CD Reviews 47

Shostakovich’s Complete String Quartets The Brodsky Quartet

Music for Two Violas, Jacob, Druzhinin, Rubbra, Prokofiev, Bridge, Bulakhov, and Khachaturian

Weinberg’s Orchestral Music, vol. 2, Siberian Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dmitry Vasiliev

New Piano version of 8th Quartet*, Boris Giltburg (arranger and pianist)

* World premiere recording /

Shostakovich, Complete String Quartets
Daniel Rowland (violin), Ian Belton (violin), Paul Cassidy (viola), Jacqueline Thomas (cello)
Chandos 10917(6). DDD. 6-CD set TT 397:27
Recorded live in The Musiekgebouw, Amsterdam, 4-6 March 2016

Shostakovich is no stranger to the Brodsky Quartet; the composer’s works have been a centre-piece of the Quartet’s music-making for over 40 years. The Brodskys performed their first complete Shostakovich quartet cycle in 1988, and recorded it in 1989 (Teldec 9031-71702-2, 6 discs), becoming one of the first Western quartets to perform the cycle. They have performed the cycle for decades in live concerts around the world. Shostakovich’s stylistic fingerprints are present in The Juliet Letters—the Brodskys’ 1993
“crossover” collaboration with Elvis Costello (Warner Bros 9362-45180-2 in the U.K.)—and Shostakovich’s works also appear in encore albums such as The Brodsky Unlimited (Teldec 2292-46015-2;) and Petit Pours Encores (Chandos: CHAN 10708). Beyond the standard quartet repertoire, they recorded the Two Pieces for String Quartet (sans op. D), and were joined by Christian Blackshaw in the Piano Quintet and Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano (sans op. P), and four non-quartet colleagues in the Two Pieces for String Octet (Challenge Classics CC 72093, reviewed in DSCH 17).

This Shostakovich cycle—their second—was recorded live at Amsterdam’s Musiekebouw concert hall with current first violinist Daniel Rowland, who joined the Quartet in 2007. It includes a programme booklet with notes by Quartet violist Paul Cassidy. The performances here are technically fluent, and overall, this is a fine collection. Its greatest strengths are in the quartets that are most technically challenging, particularly String Quartet nos. 5, 9, and 12.

I compared the new release primarily with the Borodin Quartet’s original cycle (which covered only quartets 1-13) with Rostislav Dubinsky as first violinist (Chandos Historical CHAN 10064(4), reviewed in DSCH 19) with dips, particularly in the late quartets, into the later complete Borodin cycle with Mikhail Kopelman as first violin (Melodiya CIO 178 69005) and the Danel Quartet’s cycle (Fuga Libera 512, reviewed in DSCH 24).

The Fifth Quartet is perhaps the most convincing of the current set. The Brodskys’ opening Allegro non troppo leaves the Borodins pale by comparison, moving rapidly from insouciance to violence. Fleeting moments of lyricism in the second-theme waltz and the Ustvolskaya-theme restatement in the coda present striking contrasts, emphasising their fragility in this atmosphere. In the bleak second movement, every dissonance is unflinchingly clear, as the first violin and viola unfold the melody in austere octaves. In the lovely central section, violin and cello gently warm their sounds, although perhaps not as tenderly as the Borodins do here. Bleakness returns in the slow opening of the finale, but the music moves expectedly to major (a lovely transition by the Brodskys) as the music seems to begin its recovery at the Allegretto. The healing is undercut by eerie harmonies until the recurrence of the Ustvolskaya quotation provokes stabbing, savage opposition, leaving the music scarred and the quartet with an ambivalent, incomplete ending. This is energetic, intense, committed playing that kept this listener fully engrossed.

Contrast and committed playing are present also in the Brodskys’ Ninth and Twelfth Quartets. In the Ninth’s first movement, the first violin sneaks in with the opening theme, creating a haunting hesitance that builds compellingly to that theme’s complete and triumphant transformation at the end of the quartet. Similarly, the serene (but wonderfully strange) opening of the Twelfth Quartet also builds to plenty of drama at the end of the second movement. Although there is excitement in the fugue of the Seventh Quartet, and the scherzo of the Eighth, the Furioso of the Tenth Quartet suffers from some ensemble problems, sounding rougher and less exciting.

The Brodskys’ strength is their robust sound and wide range of tone colouring, which they use to excellent effect to create excitement, drama, violence, and contrast. They also have the ability to create subtle uncertainty, loneliness, fragility, and bleakness (and they do all of these things well in the Fifth Quartet), but this latter capacity appears less consistently in these discs.

Strikingly and strangely, the Brodskys’ Sixth Quartet lacks the crisp edge present throughout the rest of the cycle, although it is probably technically the easiest of the fifteen. The viola’s accompaniment to the dance-like theme at the beginning is a heavy legato, even after the theme comes in, dragging the music down, although it is marked staccato in the DSCH Publishing edition. Jacqueline Thomas’s detached articulation in the cello’s third-movement passacaglia line is clearly intentional, but it is unclear what emotion she is trying to communicate; and her coolness succeeds only in bleaching the loveliness from this movement. Melodies in the first violin and cello, especially in the first and third movements, sometimes include distracting scoops and swells in volume that seem musically irrelevant. The finale’s threatening return of the passacaglia is covered, almost inaudible.

Similar uncertainties of emotional shading occur elsewhere in the early quartets, which, although technically easier, are at times more emotionally complex. Is the scherzo of the First Quartet (written in 1938, at the height of the purges) quick and fun, or is it furtive, breathless from the lack of a cadence, too fast for comfort? Here again, it’s not clear what emotion the Brodskys want to convey. It is crystal clear with the Borodins, who are quieter, faster, and positively terrified. Is the Recitative of the Second Quartet a glorious cross between Baroque and jazz music, as the Brodskys’ programme booklet describes it, or do its dissonant appoggiaturas tinge the music with sadness? The Borodins’ Dubinsky dwells on those dissonances; we hardly hear them with the Brodskys. Nor do we hear the almost cacophonous disintegration of the Romance in the middle of this movement, or the Borodins’ extraordinarily tender cadences.

In my Borodin-trained ear, there are many shades of sadness in Shostakovich’s quartets. There is the formal sadness of the Third Quartet’s funeral-march unisons and the thin, lonely sadness of the solo violin. There is an almost violent quality to the grief that occurs in the midst of the Finale, when the fourth movement’s funereal theme returns. The Fifth Quartet’s sadness is bleak and cold in the first and final movements, wistful in the tender section of the slow movement. The sadness of the Fourteenth Quartet is bittersweet, filled with loving memories. The sombre beginning of the Fifteenth Quartets can be utterly still, almost without affect, as it is in the Danels’ opening of the Fifteenth Quartet. There is clearly no single way these works should be played, but the composer’s insistence on emotional complexity may be a part of what makes his works profound, and I did not always hear this subtlety in the Brodskys’ playing here. Nonetheless, this is a strong cycle, exciting and dramatic at times, and a distinctive recording, worth listening to.

Judith Kuhn
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Music for Two Violas
Jacob, Sonatina; Druzhinin, Sinfonia a Due; Rubbra, Meditations on a Byzantine Hymn ‘O Quando in Cruce’; Prokofiev (arr. Borisovsky), “Morning Serenade” from Romeo and Juliet [a,b] and Dance with Mandolins [a]; Bridge, Lament; Bulakhov (arr. Borisovsky), Barcarolle [a]; Khachaturian (arr. Borisovsky), Waltz (“Maskarade”) [a]
Peter Mallinson and Matthias Wiesner (violas), Evgeniya Startseva (piano) [a], Oliver Lowe (triangle) [b]

Meridian CDE84641
TT: 58:36
Meridian CDE84641
Recorded at St. Edward the Confessor Catholic Church in London on 9, 26, and 27 July 2016

Music for two violas, whether solo or concertante, though hardly ubiquitous, is more common than might first be thought; Peter Mallinson’s liner notes give a quick and useful overview. This disc brings together a couple of the (relatively) better known pieces, interspersing them with encore-ish lollipops. It earns its review here through associations with the Beethoven Quartet’s violists Vadim Borisovsky (1900-1972) and Fyodor Druzhinin (1932-2007). Between them, they instigated the modern Russian viola school, as teachers, arrangers, and commissioner-dedicatees of works by composers including Ledenyov, Weinberg, Frid, and Shostakovich. The Quartet premiered most of the Shostakovich cycle and produced the first recordings, while the two men are dedicatees of the Thirteenth String Quartet and the Viola Sonata, respectively.

The main work here is Druzhinin’s Sinfonia a Due (1986-87), part of his impressive yet under-explored catalogue, which includes a solo sonata, a Fantasia with orchestra, and numerous transcriptions. At 22 minutes, it has plenty of space to expand both emotionally and in terms of technique. And as the Beethovens’ violist, Druzhinin was completely inside the instrument’s possibilities.

Intentionally or not, the Sinfonia echoes Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata in various ways. Like its predecessor, the finale bears the weight, filling around half the length with the first two movements dividing the remainder fairly equally. Its skeletal pizzicato opening also seems to share a kicking-off point, but Druzhinin’s work is more fantasia-like, with a series of changing moods that employ the sorts of popular forms that fill Shostakovich’s music. Motoric rhythms pass through humour, threat, horror, and numbness before winding clock-like down, to be replaced by would-be insouciance. The brightness of the central Menuett is harmonically clouded and, in the middle, stumbles disorientatedly. The Finale begins
with a forceful reminiscence of the work’s opening, but its thoughts occasionally trail off, and it ends in numbed desolation with a pizzicato passage that again is Shostakovichian—or even Schittke-ish. Slowly the instruments withdraw, fading into the distance. Mallinson and Wiesner give full rein to all of these various moods.

Vadim Borisovsky—Druzhinin’s predecessor with the Beethovens—seems to have been less drawn to contemporary music, but was a stalwart arranger/editor for viola and viola d’amore, with around 250 pieces to his name. His Shostakovich arrangements for viola include some op. 34 Preludes, the First Cello Concerto, nine pieces from The Gadfly (two overlapping selections are reviewed in DSCH 21 and 37, though as yet no one has given us the complete set), the Michurin adagio, and the Limpid Stream’s “Spring Waltz.”

While this selection (Prokofiev, Bulakhov, and Khachaturian) doesn’t exhibit the range of the Sinfonia, it is effective and enjoyable. Borisovsky transcribed over a dozen pieces from Romeo and Juliet in two tranches, and for “Morning Serenade” the performers include the ad lib triangle part—a rare addition to an already too infrequent visitor to the concert platform. The least-known entrant here is Piotr Bulakhov (1822-85), whose Barcarolle—arranged in 1950—was originally written for two singers and is related to his song Do Not Awaken Memories (He пробуждай воспоминаний). It’s a nice 19th-century romance, effectively but un-showily transcribed.

While Druzhinin and Borisovsky were championing the instrument in the Soviet Union, Lionel Tertis, following on from composer/violist Frank Bridge, was doing the same in Britain, and the three remaining pieces on the disc are connected with them.

Gordon Jacob wrote a good deal for viola, so he knew the instrument well. His seven-minute Sonatina, from 1973, frames a gentle adagio with two allegros—the first neoclassical, the second more of a modernist fugal finale.

Edmund Rubbra’s Meditations—a ten-minute set of variations and interludes—is one of the disc’s better known pieces, and the performers bring a wide range of colours from intense warmth to a chillier viol-like sound.

Bridge was an accomplished violist, and his single-movement eight-minute Lament is predictably idiomatic. Bridge premiered this, as well as a now-lost Caprice, with a young Tertis. Unsurprisingly dark, with a twisting, lyrical main theme, it develops an astonishing rich set of textures, while the complex harmonies underpin the work’s tortured mood, leavened only by a brief minuet-cum-lullaby.

Solo music for two matched instruments may seem to risk a lack of colour, but the pieces here—and the varied programming—don’t tire at all. For anyone interested in something a little off-beat, this disc can be recommended, particularly for the Sinfonia.

John Leman Riley
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Weinberg. Orchestral Music, Volume Two:
Choreographic Symphony, opus 113; Symphony no. 22, opus 154
Siberian Symphony Orchestra/Dmitry Vasilyev (conductor)
Toccata Classics TOCC 0313 TT: 71:54
Recorded in Omsk Philharmonic Hall, Omsk, Siberia. 11-12 July 2015

Following on from the success of their first Weinberg release, the Siberian Symphony Orchestra and Dmitry Vasilyev continue their partnership covering Weinberg’s orchestral works on Toccata Classics. The “Orchestral Music, Volume One” disc featured the enigmatic Polish Tunes paired with his commemorative Symphony no. 21. The recording on this disc is excellent, though with some marks of under-rehearsal around the edges in both works. They present two hitherto-unknown treasures, in the form of Weinberg’s Six Ballet Scenes and his final work, the Symphony no. 22, op. 154. The stories behind both works are fascinating.

The Choreographic Symphony was assembled from passages of The White Chrysanthemum (1958), which was written as a commemorative ballet set in post-War Japan. Owing to poor Soviet-Japanese relations in the late 1950s, the work was never staged and Weinberg never orchestrated the work. He did, however, return to the score 15 years later and in 1973 assembled several scenes into a striking orchestral work. It fits alongside his more sombre Tenth and Eleventh Symphonies, or even some of the more progressive works from the likes of Edison Denisov or Boris Tishchenko. It features remarkable contrasts between the six scenes, and even a huge amount of variety within each of them. Most striking of all is the rapid sense of disintegration in each segment, with a tendency to reduce to a percussion-heavy ensemble (reminiscent of Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony, premiered the previous year). The Siberian Symphony Orchestra seems to relish the challenge, and has produced a thoroughly entertaining interpretation of this work—demanding in its sheer variety of invention. This innovative piece is paired with one that is rather more bleak, at least in origin, if not necessarily in outlook.

Weinberg’s Symphony no. 22 is his final work written after several bedridden years of debilitating illness with Crohn’s Disease and a broken hip. He worked diligently, managing to complete the piano score shortly before his death. And when he passed away, his widow gave the score to Kirill Umansky—a younger composer friend of Weinberg’s—to orchestrate. Weinberg’s later works often present a hint of continuing Shostakovich’s stylistic journey, especially in the quartets and symphonies. Symphony no. 22 is full of nostalgia, but does not focus on obvious questions of mortality; the final movement’s title—“Reminiscences”—hints at the overall tone. Nowhere is this sense of nostalgia more pronounced than in the first movement, where a “sighing” motif quotes from Weinberg’s 1986 opera on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, originally with the sung text “Why are you crying? Laugh as I do! All things must pass!” This is in itself a re-using of a key motif from Weinberg’s Eighth Quartet, where it presents an obstinate motif that purports to function as a transition, but instead repeats to the point of obstruction. Further opera quotations include an aria from The Passenger—Weinberg’s masterwork, set partly in Auschwitz. The body of the thematic material of the symphony is presented in the first movement, with a brief “intermezzo” middle movement, before the finale returns to several of the key questions raised in the opening. Vasilyev and the SSO seem slightly more ill-at-ease in this work, perhaps overshadowed by the difficulties posed by the Choreographic Symphony. There are many highlights, however, including the cor anglais solo towards the end of the first movement, and the strained ending, featuring a pizzicato solo cello over a softly-intoning chorale.

The Siberian Symphony Orchestra is not to be confused with the Siberian State Symphony Orchestra, which, together with Vladimir Lande, has also been recording Weinberg’s symphonies (in this case, for Naxos). This recent Toccata CD provides a welcome addition to the ever-expanding Weinberg discography, and stands as particularly insightful for Shostakovich fans. David Fanning provides liner notes, and Kirill Umansky provides an overview of his own works and a brief note on his approach to orchestrating Weinberg’s final work.

Daniel Elphick
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Piano Concerto no. 1, opus 35 [a,b,c]; Waltz from String Quartet no. 2, opus 68 (arr. for solo piano by Boris Giltburg) [a] *; Piano Concerto no. 2, opus 102 [a,c]; String Quartet no. 8, op. 110 (arr. for solo piano by Boris Giltburg) [a]*
Boris Giltburg (piano)[a]. Rhys Owens (trumpet) [b]; Royal Liverpool PO/Vasily Petrenko [c]
Naxos 8.573666
DDD. TT 69:46
Opus 35 and 102 recorded at Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, UK, on 21, 22, and 25 January 2016; opus 68 and 110 performed in the Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK, on 16 June 2016
* World premiere recordings

Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg makes an auspicious Shostakovich recording debut with his solo piano arrangement of Quartet No. 8, plus sparkling performances of the two piano concertos, in a disc that earns a place of distinction in Petrenko’s celebrated series.

The quartet has long been a favourite for instrumental recasting. While the best-known is Barshai’s Chamber Symphony, also worthy of attention is Dmitri Smirnov’s version for winds, recorded by the Nederlands Blazers Ensemble (reviewed in DSCH 16).

Giltburg aimed to produce a large-scale solo work to approach the depth and emotional impact of the quartets and symphonies. The result is, in a word, stunning; not simply in the virtuosic dimension, but fitting the music in a remarkably natural and convincing manner. His performance of it is no less impressive.

Reviewing the Rubios’ cycle in DSCH 10, W. Mark Roberts observed that this quartet “needs to be played with some sense of what’s at stake,” that is the suicidal impulses underlying its emotional intensity and autobiographical self-quotations. In this recording we have as deeply personal an interpretation as one will find, where the “stakes,” as described, resonate with astonishing, vital power.

Giltburg elicits a mood of utter desolation in the sparse opening notes, where his rubato-inflected utterances of the DSCH motif and the quotes from the First and Fifth Symphonies take on the tone of a eulogy. By contrast, he brings the furious repetitions of the DSCH motif in the second movement to a rousing crescendo carved from the klezmer theme of the Piano Trio no. 2. The busy contrapuntal textures of the original are rousingly captured in this piano score as they fuel a swirling eruption of emotions. Giltburg exploits the instrument’s percussive quality to give strong profile to the music’s rhythmic punctuations. Added to that, the three-note declamatory outbursts in the fourth movement acquire a force all of their own. A notable subtlety is the softly held note, here by a sustained piano key, in between these anapestic outbursts; another is the sensitive rendering of the Seryozha theme in the same movement. The waltz in the third movement is brought off with rhapsodic verve, where the macabre mixes with the playful, trills are elegantly spun, and the theme from the First Cello Concerto exuberantly surfaces. In the fifth and final movement, Giltburg reclaims the desolate tone of the first, bringing the work to its inconsolable finale. This is a pianistration both robust and refined—a passionate interpretation that does justice to every measure of Shostakovich’s magisterial string quartet.

Performances of the two piano concertos are as lively as one can ask. Petrenko and the Liverpool orchestra deliver the high spirits that abound in these works. The pianist glistens in the waggish shifts of line, tempo and mood in the outer movements, as does an equally adroit Petrenko. Particularly thrilling is the clarity with which the Hanon five-finger exercise passages stand out in the jubilant finale of the Second Concerto. In the slow movements of each work, where one finds Shostakovich’s lyricism at its most unabashedly romantic, Giltburg offers compassion and tenderness that are just as guiltless. In the Ravel-inflected Lento of the First Concerto, he is especially seductive. Here, pianist and conductor cast a spell of Gallic ecstasy that is true magic. It alone is worth the price of the CD. Kudos also for trumpeter Rhys Owens for his spirited solos in the First Concerto.

Giltburg’s solo piano arrangement of the waltz movement from the Second Quartet also fits the music hand-in-glove, engagingly so. Hearing Giltberg’s perceptive and winning transformation leaves one with the expectation that more pianistrations will follow. Needless to say, his exploration of Shostakovich’s solo piano work is much anticipated. Technical details are excellent, as are the liner notes, written by the pianist.

Louis Blois