CD Reviews 43
Soviet-era composers occupy only a wafer-thin segment of Antal Doráti’s vast discography, and the Hungarian-born conductor-composer never took a Shostakovich score into the studio. Hence, this new release, documenting a guest appearance by Doráti in Wellington at the helm of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation Symphony Orchestra, is his only performance of a Shostakovich work ever to be made commercially available.
That’s a pity, as Doráti’s direction here is never less than cogent, deserving of more technically favourable conditions (about which, more anon). He shapes the symphonic line to emphasise contrast, most strikingly in the first movement, brooding in the opening pages but rocketing through the central turmoil. This is the Usain Bolt of opus 93 first movements, hitting the finish line before former front-runners Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic (CBS Masterworks Portrait MPK 45698; deleted) and Ančerl and the Czech Philharmonic (DG 463 666-2; reviewed in DSCH 17; CD deleted but available for download at www.deutschegrammophon.com). Tempos are flexible in the other three movements, too; gear shifts never grate.
Sadly, the shortcomings of the recording constrain our ability to appreciate Doráti’s interpretation. This live concert took place in austral mid-winter, and New Zealand Radio’s tape documents an assortment of coughs and sniffles … but that’s the least of our worries. The tape is far from pristine, with music-obscuring background hiss you’d associate more with a pre-War shellac record than a 1970s radio broadcast. Left-channel dropouts are frequent and disorienting.
The signal level is possibly the lowest I’ve ever encountered for a historic analogue recording—you’ll need to point your volume knob at settings previously reserved for Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich symphony cycle on BIS. In the latter case, these low levels supported the Grand Canyon-wide dynamic range BIS granted Wigglesworth’s all-digital recordings, ensuring headroom for tutti, but there’s no such justification here.
The recording also does no favours to the NZBC Symphony—the predecessor to today’s New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, now a worldclass team (scoffers need only listen to a few minutes of any of their recent Sibelius performances under Pietari Inkinen on Naxos to be silenced). On the evidence of this 1973 recording, their forebears were already a force to be reckoned with, responding with verve and alacrity. Still, it would be silly to pretend they ranked alongside the best orchestras of their day; the winds aren’t always up to par, and the strings sound understaffed. Could have been worse, mind: three days later, fog prevented nearly half of the musicians from travelling to perform at Doráti’s concert in Dunedin on the South Island, forcing a revision of that programme.
One must often make allowances for human error in these live-concert recordings with no opportunities for retakes, but there are limits. The piccolo commits a particularly disruptive error at Fig. 151 [4:11] in the fourth movement, and the snare drum tattoo starting at Fig. 191+6 [11:25] is embarrassingly arrhythmic. The final reprise of the Elmira motif on muted horn solo at Fig. 143-4 [10:50] in the third movement is virtually inaudible, though perhaps part of the blame there could be shifted to microphone placement.
Overall, then, the present release is recommendable only to Shostakovich or Doráti completists, not to anyone seeking a reference version of this symphony.
W. Mark Roberts
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Symphony no. 15, arr. Viktor Derevianko and Mark Pekarsky; Second Suite for Variety Orchestra, sans opus, G No. 2, arr. Oriol Cruixent
Kolja Blacher (violin); Jens Peter Maintz (cello); Oriol Cruixent (piano); Raymond Curfs, Claudio Estay, Mark Haeldermans (percussion)
Recorded: 24–26 March 2014 “bei go-ton Musikproduktion München”
Phil. 06030 / TT: 65:22
When Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony in its arrangement for piano trio and 13 percussion instruments made its first appearance on disc in 1997, it proved to be more than just an artful transcription. It was a revelation. The reduction of the symphony’s original chamber-like textures to their barest essentials produced a truly autonomous work—one that has undergone a transformation of colour, texture, and character that few arrangements achieve. It opened the door to fresh avenues of interpretation that were taken up and explored with insight and distinction by Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Musicata (DG 449 966-2GH, reviewed in DSCH 7; rereleased as DG 00289 477 5442, reviewed in DSCH 23). Now 18 years later, a performance of equal distinction emerges from a German ensemble led by violinist Kolja Blacher.
Blacher and his cohorts are finely attuned to the myriad subtleties that abound in this multifaceted score. Their clear unified vision of the work puts emphasis on the symphony’s expressionistic shadows. With a decidedly darker tone and temperament than in the Kremerata performance, their playing is edgy, sharply accented, and imbued with a sense of menace. An example is the opening movement, often described as a portrayal of a toyshop, which here takes on a demonic air. The mischievous merriment that tends to accompany the William Tell passages is here subsumed in an atmosphere of nervous anticipation. The oompahs that give chase on the piano carry less of a cheery tone—compare the Kremerata version—and more of a troubled one. The expressive focus of this performance is rather placed on the crescendi at the movement’s centre, which here, are turned into a series of powerfully unsettling epiphanies. In this tightly driven version, it is these moments rather than the playful passages that stand out as the movement’s emotional points of reference.
Cellist Jens Peter Maintz offers a hauntingly beautiful succession of solos in the second movement. He plays with considerable depth of feeling, extracting more from the movement than does Clemens Hagen in the Kremerata rendition. The spacious breathing room Maintz imparts to each phrase fleshes out the tone of near total desolation. The strolling figures in between the cello passages are played with equal sensitivity on the piano. The central climax, abetted by this tightly driven version, it is these moments rather than the playful passages that stand out as the movement’s emotional points of reference.
Cellist Jens Peter Maintz offers a hauntingly beautiful succession of solos in the second movement. He plays with considerable depth of feeling, extracting more from the movement than does Clemens Hagen in the Kremerata rendition. The spacious breathing room Maintz imparts to each phrase fleshes out the tone of near total desolation. The strolling figures in between the cello passages are played with equal sensitivity on the piano. The central climax, abetted by strong percussive reinforcement, convulses as powerfully as one could ask. The piano’s hushed funereal chords, played by pianist Oriol Cruixent, add a most heartfelt set of closing bars. The Scherzo is reined in with acerbic twists and razor-sharp turns that point up the danse macabre character of the music. This is a rendition that doesn’t miss a trick: each chromatic run is sharp and to the point, each portamento smirks with impish
delight, and each percussive stroke delivers a caustic jab to the spleen. Pianist and percussionists display agility in navigating the mercurial shifts in texture and direction. I was half expecting the single appearance of the dsch motto in the symphony, embedded at a conspicuous juncture (Fig. 92 + 5), to be underlined in some fashion, but it was not, neither in this nor in the Kremer rendition (nor in many orchestral versions, for that matter). The Derevianko arrangement would seem to present an ideal opportunity for such highlighting.
I wish more interpreters of this symphony would offer the fully realised conception of the finale that we find here. The climactic episode within is the defining moment of the entire work—the moment that, in an emotional and structural sense, contextualises all that has preceded it. The ensemble presents this pivotal crossing with rare and devastating intensity. Their sensitive rendition of the Glinka theme in the early part of the movement, now on piano, is adorned with bittersweet delicacy. But once the passacaglia commences, turns, the metronome latches onto a grim pulse, and the music builds inexorably toward its peak. The performers capture the startling monumental confrontation that follows with all the emotion it cries out for. Just as important, it lays out with satisfying silver-platter extravagance the crash chord (Fig. 135 + 2) that terminates the passage—the chord upon which the movement, one might say the entire symphony, comes crashing down upon. Many orchestral versions fail to properly deliver this explosive moment, and the fact that it occurs here is one of the not-so-small factors that make this performance glow. The colossal gong stroke that underscores the moment is then allowed a long resonating decay as the music undergoes its last major sea change. The remaining minutes of the performance are poetically beautiful: from the post-climax disorientation and regathering, to the sensitive return of the Glinka theme, now sweetly played by the violin, to the chest-clutching interruption chords that again turn the direction of the music toward its final valedictory fading. All of it made all the more poignant with well-honed percussive chatter that includes deep husky taps on the bass drum.
The percussion come across bold and strong in this recording. On first hearing, listeners may feel that the thunderous entries of the timpani, especially in the opening movement, are acoustically out of proportion with the rest of the ensemble. But in context of the broader scope of the performance and the heightened levels of intensity that are sought, the large presence of the percussion only amplifies the ensemble’s dark vision of the work.
The filler work on the disc offers another rare treat: the Second Suite for Variety Orchestra (sans opus G no. 2), arranged for piano trio and percussion by the pianist of the ensemble, Oriol Cruixent. The eight-part suite has its origins in 1988 and is a collection of tunes drawn from the composer’s incidental and film music. The original re-orchestration, by unknown hands, calls for winds, brass, and percussion battery. The complete suite has been recorded at least eight times previously, a number of times with alternate instrumentation. The arrangements here are idiomatic and imaginative, and the lively performances capture the warmth and playful spirit of each ditty, suggesting at every point a salon-like atmosphere. The tunes will be familiar and derive from works such as The Limpid Stream, Adventures of Korzinkina, and The Gadfly. They make a charming addition to the programme.
Liner notes on the copy I received are in German only, suggesting that the disc is not slated for international distribution. That is truly a pity, as the Derevianko version of the Fifteenth Symphony deserves far more than the scant exposure it has so far received. All the more so as this performance is one of the more engaging, and certainly among the most personalised, of any and all versions of the work. The extra effort and/or expense involved in obtaining this disc will be handsomely
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Despite being renowned mainly for their Austro-German repertoire, the Takács Quartet’s discography also includes the likes of Britten (Quartets Nos. 1, 2 and 3, on Hyperion) and Bartók (the complete cycle on Decca). For their first Shostakovich venture, they have chosen what might seem at first an odd coupling. Composed on either side of the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War, the two pieces contrast drastically in texture, style, and mood. As David Fanning’s informative essay indicates, however, there is much that relates the two works, not least the musicians for whom they were intended and who premiered them—namely the Beethoven Quartet, with the composer himself joining them for the Quintet. The great difference, especially in the tempi, between the two existing recordings of this piece with Shostakovich and the Beethovens (1940 and 1955) should be liberating for any ensemble taking up the challenge, as it suggests that his own interpretative concept was flexible and evolving. Nevertheless those recordings, especially the later one, remain the indispensable benchmarks. The two have been released on CD several times, by various companies (Revelation RV 70005, reviewed in DSCH 9; Doremi DHR-7787, reviewed in DSCH 18; Eclectra ECCD-2067, reviewed in DSCH 23).
Marc-André Hamelin’s collaborations with the Takács may not be as longstanding as those of Shostakovich and the Beethovens, but he has already recorded Schumann’s Quintet with them, and they have been time, to critical acclaim. Their close affinity is reflected in the quality of the ensemble playing—this in spite of the piano sound being slightly recessed, capturing too much of the room’s acoustic and not enough of the instrument itself. Hamelin’s opening monologue nevertheless draws us in instantly. If anything, it sounds overly passionate, with a highly personal rubato that is then carried on by the strings. Crowd-pleasing, certainly, but this approach runs contrary to the neo-Baroque monumentality of both of Shostakovich’s accounts. The first two movements of the Quintet are structurally comparable to the Sinfonia from Bach’s C minor Partita for Clavier, BWV826, and once Hamelin reaches the contrapuntal middle section of the prelude, his touch carries a winning Gouldian lightness. However, anyone acclimatised to Shostakovich’s 1955 recording, in which his percussive articulation contrasts markedly with the strings’ singing vibratos, may find a lack of dramatic tension here. Similarly, at the beginning of the following fugue, in contrast to Shostakovich’s sharp attack, Hamelin’s priority is clearly to blend and intertwine with the strings. All well and good, but this renders the climax of the movement routinely passionate. We miss the anguished realisation of a long-approaching threat.
Hamelin’s super-star technique is showcased in the Scherzo. Here the ensemble goes for playfulness and caricature, where Shostakovich and the Beethovens bring a touch of the macabre. Where Hamelin and the Takács remain in control both tempo-wise and technically, Shostakovich forces the strings into a roller-coaster ride, casting clarity and refinement to the winds. In the Intermezzo, Hamelin and the Takács strike a solemn note, as their never-ending melodic lines feel like one magnificent long breath. Even so, there is a dimension here that remains unexplored. Despite the rubatos in the piano and the expressive qualities of the central episode, this feels like a story from the past retold in the third person, whereas with the composer in 1955, pain and loss are somehow unmistakably in the present tense and the first person. Consequently, in the hands of
Shostakovich and the Beethovens, the transition to the finale comes across as a door to another world, where pain temporarily gives way to euphoric fantasy, and where, despite hints of darker forces, the music simply walks away without a backward glance. Taking a more controlled and no less effective approach, Hamelin and the Takács resist the temptation to accelerate, raising the tension to a higher pitch, before the eventual resigned withdrawal.
Notwithstanding the CD cover’s listing, the pieces are presented in reverse chronological order, the Quintet being preceded by the Takács’s first recording of any of Shostakovich’s string quartets. Compared to most, they have a much more angular take on the outer sections of the opening Overture. And if their account is less passionate than that of the Borodins in 1968 (Chandos 10064, reviewed in DSCH 19) or the Emersons (DG 463284, reviewed in DSCH 13), it is equally determined and insistent, with a hint of folk-like playfulness attained through an ideal combination of weight, speed, and scrupulously observed accents. The second movement’s Recitative, however, is rather pure—even Brahmsian in effect—lacking improvisatory, heart-on-sleeve character. In that respect, Edward Dusinberre is no match for the tear-jerking eloquence of the Beethoven Quartet’s Dmitry Tsyganov.The supremely unified tone-palette of the Takács, highly effective in the first movement, is hard to justify here, where a wider range of colour and imagination are de rigueur.
Similarly, their rendering of the shadowy Waltz falls short of the haunting and feverish picture drawn by the likes of the Beethovens and the Borodins. And again, the opening bars of the final movement are too artfully shaped, lacking the dramatic edge of the finest recordings. The theme, though beautifully turned, comes across as all-purpose expressive, almost more Tchaikovskian than Shostakovichian. What follows is a well thought-out, carefully calculated, focused, and even passionate performance, which, however, never quite captures the emotional danger underlying the accelerating tempo. To hear players of such class in this repertoire is always a privilege; if they could just find a way to place dramatic immediacy above refinement, then future releases would indeed be worth waiting for.
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Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel); Songs and Dances of Death (orch. Shostakovich); Night on Bare Mountain
Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor); Ferruccio Furlanetto, bass
Recorded in the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg
June and October 2014
Mariinsky MAR0553 (SACD)
Valery Gergiev’s recent recordings on the Mariinsky label have been a mixed bag. The Mariinsky Orchestra assembled for each of the live performances is invariably excellent, and the SACD sound, aided by the superlative acoustics of the Mariinsky Concert Hall, is also consistently fine. But Gergiev’s interpretations vary, and so far, the only continually strong series here has been the ongoing Shostakovich symphony cycle, which is among the finest of recent times.
Fortunately, then, the Shostakovich orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death finds him in excellent form. He does far more than just accompany bass Ferruccio Furlanetto, bringing infinite shades of complexity and colour to the orchestral playing. The mood is sombre, of course, but is also continually changing, as Gergiev brings out the details of Shostakovich’s instrumentation. The bass in the SACD mix is strong, though never artificially so, allowing clear separation between the colours of the cellos, low brass, and bass clarinet—the latter a particularly satisfying and prominent presence. Gergiev maintains continuity of tone across each of the songs, never pausing between phrases: the results have an almost symphonic consistency.
Furlanetto has an ideal voice for the cycle. His tone is light and transparent, but rich in colour and complexity, and is particularly impressive in the lower reaches. He was 60 when this recording was made in 2010, and perhaps some of the darkness of his tone comes with maturity, but otherwise there are no signs of age here. Furlanetto is a regular Gergiev collaborator, and was the first Italian to sing Boris Godunov at the Mariinsky, another role for which he seems ideally suited.
The Songs and Dances appear second on a programme that also includes Pictures at an Exhibition (in Ravel’s orchestration) and Night on Bare Mountain, both recorded later, in 2014, suggesting that the song cycle was the main reason for this release. It is certainly the highlight. Gergiev fails to find much inspiration in Pictures, and the recording is redeemed only by the superlative orchestral playing, especially by the soloists. He
injects a bit more fire into Night on Bare Mountain, which concludes the programme in impressive style. Given the generally populist tone of the release, it is curious that Gergiev opts for the Mussorgsky original rather than the Rimsky-Korsakov version, and more curious still that the producers thought this choice so self-evident that it is not even mentioned on the sleeve. No song texts in the liner either, but these are minor quibbles, and for the Songs and Dances alone, this release is highly recommended.