CD Reviews 45
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Gergiev, Capuçon, and the Mariinsky
Cello Concerto no. 1, opus 107 ; Cello Concerto no. 2, opus 126 
Gautier Capuçon (cello). Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor)
Recorded live at Salle Pleyel, Paris. 3 December 2013 , and Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg. 3 June 2014 
Valery Gergiev’s complete edition of the Shostakovich symphonies and concertos with the Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus has established the conductor as a major interpreter of this repertoire on the world stage. Recorded live, mainly at the Salle Pleyel, Paris, between 2013 and 2014, the majority of the works in this prodigious undertaking have made their way from their original release on Blu-Ray DVD to audio CD. The latest pair of pieces to emerge in audio format—the two cello concertos—feature the young French cellist Gautier Capuçon.
With countless recordings of the two cello concertos available, versions of true distinction come few and far between. Happily, that’s what we have here. Given the glowing performances in Gergiev’s symphonic cycle, hopes were high for the concertos; and the expectations have been more than met. The Mariinsky Orchestra plays with commanding authority, and soloist Capuçon brings an impressive measure of intensity and finesse to his performances. Just as important, conductor and soloist find themselves ideally matched. Aside from a few quibbles in the faster movements of each concerto, the two concertos are given interpretations of probing profundity. But first, the quibbles.
In the opening Allegretto of the first concerto, Capuçon’s rather light-handed strokes lack the lusty engagement that in other renditions give the four-note opening motif its full propulsive thrust. Throughout the movement, his attacks, especially on the accented notes, sound somewhat pinpricked—a quality that emphasises precision at the expense of spontaneity. Capuçon nevertheless generates a good amount of excitement, particularly at the onset of the development section, where he launches the sudden stream of eighth notes with his own brand of energised rigour; and likewise, where he brings this confrontation to a peak with the succession of dissonant triple stops. As in the finale of the concerto, what the soloist lacks in muscularity he makes up with a biting edge.
The performances on this disc glow nowhere more brightly than in the Moderato movement that follows. Here, conductor and soloist play in consummate harmony to produce one of the most stunning interpretations of the movement on record. Its timing of 13:50 also makes it the longest, its closest rival being a very worthy 2008 release with cellist Daniel Muller-Schott and Yakov Kreizberg leading the Bavarian SO (Orfeo C659081A; Time: 13:01). The Gergiev/Capuçon version joins other broadly paced versions that similarly elicit a heightened sense of pathos. These include Raphael Wallfisch and the ECO under Geoffrey Simon, whose 1984 recording (CHANDOS CHAN 8322) is perhaps the earliest to significantly stretch the previous timings, taking 12:52. In 1997, Kiril Rodin and the Russian Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra under Konstantin Krimets (Arte Nova 49688) even added a few seconds to take 12:57. By comparison, Rostropovich’s timings in his various surveys of the movement fall between 9:59 and 11:04.
The daringly slow tempi conductor and soloist choose for this movement pay off handsomely. In the hands of a lesser cellist, the music might have run the risk of being dilatorily underwhelming. But here, Capuçon takes command of the temporal expanse to flesh out a very personal vision. He internalises the solo part, captivating the listener. With infinite tenderness and with a tempo as broad as it is breathtaking, he reaches the deep, dark undertones of the music with remarkable feeling and intensity. Gergiev leads the orchestra with a poignancy in kind. The dissonant chords of the opening bars convey the utmost compassion. The French horn solo that follows sets the mournful pace and mood for the soloist’s emotionally charged entry. Listen to the stirring ritardando Capuçon employs at the small crescendo at m. 43, after which he falls back to heart-rendingly hushed tones; or the subdued timpani roll that ever so gently leads into the delicate interweaving of the solo clarinet and solo cello.
This is a performance whose golden nuggets lie embedded in the subtleties of phrasing. Capuçon delves into the intimate recesses of the aria at m. 70, after which the ensemble builds magisterially to the movement’s climax. With a relentless pace and concentration, Capuçon produces a cadenza that is no less riveting than what preceded. His gestures here are expansive, the pauses broad and brooding, the pizzicato strokes extravagantly spaced, the double stops fiercely soul-searching—all with the sense of time suspended. Capuçon is always profoundly and timelessly submerged in the music. One would be hard-pressed to find a more compelling performance of these two middle movements.
The twisty musical landscape of the Second Cello Concerto invites a wide spectrum of interpretation. In the opening Largo, two schools of thought have emerged regarding the solo part. On the one hand, we have the extroverted, viscerally engaged approach that turns this cryptic score into a spiritual battleground. Here the enigmatic solo line is not just probed, but challenged and grappled with as a life and death proposition, as exemplified by the versions with soloist Peter Wispelwey and Jurjen Hempel leading the Sinfonietta Cracovia (Channel Classics CCS SA 25308). This also describes the playing of Natalia Gutman, whose version with conductor Dmitri Kitaenko (conducting the Moscow PO, Live Classics LCL 202, reviewed in DSCH 15) remains one of the outstanding releases in the catalogue. On the other hand, we have the introspective view in which the searching lines are more inwardly directed, and in which attention is sensitively paid to the score’s subtle contours and atmospheric qualities. This is the approach taken by the present artists as, before them, by Rostropovich in his versions with Svetlanov and the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, and Ozawa and the Boston Symphony.
Gergiev and Capuçon embrace the movement in a mood of lyrical resignation, lurking in the score’s shadows. With a tone more mournful than that of Rostropovich, Capuçon’s journey beneath the music’s surface is no less compelling. He exercises the same restraint in the central portion of the movement where the light-hearted counter-theme becomes increasingly antagonistic. Rostropovich reacts with high distress in the escalating passages, particularly in the solo confrontation with the bass drum strikes—intense moments where Capuçon’s responses might have been stronger. Still, he carries the movement with meticulous attention to detail and an unswerving grip on the solo line.
The “corkscrew” scherzo that follows is a unique conception in the Shostakovich canon in that the jocular mood introduced by the “Bublichki” theme turns and twists with ever-increasing anxiety toward a near-explosive terminating crescendo. Only a select few performances capture the movement’s exquisite ratcheting up of tension to full effect—to name a few: Lynn Harrell, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and Gerard Schwarz (reviewed in DSCH 26); the aforementioned Gutman/Kitaenko, Wispelwey/Hempel, and Valentin Feigin and Maxim Shostakovich (in the Collected Works on Record [C10 13769-70], but yet to find its way onto CD). The current version does not quite acquire the same resonance, but its personal touches make a compelling case. To his credit, Capuçon imparts a stinging curvature to his glissandi. He responds with thoroughly ruffled candour to the antagonistic timpani strokes and hectoring bassoons, which deliver their mocking message with front and centre sassiness.
Gergiev’s scherzo effectively builds to its anticlimactic peak and carries us into the Alice-in-Wonderland finale, whose challenge for interpreters is to make cohesive sense of the mosaic of incongruous episodes: a salt and vinegar brass fanfare, a hollowed-out march tune, a bittersweet aria. These bizarre juxtapositions are ultimately revealed as a dark and devastating strategy of misdirection as the “Bublichki” theme returns as the concerto’s tragic capstone—a long-deferred explosion of pent-up tension. Capuçon and Gergiev approach the movement from the dark side of the score. They bring out an element of pathos throughout the movement, an undercurrent of despair that suggests a cryptic link between its various sections. The fanfare variants, though lively enough, are not as carefree as in some interpretations. Even the “bouncy” march theme is tinged with sadness in Capuçon’s hands, so that when it leads into the melancholic phrase that follows, it’s as if a deeper layer is being unveiled. The final climax is as explosive as one could ask for. If the solo cadenza that leads to that climax has its imperfections—Capuçon’s glancing strokes at the succession of double stops sound a tad too bouncy to capture the moment’s full measure of agitation—the broader vision, the deeper connection sought, and the penetrating lyricism captured by Capuçon earns this recording a handsome place in the catalogue.
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Chamber Symphony (arr. Barshai)
Schubert (arr. Mahler), String Quartet no. 14, D. 810, “Death and the Maiden”; Shostakovich (arr. Barshai), Chamber Symphony, opus 110a
LSO String Ensemble, Roman Simović (leader)
Recorded live at the Barbican Centre, London on 26 April 2015.
LSO Live 0786 (SACD: 66:28)
The LSO was still Gergiev’s orchestra when this recording was made, in April 2015, so it’s little wonder that the players display a natural affinity for Shostakovich’s music. Gergiev himself was not directly involved, ceding control here to Roman Simović, who leads from the first desk.
The Chamber Symphony in C Minor, a.k.a. the Eighth String Quartet as arranged by Rudolf Barshai, makes an effective string orchestra work, but it is incumbent upon performers to make us forget the original, and that rarely happens in this recording. Simović wisely takes a symphonic approach, emphasising contrasts, particularly between the louder and quieter passages—and between tutti and solo, the solos all excellently played. But the results, especially in the louder passages, often feel exaggerated—an impression not helped by some uncharacteristically imprecise ensemble from the LSO strings, especially in the second movement. The fast passage work here, played with particularly heavy attacks, is not as precise or disciplined as these players usually achieve (though many orchestras would probably be happy with the results).
Barshai himself was, of course, also a conductor, and comparing this with his Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Deutsche Grammophon 00289 477 5442) recording raises the suspicion that the lack of a conductor here works to the music’s detriment. The slow first movement feels more meandering than morose. The second movement, too, while impressively dynamic, doesn’t feel as focused as under Barshai’s baton. Later movements fare better, especially the last. Here, the ensemble finally achieves what it set out for in the opening: an even, dark texture that benefits from the extra support of the double basses. And the resigned final pages are close to ideal, with the precision now achieved in the ensemble conveyed in impressive detail by the SACD sound.
First on the disc, and the programme’s main offering, is Mahler’s arrangement of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet. It is more of a success, although it is difficult to tell whether this is the result of Mahler’s arrangement being more effective (it is very fine), the playing being more sensitive, or of Schubert’s original having greater orchestral potential. Whichever way, the LSO Strings (24 players, as in the Shostakovich) offer better-integrated textures, greater conviction, and more compelling drama. Shostakovich may be reasonably served by the LSO Strings, but Barshai less so: the Chamber Symphony always feels like a string quartet in arrangement. Not so the Schubert, which achieves the impressive illusion of having been conceived for these forces.
Booklet notes are provided in English, French, and German.
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Chamber Symphonies & East European Folk Tunes
Shostakovich, Symphony for Strings and Woodwind [listed as “Chamber Symphony”] (arrangement of String Quartet no. 3 in F major by Rudolf Barshai), opus 73a; Traditional (compiled and arranged by Vasile Nedea), Turceasca si Hora de la Goicea; Suite of Romanian Melodies; Shostakovich, Chamber Symphony (arr. of String Quartet no. 4 in D major by Rudolf Barshai), Opus 83a; Traditional, Russian Klezmer Dance
The re:orchestra/Roberto Beltrán-Zavala
Recorded at the Music Centre for Dutch Radio and Television, Studio MCO 5, Hilversum, the Netherlands, in August 2014
BIS Records BIS-2227, hybrid SACD 5.0 surround/SACD stereo/CD stereo
Rudolf Barshai orchestrated Shostakovich’s String Quartets nos. 3 and 4 a decade and a half after the composer’s death, and to date these relative newcomers have attracted far fewer performances than his ubiquitous arrangements of nos. 8 and 10 (opp. 110a and 118a), which date back to the 1960s. To my knowledge, there have been only three previous pairings of opp. 73a and 83a on disc. In DSCH 23, C.H. Loh gave a higher recommendation to a 2004 release on the same label as the present entry, from Jean-Jacques Kantorow and the Tapiola Sinfonietta (BIS-CD-1180), than to the previous benchmark, Barshai’s own premiere recordings at the podium of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Deutsche Grammophon 00289 477 5442). Barshai revisited opp. 73a and 83a on a 2009 two-disc compilation which added opp. 49a, 110a, and 118a (Brilliant Classics 8212), but while his later interpretations have their moments, he is ultimately let down by the playing of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, which is too often tentative and diffuse.
Even in a more crowded field, however, this new arrival from BIS would still be worth seeking out, as it offers not only accomplished and distinctive performances of the Shostakovich–Barshai works, courtesy of Mexican-Dutch conductor Roberto Beltrán-Zavala and his Rotterdam-based re:orchestra [sic], but also, as the album’s title suggests, some unexpected partners. This is the first fruit of the Essential Music project, the main aim of which is to present composers in the context of the folk music of their environment. In the words of project co-founder John Vassallo, “It is well-known that Shostakovich was acquainted with—and deeply attracted to—Jewish folk music, and also that his father used to sing gypsy romances for him as a child. The pieces we have chosen are ones that we believe effectively represent a potential folk influence on parts of Shostakovich’s oeuvre.”
What an intriguing prospect! However, the Essential Music team offers no evidence that Shostakovich was familiar with the specific folk tunes on this programme, much less that any of them directly influenced any particular string quartet of his. On this topic, more anon.
First on the menu, however, is opus 73a. The young musicians of re:orchestra impress with crisp ensemble and distinctive solo contributions. Listeners who can’t abide the loss of intimacy in moving from the original quartet instrumentation to chamber orchestra may gain some comfort from the unanimity of these strings. Conversely, those keen to explore the new dimensions opened by such arrangements need look no further than the second movement, which features a witty bassoon and a sweet flute soliloquy that transports us to the innocent passages preceding the march in the “Leningrad” Symphony’s first movement. These performers show no trace of the indecisiveness that plagues Barshai’s Milanese crew, tearing through the third movement with steely resolve.
Overall, my ears still prefer to brave the sting inflicted by Lev Markiz and the Nieuw Sinfonietta Amsterdam in their venomous rendition of op. 73a on Globe (GLO 5093), so it is a great pity that this has vanished from the catalogue, especially since the coupling was a lacerating performance of Vladimir Mendelssohn’s orchestration of Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata. But while Beltrán-Zavala’s conception is less fraught, it captures a more diverse range of emotions.
The hush left by the ghostly departure of op. 73a is rudely ruptured by Turceasca si Hora de la Goicea, which would have been more digestible as the first item on the agenda. Lasting under three minutes, this punchy, heavily syncopated interlude is an amalgam of two Romanian folk dances. My memory threw up no audible links between these tunes and any Shostakovich work, which perhaps shouldn’t be surprising, given that Goicea is roughly as far from St. Petersburg as it is from Dover.
I catch whiffs of Kodály but no Shostakovich in the suite of Romanian melodies that come next—a rollicking, four-minute bonbon. Researchers seeking a route from the folk music of that corner of Europe to Shostakovich’s quartet writing might do well to plan a stopover with Bartók, many of whose compositions drew inspiration from his intensive research on the folk music of Hungary and the Balkans. It is noteworthy that Shostakovich began work on his op. 83 hot on the heels of a trip to New York, where he had attended a concert by the Juilliard Quartet featuring Bartók’s String Quartets nos. 1, 4, and 6; Shostakovich subsequently reported that the Sixth had made a favourable impression.
Still, what germinated in op. 83 are not generalised Eastern European folk motifs, but instead, unambiguously and specifically Jewish themes. This makes the Jewish klezmer dance that wraps up the disc the most relevant of the folk works presented here, though again this would flow better if programmed before op. 83a, being far too lightweight to follow its intense crises and sombre conclusion.
Notwithstanding the above, my advice would be not to obsess about connections between the various works on this disc, but simply to appreciate each on its own terms. There is tremendous enjoyment to be derived from these folk pieces, each of which is so multicoloured and eventful that it appears to last much longer than its actual runtime. The players display infectious enthusiasm for these proficient arrangements by Romanian cimbalom and accordion virtuoso Vasile Nedea.
Unlike opp. 110a and 118a, neither opp. 73a nor 83a bears Shostakovich’s official stamp of approval, the composer having died long before Barshai set to work on them. Opus 73a would undoubtedly have received a warm “Spasibo!” as it does not stray from Shostakovich’s sound world or the spirit of the original text. Opus 83a is questionable. True, one can find references in the Shostakovich canon for even the most extreme of Barshai’s additions, but I find that too many of his percussion and brass sound effects diminish and even trivialise String Quartet no. 4 rather than shed new light on it. Within these constraints, Beltrán-Zavala and re:orchestra deliver a competitive, showy performance, uniformly choosing to highlight rather than downplay the more outlandish elements.
These vigorous performances are bolstered by high-fructose acoustics, clear yet reverberant, with stunning positional resolution. The listener seems seated practically centre-stage, and while I’d normally deduct marks for not reproducing a more plausible concert-hall experience, Shostakovich+ isn’t so much a documentary-style classical music CD as it is an album, in the commercial, popular sense, and in this context, I readily accept its somewhat artificial production qualities. While I lack the additional three loudspeakers needed to evaluate this SACD in its surround-sound mode, I found both the SACD stereo and conventional CD layers to be fully immersive.
Shostakovich+ wins an easy recommendation for open-minded listeners. Indeed, the involving performances of opp. 73a and 83a justify the price of admission on their own, even if the non-Shostakovich works hold no appeal—though I rather pity any soul that finds itself immune to their charms.
W. Mark Roberts
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The Execution of Stepan Razin, opus 119 (a, c); The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland, opus 90 (a, b); The Song of the Forests, opus 81 (a, b, c, d).
(a) Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, Estonian Concert Choir, Paavo Järvi (conductor) (b) Narva Boys Choir; (c) Alexei Tanovitski (bass); (d) Konstantin Andreyev (tenor).
Recorded live in the Estonian Concert Hall, Tallinn, 18-20 April 2012
Thanks to Paavo Järvi and his Estonian musicians for bringing together for the first time on one disc three of Shostakovich’s rarely heard choral works. They deserve to be more widely heard, and this disc should win converts. These fine performances have the added benefit of Erato’s state-of-the-art sonics.
The two earliest works—The Song of the Forests and The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland—are joyous, patriotic works written to please Stalin and the Party. In contrast, The Execution of Stepan Razin, which criticises the Soviet government, is very dark and full of anger and visceral drama.
I have never understood the lack of enthusiasm for Shostakovich’s film scores and choral works, especially The Song of the Forests, through which we can view the composer as an environmentalist decades before the first Earth Day. Like The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland, it was written in a simpler style following the dictates of the 1948 Musicians’ Conference. Shostakovich had been fired from his teaching positions, and many of his works were removed from the repertoire. With no way to support his family, he was desperate and turned to writing film scores.
Having similarly suffered from public criticism during the 1930s, he knew that a grand gesture was required for rehabilitation. His opportunity was the Soviet Union’s ambitious reforestation project, which he learned about from the Party-approved poet Yevgeny Dolmatovsky. The Song of the Forests was the first of several Shostakovich compositions for which Dolmatovsky provided texts. The seven-movement oratorio, like the garden scene in the film The Fall of Berlin (for which Shostakovich wrote Stalin’s Garden) depicted Stalin as the Great Gardener, in this case transforming the steppe into forests.
Together with The Fall of Berlin, the cantata won Shostakovich the Stalin Prize (First Class), and the 100,000 rouble prize secured his finances. What the Fifth Symphony had been for his 1936 denunciation, The Song of the Forests was for his 1948 censure.
Nevertheless, the original texts, which had references to Stalin in the first, fifth, and seventh movements, troubled Shostakovich. After Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956, Dolmatovsky replaced the worship of Stalin in those movements with praise for Lenin, the Soviet Communist Party, and Soviet citizens.
I believe that the texts can provide an understanding of the music and lead to its appreciation. Unfortunately, Järvi’s recording has no texts (more on that later), and so I will offer a summary of each movement.
The first movement is titled “When the War Ended.” Woodwinds introduce the main theme, which serves to unify the entire work. According to Fumiko Ichiyanagi, in the notes to Fedoseyev’s recording (JVC 6503), it is from the folk song “The Nightingale of Happiness Sings in the Stillness,” which Shostakovich also used as the starting point for the first fugue of op. 87. To this tune, the bass soloist sings about the end of World War II and Stalin devising the reforestation plan, while the music depicts the vast Russian steppes. The revised 1962 lyrics refer to comrades returning home after the war and reminiscing about how they defended freedom.
The second movement is titled “We Will Clothe Our Homeland with Forests.” The woodwinds’ lively theme is eventually taken up by the chorus. There are five verses written in the style of a Russian folk song, and each ends with the cry, “We will clothe our homeland in forests” [“Odyenem rodinu v lesa!”]. Järvi’s energetic pace and the enthusiasm of his chorus are just right for the contrast that comes in the next movement.
Movement three, “Memories of the Past,” is in the style of a sad Russian folk song suggestive of Musorgsky. The solo bass, Alexei Tanovitski, brings the proper amount of pathos as he sings of Russia’s suffering and grief from the hot, dry winds blowing across the sand. Similarly, the chorus laments the devastation and is very convincing in its crescendo that depicts the accursed drought that wanders among the villages like a beggar carrying his sack. As the soloist urges the children to grow up strong and change the world, a drum roll leads without pause into the fourth movement; the tempo quickens, and playful trumpets introduce “The Pioneers Plant the Forests.” All the elements of a children’s folk tune are present as the Narva Boys Choir, with refreshing innocence, sings of children planting trees to adorn the land. Shostakovich added this section after reading in his daughter’s school newspaper about children’s involvement with the reforestation project. This short chorus ends as the orchestra races accelerando into the fifth movement.
“The People of Stalingrad Go Forth” is vigorous and optimistic, as the different sections of the chorus take turns singing about planting forests and gardens, raising flags, and praising Communism. This is Shostakovich at his energetic best, and Järvi makes the most of it as pulsing percussion, clanging cymbals, pizzicato strings, and whistling runs in the flutes and piccolos convey the cheerfulness and optimism of the text. The excitement increases near the end of this heroic movement as the chorus sings of never-ending glory.1
The beginning of the sixth movement, “A Walk into the Future,” recalls the beginning of the first movement. Nocturnal stillness is depicted by the English horn (similar to the clarinet solo in “Romance” from the film The Unforgettable Year 1919). It is followed by the wordless chorus (similar to the hushed, wordless entrance of the chorus from “Stalin’s Garden” in The Fall of Berlin). The solo tenor, who has been waiting patiently through the first five movements, then sings the Russian folk song “The Nightingale of Happiness Sings in the Stillness.” The singing of the nightingale is suggested by a flute solo interlude. In this recording, tenor Konstantin Andreyev brings out the lyricism of the texts as he and the chorus alternate verses, describing the land turning green again. Spring and youth are used as metaphors to illustrate renewal of the steppes, as trees and fields come alive with crops and flowers. The final verse rejoices in this transformation as young lovers are invited to wander in the new gardens.
A horn fanfare introduces the seventh movement, “Glory,” after which the sopranos begin a fugue that tells how birch, ash, beech, and willow trees planted on the collective farms stand in a line like soldiers to protect the homeland. The wide fields will provide grain for bread, and Russian lands will continue to become more beautiful. The second part of the movement is introduced by the tenor and bass soloists, whose voices on this recording blend well, before the full chorus joins in and builds to an affirmation of glory to everything in sight (mainly Stalin in the original text; in the revised version, it’s to the trees, the people, and the party of Lenin). The propaganda of the revised words are still hard to listen to, as, for example, “Geniuses lead our party as unbowed and true sons.”
Shostakovich mocks the triteness of the text with overblown music, which Järvi plays to the hilt. This over-the-top ending reminds me of his reported comment about the forced rejoicing in the Fifth Symphony’s ending. In “Forests,” his business was to praise the Party and Stalin. I can picture him ticking off those obligations: patriotic, optimistic, joyous, life-affirming, praising of Stalin, C-major ending, sharing some characteristics with the music at the end of The Fall of Berlin.
Previous recordings of the cantata have mostly been by Russians and are generally reliable. Melodiya’s CD transfer of the premiere recording (Melodiya MEL CD 10 00771), paired with Mravinsky’s 1954 account of the Fifth Symphony, still sounds good, and I highly recommend it as a historical treasure. Alexander Yurlov’s 1970 LP recording was issued on CD (Russian Disc RD CD 11 048). This was followed by Vladimir Fedoseyev with the Moscow Radio Symphony (JVC 6503), and Yuri Temirkanov leading the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (BMG/RCA 9026-68877-2), who coupled it with Prokofiev’s On Guard for Peace (1948)—condemned in the West as a cheap Soviet propaganda piece for its texts and praise of Stalin.
The best non-Russian recording is from Michail Jurowski conducting the Cologne Radio Symphony (Capriccio 10 779), which was welcomed by Louis Blois in DSCH 13.
The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland was premiered in 1952 by Konstantin Ivanov conducting the USSR Symphony Orchestra and Choir. They recorded it in 1961, and that performance was released on CD in 1994 (Russian Disc RD CD 11 048), paired with The Song of the Forests.
In 1999, Capriccio released the same pairing with a bonus: the suite from The Nose. Louis Blois (DSCH 13) described it as “a lively, well-judged performance with a beautifully controlled and recorded complement of forces.”
This heroic and triumphant cantata opens with the boys’ chorus. The first section is about the Russian people working together, labouring in peace under the banner of Lenin. The middle section, filled with energy and power as it speaks of heroic deeds from the past in the struggle for freedom, is interrupted by the cry, “Communists, forward!” The final section elaborates and sums up the heroic message. In the final section, the boy’s chorus express optimism for the future before ending with praise for communism.
Although this short (14 minutes) cantata’s admiration for Lenin and communism is somewhat heavy-handed, I have always liked it. Shostakovich’s hallmark talent is evident throughout. Especially thrilling in Järvi’s hands are the many over-the-top brass fanfares heard throughout the cantata, similar to those in The Unforgettable Year 1919, and anticipating the Festive Overture.
The Execution of Stepan Razin is about the seventeenth-century Cossack leader who led a revolt against the Czar. He was captured and executed in Moscow in 1671. His exploits as a sort of Russian Robin Hood became legendary and inspired Soviet artists and writers such as Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose poem Shostakovich used as the basis for his texts.
A successful performance of Razin demands control from the conductor to maintain the necessary drama, especially in the slower sections where some recordings become lethargic. Järvi and company meet the challenge with rich brass and powerful pounding percussion that are present throughout. Take for example the opening section where Razin is hauled through Moscow to his execution; it is veritably hair-raising. In the second section, some recordings lose momentum, but not this one. At the other end of the spectrum, the quietest of details emerge, such as the celesta (starting around 12:30) and flutter-tonguing in the flutes (around 26:25).
My one reservation is the soloist—Alexei Tanovitski—whose role is to narrate and to voice Razin himself. His wobbly vibrato sounds unsteady and lacks the necessary strength to convey Razin’s defiance during his monologue in the second section.
This recording of Razin joins two others as my top choices. I rate it alongside the Jurowski, Cologne Radio Symphony (Capriccio 10 780) recording, which Louis Blois (DSCH 14) described as “a performance that is constantly absorbing, completely satisfying, and ultimately overwhelming.”
For sheer excitement, the prize goes to Polyansky and his Russian State Symphony forces (Chandos CHAN 9813). In DSCH 17, Louis Blois proclaimed, “This Razin is pushed to the extreme and permeated with Shostakovichian intensity […] This indeed, is a Razin to be reckoned with!” That recording has some jarring tempo changes, and the all-important bells in the final section are overwhelmed by the rest of the percussion.
The performance to beat is Kondrashin’s (reviewed on this page).
As fine as Järvi’s recording is, I’m puzzled why he didn’t pull out all the stops to obtain the level of excitement of the above performances. In the CD booklet he tells us, “The concept behind this CD was to show the stark realities of one great composer’s life: his need to compose music in his own homeland while at the same time being unable to create freely due to the censorship and terror of its totalitarian regime.[…]What is astonishing and even amusing is the skill, the wit, the hidden innuendo, and the absurd proportions that illuminate the banality of the texts in these two works. In the hands of a great master, they become little gems.”
Järvi wanted to show Shostakovich’s two faces; his pro-Soviet state composer face against, in Järvi’s words, “a thinly-veiled critique of the Soviet regime, comparing it unflatteringly to Tsarist Russia. But musically it is a true masterpiece: Shostakovich at his best.”
Unfortunately, while we can enjoy these works on a purely musical level, we cannot fully appreciate this contrast—and Järvi’s point—because there are no texts. Järvi chose to use the original words, with their praise of Stalin, but Shostakovich’s family withheld permission to print them,2 even though they appear in the Yurlov and Temirkanov booklets. More puzzling is the absence of Razin’s text, whose criticism of the Soviet system is quite obvious.
It doesn’t end there. Järvi’s decision to use the original texts of “Forest” met with controversy in Estonia, where these performances were recorded during concerts in 2012, and following death threats, he had to hire a bodyguard.
Järvi defends his decision by saying that the story is only effective if it is honest and unmodified. He believes that people should confront this uncomfortable part of history.
It would be interesting to know if any of his musicians objected. Furthermore, these are live performances, but the applause has been edited out. Was the audience’s response enthusiastic or tepid?
In summary, these performances combine for a very rewarding disc in repertoire, performance, and sound.
1. The revised version of this movement removed references to Stalin and Stalingrad, and it was renamed “Arise to Great Deeds All Ye People.” In 1961, Stalingrad, originally Tsaritsyn and renamed Stalingrad in 1925, was renamed Volgograd. In a move that shows the current state of Russia’s leadership, there is serious talk about changing the name of Volgograd back to Stalingrad.
2. Hannah Ellis-Petersen, “Putting the Stalin in Shostakovich: pro-Soviet cantatas cause outrage,” The Guardian (May 15, 2015).
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The Execution of Stepan Razin, opus 119 (a, b, c, d); Symphony no. 9, opus 70 (a, d)
(a) Moscow Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra; (b) RSFSR Russian Chorus; (c) Vitaly Gromadsky (bass); (d) Kirill Kondrashin (conductor).
Order from HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com.
Catalogue numbers are not used, but their website is user-friendly. Each work is available in multiple formats and the default is a download.
Recorded 1965; transferred from a Melodiya/Angel 4 track tape.
Until now, Kondrashin’s classic recording of The Execution of Stepan Razin has only been available as part of an eleven-CD set of the complete symphonies from Melodiya. HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) has released it on a single CD, and paired it with the Ninth Symphony, as on the original 1967 Melodiya/Angel release.
Both are works in which Shostakovich thumbs his nose at the establishment, though with the Ninth Symphony he misjudged the mood of the time. Kondrashin’s brisk tempos work well to bring out the humour and irony, such as the first movement’s march played by trombone, snare drum, and piccolo beginning at m. 44.
In the second movement, a little more atmosphere in the clarinet solo would have improved matters. However, the run-up beginning at rehearsal B is just right to convey the humour of the strings’ rising scale and crescendo that leads to a toboggan ride back down the scale at m. 153.
In the third movement, the episode beginning at rehearsal D, with its Spanish flavour and solo trumpet, is especially impressive. It recalls a similar episode in the Eighth Symphony’s third movement beginning at m. 273.
Kondrashin sustains a light mood throughout, notwithstanding the pseudo-martial music at rehearsal I and the episode at rehearsal M, whose scampering Keystone Cops music seems to imply, “here are your great leaders—a bunch of circus clowns and buffoons.” The recorded sound is very good for this 1965 performance.
Razin, about the seventeenth-century Cossack leader, sets a text from Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s epic poem Bratsk Hydro-Electric Station, and like his poems for Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony, tacitly criticises the Soviet government, by comparing it unfavourably to Tsarist Russia.1 In fact, the Thirteenth Symphony has much in common with Razin: both use a large orchestra, chorus and bass soloist, setting Yevtushenko’s poems to criticise the Soviet government; both use tolling bells, in their funereal aspect, and more significantly, as a tocsin (alarm/warning) similar to the defiant finale of the Eleventh Symphony; and both are shot through with anger and rebelliousness that requires a high level of commitment from everyone.
It is possible that this anger and rebelliousness was forefront in the minds of the musicians, creating a heightened desire to breathe life into the music. This is borne out by Kondrashin’s late substitution of Gromadsky for the half-hearted Ivan Petrov. Gromadsky sings with emotion, perhaps recalling his parallel situation for the Thirteenth Symphony’s premiere when he was the last-minute substitute for the soloist who had backed out under pressure from the authorities.
Razin also shares many of its musical ideas with Shostakovich’s film music for Hamlet, which he was writing at about the same time. Most obviously, Razin’s opening is more than hinted at in the film’s “Military Music”; the slashing staccato chords that permeate Razin are heard in the “Overture,” “Poisoning Scene,” and “The Duel”; and the wild dance music heard in various guises throughout Razin has a more elegant counterpart in “The Palace Ball.”
Most of the material in Razin is derived from the opening section, which begins with the brass playing forte. There is excitement in the air as the bass soloist announces that a chained Razin is being paraded through Moscow as an example for the people who crowd the streets to taunt and spit on the prisoner. Kondrashin and company grab our attention with their sense of urgency. The excitement grows throughout the six verses as the soloist describes how citizens from all walks of life are preparing for this “holiday.” Each verse ends with the refrain, “They’re bringing Stenka Razin!” The final verse, for women’s chorus, sounds sleazy in this recording as they sing of the “shameless wenches” with their “ugly faces” and “itchy thighs.”
At the executioner’s block, decadence abounds, as Razin’s arrival is anticipated by the orchestra’s wild, macabre dance (a variant of the introduction) amidst twenty wordless octave glissandi shrieks by the full chorus. Kondrashin and his forces are out for blood, and it sounds absolutely savage.
Kondrashin leads a recording of highly charged, visceral excitement, making this disc self-recommending to anyone who purchased the old Melodiya/Angel LP. This premiere recording set the standard with its gritty earthiness that only Russians can muster. At times, in other works, Kondrashin’s overly fast tempi miss the mark and give the impression of a lack of involvement with the music, but not here. He brings out the power of the brass and percussion, the brutal rhythms, instruments playing outside of their normal ranges, and overwhelming climaxes to provide an experience of raw emotion and passion.
As with the Järvi disc (reviewed on this page), there are no texts. The Melodiya/Angel LP had a very useful text sheet with English and Russian transliteration, and copious and valuable liner notes, but these have been replaced with anonymous and serviceable observations, marred by a wildly inaccurate list of performers (corrected in this review).
Although this is perhaps the best overall recording, a number of others deserve mention: for the best sound and performance, see Jurowski (Capriccio 10 780), whose sensible pacing is at times close to Kondrashin’s; for a highly dramatic interpretation, see Polyanski (Chandos CHAN 9813), but be forewarned that there are some jolting tempo changes, and the all-important bells in the final section are overwhelmed by the rest of the percussion; and for all three of Shostakovich’s choral works on one disc, consult Järvi’s fine experiments in atmospheric sound (Erato 0825646166664).
A comparison to the old Melodiya/Angel LP shows how this new CD achieves the best of both worlds. The original “warmth” of the LP has not been sacrificed to obtain the expanded dynamic range and volume of the CD. Details emerge in all dynamic ranges, due to HDTT’s high quality mastering.
HDTT offers “rare recordings in audiophile sound” of performances that are not available in any other format. Rather than being mass-produced, each CD is carefully burned at the optimum 1X rate, resulting in the best possible transfer of data. HDTT selected the highest quality original material and tape hiss has been minimised in the remastering, before being transferred onto HQCD (High Quality Compact Disc) state-of-the-art blanks made from special materials and dyes. The resulting sound is revelatory.2
Many audiophiles do not like the sound quality of CDs because the digital product omits information that we supposedly can’t hear, but yet contributes to the overall tone. Many prefer the analogue “warmth” of vinyl. However, Witrak’s processes encode more information than normal CDs. He has heard from audio reviewers that HDTT’s clean, transparent musical sound, even though digital, sounds like analogue. HDTT’s products can be purchased as CDs or downloads.
1. Anna Timashova’s discovery of Shostakovich’s musical signature provides more evidence of this. Anna Timashova “The Execution of Stepan Razin and the DSCH Monogram,” DSCH 41, 29–33.
2. HDTT’s owner is Bob Witrak, whose sources are reel-to-reel (also known as open reel) tapes of non-copyrighted, historically important, out-of-print classical music that was manufactured in the United States between 1955 and 1980. Witrak is an audiophile who loves vinyl, but who got into reels after hearing a few and liking the sound. He initially made copies for himself, but then people in the high-end audio industry convinced him to offer them to the public.