CD Reviews 49
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The Gadfly, opus 97 (complete original score, reconstructed by Mark Fitz-Gerald)
The Counterplan, opus 33 (three excerpts)
Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic, Mark Fitz-Gerald
Recorded in the Philharmonie, Ludwigshafen, Germany, 21–24 March 2017
After releasing the complete score for New Babylon in 2011, which included the formerly missing conclusion to the final reel (reviewed in DSCH 36), Naxos has continued working with conductor Mark Fitz-Gerald, delivering the complete score for The Gadfly. I have a very personal connection with Shostakovich’s music for The Gadfly, as it was one of three of his film scores that I analysed in my doctoral dissertation. When I saw that DSCH Publishers was releasing the complete and reordered score for The Gadfly, as the New Collected Works Volume 138 (reviewed in DSCH 48), and that Naxos was releasing the recording of it, my younger self was giddy. I remember trying to track the seemingly random ordering of cues from the old Collected Works while viewing the non-subtitled VHS in my little apartment, and how frustrating it was to try to hammer out a reduction of the score on my keyboard. And I also remember how similar this music was to much of what Shostakovich composed within a five-year period; works like Festive Overture, opus 96, and the Piano Concerto No. 2, opus 102, and conversely how it was so stylistically different from the music before 1937 and after 1960. The music for The Gadfly is one of Shostakovich’s most universally approachable film scores.
Naturally, the most exciting part of this release is getting to hear recorded cues for the first time. Additionally, the heavily edited and reorganised cues that became part of the Suite, opus 97a, have been restored to their original context. It is no longer necessary to hear repeats or out-of-context rounded binary and ternary forms. In addition to restoring the cues to their original version, it is wonderful to have the complete score in a single recording. The two organ cues, “Divine Service at the Cathedral” and “Divine Service,” appear, nearly identically, on the recording. “Confession,” a cue that was unused in the film, appears here as a supplementary track. In 2003, Iain Quinn recorded “Divine Service at the Cathedral” and “Confession” (on a recording titled Tsar of Instruments: Organ Music of Russia, Chandos 10043). Restoring these organ cues, as well as the guitar duet cue, to the complete soundtrack is quite exciting.
The liner notes that accompany the recording provide a sense of depth that is uncommon, even among classical recordings. Since the film is not known in the United States or, really, much outside of Russia, John Leman Riley provides a narrative context and plot description that corresponds to each cue. It is this level of detail that allows anyone to be able to follow how the music progresses from beginning to end, and make connections between particular cues. Riley’s knowledge is extensive and exhaustive, providing background into the making of the film, including the information that the original intended composer was Aram Khachaturian, who withdrew due to illness. Shostakovich, needing to earn income, was ready to take over, with Riley writing, “though letters to friends make it clear it was simply for the money.” Conductor Mark Fitz-Gerald also provides a brief overview of the reconstruction process, beginning with the old Collected Works, Volume 42, and creating his own transcription from the film, when appropriate, to complete the full orchestral texture. Additionally, the previously published score lacked all metronomic markings, so Fitz-Gerald has taken his tempos from the cues as used in the film, as Shostakovich was closely involved in the recording of the music for the film.
The cues in The Gadfly are all short, with none reaching three minutes in length, and little development of themes occurs over the course of the film, instead replaced by clear recapitulations and restatements. In some ways, it is not difficult to hear that Shostakovich only took the job for the money, particularly because of these clean musical returns. In other cues, it is clear that he put forth significant effort to get the exact orchestration and style correct, as he had to compose in Germanic and Italian styles, and in both folk and learned styles. Very little “Russian” music can be heard in his score.
Fitz-Gerald is working with a different orchestra on this release than he did on New Babylon. For The Gadfly, Fitz-Gerald conducts the German State Philharmonic Orchestra of Rheinland-Pfalz (Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz). On the majority of the recording, the balance between orchestral families is good, but on the first three tracks, emphasis is placed on the low strings, and it sounds a little overbearing and heavy to me. When I compared CW42 with NCW138, the scores are exactly the same, so the heaviness can only be attributed to musical decisions on the part of the conductor. Much of the rest of the score does not feel quite as plodding as those opening cues. Those first three cues should have the ability to move effortlessly, and I feel as though the texture on “The Cliffs,” in particular, is too heavy. The orchestra’s performance is strong throughout the recording, and the sound quality is clear.
In addition to the twenty-nine cues, including one piece of source music from J. S. Bach, and the two supplemental tracks, this recording adds three cues from 1933’s The Counterplan, opus 33. One could easily be forgiven for mistaking the first of these cues as a composition by Prokofiev, as the music is tonal and modulates from tonal centre to tonal centre with almost reckless abandon. The second cue begins with a call reminiscent to the clarinet in Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche. The most famous excerpt from the film score, the “Song of the Counterplan,” is the third cue, heard here in its orchestral version. As with The Gadfly, Riley’s liner notes for The Counterplan are meticulous and detailed, providing background on the making of the film, its context in Soviet society, and how these three cues function within the framework of the film.
The music for The Gadfly is certainly not Shostakovich’s most adventurous or most important film score, but it is one of his most accessible and one of his most melodic scores. As a world premiere of the complete score, any Shostakovich enthusiast would want to add it to his or her collection. It was extremely exciting for me to finally get to hear these cues in their correct order and in their original form, without the unnecessary repeats and restatements. In listening to the recording, it was like visiting an old friend, one that you hadn’t seen in a decade, but you were able to pick up and carry on as though no time had passed. It made me remember why I chose to study this score in such detail fifteen years ago, and this recording made the wait well worth it.
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Piano Sonata no. 1, opus 12[a]; Piano Concerto no. 1, opus 35[a,b,c]; Piano Sonata no. 2, opus 61[a]; Piano Concerto no. 2, opus 102[a,c]
Peter Donohoe (piano)[a]; Hugh Davies (trumpet)[b]; Orchestra of the Swan/David Curtis[c] Recorded, Malvern Theatre, 30 March 2016 [opus 35]; Cheltenham Town Hall, 17 April 2015 [opus 102]; Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Suffolk, 10-11 December 2015 [opus 12,61]. TT: 79:45
Signum Classics SIGCD493
Shostakovich’s two piano concertos make a natural coupling, but while their combined forty-or-so minutes satisfied the LP markets, short-changed CD-buyers will expect “fillers” (though the word often insults the chosen works).
One classic coupling (and performance) is Martin Jones, accompanied by the ECO under Jerzy Maksymiuk in The Attack on the Red Hill (mistranslated as Attack on the Beautiful City of Gorky) from The Fall of Berlin, a 1983 Classics for Pleasure recording that, deservedly, is never long out of the catalogue. Another occasional contender is the Concertino, opus 94. Florian Uhling plays Ilya Dimov’s “concertino” arrangement (Hänssler Classic CD 93.113, reviewed is DSCH 24), and Anna Vinnitskaya is joined by Ivan Rudin in the original and the Tarantella (Alpha 2003).
Others have strayed further into Shostakovich’s work-list. Various releases of the composer’s own traversals draw on his other recordings. DSCH 20 reviews one, alongside discs that add the opus 34 Preludes (Marshev: Danacord DACOCD 601) and concertos by Ustvolskaya (Jacoby: Dutton Laboratories CDSA 4804) and Shchedrin (Hamelin: Hyperion SACDA67425). Darker companions include the Violin Sonata (Melnikov: Harmonia mundi HMC 902104, reviewed in DSCH 37), the Piano Quintet (Helmchen, reviewed in DSCH 42) and Boris Giltburg’s pianistration of the String Quartet no. 8 (Naxos 8.573666, reviewed in DSCH 47). Conversely Angela Cheng and the CBC Radio Orchestra serve up a selection of mostly lighter pieces drawn from the score to a balletic version of Gogol’s The Overcoat (CBC Records SMCD 5216, reviewed in DSCH 17). Reissues have given companies chances to mix-and-match soloists as in CBS’s merging of Previn’s opus 35, Bernstein’s opus 102 and Yo-Yo Ma’s First Cello Concerto (Theta SMK89752).
Oddly, neither of the piano sonatas has made many appearances. But, as Peter Donohoe shows, pairing the two pairs—spanning 1935 to 1959—gives a good range of the composer’s work (avant-garde; neo-classical; post-romantic) in a full and varied programme. Donohoe presents them in chronological order, alternating solos and concertos to make a completely satisfying programme. But of course, if good ideas were all there were to it, many more mantels would be groaning with prizes.
Even though there are more than twenty recordings of the First Piano Sonata, there isn’t really an agreed approach. Is it 1920s machine-music or something more Lisztian? Raymond Clarke’s exhilarating impetuosity knocks it off in 10’34” (Athene ATH CD18, reviewed in DSCH 11), where Scherbakov (Naxos 8.555781, reviewed in DSCH 20) approaches parts of it almost tentatively, and takes half as long again. Donohoe steers a middle course, a notch or two slower than Zilberstein (DGG 427766) and helped by a less resonant recording. It makes for structural clarity and easier navigation for the listener without losing any of the excitement, and though I’d be loath to lose Clarke’s sheer bravado, Donohoe’s approach is a good counterbalance.
The first thought about the First Piano Concerto may be the opposite: after dozens of recordings, is there anything new to say? But behind that question is the high-wire act of the work’s tone. Comedic, sarcastic, ironic, sardonic, nihilistic, violent, tender: it’s all of those and more, and the performer has to navigate a path through them to create a convincing narrative. Some succumb to “nudge-nudge, here’s a joke” underlinings that quickly become tiring. One example is Argerich who, in 2007 (EMI/Warner 50999504050, reviewed in DSCH 29) emphasised the opening’s “quirkiness” by pushing and pulling it out of shape, with Vedernikov similarly undermining the simplicity of the Lento. Meanwhile Roland Brautigam (Decca 475 9983) goes the other way and serves up some decidedly flat champagne. Paradoxically, Donohoe’s success comes from his trust in the music itself. He plays it pretty straight and is all the better for it: everything is there and simply needs to be served up, though that’s not to say that he doesn’t have any ideas. In the coda each, increasingly ludicrous, iteration is given its own tone of voice, preventing it being merely one idea hammered to destruction. Throughout, Hugh Davies (sadly, under-credited in the booklet and cover) provides a lovely silvery, almost bugle-like trumpet.
For a work so rarely performed live, the Second Sonata has been recorded surprisingly frequently, and is now attracting more critical attention, e.g. articles by Manashir Yakubov (reviewed in DSCH 14) and Sophia Gorlin (reviewed in DSCH 27). Befitting a memorial to a piano teacher (Leonid Nikolaev), it alternates contemplations with more technically challenging sections, and finding the balance and navigating between the two is key to a successful interpretation. That has eluded some. The heavy left-hand of Irina Chukovskaya (MELCD 1002455) occasionally obscures the melodic line, while her Largo is earth-bound. But there are better renditions. With strong pedalling, Petrushansky’s Largo looks backwards, a hollow memory of Shostakovich’s avant-garde youth (Stradivarius 33748). Gilels (RCA 63587) floats more convincingly and opens the finale with a wonderfully meditative single line that is exploratory yet focused. Yudina’s rendition is another key recording, whose latest incarnation seems to be Vista Vera VVCD 00109.
Donohoe begins quickly enough to make it seem like a squared-off memory of the First Sonata, taking the cascading opening in a single sweep. The firm tread of the march tails off touchingly, a fine example of how he moves between moods. The Largo might not be as airy as some but the meditations remain clear-eyed and don’t drift into aimlessness. Similarly, the finale opens with a drive that veers on the brusque (I would have preferred a little more fantasy) but it fits well with Donohoe’s overall conception.
It’s almost a shame to have another work following that, but the Second Piano Concerto turns out to be a fine way to end the disc on an upbeat note. Not as quicksilver in its changes, it’s a more straightforward work than the First; perhaps the trickiest judgement is in the Andante, with some tempted to milk it or turn it into schmaltz. Melnikov’s near-funereal 7’42 is one of these attempts to ‘read’ the music, though there are some lovely winding-down-musicbox moments. In contrast, at 6’03”, it might seem that Maxim and Dmitri junior (in a performance that is more interesting for the orchestral playing) rattle through it. But the composer himself, accompanied by Cluytens in 1958, (EMI 7243 5 62646 2 5, reviewed in DSCH 20) took just 5’33. It’s certainly cleareyed but, much as I enjoy it, a little more relaxation wouldn’t have come amiss: this is the Second Concerto seen through the First.
Donohoe’s view of the work as a whole is darker than we might be used to. The Pioneer-ish opening quickly subsides and the ferocious fortes are more violent than in many pianist’s hands. The cadenza-recapitulation of the opening has a dazed mania, followed by a mad rush to the finish. After that, there’s no need to over-egg the Andante, which steers a middle course, not only tempo-wise, but in offsetting the sweetness with an occasional percussiveness. The finale, similarly has a hard-driven quality that hints at something darker. Overall this makes for an unusually interesting interpretation.
Daniel Jaffé’s notes cover all the necessary bases while setting the works in the context of other composers and the notes also include complete personnel listing and biogs.
Any one of these performances would be recommendable on its own but as a compilation, this is a wholly desirable disc.
John Leman Riley
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Yosef Hadar, transcr. Sheku Kanneh-Mason, arr. Tom Hodge Erev Shel Shoshanim (Evening of Roses)[a,c,d]; Saint-Saëns, arr. Tom Hodge: Le cygne (The Swan) from Le carnaval des animaux (The Carnival of the Animals)[a,c,e]; Traditional, arr. Pablo Casals: El Cant dels Ocells (Song of the Birds)[a,c]; Shostakovich, arr. Lev Atovmyan: Noctune from The Gadfly Suite, opus 97a[a,b]; Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 1, opus 107[a,b]; Offenbach, arr. Werner Thomas-Mifune: Les larmes de Jacqueline (Jacqueline’s Tears), opus 76, no. 2,[a,b]; Casals: Sardana[a,c,f]; Bob Marley, arr. Sheku Kanneh-Mason: No Woman, No Cry[a]; Leonard Cohen, arr. Tom Hodge: Hallelujah[a,g]
Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello)[a], City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/ Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla[b], CBSO Cellos[c], Oliver Janes (clarinet)[d], Katherine Thomas (harp)[e], Guy Johnston (cello)[f], Didier Osindero (violin), Alinka Rowe (viola), Yong Jun Lee (cello)[g]
Decca 483 2948
Recorded at Symphony Hall, Birmingham 7, 8 (live) & 10 November 2017 [opus 97 and 107]; Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham, 9 November 2017 (live) [opus 107 and Offenbach]; Studio 2, Abbey Road Studios, 6 January 2017[Cohen]; CBSO Centre, Birmingham, 11 September 2017[all other tracks]
By default, I approach any crossover album with trepidation, for too often accessibility comes at the expense of the integrity of any classical works on the programme. Given that cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason was a mere 18 years old when he made these recordings, I wondered how much insight and depth I would find in his interpretation of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, the central work on this compilation. I also had qualms about how comfortably Shostakovich would sit alongside the more populist pieces on the disc, which range as far afield as cello transcriptions of songs by Leonard Cohen and Bob Marley—now there’s a first!
I needn’t have fretted. Kanneh-Mason considers Shostakovich his favourite composer, and opus 107 was the work with which he won the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2016 (making him the first black winner in the award’s history). Ably partnered on the present album by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, he turns in a performance that can stand toe to toe with the best available. Belying the tender age of the cellist and a conductor barely into her thirties, this is a mature, thoughtful interpretation, captivating from start to finish without resorting to exaggeration.
While this isn’t the steeliest portrayal of the first movement on record (insert here the obligatory homage to Rostropovich), voltage levels are high and there is no sense that anyone is playing it safe. Indeed, horn player Elspeth Dutch comes perilously close to cracking in her whooping solo (Fig. 31, 5:16), but manages to remain in control. Kanneh-Mason drives the narrative forward with phrasing that is fluid and propulsive rather than hectoring. Even more noteworthy is the seamless coordination between soloist and orchestra.
I was already a convert by the end of the Allegretto, but it’s the second movement that firmly establishes this as a team to be reckoned with. Kanneh-Mason clearly understands the power of ritardando, and of silence. The intimacy of his dialogue with Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO is remarkable—to take just one of any number of examples I could choose, listen to the ebb and flow between Kanneh-Mason and the clarinet at Fig. 42, 2:30.
This is one of the longer versions of the Moderato on record, though at 12:59 not as protracted as the 13:50 taken by Gautier Capuçon and Valery Gergiev with the Mariinsky Orchestra (Erato 2564606973; reviewed in DSCH 45). Proof that a faster tempo in the second movement does not necessarily bring greater engagement is provided by recent entries from Enrico Dindo with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under Gianandrea Noseda at 10:50 (Chandos CHSA 5093) and Truls Mørk with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra under Vasily Petrenko at 11:41 (Ondine ODE 1218-2), both of which Louis Blois also found lacking in his reviews in DSCH 38 and 41. Stiffer competition comes from Nicolas Altstaedt with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Michał Nesterowicz (Channel Classics CCS 38116), which generates the desired frissons in its duration of 11:49. However, I find some of Altstaedt’s gestures slightly forced, and the orchestral accompaniment a shade less sympathetic than on the present recording.
Kanneh-Mason’s patience also pays dividends in the cadenza. Despite his relatively slow pace, the cellist’s concentration is far too intense to allow the listener’s focus to wander. Following along with the score confirms not only his note-perfect technique but also how many personal touches he applies that don’t call attention to themselves as they feel firmly rooted in Shostakovich’s idiom. The most prominent tweak (one that anyone familiar with the concerto would register without reference to the score) is the recoil Kanneh-Mason applies at 6:14, serving as an effective springboard into the run-up towards the Più mosso section. Altstaedt’s cadenza is more virtuosic—perhaps self-consciously so—but I find Kanneh-Mason’s time-suspending tactics better reward repeated listening.
The concerto wraps up with a fourth movement fully consistent with the first: not the most frantic, but no lack of excitement, and again with that breathtaking unity between cellist, conductor, and orchestra.
Another recent Decca release presenting a young artist’s take on Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto has justly earned praise for the singularity of purpose among all players, namely Alisa Weilerstein and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Pablo Heras-Casado (coupled with Cello Concerto No. 2; Decca 483 0835). If I have left this until now to mention, it is because their interpretation is so utterly unlike Kanneh-Mason and Gražinytė-Tyla’s that a detailed movement-by-movement comparison would have been superfluous. Weilerstein and Heras-Casado are much swifter in all four movements, shaving nearly 4 minutes off the total time. Weilerstein’s edgy tone contrasts starkly with Kanneh-Mason’s rounder enunciation. The biggest difference, however, is that Weilerstein leaves nary a note unmolested to stamp her own personal (some might say idiosyncratic) mark on opus 107. To my ear, nearly all of Weilerstein’s kneading fascinates rather than grates, so I encourage any readers who haven’t yet taken the plunge to investigate. However, this should not come at the expense of clearing shelf-space for Kanneh-Mason’s contribution. Apples and oranges.
The concerto recording was compiled, sans applause, from two live concerts and patch sessions. The acoustics are vivid but occasionally a trifle boomy (no complaints adhere to Decca’s crystal-clear rendering of the other works).
Specialist collectors needing more persuasion to acquire a new recording of Cello Concerto No. 1 should bear in mind that another Shostakovich work precedes the concerto on Kanneh-Mason’s playlist: the Nocturne, No. 10 from the suite arranged by Lev Atovmyan from The Gadfly film score. Unlike the ubiquitous Romance, No. 8, which offers the violin soloist scope to soar, the Nocturne is a much more subdued movement, which is undoubtedly why it has rarely appeared on disc outside the suite. By my count, Kanneh-Mason is only the second cellist to record it independently of that context, Dmitri Yablonsky being the first, as soloist and conductor of the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra (Naxos 8.557722; reviewed in DSCH 27).
Kanneh-Mason and Gražinytė-Tyla give the Nocturne a far more expansive treatment than it is usually granted, lingering tenderly for 4:59 compared with Yablonsky’s 3:54 and a similarly brisk 3:51 in the recording of the complete suite from Vassily Sinaisky and the BBC Philharmonic with cellist Peter Dixon (Chandos CHAN 10183; reviewed in DSCH 21). Allied with Kanneh-Mason’s plaintive vibrato, this broader tempo achieves greater poignancy.
Shostakovich occupies the middle of this album; first up is a transcription of the Hebrew love song Evening of Roses, an original creation of Israeli composer Yosef Hadar with lyrics by poet Moshe Dor. The song caught on internationally with stars ranging from Nana Mouskouri to Harry Belafonte, and its romantic melody is now frequently used in Jewish weddings and even during Shabbat prayers at many synagogues. The CD booklet notes explain that Kanneh-Mason encountered the song while playing in his school’s Klezmer band, and was inspired to make a solo cello transcription, here expanded by London-based composer Tom Hodge to include the CBSO’s cello section. Although this version is wordless (like everything else on the album), Kanneh-Mason conjures up a crooner with the gravelly growl he applies to low notes.
I am less enamoured of the second track, Saint-Saëns’ The Swan. No fault of the performers, but I find that Tom Hodge’s addition of the CBSO cellos renders this too saccharine. Better, I think, to keep this a duo between one cello and harp as in Jacqueline du Pré’s recording, which Kanneh-Mason cites as an inspiration (most recently reissued on the 2-CD set Jacqueline du Pré: The Heart of the Cello; Warner Classics 0190296950322). A more successful tribute to du Pré is Offenbach’s Jacqueline’s Tears, which provides a moment of repose after the bracing finale of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto.
Another of Kanneh-Mason’s icons, Pablo Casals, is represented by Song of the Birds and Sardana, the former an adaptation of a gentle Catalan folk song and the latter a swashbuckling original composition by Casals, which here injects some vigour into the largely contemplative programme. For Sardana he is joined by Guy Johnson, who won the BBC Young Musician in 2000, also playing Shostakovich’s opus 107.
A long, long way from Trench Town, Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry turns up in Kanneh-Mason’s own transcription for solo cello. Though readers might imagine this to be a bridge too far for those of us interested primarily in Soviet-era music, it’s worth noting that the tune bears a striking resemblance to the second movement, Georgian Song, in Alexander Tcherepnin’s Songs and Dances for cello and piano, which can be heard on Cassia Harvey and Tim Ribchester’s charming assortment of hidden gems from Russia (Montag Records 5942-1). I imagine that Marley would have endorsed Kanneh-Mason’s Baroque-inflected metamorphosis of his work with a hearty, “Irie, bredren!”
Inspiration opens with a modern Jewish love song subsequently adopted for use in religious ceremonies, so there is symmetry in concluding with Tom Hodge’s string arrangement of another Jewish singer/poet’s love ballad that has acquired the status of a secular hymn, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. In this, Kanneh-Mason is well matched by three young friends: violinist Didier Osindero, violist Alinka Rowe, and cellist Yong Jun Lee. Despite my instinctive cynicism when it comes to crossover efforts, this reverent, yearning performance brings a lump to my throat every time I hear it.
Over time, I will likely spin this new recording of opus 107 more often than I let the disc play from start to finish, but I find the overall package to be appealing and surprisingly coherent given its varied ingredients. Kanneh-Mason’s stated objective of inspiring a young and diverse audience is important and laudable—“If I represent something they can relate to, through which they can get into classical music, then that’s wonderful.” Happily, his debut album does not compromise artistic rigour in pursuit of this goal, and it merits serious consideration from the Shostakovich specialist as well as the general public.
W. Mark Roberts
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Nocturne in C minor; Fantasia on the Russian Folksong “Korobeinika”[b]; Oh Come, Have Mercy!; I Dreamt of Evening Skies; To Admire You Forever[a,b]; Csardas; Gypsy Dance[c]; Victory March; Heroic March; The Snuff Box; A Day on the Volga; Tango Satanique; Charlie-Fox; Jou-Ré; Miss Evelyn[b]; Hey, Enough! Old Sofron on the Bench; Wide Runs the Road Through the Fields; A Bell Jingles Under the Shaft Bow[a,b]
Svetlana Zlobina (mezzo)[a], Mikhail Mordvinov (piano)[b], Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Filipp Chizhevsky[c]
Toccata TOCC 0324
Recorded 28 May, 11–12 June 2015, Popov Academy of Choral Art [songs and piano music]; 1 June 2015, Mosfilm Ton-Studio One [orchestral pieces]
Perestroika gave a push to the discovery, study and popularisation of some Soviet composers who had previously been little more than names: contemporaries such as Khrennikov’s Seven, but also earlier figures such as Popov, Mosolov and others. But they were overwhelmingly composers of “art music”: popular and populist works were still seen only as interesting “diversions” for “serious” composers (“What – you mean Shostakovich wrote jazz?”) But the 1920s Soviet Union was in many ways very outward-looking, and there is a wealth of material from composers who haven’t yet qualified for serious study, beyond the denunciations of Foks-trotizm.
So, here we have Matvey [originally Mordukh] Iosifovich Nikolaevsky, born in 1882, the son of an orchestral clarinettist. Studying during a highpoint in Russian virtuoso pianism, he became a well-regarded concert pianist, repetiteur, and pedagogue, and an immensely popular composer.
Surprisingly, on 27 May 1938 he was celebrated in a huge gala at his alma mater, the Moscow Conservatoire, attended by many of the most prominent figures in Soviet music. Surprising because while the artestablishment struggled with socialist realism and (Russian) narodnost’, his massively popular music was imbued with all kinds of overtly ‘foreign’ influences, such as tangos and foxtrots. The pieces on this CD are advertised as “first modern recordings” – Nikolaevsky’s popularity led to recordings and sheet music being published, though over time everything apart from his piano tutor has fallen by the wayside.
This disc then fulfils two very valuable needs: on one level, it’s a collection of enjoyable songs and piano pieces and a couple of orchestral works but, beyond that, it widens our view of Soviet music from 1903 to the late 1920s.
Many of the piano works are popular salon and character pieces. So we have Nikolaevsky’s inheritances from Lyadov’s Snuff Box and the numerous composers inspired by Song of the Volga Boatmen – in this case, a Lisztian set of variations. But we also have effective “Western” dances such as Shostakovich affected to be mocking in works like The Age of Gold. Nikolaevsky gives us fun pieces including a Tango Satanique, and the chimeric Charleston/Foxtrot Charlie-Fox.
The first set of three songs are nice (if not particularly individual) romances (Oh Come, Have Mercy! is of the Gypsy variety), full of dark eyes, starry nights, love unto death, the search for happiness and such-like. They are standard verse-refrain songs, but the accompaniments are more elaborate than usual and handled with aplomb by Mordvinov. The second batch continue in that vein, but politics begin to impinge on Nikolaevsky’s choice of poets: Konstantin Podrevsky was denounced in 1929 and another song sets Stalin’s favourite, Demyan Bedny. Zlobina has a lovely tone, though she seems to have swayed around a little during recording as, at the moments of highest intensity, she swings between the speakers.
For all the percussive opening, the Csardas doesn’t have quite the banging quality of some “Hungariania” but the second section’s orchestration is enjoyable kaleidoscopic. The Gypsy Dance begins as a bit more of the same, but again the later sections introduce more variety. Either would be satisfying encores as a relief from Brahms. Both were reconstructed from orchestral parts, and the following Victory March and the Heroic March (both from 1929) feel like piano reductions but, as yet, no full scores seem to exist. Chizhevsky leads the Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Filipp with the requisite panache.
What of Shostakovich connections? While Anthony Phillips’ notes give a wealth of invaluable information, they don’t mention any meetings but it is inconceivable that the two men were not aware of each other. That 1938 celebration took place a few months before the premiere of the Fifth Symphony and was attended by many of Shostakovich’s friends and collaborators. A few years later, the Seventh was premiered in Kuibyshev on 5 March 1942, four days after Nikolaevesky had died in the same city. More coincidentally, Volume 146 of the New DSCH edition will include Shostakovich’s orchestration of The Song of the Volga Boatmen, and Phillips notes another link, through Gavriil Ilizarov, the celebrated orthopaedic surgeon who treated the composer.
At over 82 minutes, this disc is packed to the gunwales and can only broaden our view of what “Soviet” music was. Both fascinating and enjoyable.
John Leman Riley