some will regard the effort as a mere curiosity, while others will marvel at the grandeur of this realisation, the revelations in sonority and tonal architecture brought out in this unique representation.
The GrauSchumacher Piano Duo, as they style themselves, boast an impressive command of Shostakovich’s idiom. They display superb sensitivity to mood and lyrical flow, and are ever-conscious of maintaining the music’s forward motion, even in passages that are diminished to a spare one or two notes. While opportunities for added emphasis might have been taken in the various crescendi in the first movement’s exposition, they have no trouble evoking a sense of majestic expanse at the high points.
The most revelatory portions of the performance occur in the heat of the development section where the bustling texture is paired down to its essentials. Here one can delineate with unprecedented clarity the myriad tonal shifts and the reiterations of the three-note and two-note motifs as the music escalates toward its climax. Tempi are kept brisk and fairly steady. There remain moments when the duo seem to have overlooked the score’s inherent ironies. The march variant in the central crisis, for example, lacks the wrenching impact it should have as the section’s most conspicuous antagonistic agent. Otherwise, the duo builds plenty of excitement as they render these pages with fastidiously controlled drama and precision. It is in such passages that the joys of piano reduction are evident, when the cohesive logic of the symphonic building blocks and the genius that created them are exposed with bare boned clarity.
The peak passages in the slow movement are delivered with moving intensity. The gleeful contradictions of theScherzo and the churning momentum of the Finale are exuberantly brought off with idiomatic authenticity.
The performance by and large never seems rushed. At the same time there are places, especially in the transitions from one thematic area to another in the slow movement, and in the passages of lyrical relaxation in the finale, where a little more doting over mood and phrase could be tolerated. One assumes there is a natural tendency on the part of the performers to compensate for the reduced forces with faster tempi, especially in passages that transcribe to but a few notes. This is borne out by the comparative timings of the first and third movements.
The Grau Schumacher Duo renders the first movement in an efficient 14:59, which is on the short side as compared to more than a dozen recent performances of the work, including Rostropovich/NSO’s 15:25 at the low end and Wigglesworth’s 19:29 at the high. One has to reach back to Kondrashin and Mravinsky to find tempi that are even quicker. The slow movement, clocking in at a brief 11:36, is possibly the shortest on recording (the span, in my survey, ranges from Kondrashin’s 12:05 to Haitink’s 15:45). As such the duo might have placed a little more faith in the ability of the notes to extend the line and taken just a little more time in order to flesh out the passages in question.
There are moments at the beginning and the end of the score where acoustic limitations imposed by the transcription itself leave something to be desired. The famed opening salvo lacks the curtain-raising muscle we are accustomed to hearing in the full scored version. Also, at the tail end in the Finale’s coda, the piano leaves a rather underwhelming impression of the percussive thunder originally sent home by timpani and bass drum (the same could be said of the timpani’s stampeding figure in the final movement’s opening measures). These are minor quibbles considering the bounty of riches that lie in between. Grau and Schumacher bring off a spectacular rendering that everywhere sheds light as it celebrates precision.
This is only the third ‘pianistration’ of Shostakovich’s fifteen symphonies to appear on record. The classic rendition of the Tenth in Shostakovich’s own four-hand arrangement, performed by the composer and Weinberg in 1954 led the others by some four decades (LDC 278 1000, mono, reviewed in DSCH 9). That arrangement was revisited in 1993 in a robust interpretation by Folke Gråsbeck and Alexander Zelyakov that far exceeds its predecessor in technical accuracy and sound quality (Bluebell ABCD 049). In 2005 Rustem Hayroudinoff and Colin Stone took the music world by storm with their dazzling rendition of the phantasmagorical Fourth Symphony in the composer’s arrangement for two pianos (Chandos CHAN 10296, reviewed in DSCH 23). With more pianistrations on the recording horizon, the genre, as it pertains to Shostakovich, seems to have come of age.
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The Shostakovich Fifteenth Symphony starts out as though it’s going to be a flute concerto. In that opening Allegretto, Pletnev also evokes another display piece: the concerto Bartók wrote for orchestra, and especially its second movement, the ‘Game of Pairs.’ This new Pentatone recording (from quite a dry Moscow studio) is up-front and clear, with prominent winds, though climaxes can underwhelm. Whatever your sound system, the enveloping effect of the first three movements is to make opus 141 feel like a solid, and relatively cool part of the mid-20th century orchestral repertoire. Ever since that wonderful first Maxim account on Melodiya, and maybe inspired by the early tilts from Mravinsky and Ormandy, let alone later epics from Sanderling, we’ve come to expect a more portentous, and a scarier experience, from this hugely important work.
Important, because it marked the very, very end of a great tradition: major symphonies written by undeniably great composers. This symphony from grey Soviet times was the very last chapter of a book begun by Haydn, way back in the Age of Enlightenment. Who’d have known it, in 1971?
With all due respect to the interesting symphonic work done around the world since that time, and while much of that music rises way above footnote level, things are different now. And so is our view of the Shostakovich Fifteenth. Franz Steiger’s booklet notes (poorly translated) here refer, as is customary these days, to the Fifteenth as an “enigma” filled with mysterious quotes. But in 1971 it all seemed absolutely inevitable. From one bar to the next, you wouldn’t change a thing. It was like hearing Mozart 40 when it was new, or Brahms 1.
You can’t fake inevitability. Some of the quiet detail is nicely caught by Pletnev, here. But if you want an authentic emotional thwack from the Adagio (and want to avoid a Russian brass fluff at the start of it), or seek Mahlerian extremes in the scherzo, you’ll leave Pletnev feeling short-changed. The Scherzo takes us back to the colourful Bartókian comparison, but the accents are heavy, the ironic extremes absent. The brisk Barshai is better played, and a good antidote.
The payoff from Pletnev is an extended closing Allegretto. There’s some fine control of sustained, quiet playing from the orchestra, and a measured approach to the main themes and transitions. The last ten minutes are quite compelling, and maybe enough reason on their own, to hear the SACD. The conductor evokes the Sixth, Eighth and Tenth, by paying close attention to lower-string phrasing, and by building up from there. Unfortunately no other instrumental line, whether percussion, brass or woodwind, is played with enough character or (when apt) hysteria. The main theme itself is slightly overcooked.
The filler is extracts from the 1931 theatrical score for Hamlet, including items a one-minute ‘Gigue,’ written far later in 1954, but still leaving blank space on the disc. Playing is cultured, interpretation insufficiently riotous. Imagine Rozhdestvensky in his prime, driving along the ‘Gigue,’ notably after hearing Pletnev’s distinctly low-power reading, and you’ll see what I mean. Such an engaging score, though. Get the vigorous and comprehensive Elder version on Signum (SIGCD052, reviewed in DSCH 22).
As always with this composer, we have to balance what we know now, with what we knew then. How to make it fresh while preserving the music’s capacity to evoke its times? That is the question. We are still trying to come to terms (via recordings) with the stark passions of Soviet musicianship. It’s maybe a sign of our own times that new recordings of (especially) late Shostakovich can seem just a tiny bit bland. We’re forgetting what it’s all about. Hear Pletnev. But purchase recommended only to completists, and SACD collectors. Don’t forget Ormandy’s Fifteenth is remastered and available, and coupled with the mesmerising Gilels studio account of the Second Sonata.