CD Reviews 09
§ = World Première Recording
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Song of Cordelia and 10 Fool’s Songs from incidental music to the play, King Lear, opus 58a, Six Romances to verses by British Poets, opus 62/140, Four Verses of Captain Lebyadkin, opus 146 §, two of Five Romances from texts from Krokodil magazine, opus 121 §, Rayok §.
Anatoly Levin (cond), Orchestra of the Moscow Chamber Theater, Alexei Mochalov (bass).
Complete texts in phonetic Russian, English, French and German.
Russian Disc Triton 17 008. DDD. TT 62:49.
§ World première recordings of chamber arrangements of unidentified authorship.
Hommage à Shostakovich
Rayok[a], Concertino, opus 94[b], From Jewish Folk Poetry, opus 79[c]. Vladimir Spivakov (cond), The Moscow Virtuosi, Alexei Mochalov (bass), The Moscow Choir Theatera, Julia Zilberquit (piano)[b], Nikolai Kurpe (tenor), Marina Zhukova (soprano), Elena Svechnikova, (contralto)[c]. Texts for opus 79 only, in phonetic Russian and English; no libretto for Rayok.
Music Master Classics 01612-67189-2. DDD. TT: 60:35. [a] World première recording of chamber arrangement by Vladimir Spivakov and Vladimir Milman. [b] World première recording of arrangement for solo piano and chamber orchestra by Julia Zilberquit.
Here are two discs with distinguished programs and performances, each with notable world premiere recordings. Unfortunately, neither of them may reach the circulation they deserve thanks, in part, to their poorly labeled jackets. More will be said about this at the end of this review.
A number of all-Shostakovich song discs have appeared in the past, but none to my knowledge has dedicated an entire programme, as the current Triton disc has, to the common theme of satire. Nowhere else has such a nearly complete thematic summary of the composer’s mordant utterances in this genre been grouped together in a single album. The only explicitly satirical cycle missing from the program is the 1965 Satires, as well as the brief setting, Preface, of 1966.
The theme of satire returns with enough frequency and persistence to establish itself as an important subgenre of Shostakovich’s vocal music. This collective body of work appears in a rather scattered fashion throughout the composer’s catalogue and is not at all uniformly successful. Still, it underlines a unique aspect of the composer’s creativity and prompts us to take inventory of yet another alter ego of this richly complex artist.
I will first comment on each of the pieces contained on that disc, and follow it with the review of both discs.
The earliest and only work originally scored for chamber ensemble on the Triton programme is the King Lear stage music of 1940, which includes Cordelia’s Song and the 10 Songs of the Fool. The Fool’s Songs are brief, uncomplicated sketches which are full of good-natured wit. They nicely come together as a self-contained cycle, even though the composer’s original intention evidently was to intersperse them at points indicated by Shakespeare’s play. Musically the songs are knit together by their pervasive jollity and thematic interlinkings – including the self-effacing references to the tune Jingle Bells in the first four. They also follow a continuous dramatic arc, slightly increasing in seriousness as their verse follows the events of the play. In the culminating tenth and longest of the set, the prior gaiety gives way to a sweetly mournful conclusion, a muse on the sacrificial loyalty and dedication of the fool.
These settings establish a noteworthy precedent in Shostakovich’s songwriting activity. The composer’s identification with the figure of the fool is almost inseparable from his expression of humour in this medium. The adoption of the fool’s persona may be partly an identification with the classic Russian figure of the yurodivy. However, it appears too late in his career to be interpreted as an act of political camouflage. The role appears again in the Krokodil and Lebyadkin cycles, and is most explicitly personalized in the autobiographical Preface, all written during the composer’s final decade. As a gradually emerging counterpart to Shostakovich the tragedian, only in later cycles does the composer adopt the message-bearing role of everyman’s jester, pointing his satirical weapons at the universal themes of moral and social injustice.
Cordelia’s Song is a worthy inspiration, a restrained, dignified march tune that one would expect to find in the repertoire of the Red Army chorus. Through repetition, the song gradually increases in volume, yet is prevented from reaching the full climactic pitch of which it is clearly capable.
Still, these songs look back rather than ahead. Stylistically and psychologically they are allied to the unfettered giddiness of the then nearly decade-old Hamlet score, unencumbered by the dark irony which one day would seize hold of all Shostakovich’s humorous utterances.
The Six Romances to Verses by British Poets were written in the wake of the Leningrad Symphony while the composer was in evacuation at Kuibyshev in 1942. The lofty subject matter and subdued musical content of these songs seem to have provided the composer with an emotional escape, a consoling antidote to the traumatic events of the times. The texts take up various humanitarian issues such as friendship, loyalty, the decline of values, and mockery of authority. As if to further celebrate the bonds of human contact, each song bears a dedication to someone close to the composer: Lev Atovmyan, Shostakovich’s first wife Nina, Isaac Glikman, Sviridov, Sollertinsky, and Shebalin. Perhaps partly as a tribute to these personalities, the composer orchestrated the set in 1971, the version we hear on this disc.
Musically, the individual songs in these British Romances seem to be at expressive odds with one another. Some are somber in tone, some are quaint and folksy, while others are jocular or tongue-in-cheek. Perhaps these creative shifts in direction are due to the fact that the songs were written in widely separated installments over several months, from May to October of 1942. While lacking the organic unity and expressive depth of his best cycles, the affable warmth of these songs otherwise makes them a fairly attractive, unpretentious collection.
The jovial tune in the setting of Burns’ MacPherson’s Farewell is later reused in the Humour movement of the Thirteenth Symphony, where again, the verse gleefully mocks an executioner. The treatment is simple and extroverted, as it is in the final song of the cycle, a brief, delightfully madcap assault on the precarious rise and fall of kings. The fourth song is a folksy dedication to his colleague, composer Georgi Sviridov (who passed away 5 January 1998). With its short, repeated phrases and embellishments, it forms a clever imitation of that great vocal master’s style.
The three remaining songs are of more serious content and are uncharacteristically straightforward and even-tempered for Shostakovich. The opening Raleigh setting has some lovely phrases, though it fails to follow through on a number of tentative gestures which are introduced. The Scottish rurality and placid warmth of the Burns setting which follows are supported by the droning, bagpipe-like pedals which form the accompaniment throughout. The fifth song, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 66, contemplates the degeneration of human values and contains the pregnant lines, “art made tongue-tied by authority.” Though it is the weightiest of the set, it still comes short of providing the cycle with a strong emotional anchor. The music, moving and hymnlike, climbs to a moment of measured intensity without pulling all the stops (much in the fashion of Cordelia’s Song and the anchoring Intermezzo movement of the Piano Quintet of the same period).
These British Romances take up the moral and humanitarian issues which the composer increasingly would dwell upon in his later vocal works. However, as his earlier Pushkin Romances also indicate (as do almost all of his vocal music throughout the 1940s and 1950s), Shostakovich’s artistic goals in the art song genre were still extremely modest. It should be mentioned that there are many more interesting passages to explore, both musically and satirically, in the pages of the unfinished opera, The Gamblers, which was composed contemporaneously with the British Romances.
With regard to the ambitions of Rayok, Shostakovich’s artistic goals were quite clear. Rayok is ostensibly an operetta, a brilliant piece of musical theater, and a wicked send-up of the antiformalist campaign of 1948. The work follows a rather simple, quasi-vaudevillian formula of providing an uninterrupted sequence of arias, a mirthful medley of original and borrowed material. There are enough ritornelli, signature modulations, and Shostakovian distortions to impart a pleasing sense of unity. Yet unity is hardly the point of this melodious, biting and truly hysterical parody.
Chronologically, the next work on the Triton disc is the 5 Romances based on prose drawn from the satirical magazine, Krokodil. The text selection is almost totally arbitrary, deriving from one particular section (the ‘Believe It or Not’ column) of one particular issue of Krokodil. The verses are short, poker-faced nibbles of acerbic prose which offer commentary on the small ironies and discomforts of everyday life. They are both half-witted and street-wise at the same time. Once again, the composer identifies himself with the figure of the fool, here the hapless, randomly met clod expounding on the human condition.
For these spontaneous morsels of man-in-the-street prose, the presence of Mussorgsky-style vocal inflections in Shostakovich’s settings is stronger than ever. In the opening song, Affidavit, a disgruntled bus rider vents his anger. The music’s operatic treatment is marked by a smashing climactic peak and a sense of parody lined with dark, seamy corners. The only other song from this cycle recorded here is Discretion, a wisecrack about police brutality which moans gloomily around the Dies Irae theme. It is a blemish on this otherwise fine album that the remaining three Krokodil songs, lasting less than six minutes total, were omitted from Triton’s programme, as they could have comfortably fit onto this 63-minute disc. The listener is otherwise directed to the complete version on a Saison Russe CD with Piotr Gluboky as soloist (RUS 288089); or better yet, Nesterenko’s performance on Melodiya LP, which is still awaiting digital transfer
The complete Krokodil cycle, in the last analysis, falls victim to the lopsidedness of its text lengths. The opening song is almost as long as the combined length of the remaining four, which are charming, witty, and all too brief. The cycle is thus too fragmentary and episodic to make a strong cumulative impression.
Krokodil is not one of Shostakovich’s creative peaks. Yet, it represents the composer’s return to the art song after a hiatus of five years. Along with his previous, brilliantly off-centered cycle, Satires, a more idiosyncratic attitude and style emerges in his songs, paving the way to the great vocal works of the final decade.
To some listeners, a number of Shostakovich’s last works exhibit symptoms of exhausted creativity. Sometimes cited in this regard is his gentle swan song, the Viola Sonata. If the composer did indeed close the pages of his catalogue with a doleful whisper, his penultimate work, the Four Verses of Captain Lebyadkin, does just the opposite and lashes out with a bold, creative offensive.
For the last time, the composer adopts the musical persona of yet another fool. But this time, the projection is that of a degenerate soul ranting from the depths of depravity. In diametric contrast to the dignity of the Michelangelo and Marina Tsvetaeva verses which the composer had set within the preceding year (Opp. 143 and 145), these verses belong to one of the most obnoxious characters in Russian literature, the drunken Captain Lebyadkin from Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Devils.
In these songs the music staggers erratically in the manner of the drunken sot it portrays. The symmetries of conventional song structure are subverted with a ‘composed through’ approach; that is, developing freely from beginning to end. With forceful theatrical conviction, the music moves along with abrupt motivic shifts and modulations, juxtapositions of highly expressive moments with those of deflating grotesquerie, passages of arioso which emerge unexpectedly from staccato, suddenly appearing flourishes and fanfares; even a “stop the music” spoken aside (shadows of Jimmy Durante) after which the song starts again from the top.
Unlike the musically abortive snippets of the Krokodil experiment, each Lebyadkin song is of sufficient length to flesh out a vigorous aesthetic space. Here, Shostakovich is at the height of his technical mastery, able to incorporate sharp episodic detours into the lyrical stream, move on to new material, and, by way of a certain alchemy, still achieve a satisfying totality. In this regard, one may draw a stylistic comparison to the jumpstart transitions which saturate the scores of the composer’s youth, such as New Babylon of 1929. Nothing in Shostakovich’s early scores, however, matches the solidity and deeply wrenching irony of this Lebyadkin cycle.
The second song of the cycle, The Cockroach, draws particular attention to itself. The verses in the remaining songs have identifiable points of expressive reference: in the first song, the Captain fitfully expounds about lost love; in the last two he rails parodistically against the aristocracy and political changelessness, two classic Shostakovian targets. However, The Cockroach is ostensibly about nothing whatsoever. For all the nonsense in its verse, the music’s temper is raised to an implausible, bellowing volume. What’s the catch?
Shostakovich was clearly thinking operatically. The purpose of the ‘cockroach tirade’ is to round out the character portrayal of the Captain, emphasizing the incoherence and disintegration of his personality. As an autobiographical statement, there is something unsettling and, in Shostakovich’s own words, ‘ominous’, about the Captain’s drunken stupor. It gives the composer license to hysterical outburst, perhaps releasing a masked cry of desperation and resentment over a variety of issues: the disintegration of his own state of health, the helpless isolation of his impending death, and all of the perverse values represented by Lebyadkin’s verses.
There are more than superficial shades of similarity to the songs of Musorgsky, the spirit of whose Song of the Flea seems to hover in the vicinity of Shostakovich’s Cockroach. Had Shostakovich lived another decade, he might have written the operatic masterpiece which is conspicuously missing from his catalogue, Lady Macbeth, regretfully, notwithstanding. One might even imagine these Lebyadkin songs as the highlights of that never-written opera. This farewell cycle may not be a masterpiece either, but it joins Satires and Rayok as the satirical highlights of his vocal music.
* * * *
A generation ago, Shostakovich’s songs for bass voice belonged to the esteemed talents of Yevgeny Nesterenko, a classic Russian basso of impressive flexibility and theatrical swagger, virtues which earned him his leading reputation in Russian and other vocal literature. His recordings of Shostakovich song cycles on Melodiya LP are well worth investigating (a two-LP set of these recordings was variously reissued in the West shortly after the composer’s death).
In the discs under review, Alexei Mochalov, born 1954, shows himself to be a worthy heir to this repertoire, which he has made something of a specialty. Mochalov’s richly resonant bass is matched by a dramatic flare which is nothing short of charismatic. His ability to project both dramatically and comedically is evident throughout these performances. In the Lebyadkin cycle, for example, Mochalov is not afraid to seize the role and inject his own measure of campiness. In the performances of Rayok on each of these two CDs, Mochalov again demonstrates his knack for characterization by singlehandedly assuming each of the roles originally written for four basses. His talent for quick and precise articulation is called upon in the Fool’s Songs from King Lear.
Listeners may be familiar with the aforementioned Saison Russe disc of 1995 which surveys five of Shostakovich’s cycles for bass and piano, featuring the voice of Piotr Gluboky. The principal merit of that disc is its compilation of song cycles which are infrequently recorded, such as the two Pushkin cycles, and as already stated, its inclusion of all five Krokodil Romances. However, one need only compare Mr. Gluboky’s sober performances of the British and Lebyadkin cycles to appreciate fully the dramatic spark which Mr. Mochalov and cohorts bring to their renditions.
In the nine years since it was rediscovered in the archives, Rayok has received surprisingly little attention. Rostropovich’s lively landmark recording premiere of the work in piano score appeared on a now-deleted 1990 Erato CD (ECD75571), and presented a performance in the Russian language followed by one in English. Another performance in piano score with different Russian artists was released on Chant du Monde/Saison Russe in 1993 (LDC288 075), also deleted.
Now on each other’s heels appear the premieres of two different chamber arrangements of Rayok, each one presenting the work’s parodistic panache in a similarly colorful manner. The version on the Music Master disc is the collaborative work of one Vladimir Milman, and violinist/conductor Vladimir Spivakov, the latter of whom has recorded his own chamber scoring of other Shostakovich piano works, most notably the opus 13 Aphorisms (with Boris Bekhterev). Triton fails to identify its arranger.
Spivakov/Milman makes greater use of percussion, often in a campy, music hall manner where comic punch lines are punctuated with rim shots and the like. In the arrangement on Triton, one finds a fuller, more warmly recorded presence of instrumental color. The success of Rayok‘s production, however, rests not so heavily on the differences in these very effective arrangements as it does on the vocal performances of those involved, especially that of bass, Alexei Mochalov, who is the featured soloist in each of the performances. Conductor Anatoly Levin seems to elicit a shade more spontaneous merriment from Mr. Mochalov, who otherwise gives a command performance in each case. One distinct drawback of the Music Master disc is that it does not contain a libretto for Rayok, where Triton’s booklet offers the libretto in both English and phonetic Russian.
The Music Master disc contains other music of no less significance. Pianist Julia Zilberquit’s 1996 chamber arrangement of Shostakovich’s Concertino, opus 94, brings a surprising new dimension to this little score. Zilberquit has transformed this originally two-piano work into a sparkling bravura piece for solo piano and chamber orchestra. The witty exchanges and lively contrapuntal interplay between piano and ensemble are the result of smart creative decisions. Appropriate to the work’s elegantly drawn lines, representing the composer at his most French neoclassical, the scoring is light and airy, while still maintaining a sense of Shostakovian authenticity. Given the Classical dimensions of the orchestra with added snare drum, the work’s period-bound idiosyncrasies are even more strongly suggestive of the nearly contemporaneous Piano Concerto #2, the score of which was very likely used as a guideline. Ms. Zilberquit, as both arranger and performer, has given birth to a real Shostakovich charmer (I am told that the Canadian Brass are performing their own arrangement of the opus 94 Concertino).
From Jewish Folk Poetry is indeed one of Shostakovich’s finest lyrical inspirations. The performance by Spivakov and his Moscow Virtuosi compares well to the recent (1994) recording by Jarvi/Gothenburg on Deutsche Grammophon (DG 439 860-2). The Moscow vocalists may not have the polish of Jarvi’s singers, yet their conviction more than makes up for their minor shortcomings in this department. A particular strength of this performance is the very close miking of soloists and ensemble, a feature which brings an impassioned closeness to this very passionate work. The more spacious acoustic in the Jarvi recording, on the other hand, brings to the work a certain grandeur along with its own considerable emotional clout. Jarvi’s performance is one simply not to be missed. However, the vivid intimacy of the Spivakov-led performance earns it a commendable place in the catalog.
As mentioned before, these two CDs each have distinguished programmes and performances, yet their circulation will no doubt be hampered by their poorly labeled jackets.
The unusually hard-to-find Triton/RD disc bears the simple title, Songs. Given the programme under discussion, one might have chosen a more promotionally savvy title such as Songs of the Fool: Cycles of Satire in the works of Dmitri Shostakovich. Though the programme is listed on the jacket, nowhere is it indicated that the Lebyadkin and Krokodil songs, as well as the infrequently recorded Rayok, are world premiere recordings in their versions for chamber orchestra. What a missed opportunity!
Likewise, only within the enclosed booklet of the Music Master release, humbly titled Hommage à Shostakovich, do we discover that the performance of Rayok listed on the jacket is yet another world premiere; or that the Concertino appears in its unique arrangement as a world premiere recording.
One hopes that through reviews or a repackaging effort, these albums will be promoted and marketed in a fashion appropriate to their noteworthiness. Strongly recommended.
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Moskva, Cheremushki, opus 105.
Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Residentie Orchestra The Hague, Russian State Symphonic Cappella, Valéry Polyansky (chorus director).
Andrei Baturkin (bar: Alexander, Fyodor), Irina Gelakhova (mez: Masha, Vava, Kurochkina, Mylkina), Mikhail Goujov (bass: Semyon), Elena Prokina (sop: Lidochka), Anatoly Lochak (bar: Boris), Herman Apaikin (ten: Sergei, Kurochkin, Mylkin), Lydia Chernykh (sop: Lyusya), Alexander Kisselev (bass: Afanasi).
Chandos CHAN 9591(2). 2 disc set. DDD. TT 70:53 + 70:57.
World première recording of the complete operetta.
“Writing an operetta was a new experience for me. Cheryomushki, Moscow is my first and, I hope, not last, work in this entrancing genre. I worked with great interest and enthusiasm. It seems to me that the result of the common efforts on the part of the librettists, V. Mass and M. Chervinsky, the conductor G. Stolyarov, the producer V. Kandelaki, the scenic artist G. Kigel, the choreographer G. Shakhovskaya and the whole company of artists should be a gay and life-asserting production. In a gay and sprightly manner the operetta deals with the vital problem of housing construction in our country. The librettists have thought up a lot of amusing episodes enlivening the action and allowing for various musical numbers demanded by the genre. There are in it lyrical moments, brilliant stunts, all kinds of interludes, dances and even a whole ballet scene. … I think that I have gained much useful experience from this work. An ardent admirer of the gay and life-asserting genre of operetta and of the work of such wonderful masters as Offenbach, Lecocq, Johann Strauss, Kalman and Lehar, I would like my first operetta to be worthy of the genre and to win the love and appreciation of our Soviet audiences.”
So wrote Shostakovich in Sovetskaya Muzyka in 1959. Remarkably, it has taken nearly forty years for what did indeed prove to be his only operetta to receive a complete recording. This is all the more surprising as it is brimming with delicious tunes, recalling the Shostakovich of the Jazz and Ballet Suites. In three Acts and five Scenes, the operetta tells a fanciful tale about the personal trials and tribulations of prospective tenants of the new Bird-Cherry Trees Estate (a real housing development in Moscow). The protagonists overcome the expansionist plans of the wicked bureaucrat Fyodor and his accomplices, and secure new apartments with the aid of a magical garden that includes a fountain capable of drowning out the voices of boring officials as well as a bench that causes those who sit on it to tell the truth.
The ludicrous plot would have tickled Soviet audiences, for whom wry humour was the only remedy for the vagaries of apartment hunting; witness Vladimir Voinovich’s 1976 real-life satire The Ivankiad, in which an annexationist Party crony provided ample comedic material, “outlining this terrific plot, making a series of moves which you would not be able to think up over the dinner table.”
In the last two or three years, a number of releases that include excerpts from Moscow, Cheryomushki have whetted Shostakovich enthusiasts’ appetites for the operetta. In DSCH 7, Fred Johnson reviewed Riccardo Chailly’s Dance Album (London/Decca 452 597-2), which features an orchestral suite compiled from the score by Andrew Cornall. Running to twenty minutes, the suite begins with A spin through Moscow from Act I, Scene 1, in which the chauffeur Sergei borrows his boss’s limo. It continues with a waltz arranged from the duet of Masha and Alexander in the same Scene, then a Polka-Galop uniting the Polka from Act II, Scene 4 with the duet between Lidochka and Boris in the preceding Scene. The suite concludes with the ballet sequence from Act II, Scene 4. It is superbly played and recorded, as are the two other works on the disc, the Suite from The Bolt (1934 version) and excerpts from The Gadfly in its original orchestration.
BBC Music Magazine treated subscribers to a CD of the Pimlico Opera’s 1995 studio recording of Cheryomushki (BBC MM132). This was not of the complete operetta, as Fred Johnson wrote in DSCH 7, but rather of Gerard McBurney’s reorchestration for smaller forces, which the Pimlico Opera premièred in a stage production the previous year (reviewed in DSCH 2). Sung in English, in an earthy version by David Pountney – not suitable for younger audiences! – the abridged performance on a single disc leaves out much of the original score, lasting half as long as the complete recording on Chandos. Nevertheless, this reorchestration retains the best music. Conductor Wasfi Kani sets a jaunty pace that, along with the English libretto, makes this Cheryomushki sound for all the world like Gilbert and Sullivan. It’s a desirable adjunct to the genuine article, and would likely win a wider audience for the operetta if released commercially. While the CD is not available in stores, it is included when one orders a back-copy of the April 1995 issue of BBC Music Magazine (Vol. III, No. 8; £4.95; call +44 (0)1795 414749). At last check , the U.K. warehouse had around eighty copies left, and once those run out they will not be reissued.
Going even farther afield, Olympia’s Dmitri Shostakovich: Music for Organ presents the Waltz of the Flowers from Act III, Scene 5 of Cheryomushki, arranged by organist Maria Makarova (OCD 585). This brief fragment accompanies nineteen other organ transcriptions, most by Makarova, including excerpts from The Song of the Forests, The Bolt, The Gadfly, Jazz Suite No. 1, and The Limpid Stream. Some of the flightier pieces, like People’s Holiday from The Gadfly Suite (usually listed as Folk Festival or Fair), sound rather bogged down in organ form. Still, there is much good-natured music to enjoy, and Makarova has judged well when to play the Cavaillé-Coll organ in the Moscow Conservatory’s Great Hall (Tahiti Trot on such an impressive instrument will raise a few eyebrows) and when to move to the more manoeuvrable Alexander Schuke organ of the Conservatory’s Small Hall. Waltz of the Flowers, performed on the latter organ, conjures up images of an organ-grinder at the fair. Of greater historical interest is the Passacaglia interlude between Scenes 4 and 5 of Lady Macbeth, which, according to annotator Per Skans, Shostakovich originally wrote in the organ version played here. The fact that few opera houses had decent organs apparently led Shostakovich to rework the interlude for orchestra. His original intention proves to have been hair-raisingly appropriate. Throughout the disc, Makarova plays with finesse, and she is captured well in all-digital sound.
Also available are two Moscow, Cheryomushki fragments from an unlikely source: André Kostelanetz and his orchestra, recorded in 1965. The Galop from Act II, Scene 3, and an Overture Waltz cobbled together from the swaggering theme just before this Galop and the Entr’acte to Act III, are included in a Shostakovich compilation on Sony’s Essential Classics budget line (SBK 62642). The performances are decidedly in the Pops mould, and the playing is scrappy, but polish isn’t needed in this material. These accompany excerpts from The Gadfly, Ballet Suites, and The Age of Gold, as well as Kostelanetz’s slap-dash performance, with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, of the Festive Overture. The disc also offers the First Symphony in the famous early stereo recording of 1959 by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which comes up remarkably well in this reissue.
In addition to these CD releases, there exists a Melodiya 2-LP set of extended musical fragments, recorded in 1959 by Grigory Stolyarov and the Choir and Orchestra of the Moscow Operetta Theatre, who premièred the work that year. I am grateful to Louis Blois for providing me with a tape of his copy. This performance is a sheer delight to listen to, bouncing from one infectious tune to another. Soloists and orchestra convey the impishness of the music, as does Stolyarov’s direction. One can take at face value Shostakovich’s comment, on the occasion of the première, that Stolyarov “knows the secret of inspiring the whole company, of breathing into them the spirit of true artistry.” Although in mono sound, the recording is good for the period, and it is a pity that it is not yet available on CD. BMG/Melodiya would do well to reissue it.
What even Stolyarov’s one-and-a-half hours of music leave out are extra-musical elements. Shostakovich included all manner of unusual devices in the complete operetta, from the spiriting of Lidochka up to her apartment on a crane, to conversations between the characters and the conductor and orchestra. Chandos present all of this, using evocative sound effects to portray events such as Afanasi’s demolition of an apartment wall and Sergei taking his friends for a spin around Moscow in his boss’s ZIM automobile … although, a real ZIM not being available, the squealing tyres were recorded from a mothballed ’92 Peugeot belonging to Chandos director Brian Couzens!
Chandos have put together a first-rate production, down to the cover art. The accompanying booklet, as thick as a standard CD jewel case, is a virtual encyclopedia of information, and Gerard McBurney’s essay, which explores in depth the work’s social, political and musical settings, is almost worth the price of admission by itself. Notes and libretto are provided in English, French, German and Russian (in Cyrillic text). The acoustics are beyond reproach, and soloists and orchestra are more than up to the task.
Rozhdestvensky’s direction of his forces, however, is questionable. Anyone who has heard any of the other recordings listed above will find Rozhdestvensky’s tempos plodding by comparison. Frankly, I found listening to the drawn-out and unvarying performance from beginning to end to be a chore; the extended monotone speeches that are included in this complete version didn’t help. The players are stubbornly prevented from taking off to the fanciful heights attained by Stolyarov’s team. To give just one example, Andrei Baturkin and Irina Gelakhova are rich in tone, but their duet as Alexander and Masha sounds doleful when compared with that of V. Chekalov and N. Kuralesina under Stolyarov’s direction. Even the rollicking title chorus sounds positively funereal.
A charitable interpretation might be that Rozhdestvensky has intentionally kept his performance earthbound in order to ascribe a different message to this score than the madcap, tongue-in-cheek satire we hear in the other available versions. His ponderous direction suggests a more bitingly ironic jab at Soviet officialdom than the sly but innocuous pinpricks of Stolyarov’s or Kani’s accounts.
Shostakovich’s po-faced public comments do not support unequivocally either viewpoint. The inane repetitions of “gay” and “life-asserting” in the quote opening this review indicate that Shostakovich felt the need to deflect suspicion that his parody was more mocking than good-natured. This does not, however, suggest which way he intended performances to point.
Whether or not Rozhdestvensky’s approach would have earned Shostakovich’s blessing, nearly two-and-a-half hours of such hectoring do not make for satisfying listening. Much as I applaud the superb job Chandos have done with all other aspects of this release, and while it’s about time we were given the complete work, I cannot recommend the music-making on offer here.
W. Mark Roberts
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The Gamblers (original unfinished version).
Andrei Tchistiakov, Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, Viktor Panin (bass balalaika).
Nikolai Kurpe (ten: Ikharev), Nikolai Reshetniak (bar: Utyeshitelny), Alexander Arkhipov (ten: Krughel), Mikhail Krutikov (bass: Shvokhniev), Viacheslav Pochapski (bass: Alexei), Piotr Gluboky (bass: Gavriushka).
Saison Russe RUS 788115. DDD. TT 47:35.
Another operatic loner, this represents the only available CD of Shostakovich’s unfinished opera of Gogol’s play The Gamblers [Update: see review of Rozhdestvensky reissue in DSCH 11]. Shostakovich seems to have turned to a word-for-word setting of The Gamblers as a refuge of pure artistic discipline, beginning the day after he completed the Leningrad symphony. He composed most of his Gamblers the following May and June, only to abandon it at the end of 1942. In Testimony, Solomon Volkov reports Shostakovich as saying, “… when I got past ten pages, I stopped. What was I doing? First of all, the opera was becoming unmanageable, but that wasn’t the important thing. The important thing was, who would put on this opera? The subject wasn’t heroic or patriotic. Gogol was a classic, and they didn’t perform his works anyway. And me, I was just dirt to them. They would say that Shostakovich was making fun, mocking art. How could you have an opera about playing cards? And then, The Gamblers had no moral, except perhaps to show how unenlightened people used to be – all they did was play cards and try to cheat one another. They wouldn’t understand that humour was a great thing in itself and that it didn’t need additional morals. … Sometimes now people suggest that I finish the opera, but I can’t. I’m too old, “You can’t enter the same river twice,” as the saying goes.”
Listening to this fragment leads one to agree with the Bolshoi Theatre’s former director Boris Pokrovsky that it was a crime that Shostakovich never completed The Gamblers. The composer overcame the handicaps of the absence of female roles and the limitation of the “action” to a single room by loading his score with drama. So, we have the delightful incongruity of music suitable for the destruction of Valhalla accompanying would-be swindler Ikharev’s idle musing over his special deck of marked cards nick-named “Adelaida Ivanovna”. Elsewhere are sweetly lyrical snatches of tunes, hectic outbursts, convoluted overlaying of multiple voices, and brilliant musical humour like Alexei and Gavriushka singing up and down the scales during their obtuse conversation about Ikharev’s estates.
I was most impressed with the quality of the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra’s playing, which surpasses what I’ve heard from many strictly-concert orchestras from the new Russia. Andrei Tchistiakov conducts a captivating performance, cleanly separating Shostakovich’s textures and keeping everything moving forward on crisp rhythms. His soloists are evenly matched for talent, and all are colourful. The recording is pleasantly natural and well-balanced. Were there no alternative versions, this disc would be a most satisfactory winner-by-default.
However, the first recording of Polish composer Krzysztof Meyer’s 1980 completion of The Gamblers appeared just three years ago on a Capriccio 2-CD boxed set, with Michail Jurowski conducting the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie (60 062-2). Shostakovich’s friend and biographer, Meyer adhered strictly to Shostakovich’s own idiom in setting the remainder of Gogol’s work, though he did not stick to Shostakovich’s plan of doing so without cuts. Shostakovich estimated that if he set all of the rest of Gogol’s text, the opera would last between four and six hours. Meyer’s completion takes up where Shostakovich’s forty-plus minutes of music left off, completing the fragment of Act One in thirteen more minutes, and composing another 1&1/4 hours’ worth for the remaining two Acts. His version is an admirable achievement, at all times faithful to Shostakovich’s style. The most noticeable difference is that the original fragment owes little to stylistic developments post-Fifth Symphony, whereas Meyer’s music leans more heavily on later compositions, especially the Seventh Symphony. Meyer also recycles some of Shostakovich’s own Gamblers music, and quotes from his earlier works, including the Third and Fourth Symphonies and The Golden Age ballet.
Because Meyer left Shostakovich’s original fragment alone when completing the work, the Capriccio release can be compared directly with the Saison Russe disc. Capriccio provide a new track at the beginning of Meyer’s contribution, so one may program one’s CD player to stop automatically after Shostakovich’s fragment.
One would imagine that Tchistiakov’s Bolshoi Theatre soloists and orchestra would score for authenticity. However, the singers on the Capriccio set are, to a man, also Bolshoi Theatre soloists. In fact, the two releases share tenor Alexander Arkhipov as Krughel, with bass Mikhail Krutikov playing Shvokhniev on Saison Russe and Mikhail Glov on Capriccio. Michail Jurowski is himself a frequent guest conductor of the Bolshoi, and will be familiar to those who have enjoyed his excavation of the Shostakovich film scores. Under him, the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie play with much character.
In terms of performance qualities, there is very little basis on which to choose between the two versions. The most striking difference is that in Gavriushka’s solo, Viktor Panin plays his bass balalaika an octave higher than does Jan Kazda on Capriccio, whose booklet notes do not specify which kind of balalaika Kazda uses. It is presumably a contrabass balalaika, which is tuned an octave lower than the bass. I found the higher register easier to distinguish from the vocal line, and also felt that it better fit Gavriushka’s simpleton image.
Tchistiakov’s direction is marginally more angular, Jurowski’s, a trifle weightier. Each suits the music well in its own way. By a hair, I found Tchistiakov’s nimble touch to be more enjoyable, but if one wishes to make the most of those marvellous incongruities, then Jurowski’s version would be preferable.
As to soloists, differences naturally exist: for example, Nikolai Kurpe is a more smooth-toned Ikharev than is Vladimir Bogatschov on Capriccio, and Viacheslav Pochapski makes a more singing Alexei than does Capriccio’s Nikolai Nisiyenko. However, everyone concerned is convincing, and none of the characters are unambiguously better served on one label than on the other.
Once we admit extra-musical considerations, though, the balance tips heavily in Capriccio’s favour. Sinfully, Saison Russe do not provide Russian texts of the libretto, giving only English and French translations along with a short background note about the composition. Capriccio, on the other hand, enclose the full Cyrillic Russian libretto in a separate booklet inside the jewel case. This is in addition to the companion booklet that sits in the sleeve next to the case, which has English and German translations and synopses, plus background notes and biographies of the performers. Capriccio are also more generous with their cueing, giving twelve tracks to Shostakovich’s fragment versus Saison Russe’s four. Finally, even though it’s almost three times the length of Saison Russe’s fragment, Meyer’s completion can be had for roughly the same outlay because Capriccio is a mid-price label.
W. Mark Roberts
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Suite on verses by Michelangelo Buonarroti for bass and orchestra, opus 145a[a], Three Romances on poems by Alexander Pushkin for bass and small orchestra, opus 46a[b], Six Romances on words by Japanese poets for tenor and orchestra, opus 21[c].
Michail Jurowski, Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester, Anatoli Kotscherga (bass)[a], Anatoli Babykin (bass)[b], Vladimir Kazatchouk (tenor)[c].
Capriccio 10 777. DDD. 58:06.
I would not be in the least bit surprised if the orchestrated Michelangelo Suite turns out to be the next under-exploited Shostakovich work to receive the massed attention of record companies. In scale, mood and import, this piece is in the league of the vocal symphonies Nos. 13 and 14, and not having it in one’s collection is a serious omission. In 1974, Shostakovich took advantage of the coincidence of Michelangelo’s upcoming 500th birthday to set, for bass and piano, poems by the Tuscan polymath dealing with personally resonant themes: love (transient or lost), alienation, mortality. His orchestration of the same year is no less evocative for its spartan means, and is valedictory throughout. There is a symphonic unity to the eleven short segments, made explicit by the restatement, verbatim, of the opening theme from the bitter first movement, Truth, in the penultimate poem, Death (the titles are Shostakovich’s).
Michail Jurowski and Anatoli Kotscherga have the formidable competition in opus 145a of Vladimir Ashkenazy and no less than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (coupled with the Captain Lebyadkin Verses; Decca/London 433 319-2). But make no mistake, the Capriccio artists are by no means poor cousins. The Ukrainian Kotscherga, a veteran of the Kiev opera house and la Scala, with a busy international concert schedule, is a master of his instrument. He has a coarser grain to his voice than does Fischer-Dieskau, and to my ears this edginess better suits the instability of the music. In Morning, a salacious meditation on earthly pleasures, Kotscherga’s pointed articulation reveals rhythms that Fischer-Dieskau smudges. Consistently, Fischer-Dieskau is the more operatic of the two, Kotscherga the more declamatory.
Jurowski is not as long-winded as Ashkenazy. He is less concerned with epic gestures than with portraying the glance backwards at personal terrors and regrets. The Cologne orchestra sound to be evenly matched with the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin on Decca, marginally less smooth but correspondingly more serrated, which suits Jurowski’s approach.
Each of these versions is internally consistent, with conductor, orchestra and bass performing with common purpose. Even the recordings reflect the interpretive differences, Capriccio’s well-focussed acoustic sounding less plush than Decca’s. Listen to the sum effect in Creativity, in which Michelangelo muses on the relationship of the sculptor to God as creator, ending with:
“The higher the arm is raised above the anvil,
the heavier the blow:
now it is raised above me to the skies;
I stiffen in the block of stone
while God the craftsman – only He! –
hesitates to wield the hammerblow.”
Shostakovich’s orchestration is shot through with shrill cries and skeletal percussion effects, which suggest that someone less than supernatural – but more immediately fearful – has his hand on the hammer. On Decca, this movement has a grandness missing from the Capriccio account, whereas Jurowski’s team admits more of a double meaning to the atheist Shostakovich’s setting. As splendid as the Decca account is, the new Capriccio performance is more idiomatic and, I imagine, closer to Shostakovich’s intent.
Although Shostakovich composed the Pushkin Romances (again, originally for bass and piano) four decades before the Michelangelo Verses, and these are but four brief movements, they are kindred in theme. Written a year after the 1936 Pravda attacks on Lady Macbeth and Limpid Stream, they make what at first seems a suicidal choice of texts to set; the first poem, Rebirth (translated here as Regeneration), opens with:
“An artist-barbarian with his idle brush
blackens a picture painted by a genius,
and senselessly sketches over it
his own illicit drawing.”
Wisely, the piece was not performed until 1940, though Gerard McBurney has pointed out that the march theme from the finale of the Fifth Symphony of 1937 derives from the four notes which underline “An artist-barbarian”.
Shostakovich’s own orchestration of the Romances drops the fourth poem, Stanzas, leaving the defiant Rebirth, the laconic A jealous maiden, sobbing bitterly, and the ominous Premonition (“envious Fortune threatens me/once more with misfortune…/Shall I continue to scorn Fate?”). The instrumentation is light, and nowhere approaches the gloominess of the Michelangelo score. The performers face little difficulty, and bass Anatoli Babykin is sympathetic, albeit a trifle chesty.
The Six Romances on words by Japanese poets are earlier still, their composition split between 1928 and ’32. Exclusively concerned with love, this opus is the creation of a young, romantic soul, and thirty-nine-year-old tenor Vladimir Kazatchouk makes an ardent suitor. The orchestra’s alternately tender and feverish playing emphasizes similarities with some of the more intimate passages of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which clearly mines the present work.
Although it would be competitive at full price, this is a mid-price disc. Moreover, the English translations in the booklet are not the Pythonesque oddities of past Capriccio releases. One major disappointment is that Russian librettos are not provided along with the trilingual translations. Their inclusion should be considered mandatory in any production of Russian vocal music. This complaint aside, those who have neglected Shostakovich’s vocal output will find this a valuable introduction, and it will be a desirable addition to the libraries of those who already know the works. Very strongly recommended.
W. Mark Roberts
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Shostakovich Plays Shostakovich – Vol. 2
Symphony No. 10, opus 93 (arr. for piano duet by Shostakovich)[a], Four Preludes for Violin and Piano from 24 Preludes, opus 34 (arr. by Dmitri Tsyganov)[b], The Gadfly, opus 97, Introduction (arr. for piano by Shostakovich).
Dmitri Shostakovich (piano), Moisei Weinberg (piano)[a], Leonid Kogan (violin)[b].
Revelation RV 70002. ADD mono. TT 55:10.
This 1954 recording of the piano duet arrangement of the Tenth Symphony is the same to which Sam Silverman referred in his Vainberg discography (DSCH 8), having previously appeared on a double-mono Le Chant du Monde disc that is no longer available. Its return to the catalogue is most welcome, not only because it gives us the composer’s interpretation of his symphonic masterpiece, but also because it represents the only available recording of his piano duet arrangement. To boot, we no longer have to contend with either re-wiring our stereos to have the recording play through both speakers or listening through only one speaker, as the double-mono incarnation required.
The relevance of tempos in the piano duet version to performance of the orchestral score is tenuous, not least because the piano is limited to percussive notes whereas strings and wind instruments aren’t. With this difference in sustainability, it is unsurprising that timings for all but the third movement are the fastest I’ve seen on record, with the exception of Mitropoulos, who brought in the first movement five seconds sooner in his contemporary recording (CBS MPK 45698). Moreover, this arrangement has its own internal logic, and should not be thought of as a mere teaching guide to the original score. Consequently, this performance is not likely to reflect closely the tempos at which Shostakovich intended the symphony to be performed.
Nevertheless, it is significant that Shostakovich and Vainberg take longer over that third movement than do Mitropoulos, Mravinsky (e.g., Erato 2292-45753-2) or von Karajan (DG 429 716-2) in their classic accounts. The point of the movement has always been problematic, which may account for conductors’ tendency to hurry through. Here, the piano duo is unafraid to allow the observer to stop and scan the surrounding emotional desert.
The piano duet arrangement also provides insight into performance of the orchestral version in that, by paring the voices to a minimum, Shostakovich reveals what he considers to be the essential features of his narrative. One such insight appears in the main climax of the third movement. The DSCH motto at first sounds undifferentiated from the surrounding notes, but as the conflict increases, the motto is hammered out with greater emphasis. The symbolism should be transparent.
Considering how aptly Shostakovich’s orchestration conveys the symphony’s contrasting moods, it is remarkable how little of the score’s musical argument is lost in this reduction. Throughout, the main melodic lines are preserved intact.
Although Vainberg’s pianistic skills were held in high regard, the playing in this collaboration is barely tolerable. There are mistakes aplenty, and phrasing is often garbled, probably as a result of insufficient rehearsal to get the two pianists playing in sync. While these booklet notes do not mention who is playing which part, Vainberg revealed in an interview that he had taken the upper register, leaving Shostakovich as the more ham-fisted of the two on the lower keyboard.
No such weaknesses of execution plague the four opus 34 Preludes that the Beethoven String Quartet’s Dmitri Tsyganov arranged for violin and piano. Leonid Kogan demonstrates his characterful virtuosity, and Shostakovich is an able partner. Actually, the arrangement is unchallenging for the pianist, giving the violin the starring treble staff and leaving the piano with a purely supporting role on the bass. In Prelude No. 24, these roles flip midway, to give the suddenly more interesting bass melody to the violin, before switching back for the final bars where the treble clef again rules.
Perplexingly, Revelation’s transfer cuts two semiquavers from the third to last bar of Prelude No. 24. Otherwise, sound quality of this recording is excellent, far exceeding that of the other two works on the disc.
The last of these is an excerpt from The Gadfly which will be familiar as the beginning of the Introduction movement from the film music suite. Running to under 2&1/2 minutes, played without subtlety, and fuzzily recorded, it is remarkable only for the fact that it appears to be the only known example of Shostakovich playing any of his film music. It’s the symphony that really makes this CD another Revelation must-have.
W. Mark Roberts
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Following their release, on Vol. 1 of this series, of Shostakovich at the piano in 11 of his 24 Preludes and Fugues (see DSCH 8), Revelation now present the remaining pieces of opus 87 that the composer recorded. Preludes and Fugues Nos. 17 and 18 were apparently recorded in 1956, though exact dates are not available, while the remaining five were recorded in 1951 and ’52, prior to the public première.
As on Vol. 1, analogue hiss has been virtually banished, and with a rich and stable tone one soon forgets that one is listening to a mono recording. The noise reduction process has not impaired the upper frequency range significantly.
I’m struck, listening to these pieces, by the way the composer chooses to bring forth an Impressionistic aspect latent in the score. I challenge you not to hear Satie in the Bb minor and the G minor Preludes and Fugues. The same wistfulness pervades most of the other Preludes and Fugues on this disc, which, being mainly in minor keys, vary in mood rather less than the pieces presented in Vol. 1.
One potential concern with this disc has been identified by professional pianist and longtime Shostakovich enthusiast Raymond Clarke. He questions the authenticity of Prelude and Fugue No. 17, writing that the level of technical achievement displayed by the pianist in this piece surpasses Shostakovich’s own abilities, lacking shortcomings that are evident in other of Shostakovich’s recordings. Chief among these clues is Mr. Clarke’s observation that Shostakovich was unable to successfully stretch a 10th interval, and redistributed notes between two hands when this was necessary, but in Revelation’s No. 17, a conspicuous 10th is stretched effortlessly. I find Mr. Clarke’s reasoning highly convincing. Even without an advanced understanding of pianistic technique, one can discern an assuredness in the playing of this piece not quite matched in the others. Mr. Clarke suspects that Sviatoslav Richter may be the pianist responsible for this recording.
It is also suggestive that in the notes accompanying Vol. 1, Revelation stated that Shostakovich recorded 17 of his 24 Preludes and Fugues, whereas that number has increased by one with this release. It is easy to see how such a mix-up could occur, as Revelation’s information comes from the Ostankino archive, and, in decades past, archivists may have intentionally mislabelled tapes to evade orders to destroy recordings of artists who fell into disfavour. In any case, Prelude and Fugue No. 17 is played very well indeed, so, with the proviso that it may not be performed by the composer, its presence on this disc is welcome.
All this is not to say that Shostakovich’s own playing in the other pieces is unsatisfactory; far from it. Here is a sensitivity to colour, and a sense of revelation of purely personal emotion, that is not hinted at by, say, the architectural approach of Keith Jarrett (ECM 1469/70) or Tatiana Nikolaeva’s more extrovert manner (Melodiya 74321198492) [Recordings Editor’s note: since this review was written, the BMG/Melodiya release has become unavailable, but the same recording has been reissued on Regis RRC 3005]. The D minor Prelude and Fugue that closes the work is a model of sustained concentration across its dramatic changes in tempo, the occasional flubbed note notwithstanding. Even aside from their privileged status as the composer’s own performances, these recordings represent a valuable contribution on purely musical grounds.
The Preludes and Fugues on this CD are a generous enough programme on their own. Revelation’s coupling, the pithy Three Fantastic Dances, amounts to not quite three minutes of music. Given the historical value of hearing Shostakovich in another of his compositions, it would be churlish to complain that these light pieces are an unsatisfying partner to the Preludes and Fugues, which they are if one insists on consecutive listening. Regrettably, they have been transferred to CD a semitone sharp. Again, I must thank Raymond Clarke for bringing this to my attention, as I do not have perfect pitch, but I have since checked on the transfer pitch with a piano and confirmed that it is indeed incorrect. The last time Shostakovich enthusiasts had to contend with this problem was when Philips transferred Mravinsky’s 1982 performance of the Eighth Symphony a semitone sharp (Philips 422 442-2); happily, that same performance is now available, at the correct speed, on Russian Disc (RD CD 10 917). As for the Three Fantastic Dances, I’ve alerted Revelation to the problem, and they indicate that they will correct this error on the next pressing of the CD. DSCH will make note of the correction if and when it occurs.
Finally, while the order of Preludes and Fugues is as it appears on the cover, the listed timings for tracks 1 and 4-6 are jumbled. Total playing time is as stated.
W. Mark Roberts
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Shostakovich Plays Shostakovich – Vol. 4
Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor, opus 40, Piano Quintet in G minor, opus 57.
Dmitri Shostakovich (piano), Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), Beethoven String Quartet: Dmitri Tsiganov, Vasily Shirinsky (violins), Vadim Borisovsky (viola), Sergei Shirinsky (cello).
Revelation RV 70005. ADD mono. TT 55:05
This installment in Revelation’s series presents one of Shostakovich’s most musically satisfying recordings, his 1957 performance of his Cello Sonata with Rostropovich. As with other recordings in this cycle, this has been reissued before, most recently on Russian Disc’s own Shostakovich plays Shostakovich disc, coupled with both Piano Concertos (RD CD 15 005).
No apologies need be made for the composer’s playing here, for which we may thank the fact that he’d had over two decades of practice, having premièred the work himself in December 1934. Rostropovich is on top form. This performance holds up next to the best, with virtuosic playing and flexible rhythms. This is music that can seem inconsequential if played prosaically, but Shostakovich and Rostropovich imbue their performance with emotion. The Largo, emotional linchpin of the work, is dark and anguished, contrasting starkly with the ebullient playing of the movements on either side.
Recorded in the Large Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, the sound is generally fine. The piano occasionally sounds like it’s playing in a distant cavern, but the cello is captured very well indeed, aside from the analogue hiss that blankets its very loudest notes. In comparison with the Russian Disc CD (which is AAD), the Revelation transfer hisses noticeably more throughout. However, Russian Disc’s more drastic noise reduction methods prune the upper frequencies more, rendering a less realistic stage image.
Shostakovich himself also premièred his Piano Quintet, with the Beethoven Quartet, ten years before the recording of this performance. Although the work was not dedicated to Rostropovich as the booklet note states, it still makes a most appropriate companion to the Cello Sonata, as the work, and this performance specifically, possess a similar mix of introspection and brilliant virtuosity. The playing is dazzling, particularly in the Scherzo. Shostakovich threatens to trip over himself here and there, but keeps up with the Beethovens in even the most difficult passages. Although the Quintet was recorded seven years before the Cello Sonata, Revelation have been able to quell more noise without doing harm to the useful frequency range.
Another winner, then, in a most worthwhile enterprise. Rather sad that there are only two more discs to go before the project is completed.
W. Mark Roberts
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Recital of Russian Music
Sonata for cello and piano in D minor, opus 40, Rachmaninov: Sonata for cello and piano in G minor, opus 19.
Herre-Jan Stegenga (cello), Jacob Bogaart (piano).
Koch Discover International DIDC 920187. DDD. TT 66:20.
Sonata for cello and piano in D minor, opus 40, Rachmaninov: Sonata for cello and piano in G minor, opus 19, Vocalise, opus 34 No. 14 (arr. for cello and piano by Leonard Rose).
Desmond Hoebig (cello), Andrew Tunis (piano).
CBC Records MVCD1093. DDD. TT 67:51.
Sonata for cello and piano in D minor, opus 40, Alfred Schnittke: Sonata for cello and piano (1978), Sergei Prokofiev: Sonata for cello and piano, opus 119.
Xavier Phillips (cello), Hüseyin Sermet (piano).
Harmonia Mundi HMN 911628. DDD. TT 63:35.
Modern recordings of Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata continue to flood an already-full market. This being the case, the main thing going for the live recording on Koch’s budget Discover International label is price. Jacob Bogaart and Herre-Jan Stegenga are evidently fine musicians. There are some subtle turns of phrase in the first movement, and tone and precision hold up well under the strain of the second and fourth. In general, however, this performance is heavy-handed. The Largo, in particular, needs more variation of intensity.
The broad strokes of both players better suit Rachmaninov’s lush textures. Again, however, I sorely missed a lighter touch. As in the Shostakovich, matters are not helped by our positioning uncomfortably close to the stage, losing any ambiance that Brussels’ St. Marc Church may have provided. These are by no means unacceptable performances, especially considering that Bogaart and Stegenga are playing to a live audience, but the acoustics make for difficult listening. There is also a nasty editing hiccup at fig. 44/5:05 in the third movement of Shostakovich’s Sonata.
If you demand this coupling, paying full price will get you far better sound and also net Rachmaninov’s unavoidable Vocalise on the CBC Records disc. Canadians Desmond Hoebig and Andrew Tunis have been performing together for more than a decade, and it shows. There is a winning unity of purpose in their Shostakovich. Sadly, they neglect to observe the first movement repeat, amounting to around two-and-a-half minutes of music. Hoebig’s string tone is raspy at times, especially in the second movement, but not intolerably so. I wasn’t entirely convinced by that crucial third movement, which plowed ahead too eagerly in the central passages for my tastes, though Hoebig and Tunis put on the brakes in time to create a hushed close. The most interesting section of this performance is undoubtedly the last, which lacks the sunny disposition it often shows. Hoebig and Tunis appear to have carefully judged just where to hold back and where to place added stress so that the movement leaves a decidedly acidic taste in one’s mouth.
In Rachmaninov’s Sonata, Hoebig and Tunis amply supply the subtlety missing on the Discover International disc. Both players seem wholly in tune with Rachmaninov’s shifting moods. The Allegro scherzando is a model of contrast, pitting symphonic intensity in the main theme against intimate tenderness in the interlude. Sepia-coloured nostalgia permeates the bracketting movements, while lighter winds breathe through the finale. This is a simply gorgeous performance, after which the Vocalise transcription, though admirable, is quite beside the point.
Xavier Phillips and Hüseyin Sermet, while hardly being household names, are clearly musicians of the very highest order. Both play superbly, and are technically competitive with the most illustrious duos I’ve heard in this music. Some will find their Shostakovich performance too urbane, and it is certainly the case that the third movement is hurried and does not plumb the emotional depths of, say, Shostakovich’s own recording. At the same time, though, Phillips and Sermet show great sensitivity throughout to details of timing and emphasis. Wherever tempos deviate from the norm, as in the fast-paced first movement, they can be put down to artistic licence. Unidiomatic as it is, this recital is as enjoyable and musically satisfying as modern benchmarks like Lynn Harrell and Vladimir Ashkenazy’s 1989 Decca/London version (421 774-2, reissued as Time-Life Music CMD-29B).
The team’s sensitive touch also makes for a most satisfying recital of the familiar Prokofiev Sonata. Schnittke’s spiky Cello Sonata is not nearly so lovable a beast, but it too receives committed treatment. The sound quality is excellent, so if the coupling appeals, one need not hesitate.
W. Mark Roberts
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Cello Concerto No. 1 in E flat, opus 107[a], Cello Concerto No. 2 in G, opus 126[b], Satires (Pictures of the Past), opus 109 – Five Romances for Soprano and Piano[c].
David Oistrakh (cond)[a,b], Moscow State Philharmonic[a,b], Mstislav Rostropovich (cello)[a,b]/(piano)[c], Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano)[c].
Revelation RV 10087. ADD mono. TT 72:21.
Rostropovich recorded these concertos, both dedicated to him, several times after giving their first performances. I felt that his later outings with Seiji Ozawa were rather too sober, owing mainly to Ozawa’s flat direction (Erato 2292-45332-2 and Deutsche Grammophon DG 431475-2). This leaves vintage recordings that, inevitably, suffer from limitations of sound quality. Rostropovich appeared, with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, in the very first recording of opus 107 in studio sessions following the American première. This stereo recording was lately available on CBS Masterworks (MPK 44850) and is due to reappear this month as Sony Classical Masterworks Heritage MHK 63327. It is a remarkable document; one can almost smell the newness of the music, and the playing is as fine as one would expect from the team and from the fact that the studio allowed for second chances.
As for the performances on the present CD, they show the music at its most raw, in all senses of that word. The First Cello Concerto recording (previously available on Russian Disc RD CD11106), comes from January 1965. The opening movement is attacked with dazzling fury, and under this pressure the horn soloist is woefully inaccurate. Rostropovich too misses a few notes. The Moderato offers greater technical assurance without taking the edge off the cello and orchestral strings. It is one of the most anguished recitals of this movement that one is ever likely to encounter. The cadenza maintains rapt concentration, before plunging into the final movement, which is as impetuous as the first. This performance isn’t for those with low tolerance for errors, but you won’t find a more exciting reading on disc.
The Second Cello Concerto, from November 1967, is even easier to recommend. Rostropovich’s command is secure at all times, and Oistrakh fully exploits the sombre undercurrents and mechanical juddering of the orchestral writing. Ensemble is better than in the previous performance, and the strings deserve special mention, with shimmering violins and gloomy double-basses. Listen also for the warbling brass in the second movement.
In the Largo, Rostropovich admits just enough vibrato to engage the heart without consoling it. The orchestra are appropriately deranged in the central section of the movement, with precise pizzicato work. After an uneasy return to contemplative playing for the rest of the Largo, all players switch back to this controlled lunacy for the second movement. Paradoxically, even though the last movement is given a very light touch, this almost callous refusal to aggrandize its gestures leaves a deep disquiet that is hard to shake for a long time afterwards.
Revelation’s partnering of Satires keeps the recordings on this release within the family, as the opus is dedicated to Vishnevskaya, and the husband-and-wife duo also gave the first performance, with Rostropovich trading his cello for a piano. This recording comes from October 1967, nearly eight years after the première at which Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya had to encore the work twice for the appreciative audience. With her music-hall background, Vishnevskaya clearly relishes the arching lines of these five satiric pieces. She fits her singing to the pointed humour of the texts, sounding for all the world like Florence Foster Jenkins without the tone-deafness. Rostropovich’s own role is less conspicuous, but his tinkling is most endearing in the fifth romance, Kreutzer Sonata. Regrettably, Revelation supply no texts.
Sound in these recordings is more than acceptable, and the live audiences are unobtrusive. However, a serious problem exists with this release, which Revelation say they are in the process of resolving. Due to a mix-up with Revelation’s data-storage server, an undetermined number of copies of this release have been distributed with Portuguese composer Fernando Lopes-Graça’s Concerto de Camera, a cello work Rostropovich commissioned and premièred (1967), substitued for Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2. My first notice of this was in December last year, when DSCH subscriber C. H. Loh reported that he had unsuspectingly bought one such copy. Revelation informed me then that the problem had affected a small number of discs that shipped prematurely, and that they had recalled and replaced them; they presumed that Mr. Loh’s copy had slipped through their exporter’s net. Now, however, I have learned that DSCH’s own Editor encountered copies bearing Concerto de Camera at mainstream London retailers both times he attempted to obtain the disc – most recently in June this year. This error is particularly regrettable as Shostakovich’s Second Concerto is far less well-known than the First, so some people might not realise that the second work on their flawed disc is not what the listing claims it to be! There is no way to determine from the outside of the jewel case if a given copy is the genuine article, so prospective purchasers should insist on listening before buying.
W. Mark Roberts
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Violin Concerto No. 2 in C sharp minor, opus 129, Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, opus 63.
Mstislav Rostropovich (cond), London Symphony Orchestra, Maxim Vengerov (violin).
Teldec 0630-13150-2. DDD. TT 62:18.
On the heels of their much-fêted release of the Shostakovich and Prokofiev First Violin Concertos (Teldec 4509-92256-2), Maxim Vengerov and Mstislav Rostropovich now present what are, respectively, their less and more popular siblings. The current catalogue lists around twice as many recordings of Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 as of No. 2.
With the committed advocacy of these forces, however, the Second Violin Concerto has never sounded more convincing. Vengerov is perhaps the most audibly identifiable violinist of his generation, and arguably the most instinctively musical. His bow seems ever on the verge of overtripping itself (though it doesn’t), as if his next note is already contained in the current one. Vengerov’s performances are marked by a greater concern with getting to the rhythmic core of a piece than with technical accuracy, which is not to say that he is in the least bit deficient in the latter property, but only that when listening to his playing the process of musical creation quickly becomes academic and one hears only pure artistic thought.
That point is evident throughout Vengerov’s conversationally phrased first movement of the Shostakovich, in which he plays with a fluidity that belies the devilishness of the writing. Not until after the movement’s central climax, when Shostakovich releases to solo violin the recapitulation of themes previously delivered by the full orchestra, does one suspect how taxing the bowing must have been; one can then clearly hear Vengerov’s laboured breathing. Otherwise, one is struck most by Vengerov’s unselfconscious framing of notes into coherent musical ideas. An apt comparison is Dmitri Sitkovetsky’s reading with Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Virgin VC 7 91143-2). Although Sitkovetsky is a most penetrating and emotive violinist (I consider him to be quite underrated), his more generic rhythmicity in this movement does not fix one’s attention so squarely. Although Sitkovetsky and Davis take just 12:31 to Vengerov/Rostropovich’s 14:37, the latter version seems more closely argued.
Vengerov is equally persuasive in the second movement, demonstrating that its reluctant lyricism is, in its own way, as moving as the sweeping gestures of the First Concerto’s passacaglia. The third movement is even harder to carry off, but again Vengerov ferrets out the structures buried beneath its obfuscating detail.
If I have neglected mention of the contribution of Rostropovich and the London Symphony Orchestra before this point, it is only because they and the soloist are so wholly in tune that the qualities Vengerov expresses apply equally well to their performing. In that final movement, the responsorial interplay between the violinist and orchestra minimizes the tendency for the piece to sound aimless. The LSO are on top form, and sing as fluently as if this concerto were core repertoire.
Musicologist Stephen Walsh had justification for suggesting that Prokofiev “possessed an innate musicality greater than any composer of his time or since,” and certainly, this composer and Vengerov seem made for each other. This performance of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto isn’t as driven as some, and Viktoria Mullova bull’s-eyed Prokofiev’s flailing notes even more surely on Philips (422 364-2; coupled with Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1). However, one needn’t agree entirely with Rostropovich that Mullova “is much more violinist than real musician” to perceive Vengerov’s performance as more expressive. What strikes one most when listening to the first two movements is his patient development of the material. All this said, the final movement is a pyrotechnic marvel, Vengerov’s strings shedding unearthly partials; I suspect that the very highest harmonics captured on this recording will exceed the hearing range of a significant percentage of listeners! As in the Shostakovich, the LSO provide top-notch support.
This is music-making of the highest order, captured on a recording that, while being artificially balanced, is definitely in the demonstration class.
W. Mark Roberts
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Symphony No. 5 in D minor, opus 47, Chamber Symphony, opus 110a (arr. of String Quartet No. 8 by Rudolf Barshai).
Mariss Jansons, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
EMI Classics 7243 5 56442 2 0. DDD. TT 71:23.
This disc comes a decade after Mariss Jansons last recorded the Fifth, then too for EMI, with the Oslo Philharmonic (CDC 7 49181 2). That earlier CD did not inspire enthusiasm for a new outing; Jansons blitzed through the symphony with utter disregard for the buildup or release of tension. Matters were only made worse by the mediocrity of the playing and tinny acoustics.
How times have changed! Jansons’ new Fifth is a profound re-thinking of the work, and not only in comparison with this conductor’s previous recording. Jansons displays a powerful overall conception, which successfully translates into music the prevailing scholarship on the symphony’s subtext. Obviously, notes alone cannot convey the specifics of that meaning, but no extra-musical knowledge should be required for a listener to discern that Jansons’ performance is clearly and consistently about the conflict between an individual protagonist and an implacable foe.
In the second movement, for example, Jansons depicts a dialogue between, on the one hand, stern lower and massed strings and brass, and on the other, a free-spirited voice in high winds and violin that sounds reluctant or unable to limit its imagination to the lines it is being ordered to parrot. The former personality’s leaden nature is conveyed by dynamic uniformity, exemplified by the eight peremptory hammer blows of exactly the same emphasis which are delivered by the horns at fig. 61+6/2:35 and again at fig. 63+7/2:59.
At the same time, the strictly musical logic of Jansons’ no-longer impatient direction is compelling. Whereas his earlier recording disgorged notes in free-flow, this one is structured into discrete musical sentences, the difference being most noticeable in the first and third movements. Tempos are still on the fast side – the VPO’s precision suits well – but Jansons suspends time when needed, as in the central section and close of the Largo, which impart a sense of desolate isolation.
Nuances of phrasing and orchestral balance surprise and challenge at every turn. I imagine that listeners will disagree about the validity of many of Jansons’ interpretive decisions. One such twist brings to the foreground the timpani at the beginning of the fourth movement. At this moment, we are used to the timpani roll serving to underpin the crescendo on winds; compare Rostropovich and the National Symphony Orchestra on Teldec (4509-94557-2). Instead, Jansons startles by having the timpani bang loudly from the outset. This is not what the Sikorski edition prescribes – the roll is marked to rise from p to ƒƒ – but it is undeniably effective, shocking the listener out of the hush left by the close of the third movement, and simultaneously imposing a sense of menace that is echoed by the Vienna winds’ especially chilling trill.
By coincidence, the same highlighting of the timpani can be heard on another coupling of the Fifth and Chamber Symphonies, from Mark Gorenstein and the Russian Symphony Orchestra (PopeMusic PMG2009-2). Issued on a gold-coated audiophile CD entitled Redemption, Gorenstein’s performance of the Fifth is otherwise quite dissimilar, with less subtle gesturing but correspondingly freer drama.
EMI have recorded the symphony at a low level, but it blooms once the volume knob is turned past its usual position. While the recording gives a realistic enough feel for the acoustics of the Musikverein, I suspect that too-close miking may be responsible for my one main quibble, a distractingly highlighted rasp that accompanies the forceful bowing of the double basses in the climax of the third movement. The Vienna audience are their usual paragons of concert etiquette, and not a sniffle is to be heard from them throughout.
Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement of the Eighth Quartet makes for a generous coupling, and is impressively performed and recorded. While Jansons successfully conveys the loneliness of the slow movements, the Vienna strings sound too well-fed, and I was left feeling that little was at stake. The version on the aforementioned PopeMusic album is at once more confessional and less civilized. It is also more idiomatic, with Gorenstein’s youth musicians reminding me of the old Leningrad Philharmonic’s strings.
But getting back to Jansons’ new Fifth, it is the most thought-provoking performance of a Shostakovich piece that I’ve heard in years, and it demands a hearing.
W. Mark Roberts
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Written With The Heart’s Blood
Chamber Symphony, opus 110a (arr. Rudolf Barshai), Two Pieces for String Octet, opus 11, Symphony for Strings, opus 118a (arr. of String Quartet No. 10 by Rudolf Barshai).
Stuart Canin, New Century Chamber Orchestra.
New Albion NA 088 CD. DDD. TT 56:29.
The gory title scrawled in arterial red across the front of the New Albion album is a quote from American poet Carl Sandburg describing Shostakovich’s music. According to music director Stuart Canin, this and the dedication of the Eighth Quartet “to the memory of the victims of fascism and war” inspired his team’s approach to the pieces on this disc. Presumably unaware of Shostakovich’s suicidal state while writing the Eighth Quartet, Canin suggests that “the recurring motifs of hope and renewal show that Shostakovich was ever a human being, always hopeful of an end to dark times.” Not surprisingly, then, the emphasis here is on the up-front, public potential of opus 110a.
There is no denying the enthusiasm that this San Francisco Bay area ensemble displays for the work; one gets a palpable sense that they have only recently discovered it. Emote they do. This comes, though, at the price of depth. Local effects are exploited without clear justification in terms of an overall framework, such as the showily exaggerated crescendo at fig. 18/0:38 in the second movement. Louder passages sometimes sound woolly, due to excessively reverberant church acoustics.
The New Century Orchestra players are more persuasive in the rarely-recorded Pieces for Octet, written while Shostakovich was composing his First Symphony. The short Prelude and Scherzo that make up opus 11 are thematically unrelated to each other, but each is tightly argued. The polystylistic Prelude is a reverie that hearkens back to less-troubled musical forms, whereas the self-consciously demonic Scherzo displays Shostakovich’s successful integration of avant-garde techniques. Both receive high-voltage renditions, with very fine violin work.
Barshai’s string orchestra arrangement of Quartet No. 10 is intrinsically easier to interpret convincingly than is opus 110a, as opus 118 is arguably the most symphonic of the fifteen quartets. Consequently, I did not find the opus 118a performance to be as unsatisfying as the one given to opus 110a, even though it is cast from the same mould. The orchestra muscles through the most technically challenging sections without apparent difficulty, and the violent second movement is delivered with impressive impact. The anodyne presentation of the slow third movement is quite moving, while the outer movements are served up competently.
Even so, there is far more to this music than the surface emotion on show here. I imagine that these cathartic performances will appeal to uninitiated buyers who find the album’s New Age presentation attractive rather than off-putting, and anyone wanting the Pieces for Octet can buy with confidence. The Chamber Symphonies, however, supply resolutions that are too easily won and that are, at least in the case of opus 110a, surely illusory.
W. Mark Roberts
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Chamber Symphony, opus 110a (arr. Rudolf Barshai), Peteris Vasks: Musica dolorosa, Alfred Schnittke: Trio Sonata (arr. for string orchestra by Yuri Bashmet).
Dennis Russell Davies, Stuttgarter Kammerorchester.
ECM New Series ECM 1620. DDD. TT 67:31.
Worlds apart from that on the New Albion CD, Dennis Russell Davies’ conception of the Chamber Symphony is nothing short of a revelation, proving that the grittiness of the quartet version need not be lost in the string orchestra scoring.
The entrance of the DSCH motto, hushed and already spent, sets the tone for the rest of the opening Largo, which stubbornly resists the temptation to lyricism. The tempo throughout is slow, Davies taking 6:27 to reach the next movement, in contrast with Canin’s 5:14 and Jansons’ 5:56. A judicious combination of dynamics and speed creates a mood of introspective concentration that is personally tragic without becoming maudlin.
When the Allegro molto arrives, it does not erupt with startling violence, as is common practice, but instead drops with inexorable weight and grinds onwards at a relatively slow pace. Listened to in isolation, this movement sounds underplayed, but in the context of how Davies presents the previous movement, the logic of his approach is clear. A manic outburst would not be nearly as terrifying to the worn-down personality of the first movement as is this crushing but calculating force. It is hideously evil in its deliberateness.
Moreover, by exercising restraint in the second movement, Davies places the passages that follow in a more prominent position. These he allows to flow expressively until the composer’s voice is shattered by the three swift blows that begin the fourth movement. This section proves to be the dramatic heart of his interpretation, unfolding with a devastating intensity, and it is here that the added sonority of the string orchestra is chiefly felt.
The fifth movement is also achingly intense. Each iteration of the DSCH motto is drained, as if a final breath were being taken, so that each could be the last. This could be melodramatic, but as with the rest of this performance, the effect is carefully judged. There is no hope, no possibility of renewal.
The two other Soviet works on this CD are appropriate make-weights, linked loosely by the theme of grief or leave-taking, although (it almost goes without saying) they inhabit less extreme depths than does the Chamber Symphony. Composed in 1983, Latvian Peteris Vasks’ Musica dolorosa is a piece that excites on first hearing. Although written in memory of his dead sister, its emotions are overt and indeed not uniformly dolorous. According to Vasks, the piece also reflects the political oppression of Latvians under the USSR: “I don’t have to dream up the suffering. I’m in the middle of it. My entire family too. My nation.” Vasks’ idiom in Musica dolorosa resembles that of contemporary Kancheli – his more recent works have evolved in parallel towards more minimalist gestures. Beginning with a lament that makes effective use of falling glissandi, the single movement soon begins moving forward relentlessly, propelled by an insistent pulse and repetition of a pregnant three-note motif. All is interrupted by an extended expressive outburst, with shades of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho film score. The discourse and recapitulation that follow outstay their welcome, but on the whole, Musica dolorosa is worth getting to know.
Schnittke’s Trio Sonata was written shortly before his first stroke, and seems to contemplate dimensions closed to the living. In viola player Yuri Bashmet’s string orchestration, the sonata weaves a mantle of contrasting shades of grey through juxtaposition of different styles. The composer is, of course, notorious for his polystylism, but in this work, the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and modern coexist without irritation, successfully imparting a timeless feel. The simple main theme and its variations have a Sibelian primordiality to them. The Trio is split between two movements, the second of which pares to essentials the already economical material of the first. At close to half an hour, this is substantial stuff that rewards repeated listening.
Extraneous stage noises aside, the recording is clean and spacious. The booklet notes by Gerard McBurney are characteristically insightful, and ECM package the jewel case in a cardboard sleeve bearing the same artwork as on the booklet and rear of the case; this could help to protect the jewel case, but if you insist on conformity on your CD shelves you need not keep it. This is an exceptionally fine production of a challenging programme, and the Chamber Symphony in particular is not to be missed.
W. Mark Roberts
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String Quartet No. 8, opus 110, Anton Webern: Langsamer Satz für Streichquartett, Emil František Burian: String Quartet No. 4, opus 95.
Rosamunde Quartet: Andreas Reiner, Simon Fordham (violins), Helmut Nicolai (viola), Anja Lechner (cello).
ECM New Series ECM 1629 457 067-2. DDD. TT 46:40.
ECM are also the source of yet another new recording of the ubiquitous Eighth Quartet in its original formulation. This was released in Europe in 1997, but will not be available in North America until 14 July of this year.
The accompanying interview with the players hints at disagreement over the importance to performance of considering the circumstances surrounding the composition of Shostakovich’s music. Cellist Anja Lechner opines, “We are interested in the music, above all, knowing about all those extra-musical correlations does not really make a difference,” whereas first violinist Andreas Reiner contends, “Every available piece of information on the composer, his environment and work are of essential interest. …. [To] understand how drastic and urgent these characterisations are supposed to be can certainly require extra-musical knowledge.” He too feels, however, that the Eighth Quartet needs no special background knowledge to have a strong emotional impact.
True enough, yet emotional impact is conspicuously absent from this performance. The Rosamunde Quartet have fine rhythm, but their playing is under-characterised. The first movement is curiously untroubled, while the second is energetic enough but lacks teeth. The central sections sound aimless, and although a glimmer of connection appears towards the end of the quartet, it’s too little too late. None of this is helped by the harshly analytical recording, which imparts an annoying metallic fizz to the cello line in moments of duress. Even were the field not so impossibly competitive as it is, this would not be a recommendable performance.
The première recording of the Burian work, on the other hand, is a real discovery. Those who respond to the Shostakovich quartets will find a kindred spirit here. Considering the convergences between the lives of the two composers, this is unsurprising. Emil František Burian was an artistic wunderkind, of eclectic talents and interests, as well as being a Communist in Czechoslovakia when it was dangerous to be one rather than to not. When Shostakovich’s friend and theatrical collaborator Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested by Stalin’s goons, Burian played on his leftist credentials and wrote to Stalin to plead, unsuccessfully, for Meyerhold’s release. Tables turned during the war, when the Gestapo arrested Burian and destroyed all of his scores that they could find. Burian suffered four years of internment and torture in German concentration camps. It is probable that the hollowness lurking throughout his Fourth Quartet, written in 1947, can be traced to his unimaginable wartime experiences.
This quartet is not, however, primarily distressed in the manner of Shostakovich’s Eighth. Instead, what impresses on first hearing is the remarkable variety of textures and styles. The mood of the first movement is generally dark and mystical, while the Impressionistically coloured second is questing. The third movement is a driving Scherzo underpinned by an ostinato on the cello, and the fourth is a summation that convincingly integrates what has gone before without resolving it. Within each of the four movements, Burian’s style swings back and forth from sparse, static gestures vaguely reminiscent of late Shostakovich to the kind of unsteady Romanticism one hears in pre-atonal Schoenberg.
Webern’s sticky-sweet Langsamer Satz is a strange choice to make up a threesome on this disc and does little to rectify the stinginess of the total playing time. Reiner suggests, “All three works are monothematically structured and end in dissolution, like the extinguishing of a candle.” The link seems pretty thin to me, but the Webern is played with affection. Still, with a half-hour of spare room on the CD, and with no other Burian works listed in the Schwann catalogue, it is a very great pity that another of his quartets was not included.
W. Mark Roberts
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Readers may recall the brief vogue of quadraphonic LPs in the early 1970s, which attempted to reproduce a more realistic sound space (front-to-back as well as left-to-right) through four-channel recording and subsequent playback over two front and two rear loudspeakers. Whatever the merits of this approach, it was soon abandoned, due partly to the fact that few LP buyers judged it worthwhile to invest in a second pair of loudspeakers when their existing setup produced satisfactory results on both quadraphonic and stereo records. Today, however, the widespread popularity of home theatre systems designed to duplicate cinemagoers’ experience of digital surround sound means that a high percentage of CD buyers already have the equipment needed for playback of multi-channel recordings. Delos have recently picked up on this with their Virtual Reality Recording (VR2 ) method, which records from microphones placed throughout the recording hall. These sources are then mixed for transfer to CD and encoded using the Dolby Surround Sound system. Listeners with Dolby Surround decoders in their playback equipment hear reverberant sounds that are a property of the recording hall’s acoustics as would concertgoers.
Shostakovich’s sonically spectacular Eighth Symphony makes a most appropriate vehicle for such treatment. I tested the results of Delos’ method on a home theatre installation at Hal’s Stereo and Video in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. The salient features of this setup were two front, one centre and two rear Definitive Technology loudspeakers, and Adcom separate components: CD-player, pre-amp with integral Dolby Pro-Logic decoder, and power amplifier.
Sceptically expecting the unnatural sensation of being placed in the middle of the orchestra, I was surprised to find that VR2 successfully achieves a most realistic acoustic. The rear speakers do not assert themselves in a way that leads the ear to identify them as point sources. Indeed, during quiet passages, I was unaware of their contribution, just as one would predict from a real hall setting in which reverberations at low volume levels are minimal. As the decibels increased, however, I did indeed get the impression of being in a concert hall with sound filling the room. This was primarily experienced as a wider sound stage instead of feeling that music was coming from behind me. Even in quiet moments, switching from Dolby Surround to normal stereophonic play on this system resulted in a contraction of the stage, with sound receding from the previously-filled front corners of the room. I was then far more aware of the two front speakers as point sources, and it became harder to place individual instruments within the sound stage. Delos’ engineer John Eargle seems to have achieved the goal of giving the listener a very good seat in a real concert hall.
As with quadraphonic LPs, Delos’ VR2 recordings can, of course, be played on a conventional, two-speaker stereo. Indeed, Delos suggest that their method yields an increased sense of space in such normal use too. I was rather disappointed, then, to find that on my own system the acoustics of this recording were no more spacious than what other labels deliver using standard techniques. Reverberations are indeed audible, but the major effect of their presence seems to be to smear the focus somewhat. The results are certainly acceptable, but listeners should not expect anything extraordinary in stereophonic playback
Andrew Litton considers the Eighth Symphony to be “one of the most dramatic and frightening works ever composed.” He clearly feels that these aspects of the work do not require special argument to come forth, for this is a straightforward rendition that takes the score at face value. There is none of the dragging out of tempo that seems increasingly common in modern performance, particularly in the first movement, which Litton traverses four minutes faster than André Previn did in the later of his two recordings, with the London Symphony Orchestra (DG 437 819-2). This is not to say that Litton eschews any intervention on his part, but such variations as he introduces are few and well-judged, restricted to the occasional unmarked ritardando. Incidentally, Litton observes the correction to an error in previous Western copies of the score, in which the solo violin’s stratospheric rise near the end of the symphony continued upward through E# at bar 559 (12:04) instead of dipping to C# as the composer intended.
The passacaglia is the finest section of this performance, with remarkably sensitive balancing of dynamic level and rhythm. The Dallas players serve Litton admirably here, creating an atmosphere of unending twilight. The entry of muted first violins at bar 37/3:02 is positively ghostly, at first more sensed than heard.
Sadly, in other movements I found the orchestra to be on the light side when compared with the world-class competition. Responsive as they undeniably are in quieter passages, the musicians do not deliver the impact that is called for in the climaxes in the first and final movements or in the relentless march of the second. Listen to the tidal wave of sound that the Concertgebouw Orchestra generate for Haitink in his now-vintage digital recording of the Eighth, the jewel in his Shostakovich cycle (London/Decca 425 071-2 or boxed set 444 430-2), to see how terrifying this music really can be.
Special thanks to Joe Surdo of Hal’s Stereo & Video for his enthusiastic and professional consultation on the Surround Sound playback.
W. Mark Roberts
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Three recordings are currently available of Mravinsky and the Leningrad Phil in this material. Revelation’s mono studio recording from November 1959 has its shortcomings, especially tape swish that varies greatly in loudness throughout the work but never disappears, and occasional fade-outs. The sound is slightly better than in Russian Disc’s live recording of the first Leningrad performance on November 3, 1957, just four days after the world première in Moscow (RD CD 11 157). That CD presents the audience’s bronchial afflictions as clearly as it does the music, but it’s thrilling to listen to such a momentous performance. Last, but by no means least, Czech Radio made a tape of a 1967 Prague performance (live, judging by the rare cough), which is available on Praga (PR 254 018). Despite its late date, and the absence of any note that it is not in stereo, listening tests reveal that it is mono too.
The Palace Square is icy in the Revelation performance, with more precise and forcefully articulated bowing than at the Leningrad première. The brass are truer of tone, without the live performance’s fractured notes, though one should forgive those in light of the occasion. The playing on the Czech disc is as fine as on Revelation, but Mravinsky’s interpretation is substantially different, with the strings more reticent than on either of the earlier performances. The first movement as a whole is softer and almost dreamlike in the Praga issue. The two Russian performances set the stage; the Prague performance paints the scene.
The milling crowd at the opening of Revelation’s second movement fidgets impatiently on terse, truncated phrases. The movement moves rapidly onward, as if shoved by the crowds in the rear. The Russian Disc version begins similarly, but the turmoil of the first climax is even more panic-stricken, stunning the audience into relative silence. Overall, the interpretation on Praga is more fluid. The brass overload the recording at the height of the massacre on both Revelation and Praga, but one can still make out the details of Mravinsky’s direction. That second climax is actually less distorted on Russian Disc. Curiously, the Praga recording breaks between the second and third movements, inserting a few seconds of much louder hall noise than we hear on either side; how this came to be is a mystery to me.
Deceptively, the third movement lasts exactly as long in all three accounts, but it differs detectably within that duration. For all this symphony’s cinematic potential, Mravinsky was ever sensible of strictly musical logic. His 1959 interpretation of In memoriam transcends its pictorial allusions, elevating it to an unsentimental lyricism that one rarely hears, thanks largely to special care paid to the balance between the string sections. The première performance is more episodic, with less fluent phrasing, but there’s an almost naïve wistfulness about it that I find most winning. The Czech version is the least subtle, underlining the various quotations far more than in the Revelation recording.
The last movement on both Revelation and Praga ramps up incrementally, and explores a greater range of moods in its added breadth than it does on Russian Disc, the shortest version of the three by over a minute. Of the first two, Revelation nudges out Praga as the more gripping. This movement in the Leningrad première is fully as impetuous as was the second movement, but it is interrupted by a truly heart-rending English horn soliloquy. This solo (Bare your heads) is played more expertly on Revelation and Praga but somehow does not provoke the same emotional response. On all three discs, although the string figurations leading up to the tocsin calls generate goosebumps, the brass are too loud for the recording equipment; paradoxically, the Russian Disc version is the least harsh on one’s speakers.
All three performances are thrilling statements, and differ enough that if money and shelf-space are not issues, you won’t be duplicating meaninglessly if you buy all three. If you need a basis on which to choose, be warned that if you were turned off the Russian Disc account because of its poor acoustics, you will definitely be disappointed with the Revelation release as well. It conveys more internal detail, but because of the limitations of the original source, I found it impossible to play comfortably at one volume setting. The main sonic advantage it has over the Russian Disc CD is the absence of audience noise. Praga’s acoustics are nothing to write home about either, with quite high levels of analogue hiss. So, pick the Revelation CD as the most symphonically formulated and best-played, the Praga account as the most conventionally filmic, or the Russian Disc performance for its emotional immediacy and its historic value.
NOTE: Since this review was written, the Praga release discussed below (PR 254 018) has been identified as being a reproduction of the Russian recording appearing on Revelation, with audience noises added to the original studio recording. For reference purposes, my review is reproduced below unedited, but many of my comments have been invalidated by this discovery. The details about recording date and venue listed by Praga for this symphony are erroneous. Full details are contained in my report in DSCH No. 15 on misattributed recordings on the Praga label. WMR.
W. Mark Roberts
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Convincing performances of Shostakovich’s most elusive symphony being few and far between, I was impatient to get this recent arrival into the player. Polyansky, a former student of Rozhdestvensky, has racked up an impressive discography with Chandos, including an ongoing expedition through the world of the little-known Alexander Grechaninov, who was active from the end of the last century through the first half of ours. Having left the Soviet Union in 1925, Grechaninov’s idiom remained conservatively Russian. Polyansky’s impressively played and recorded performances reveal Grechaninov to have been a fair symphonist but above all a master of choral music, weaving orchestral textures from a capella voices. That Chandos cycle includes many première recordings, and is well worth exploring.
Polyansky is also on his way through Shostakovich’s orchestral output. Although his recording of the Eleventh (CHAN 9476) was a workmanlike affair, I hoped for better from his Fifteenth. Sadly, this is a pretty flat run-through. Polyansky’s orchestra has the advantage of authentically Russian sound, but the musicians miss the opportunity to inject character into the many soloistic passages. The first movement comes across as curiously undifferentiated, and its wooden marionettes seem comfortable having their strings pulled.
Polyansky favours a slow pace in the remainder of the work. The tactic can be used effectively to generate an atmosphere of stunned stasis, as Kurt Sanderling and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra proved in the second movement of their Berlin Classics recording (0090432BC). Here it merely allows pressure to seep away. Polyansky actually exceeds Sanderling’s already-glacial timing in the second movement by over a minute. Unlike Sanderling’s unblinking tour through a nightmare from which one cannot awake, Polyansky’s Adagio is altogether too insulating, with a disappointingly rounded climax.
While not as excessively slow as Sanderling in the remaining two movements, Polyansky allows them to drag as well. Everything flows too smoothly. No demons inhabit the third movement, nor does Fate have much menace in store in the finale. Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca/London 430 277-2) wound up infinitely more tension in his march to the climax of the last movement, which in the present case comes off as more bombastic than apocalyptic. For my money, Ashkenazy and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra are the team that strips the most flesh from this symphony, exposing the cartilage and bone in every movement.
Though not as disappointing as the symphony, the First Cello Concerto does not quite manage to pull this disc into thumbs-up territory. Frans Helmerson admirably conveys the tristesse of the Moderato and Cadenza, but he tends to slur the cello’s dialogue in the outer movements. The real problem here, though, lies with the balance between cello and orchestra, who seem only vaguely aware of each other’s presence.
While the recording is kind to the instruments, the recording studio’s ambient presence sounds very much like faint analogue hiss. One hopes for better from the other Shostakovich works in the pipeline: Symphony No. 12 and Cello Concerto No. 2 are to be released this month, and the Thirteenth Symphony is slated for October. These, plus Polyansky’s new Leningrad symphony and coupling of the New Babylon film music with From Jewish Folk Poetry, are candidates for review in the Winter issue of DSCH.
W. Mark Roberts