CD Reviews 41
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Six Romances, opus 62a; “Annie Laurie”; Suite on Verses of Michelangelo, opus 145a.
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Thomas Sanderling, conductor; Gerald Finley, baritone.
Ondine ODE 1235-2 / TT: 61:33
While the New Collected Works includes or has announced various yetto- be-recorded works, there is a parallel stream of unofficial premieres: transcriptions or re-workings by other hands, posthumous or otherwise.
Thomas Sanderling has already given us the completed Tale of the Priest and a suite from Lady Macbeth (DGG 00289 477 6112, reviewed in dsch 27), and a waltz suite coupled with a collection of songs orchestrated by Tishchenko and Desyatnikov (DGG 0289 477 6111 2).
The songs on his new disk have varying degrees of “premiere” status. They are performed in the language of the original poems—English (with occasional Scottish inflections) and Italian—thus approaching Shostakovich’s wish that vocal works be performed in the language of the audience.
The disc opens with opus 62a. Sanderling’s is not entirely the premiere that it claims to be; Rozhdestvensky and Safiulin got there first on the LP From Manuscripts of Different Years, vol. 7 (C10 31619 002), later transferred to CD in a collection of the last two symphonies and some song cycles (74321 59057 2, reviewed in DSCH 11). Sanderling’s recording, however, is the first in English. The English and Russian line-lengths are similar, through some stresses fall on unexpected syllables (especially in the Shakespeare: the opening trochee is made iambic by the music) and there’s an occasional musical tweak to accommodate different scansions. But the major issue is with “Jenny”:
Marshak’s rendition of Burns is far from literal, and he never makes any attempt to echo Scots dialect. Reverting to the original, as Sanderling and Gerald Finley do, creates a bizarre chimera: Shostakovich’s response to Marshak’s heavily altered Burns shackled to the real thing. A better option would have been to back-translate the Russian, perhaps “Burnsifying” it in the process.
A similar issue arises with the Michelangelo Suite, in that there are various editions of the poems. While this allows the performers to choose what they feel is the best fitting text, it inevitably makes the relationship between what Shostakovich thought he was setting and what we are hearing a little wobblier.
Again, this is a premiere in the sense that it is the orchestral version—Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Aribert Reimann essayed the Italianised “pianistration” in 1987 (Teldec 243 714-2). In the event the linguistic differences are minimal: more importantly, Finley’s performance is far more sympathetic, perhaps in part due to his having studied medieval Italian. In fact it was he who edited the text, basing it on James M. Saslow’s parallel text (Yale University Press, 1990). The gentle songs are particular beneficiaries, with a sweetness that never tips into crooning, though perhaps his wrathfulness could be ratcheted up. Sanderling and the orchestra bring a full range of effects from the glittering marble-chips of “Creativity” (while lacking Järvi’s hell-for-leatherness on 447 085-2GH) to the beautiful velvety softness of “Night.”
Sanderling’s earlier traversal of the Michelangelo cycle (Berlin Classics 0091932BC) is in German with Herman Christian Polster, in a very Fisher-Dieskau mood. In terms of the “sound” of the language, it is perhaps the least satisfactory option, while a slightly smeary orchestra does not help matters. Sanderling and Finley are on much firmer ground.
Much the same applies to the opus 62 songs. Finley is expressive without over-egging things: he avoids a McSporranist accent in the Burns settings, though his r’s in “Jenny” are generously rolled, and the second song’s “black and bare” is perhaps a bit too wide-eyed. As far as the orchestration is concerned, it links the cycle back to earlier pieces like the Pushkin Songs, opus 46, whereas opus 140 is definitely a “late work.”
Sandwiched between the two cycles is the single, mysterious song “Annie Laurie”—the disc’s one unrivalled premiere. [A feature on “Annie Laurie” will appear in the next issue of dsch journal.] A sweet little song, it’s the one item that has never before entered the lists in any form. The orchestration would fit either with opus 62 or the British and American Folksongs (sans opus M), but as an arrangement rather than an original piece, the latter may have been a more natural home—were that ever the intention. An off-cut, perhaps, but a charming one.
With the “premiere” status of most of the disc at least open to question, perhaps it is more important to consider the performances regardless of the languages used. Happily, they stand easily beside the competition.
As noted above, Finley may lack the last ounce of vehemence, though that means he avoids Fischer- Dieskau’s occasional hectoring in the Michelangelo songs—especially in a near-painful performance with Ashkenazy (Decca 433 319-2DH). He is nearer in tone to Ildar Abdrazakov (accompanied by Noseda on CHAN 10358), who fills the disc with the later orchestration of opus 62. Both are good in the gentler moments but fall short at points like Dante’s exile, which lacks complete outrage. But few singers have embraced the full range of this work since Nesterenko’s premiere recording—the nearest being the aforementioned Leiferkus/Järvi disc (447 085-2GH). Perversely then, I would not recommend this disc for its “premieres,” but simply for the quality of the performances.
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Vasily Petrenko’s survey of the Shostakovich symphonies nears completion with the work that is often singled out as the composer’s supreme achievement. In the Fourteenth Symphony, we find Shostakovich’s musical language distilled and concentrated as nowhere else. With its terrifying confrontation with death embodied in tones both bitter and sardonic, and vocal lines angular and uncompromising, it is nothing less than a masterpiece of disturbing beauty.
The earliest recordings in the discography—the direct Russian imports with Rudolf Barshai, Kirill Kondrashin, and Mstislav Rostropovich conducting—remain the standard by which all future performances must be judged. For the work’s opening lyric there is perhaps none more majestic than that delivered by Yevgeni Nesterenko in the Kondrashin performance; or more unsettling than Yevgeni Vladimirov’s in the premiere recording with Rudolf Barshai (Melodiya)—one that, astonishingly, has yet to appear on CD. Following in these hallowed footsteps, Petrenko has made discerning choices for his soloists. In the opening “De Profundis,” Alexander Vinogradov’s lugubrious shadings carry ample Slavic weight with full resonant tones. The intimate quality he conveys in the quieter sections here and elsewhere is in part due to the close microphone placement that one finds throughout this recording. In the three consecutive movements where the bass takes centre stage, Vinogradov shines. Whereas Mark Reshetin in the Rostropovich version (Teldec) better captures the existential torment of the “Santé Prison” setting, Vinogradov embraces the movement’s world weariness with profound sensitivity, his voice rising to a rapturous crescendo. He embodies the explosive rage of “Zaporozhian Cossacks”; and allows full blossom to the serenity and sorrowful intensity of “Delvig.”
Few sopranos match the electrifying intensity and unmatched suitability of Galina Vishnevskaya, for whom the part was written and whose performances can be found in the Rostropovich and Barshai recordings. The Alexander Lazarev version of the work (Virgin Classics) features an especially fine pair of vocalists with soprano Makvala Kasrashvili,
whose heavier voice emphasises the work’s Slavic character. In the current version, soprano Gal James takes on the part with the kind of commitment and unerring focus that does justice to the work. The somewhat softer edge of her voice allows her to bring out the mournful strains in sections such as “The Suicide” and “Death of the Poet” with especially moving conviction. Nor is there any shortage of expressionistic intensity as she renders the peaks and volatile turns in the “Malagueña” setting. Her flexibility in temperament and delivery stands out as distinct assets. She is riveting in conveying the dualistic character of the “khokhochu” repetitions in the “Madame Look” setting, as she deftly interlaces the derisive undercurrents of tension and whimsy. She also rises to chilling climaxes in the work’s summarising moments in “Death of the Poet.”
The crisp accents and burning intensity that characterise the preceding entries in the Petrenko’s cycle are no less evident in this release. With his Kondrashinesque level of comfort with the idiom, the sudden shifts in expressive direction and the angular lines in the strings are remarkably well done. The agitated exchanges between strings, percussion, and soloists, as for example in “Loreley” and “Zaporozhian Cossacks,” highlight the exquisitely tuned teamwork of the ensemble. Petrenko pays particular attention to mood, as can be heard in the ethereal passages for celesta and vibraphone in the “Loreley” section; and in the restrained tones and relaxed expanse he brings to “Santé Prison,” manifesting the dreariness of prolonged incarceration.
The intimacy and directness that characterise this performance are all enhanced by the aforementioned uncommonly close microphone placement, a technical decision that Petrenko no doubt participated in. Throughout, strings, percussion, and vocalists are captured with up-front clarity that stands in contrast to the wider space preferred in other renditions. The stereo separation places the listener at the heart of the music-making and forms another distinguishing feature of this recording.
This is neither a breakthrough performance nor one that takes daring strategies in its execution. For those who seek a more individualised interpretation with more penetrating detail, the relatively recent (2010, Alpha 159) issue with conductor Teodor Currentzis is much recommended. Nevertheless, the current version takes its place in the pantheon. It is one that brings a strong sense of connection with the music, as well as continuity and contrast in a powerfully unified and passionate interpretation. It is clearly one of the triumphs of the Petrenko cycle.
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This album presents an object lesson in the precariousness of artistic partnerships. The recording boasts two world-class musicians who are no strangers to the Shostakovich repertoire: conductor Vasily Petrenko, whose ongoing survey of the Shostakovich symphonies has been well reviewed in these pages and elsewhere; and cellist Truls Mørk, who has carved out an equally stellar concert career that includes a previous recording of the two concerti at hand. The puzzle is why their performances on this disc are not what one might have expected.
One wonders while listening to this programme whether Petrenko and Mørk share the same vision of these works. In each concerto, issues of excess and deficiency compromise the quality of the performances. In the opening movement of the First Concerto, both conductor and soloist deliver the lively tempi, crisp rhythms, and high tension called for by the music. Yet this happens to be an instance where too much of a good thing can spoil the recipe. Mørk’s virtuosity is unassailable, as is the virtuoso playing of the Oslo musicians. But here the coil of tension is twisted a little too tightly. Conductor and soloist engage the music with phrasing that is a tad too forward, leaving it wanting in detail. The various instrumental sections are mercilessly pushed to the foreground: the growling bassoons show a little too much teeth; the solo clarinet presses points to a fault; and the solo cellist, whose pizzicato notes at one instance indulgently slap against the backboard, is drawn in to the same overzealous execution. On the surface these might seem desirable approaches for this tautly conceived Shostakovich score. Yet that’s exactly where the playing remains: on the surface. The frenetic undercurrents that carry the music’s vital force are never probed. More attention was paid to nuance in Mørk’s rendition with Mariss Jansons (Virgin Classics, 1996) which extracts far more from the movement.
In the hauntingly beautiful second movement, the finesse and forward motion of Mørk’s playing takes the music to a few inspired plateaus. On comparing the two Mørk versions side by side, the cellist elicits far more pathos in the Jansons version. In the earlier recording, some of the most poignant moments ensue from Mørk’s full-throated vibrato—a feature of his performance that is somewhat curtailed by Petrenko’s tighter tempo choices. The cello’s exhortations leading up to central climax opt for volume and velocity at the expense of feeling. But perhaps the ultimate measure of an interpretation rests on how effectively the lofty heights are played in the movement’s closing pages, where cello harmonics take part in a ghostly parlay with the ethereal notes of the celesta. In the Jansons version, the passage seems to whisper the darkest passionate secrets; in the Petrenko, sad to say, it remains rather earthbound.
Mørk shows what he is capable of on his own by way of a beautifully realised cadenza. Though some thirty-five seconds shorter than the cadenza in the Jansons version, he brings the same rich tones, expansive gestures, and luxuriously paced pizzicato notes to this splendidly realised rendition.
In the finale, Petrenko generates a little more excitement than Jansons with ironic turns that sparkle.
The Second Cello Concerto is one of Shostakovich’s more elusive scores—witness how few recordings have achieved genuine distinction. The opening Largo generally fares well, and is beautifully rendered in each of the recordings with Mørk, who eloquently navigates the solo part’s shadowy turns and introspective asides. Here he embarks upon a journey of melancholic exploration that contrasts well with the more assertive probing of Natalia Gutman in her very fine live recording with Dmitri Kitaenko (Live Classics LCL- 202, reviewed in DSCH 15). Petrenko draws out the delicate lines with sensitivity, leading to the movement’s radiantly performed central eruption.
The larger challenge of the Second Concerto, however, lies with the work’s back half. In the best performances, these last two movements are conceived as a connected unit, with a second movement brought off as a progressively escalating ramp of tension, and a third that delivers the concerto’s long-deferred moment of release. The format is unique in the Shostakovich oeuvre, and in the right hands makes a shattering impact. In this regard, I find both the Jansons and the Petrenko performances with Mørk to be similarly lacking. Throughout the second movement, Mørk does well in bringing out the incongruities of the wide glissandi, and prevails over the music’s twisted continuity. Missing on the part of conductor and soloist, however, are the underlying essentials: the spiralling stress lines upon which the movement is built, and the progressively rising tide of tension that falls just short of detonation. Without the pressure escalating to a singularly unbearable level, the elephantine flourishes that launch the following movement do not quite come off as the colossal pillars of irony and climactic obstruction as they do in other versions. In this final movement, the cello’s lyrical passages have never been realised with more warmth and compassion. Yet once again, a vital component is missing. The anguished cadenzas leading into and out of the final climax—the first preparatory, the other reactive—are arguably the soloist’s most essential moments of revelation. Here, Mørk falls short of capturing the condensed torment of both episodes, and in failing to do so, compromises the concerto’s cumulative moment of release.
The artistic teams that offer a far more compelling grasp of the music’s emotional architecture are few and far between, and include Schiff/Shostakovich (Philips 412 526-1PH), Harrell / Schwarz (AVIE AV2090, reviewed in dsch 26), Gutman / Kitaenko, Wispelwey/Hempel (Channel Classics CCS SA 25308), and just about any version with Rostropovich.
Liner notes by Richard Whitehouse are reliably eloquent and informative. Yet this is one star-studded release with little else to recommend it.