CD Reviews 34
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Symphony No. 2, opus 14, To October – a Symphonic Dedication[a]; Symphony No. 11, opus 103, The Year 1905[b].
Valery Gergiev, Orchestra and Chorus[a] of the Mariinsky Theatre
Mariinsky MAR0507. DDD hybrid Direct Stream Digital 5.1 surround sound/stereo SACD/stereo CD. TT 76:07.
Recorded at the Mariinsky Concert, 4–6 February 2010[a], 14–16 and 18–20 February 2009[b].
Most potential buyers will eye this new release for the Eleventh Symphony. Seasoned collectors, however, may find that Gergiev’s take on the infrequently performed Second offers a more compelling reason to add yet another symphony disc to their groaning shelves.
Its unbalanced construction and Alexander Bezymensky’s banal libretto make Symphony No. 2 difficult for even the most ardent Shostakovichian to love. The composer himself showed this commissioned work little affection, judging it “quite unworthy.” Nikolai Malko, who directed the premiere, recalled, “Shostakovich did not like [Bezymensky’s words] and simply laughed at them. His musical setting did not quite take them seriously, and it showed no enthusiasm whatsoever.”
Yet, it would be a mistake to dismiss this opus. Shostakovich’s music prior to the choral section provides a window into the avant-garde impulses of his youth, and is more innovative than most of his subsequent output. One is struck by just how modern this single-movement score still sounds. The Second Symphony’s fugal writing is as spiky as anything penned by Penderecki, while the swirling Largo would sit comfortably in Part III of Nicholas Maw’sOdyssey, composed some 60 years later.
This committed performance raises opus 14 a respectable height above its shortcomings. Gergiev clocks in at 19:25, around 2 minutes ahead of Rozhdestvensky with the USSR Ministry of Culture State Symphony Orchestra (BMG/Melodiya 74321 63462 2; reviewed in DSCH No. 11; deleted), but a minute behind Neeme Järvi with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon 469 525-2; deleted but available for download from the label website). Despite his comparatively slow tempo, Rozhdestvensky’s musicians shoved the proceedings along with uniformly bombastic playing. It may seem odd to speak of nuance in this context, but Gergiev’s moderate pace allows the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra to exercise greater musical subtlety. Gergiev’s performance feels marginally less energetic than Järvi’s hard-driven reading, but grants the slower passages more room to breathe.
On first audition, the most distinctive feature of this performance is the real factory siren heralding the entry of the chorus. Gergiev’s hand-cranked siren sounds far more at home on an orchestral stage than the unmusical machine employed by Mariss Jansons in his recent recording (EMI Classics 0946 3 35994 2 0; reviewed in DSCH 25). In contrast, brass instruments substitute for the siren in classic accounts such as those of Rozhdestvensky and Bernard Haitink (Decca 000289 475 7413 2). Indeed, compared to that composer-sanctioned alternative scoring, a siren can sound positively reticent, which may be why Järvi opted to augment his with a blaring brass overlay. By using the siren alone, however, Gergiev sets a sombre tone, fit for the oppressive conditions described in the first verse that follows.
Appropriately, the Mariinsky singers supply the gloomiest opening of the Second Symphony’s choral section I’ve encountered. This allows them to traverse a wider emotional range than most on their path to the libretto’s final goal: “October, the Commune, and Lenin!” True, they arrive there sounding slightly less optimistic than Haitink’s or Järvi’s forces, and none of these match the bright-eyed triumphalism of the Russian State Academic Choir Cappella in Rozhdestvensky’s Melodiya recording. Instead, Gergiev’s artists convey a more serious resolve.
Even Shostakovich (perhaps especially Shostakovich) might question whether his Second Symphony should be pumped up to even these modest dimensions of importance. However, if it is to be rescued from only ever being recorded when required to complete boxed sets of all fifteen symphonies – and never actually taken out for a spin – then its performers need to invest it with enough significance to speak to the listener. In this, Gergiev and his Mariinsky players succeed.
Where this new recording of the Second Symphony has only a handful of competitors in the current catalogue, there is no shortage of excellent Elevenths from which to choose; not only perennial favourites like James DePreist’s 1988 recording with the Helsinki Philharmonic (Delos DE 3080) but also recent heavy hitters like Vasily Petrenko with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Naxos 8.572082; reviewed in DSCH 31) and Mark Wigglesworth with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra (BIS-SACD-1583; reviewed in DSCH 33). Still, there is room for another entry when it is of the calibre of the present performance.
Gergiev’s first movement is not as expansive or hushed as either DePreist’s or Wigglesworth’s, nor is it as aggressively unstable as Petrenko’s. Instead, the dominant sentiment is fearful uncertainty. The strings shiver under a layer of ice, and their usually strongly demarcated bow strokes regularly falter in rhythm, which I take to be a conscious interpretive decision, suggestive of the crowd’s flagging confidence.
This second movement is one of the most breathless ever recorded. Indeed, at 17:17, it appears to be the fastestafter Mravinsky’s terrified 16:49 in his 1957 Leningrad concert (Russian Disc RD CD 11 157; deleted); faster even than Kondrashin’s panic-stricken 17:30 (Melodiya CD 74321 19843-2; deleted). Even the fleet-footed Petrenko takes a full minute longer over the Ninth of January, while Wigglesworth and DePreist lag more than 2½ and 4½ minutes behind, respectively. Nevertheless, Gergiev allocates just enough space to build tension in the quiet passages. As one might predict, his central climax is brutal in the extreme. A relatively minor quibble: I would prefer more fragility from the tremolo strings left standing after the last volley.
At 10:29, Gergiev’s In memoriam is again one of the swiftest on record, neck and neck with Kondrashin’s, and significantly faster than Petrenko’s, Wigglesworth’s or DePreist’s (11:10, 12:17, and 13:39, respectively), though no threat to the record holder, Alexander Lazarev with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (8:50; Linn CKD 247; reviewed in DSCH 23). You Fell as Victims sounds rather prosaic here – we have little time to grieve – but the promise of vengeance erupts righteously and with sustained force.
Gergiev’s insistent pace continues into the finale, to thrilling effect. That said, I find the orchestra tends ever so slightly to arrhythmia in the closing page, right when crisp proclamation is most wanted. The chimes ring out for just a few brief seconds after the final bar.
Overall, what we have here is an attractively athletic performance of Symphony No. 11. Though none of the instrumental solos stand out as exemplary, the orchestra plays competently and with full engagement throughout.
Both symphony recordings are transferred at a very low level, and will seriously underwhelm unless you compensate with the volume dial. The bass will likely sound anaemic without enough wattage on hand, but on decent audio kit these recordings present realistic concert acoustics. Leonid Gakkel’s programme notes are wide ranging and at times penetrating (the booklet presents his original Russian text, along with an English translation, as well as French and German translations of the English version). The words for To October are printed in Cyrillic Russian and English only.
All in all, this is a most praiseworthy addition to the discography.
W. Mark Roberts
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In my previous review for the DSCH Journal I observed that in order to make a strong recommendation of a new recording of a work for which there are large numbers of alternatives available (in that case the Fifth Symphony), one of two criteria should be met: either it should fulfil and exceed the listener’s expectations of the work under review – that there should be no true surprises, but that the performance would strike one as more enjoyable, exciting, or moving than previous versions heard. Alternatively a new recording should offer a radically different approach than has been heard before, in a manner that offers new insights and delights the reviewer. Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony vies with the Fifth in terms of popularity, and so the same criteria should apply. I am happy to say that this new recording from Vasily Petrenko’s already highly distinguished Naxos cycle falls firmly into the first camp. It is a superb recording, which fulfils all my expectations as to how a recording of the Tenth should sound, and exceeds them by a considerable degree.
The version of the Tenth that I “grew up with” was the classic 1967 Karajan BPO version (still available on DG Galleria 000289 429 7162 2), and that performance of great power and discipline has probably shaped my expectations of how this work should sound. Listening to it again, I am still impressed with this performance, which has surprisingly good sound for a remastered 1967 recording. However, Petrenko’s new version has not only the benefit of stunning modern sound recording quality, but a performance of even greater passion and excitement – one that expands the limits as to what can be achieved with the enormous climaxes that pervade the symphony. Time and again listening to this new edition, I have been compelled to sit up and listen and be blown away by the tension and power in the playing – for example in the clamorous climax of the third movement where the emphatically repeated DSCH motive is entwined with the ELMIRA motive; at this point the music seems almost on the point of hysteria, whilst the playing is still in perfect control.
It is not only the loud passages that are worthy of comment; the playing of the RLPO is particularly fine in the quieter passages – and so one gets a fine view of the mountainous architecture of the first movement, where all the material is derived logically, one might almost say in an evolutionary fashion, from the first six notes played in the depths of the orchestra. The tones produced by the lower strings are lush and clear, and benefit from the absence of a boomy acoustic that can be discerned on re-listening to the Karajan performance. The second movement of this symphony is an orchestral tour-de-force; Petrenko’s version is as exciting as any I’ve heard, in particular towards the end where the manic slithering rushing figures for the strings and woodwind stand out particularly well and conjure up a sense of an evil maelstrom.
Of particular note, too, is the superb woodwind playing by the RLPO, especially in the quiet meandering introduction to the final movement, where in particular the oboe player finds all kinds of subtly expressive nuances of dynamic. The rest of the last movement shows just how superbly Petrenko manages to build tremendous orchestral climaxes, it seems perfectly paced, but often with sudden surges of adrenalin that grab your attention.
It is practically impossible for me to say anything negative about this new recording – there is no place where I could say this should have been done differently for my taste. It is a recording I shall listen to over and over with much pleasure.
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Symphony No 1, opus 10, Symphony No 15, opus 141
Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev
Mariinsky MAR0502: TT: 75:52. Hybrid-SACD (includes multi-channel 5.1 and stereo mixes)
Recorded in Mariinsky Concert Hall, St Petersburg, Russia; 18, 20 & 25 July 2008.
It’s unusual for a new release of this apparent pedigree to throw up so many issues in such a short span of time, but in this case the opening of the First Symphony does just so:
– A ‘clipped’ opening trumpet dotted minim (playing mf – rather than the marked p)
– A strange hesitation (or a poor edit?) at the horns’ entry – 2 bars after 
– An incorrectly played grace note in the flutes just before 
The recordings are detailed as having been made between 18 and 25th July (2008), hinting at so-called ‘live’ recordings, which may explain some of the above, although this doesn’t excuse a later ‘slip’. These types of ‘hitches’ might not condemn the disc to immediate dismissal, but they are woefully indicative of a recording throughout which a niggling inclination to err on the side of slovenliness comes as a great surprise, and disappointment for the (in all probability) undisputed Shostakovich maestro of the last 10 years. A lack of preparation, overfamiliarity or simply mediocrity, landed in Petersburg?
Back to the youthful opus 10 and on the plus side there are some excellent solo performances, especially flute and clarinet (the latter’s impetuousness in the early ‘episodic’ sections of the first movement is outstanding), and in general the brass impress (Russian trumpets, Russian trombones – unique!).
The closing bars of the first movement dither and die – surely not what the youthful pen intended? The second movement begins rather flaccidly too – there are some spirited passages with the right quantities of energy that momentarily persuaded me that this really could be rescued, but before long – a status quo piano that not only misses the sense of the theatricality of its role in this movement – but also suffers from approximations in articulation and an appalling edit at .
The enigmatic opening to the third is elegantly played by the relevant soloists – splendidly perfect for a Borodin Steppe! – but far less so for the young, post-revolutionary Dmitri Dmitrievich in full creative swing; this is so very far from the worlds of Kondrashin, Stokowski and certainly of Bernstein on his superlative release with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (coupled to the Seventh Symphony, DGG 427 632-2GH2).
A redeeming fourth movement? Well, the opening does benefit from some well-directed and tense, even brilliant undercurrents of apprehension and dread, through Gergiev’s careful choreography (notably lower strings – woodwind interplay) but the atmosphere is soon cracked as the piano dribbles back into the sound picture along with all-too predictable upper strings and the full orchestra. Without wishing to labour the point, the fff at  is the perfect illustration of Gergiev’s apparent reticence to release the beast in this work – plenty of level, but no intensity of sound, and of guts.
The timpani solo at  is of interest, notably for the astonishing dynamic range achieved by the player and engineers alike (a true ppp) – although even this passage is tainted by an odd rhythmic ‘spill’ at the outset of this passage.
The Fifteenth Symphony’s opening tends toward the cautiously bright – no toy shop here, rather a succession, à la Casse-Noisette of a jumble of miniature scenes and themes from who-knows-where. (The programme notes, written by one Leonid Gakkel (a professor of music at the St Petersburg Conservatoire) are astonishing in their level of assertiveness, as per Gakkel’s ‘He simply does not want to stay with us.’ (Shostakovich, ‘slipping away’…).
What is surprising throughout this performance is Gergiev’s reluctance to embrace the references, be they thematic or harmonic (Bartókian passages abound in this symphony, although they may escape the ear…) – is he deliberately underplaying his hand? Better to understate than to affirm?
Movement two is adequate, the cello solo wavers from time to time but the Wagnerian undertones are exiled to a parallel plane to Shostakovich’s score: we hear the quotes, but they belong in another mind, to another life. Movement three is short, passes without note, and so the last movement arrives, of Shostakovich’s last symphony, as Gakkel puts it:
“Deep-rooted in the Fifteenth Symphony is the final movement of the ‘charismatic cycle’ (to quote the artist Ilya Kabakov) within which Russian-Soviet art lived, breathed and wove its magic, but that dynamism was now deserting Shostakovich – and his country and the culture to which he belonged chronologically. The symbols of this historical finale are strikingly delineated in the Fifteenth. The marvel of great art is that, through it, we can make progress regardless of its moods and motifs.”
Sadly he’s right – here in Gergiev’s rendition Shostakovich slips away, unnoticed.
Gergiev’s interpretative timorousness is a huge surprise in this Fifteenth Symphony, and the resulting performance, while more polished than in the First Symphony, falls well short of memorable recording by Maxim Shostakovich with the USSR Symphony Orchestra on a Melodiya LP, or Slava’s eccentric, latter-day recording with the London Symphony Orchestra (currently only available in the set of complete symphonies 2564-64177-2). There are certainly fewer grotesquely bad moments than in opus 10, and the percussion section are splendid, but this is far too little, too late.
This release is the second to appear on the Mariinsky label (following the release of The Nose) and, with the Second and Eleventh symphonies also recorded it seems that Gergiev has embarked on a complete cycle. The coupling here is a good one – the symphonies’ stark contrasts outweigh their similarities and I am certain that Shostakovich would approve. The SACD sound, recorded in the Mariinsky Concert Hall (opened in April 2007) is excellent – biting and incisive with an excellent aural ‘bloom’ in spite of a lively acoustic.
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24 Preludes and Fugues, opus 87
Alexander Melnikov, piano
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902019.20. DDD. Three CDs (including a 23-minute filmed interview with the pianist). TT: 151:17 (67:58 + 71:29 + 11:50) + 23 minute video.
Recorded at the Teldex Studio Berlin, December 2008 and March 2009.
The recent flourish of complete recordings of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues – seven have appeared in the past three years – presents a more diverse bounty of interpretations than has ever been commercially available. The current version by Alexander Melnikov turns out to be a most noteworthy one.
The Moscow-born Melnikov was trained at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory from which he was graduated in 1997. Among his notable recordings with Harmonia Mundi are discs of music by Scriabin and Rachmaninov and, as accompanist, the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas. He approached recording Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues with much anticipation, having always harboured a deep personal affection for the work. His affinity for the music comes across in the accompanying filmed interview, and in the liner notes written by the pianist himself. In both he puts forth observations about the music that are every bit as perceptive and intelligent as his interpretation.
Indeed, his romanticised interpretation of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues offers an appealing contrast to the crisper visions of the work that have recently been released by David Jalbert (ATMA ACD22555, reviewed in DSCH 30) and Jenny Lin (Hanssler 098.530.000).
The fact that the recording spills over onto three CDs, the third one containing only the 24th and final entry and doubling on its other side as a DVD, may suggest the broad tempi that are encountered in other three-disc renditions, such as the expansive version of Boris Petrushansky (184:11, (Dynamic CDS 117/1-3) and the later accounts of Tatiana Nikolaeva (e.g., 1987 at 168:31, two transfers reviewed in DSCH 23). Yet that is not the case here. With a total duration of 151:17 Melnikov’s recording is very close to recordings by Nikolaeva (1962, 153:55, Doremi DHR 7991-3), Kori Bond (153:34, Centaur CRC 2896/2897 reviewed in DSCH 30) and Christina Weichert (154:01, Accord 202032), the latter two managing a two-CD fit. In the case of Weichert, her focus on tonal sensuality embraces a dimension of expression that remains unique in the discography, and makes hers the most mood-sensitive interpretation. Kori Bond’s emotion-invested rendition, however imperfectly realised, also raises fresh possibilities of interpretation. Melnikov embraces elements from each performance.
Melnikov’s interpretations are characterised by three exemplary features: richness of detail, emotive sensibility, and architectural solidity.
He captures the First Prelude and Fugue’s innocence with disarming candour and with a velvety soft tone. Witness the elegant flourish he makes of the fugue’s three grace-noted moments, as he turns the passage into an uncommonly graceful point of emphasis. In Prelude No. 2 one gets the impression that every one of the scurrying stream of 16th notes, here delivered with speed and pointillist accuracy, has been individually weighed and measured. The grace noted notes in Prelude No. 8 are understated so that their inherent whimsy is shaded with a hide-and-seek quality; in the Fugue he opts for a contemplative mood rather than the propulsive projection we find in other interpretations.
Melnikov also brings fresh tone colours to the work, at times by underscoring the music’s intrinsic play of contrasts. The hesitation and strong downbeats he applies to the Third Prelude’s hammering parallel octaves complements the feathery lightness with which he releases the accompanying fugue. In Prelude No. 5 he separates the succession of arpeggiated chords into staccato-like strokes (most often one hears them merged over the sustaining pedal) as he takes the accompanying tune on rubato-inflected wings of song. The palpitating voices of the fugue seem to reach out into three-dimensional space as they advance and recede with boldly contrasting dynamics.
The pianist’s conception of the work makes its most distinct impression in the ruminative passages. The whispered, somewhat hesitating phrases by which he negotiates Prelude No. 4 accord it a most delicate poetry; the ritardandi he applies at the chordal rest-stops luxuriously expands the expressive terrain. The scalewise runs in Prelude No. 10 flow dreamily in Melnikov’s hands; the halting chords with which they are interspersed receive just enough breathing space to make a fine point not found in the more assertive renditions of Jalbert and Lin. Melnikov again shows himself as master of the poignant pause in Fugue No. 17 where a similar moment of repose in the midst of the busy articulations broadens the perspective. The ‘wrong-note’ jibes in Prelude No. 15 are given an additional twist by way of Melnikov’s smirking rubati – otherwise the fast moving parallel octaves of the piece are handled with uncommon ease. The ornamental filigrees that comprise the subject of Fugue No. 16 unfold spaciously, elegantly, again displaying Melnikov’s command of the temporal axis. He makes good use of rubato in exploring the sneering shifts in both harmony and tempo in Prelude No. 11; and proceeds to summon all the joy in the ascending figure of the following fugue.
Formal solidity is another attribute that Melnikov brings to these pieces. Not only is each moment sensitively invested with nuance, the composition as a whole is brought off with architectural clarity. Melnikov tends to build purposefully, with emphasis placed on clearly defined cathartic peaks. His rendition of Fugue No. 4 provides one of the finer examples as, throughout, he maintains a fairly steady pulse, with dynamics escalating progressively. However, he reserves both the ritardando and the full double forte volume until the final page, where he casts a stunning spotlight on the concluding moments. Compare the more straightforward ascent of Ashkenazy; or the manner in which Jalbert achieves peak volume earlier on with a more liberal employment of rubato throughout. His climactic section is sustained over a greater portion of the score, and while quite exciting, it lacks the powerful cumulative effect of Melnikov’s rendition.
The insistent repetitiveness of Fugue No. 6 gets somewhat bogged down in the weighty rendition of Petrushansky and the later Nikolaeva accounts. As if to hedge against the perils of ponderousness, Ashkenazy and Jalbert opt for a brisk, one might say breezy, approach to this fugue. Each of these versions, however, lacks what Kori Bond and Melnikov manage to extract by engaging the music within a median range of tempi. While Bond probes the darker areas of expression in her well-charted performance, Melnikov brings out a yearning quality as he interweaves subdued passages with well-defined peaks, to good effect. Likewise, the statements of Fugue No. 10 blossom with an unflagging sense of discovery and ascent; its cathartic peaks are reached with beautifully scaled dynamics that flow unforced into the music.
Melnikov also tends to accentuate the formal attributes of the fugues by casting the various entrances of the main subject into sharp relief. This works especially well in the bustling four-voiced Fugue No. 12, where each entrance of the main idea appears with demonstrative force; and likewise in the four densely packed voices of the notorious, dicey Fugue No. 15, here in a finely chiselled reading that is arguably one of the best on record. In the meditative atmosphere of the five-voiced Fugue No. 13, Melnikov varies his approach accordingly. Here, each voice is coaxed out gently, and yet the dynamic contours of each statement are individually varied in an especially sensitive rendition. In a similarly well-shaped Fugue No. 23 he brings back the same soft-edged tone and lyrical warmth heard in the First Prelude and Fugue, as if Melnikov had conceived this penultimate entry as both expressive bookend and lead-in to the monumental finale.
A few drawbacks in Melnikov’s interpretations turn up in the later entries where his otherwise judicious restraint comes across as more of a liability than an asset. The two alternating ideas in Prelude No. 19 need to be perked up with more of a sense of opposition than what we hear in Melnikov’s mellowed surface. Compare the impressively grand gestures that Nikolaeva (1987) brings to the piece; or the exhilarating contrasts in tempo that Jalbert courageously brings to bear. Melnikov also misses some of the fugue’s inherent grimness that Nikolaeva (1962) captures with such chilling power. Likewise, Melnikov’s version of Fugue No. 20 could use more of the kind of drama and definition brought out by Jalbert and Nikolaeva.
Overall this is an exceptional accomplishment.
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Honegger, arr. Shostakovich: Symphony No. 3 Symphonie Liturgique, H 186, Sans Opus D viii, Messiaen: Visions de l’Amen
Soós Haag Piano Duo (Adrienne Soós and Ivo Haag) (pianos)
Guild GMCD 7331.
DDD. TT: 75:26
Recorded: Radiostudio Zürich, 14–16 February 2009.
As treasures from the Shostakovich vault continue to be hauled up, some may blink twice to see the composer’s name on this handsome arrangement for two pianos of Arthur Honegger’s Third Symphony. Discovered only in the 1990s, published by Salabert in 2005 and due to appear in volume 115 of the New Collected Works, it here makes an equally handsome recording debut.
The arrangement spotlights a curious if seemingly unlikely exchange of influences between the two composers, as well as an exchange among Honegger and other Soviet composers. Indeed, their musical outputs are not so many worlds apart as one may think.
In the 1920s the music of Honegger, Hindemith, Bartók, and Stravinsky, among others, provided role models for a young generation of Soviet composers seeking to redefine Russia’s musical landscape. Honegger’s rugged harmonies and propulsive rhythms ignited an elemental force in the Russian imagination. During that forward-looking decade, music inspired by the sound of machines briefly came into vogue, as famously exemplified by Mosolov’s Iron Foundry(1926–27), Deshevov’s Rails (1926), and Meitus’s Dneiper Hydroelectric Power Station (1932) – works that no doubt took their cues from the locomotive accents of Honegger’s widely acclaimed Pacific 231 (1923). Prokofiev, who by then had settled in Honegger’s Paris, seems to have absorbed the French composer’s brand of modernism in the ferociously dense textures of his own Second Symphony (1924). It can also be argued that Shostakovich was susceptible to Honegger’s influence in his own experimental works of the decade, in particular the Second and Third Symphonies.
The influence arguably flowed in the opposite direction as well. Honegger’s Third Symphony, The Liturgical, written in 1945, despite its ecclesiastic subtitles, displays more than a passing acquaintance with Shostakovich’s music, especially his Eighth Symphony, written two years earlier. Though the Honegger symphony is written on a much smaller scale, both works were written in direct response to the trauma of World War II, both follow a trajectory from raw confrontation, through eloquent reflection, to a finale of ambivalent hope. But the similarities extend a bit further. In the first movement of the Honegger, the short breathless phrases throbbing over frenetic ostinatopatterns capture war’s chaotic madness in a fashion reminiscent of Shostakovich’s second movement Allegretto, and the cynical optimism of the final movement and the inconclusive dissipating morendo coda again have their parallels in Shostakovich’s finale. It should come as no surprise that the Symphonie Liturgique in its turn attracted Shostakovich’s attention, ergo his transcription.
The interpretation of the work by the Soós-Haug duo is gripping. It fully embraces the Symphonie Liturgique’s broad emotional scope and the wide range of textures contained in Shostakovich’s expert transcription. They project the punchy agitation of the opening movement with all the demonic fury we’ve come to expect from the orchestral version, yet here with a finely chiselled transparency that is also a tribute to the virtues of the arrangement. The duo also provides an eloquent rendering of the elegiac slow movement, and captures the antagonised aspirations of the finale as it tentatively escalates toward its tormented crux, before the coda.
The duo is equally adept at invoking the mystical passions of Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen.
Excellent liner notes are provided by Robert Matthew-Walker, who lists the date of Shostakovich’s transcription as “circa 1947”. Hulme, in his 4th edition, dates it more vaguely as “Presumably in the late 1940s”. Matthew-Walker’s date is certainly plausible, based on Shostakovich’s habit of bringing piano transcriptions of the classics to his composition students for discussion. His 1930 piano arrangement of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms was used to that end, and, like the Honegger, was created in the absence of a ready-made reduction. Under that assumption, the work had to predate Shostakovich’s dismissal from that institution following the infamous Antiformalist campaign that was launched in January of 1948. Incidentally, an earlier Soviet pianistration of the Liturgique by B. Berezovsky and N. Khotuntsov was published by Muzyka in 1976.
Devotees of Shostakovich, Honegger, and Messiaen will rejoice at the superb performance and the excellent production values of this no doubt one-of-a-kind disc. An historic group photo that includes both Honegger and Shostakovich appears in the booklet, presumably taken during Honegger’s only visit to the Soviet Union in 1928 and his only encounter with Shostakovich.