Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 22
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Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Nadine Secunde, Christopher Ventris, Francisco Vas, Anatoli Kotcherga, Graham Clark, Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Chamber Chorus of the Palau de la Música Catalana, Alexander Anissimov (Musical Director), Stein Winge (Stage Director).
EMI Classics 7243 5 99730 9 8. DVD-Video, region-free NTSC, PCM Stereo/Dolby Digital 5.1/DTS5. 2-disc set TT 187.15 min.
Recorded live at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, May 2002.
Performed in Russian with subtitles in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Catalan.
Rostropovich’s 1978 recording of Lady Macbeth (EMI Classics 7243 567776 2 or Angel Records 7243 567779 2 7; reviewed in DSCH 18) is used as the touchstone in many discussions of this opera. As when your favourite novel is made into a film, sometimes a director’s realisation does not always live up to your personal visualisations of the characters and settings. This problem is compounded with an opera, if what you hear in a live performance also differs significantly from a well-loved recording. Rostropovich fans will therefore be horrified to discover that this Barcelona production has a running time (3 hours and 7 minutes) almost half an hour longer than the Rostropovich recording (even allowing for the footage of the Liceu auditorium in the opening tracks on both DVDs and an extra interlude, discussed below; EMI’s promotional showreels are not included in the advertised running time). This is mostly due to Anissimov’s general tendency for slower tempos, but Winge also adds in moments of unaccompanied action at the end of scenes, as for example when the female workers gossip about the state of Katerina’s bed and what she may have been up to after the infamous sex scene, or the prolonged goose-stepping of the Chief of Police at the end of Scene 8. However the singing and acting from the main cast is excellent and the chorus well choreographed and disciplined in their diction.
Stein Winge’s production was originally conceived for a joint production at the Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels, and Barcelona’s Gran Teatro del Liceu in 1999, with a nearly identical main cast. Like many other directors faced with staging Lady Macbeth, Winge chose to ignore the 19th-century provincial Russia setting of the original, preferring instead a non-specific 20th-century Russia. The set conception, by Benoit Dugardyn, could not be more different from the huge, multi-level mechanical revolve in David Pountney’s production for the English National Orchestra from 1987. There is a single minimalist set, a sort of gigantic barn with a sloping roof and a large, central skylight. After the interval the roof space is transformed to reveal transparent corrugated panels, which only really become fully visible in the final act. This large unfurnished space is used as bedroom, parlour, the Ismailov yard, police barracks, wedding reception and prison trail to Siberia. The few bits of furniture, such as Katerina’s double bed, are wheeled on and off as required.
The action takes place mostly at stage level, or on top of the available furnishings, such as the bed or the trestle tables at the wedding reception. The extremes of the stage space are also used: rather than entering through Katerina’s bedroom door, Sergei enters dramatically via the skylight, descending a (very) long ladder; the cellar, in which Zinovy’s corpse is hidden and from which it is ultimately retrieved by the Shabby Peasant, is accessed through a trap door in the stage. The costumes, by Jorge Jara, are a mix of non-specific fashions, but it is hard for it not to seem like Stalinist Russia, especially with the police and prison guard uniforms.
It was Shostakovich’s intention that we should sympathise with Katerina, and not view her as a cold-blooded murderess. This he achieved through musical differentiation; Katerina is given the most lyrical, humanising music. In Scene 5, for example, to illustrate the tenderness between Katerina and Sergei before their reverie is shattered by the appearance of Boris Ismailov’s ghost, Shostakovich has a brief section of pure Mahlerian lushness, scored for strings and harp in the manner of the Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony. Thanks to EMI’s showreel, the first item of which is Simon Rattle and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra performing that very piece, it is easy to quickly compare the sonorities.
With the exception of the convicts in the final act, all the other characters, both individuals and groups, are dehumanised and made to seem grotesque through parodistic music. Winge’s stage direction deliberately over-exaggerates the grotesqueness of those characters in a position of authority over Katerina. Boris Ismailov’s lecherousness is increased manifold (see below); the priest’s drunken and debauched behaviour at the wedding feast (‘urinating’ alcohol over the Shabby Peasant and fondling the bride) makes him an obvious clone of Rasputin; the goose-stepping and arm-waving antics of the Chief of Police are reminiscent of Monty Python and the Ministry of Silly Walks.
The role of the Shabby Peasant is given special prominence and he appears in more scenes than is normal. For example, he appears out of Katerina’s wardrobe at the end of the first interlude, as if he had been spying on her and Boris, and also at the wedding feast, where he sits in front of the trestle tables, his presence probably unnoticed by the bridal pair but very obvious to the audience. This over-exposure sometimes seems like an unnecessary plot-spoiler, as if Winge is constantly interrupting the text and dramatic flow to highlight the harbinger of Katerina’s ultimate fate.
At the end of the first Scene, when Zinovy leaves to fix the burst mill dam, Boris takes charge of the farewell between Zinovy and Katerina, convincing his son that Katerina should swear an oath of fidelity to him. He then forces Katerina to kneel before Zinovy and show distress at his departure, which should be the pinnacle of her public humiliation in front of all the workers. Winge’s direction completely changes this outcome and how we view Katerina, undermining Shostakovich’s intentions. Firstly, Katerina swears an oath and uses the opportunity to throw Zinovy on the bed and embarrass him with passionate kisses. Zinovy is obviously scared by her overt sexuality. She falls to her knees as Boris orders, but not to say farewell to her husband: she pretends to perform oral sex on her father-in-law, humiliating him and her husband in front of all the workers. Thus aroused, and with his son safely out of the way, Boris Ismailov makes manifest his own lecherous intentions towards Katerina in the first orchestral interlude, between Scenes 1 and 2. Katerina is at first amused, but is then repulsed by his fumbling attempts to embrace her and runs away. All this happens before Boris actually sings about his lust for Katerina at the beginning of Act II (Scene 4), providing a sort of pre-history. To make Boris more grotesque by increasing his lecherousness is one thing, but in making Katerina partly responsible for arousing his desire, she becomes a less sympathetic character.
The five extended orchestral interludes, which separate those scenes not followed immediately by an act division, must cause nightmares for stage directors with regard to what should happen on stage whilst the orchestra comes to the fore. Although these interludes can have a practical purpose to cover the gaps between scene changes, Winge made things difficult for himself by having such a minimalist set design with few props to manoeuvre, so instead let his imagination run wild. The first two are used to illustrate Katerina’s sexuality and growing desire for a lover. Whereas Pountney used the first interlude as part of Aksinya’s rape in Scene 2, under Winge’s direction Boris clumsily tries to seduce Katerina on her infamous bed. The second interlude is even more bizarre: Katerina sits on the stage, smiling to herself about her recent wrestling bout with Sergei, and paints her toenails red. Red, the colour of blood and aroused sexual organs, is given prominence elsewhere, notably in Katerina’s wedding attire.
Not satisfied with five orchestral interludes, Winge has inserted a sixth before the beginning of Act IV, presumably to allow time for the chorus to change out of their colourful wedding clothes and into their drab convict garb. Two sections from the first movement of Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony (about 42 bars, just under 4 minutes worth) have been adapted and stitched together to cover these changes, whilst on stage the Shabby Peasant performs a slow, despairing mime. As the final act begins, he descends through the trap door into the Ismailov’s cellar to drown his sorrows in more alcohol. For those who may be interested in exactly what music was borrowed, the details are as follows: from figure 12 to figure 15 (omitting trumpet solo at figure 12 and cor anglais solo at figure 14), cutting to the flute solo at figure 23 and ending at figure 27. Musically the join works because it begins and ends on the F sharp which ended the preceding scene; also the opening motif of the flute solo, taken up by muted first violins and later the timpani, has a rhythm () which to me seems to be plaintively calling out ‘Ka-te-ri-na’, but maybe that is too fanciful. I’m in two minds about this interpolation: it could be argued that adapting the structure of the opera to fit the stage direction, and not the other way round, smacks of the tail wagging the dog, but it was probably a quicker and smoother transition than a second formal interval if extra time at this point was logistically essential, and not just a directorial whim to fulfil the characterisation of the Shabby Peasant.
Winge’s approach towards the scenes of sex and violence in the opera is generally graphic and realistic. Sergei is literally caught with his trousers down during the rape of Aksinya when Katerina enters the mill yard; Katerina and Sergei make good use of the billowing white sheets, the bed and the ladder in their sex scene; the flogging of Sergei, Zinovy beating Katerina with Sergei’s belt and the murder of Zinovy are all brutally portrayed.
Controversially, Winge has revised the final act of violence. The setting for Act IV is supposed to be the banks of a river, with the prisoners trudging on foot. Winge has the prisoners enter and leave the stage crammed in wheel-less cattle trucks, manned by prison guards, as if transported by train. Although this is effective, it is not clear exactly what the stage space is meant to suggest when the prisoners get out, as the corrugated roof of the stage set implies an indoor rather than an outdoor setting. Katerina, lacking a convenient river in which to drown herself and Sonyetka, suffocates Sonyetka with a plastic carrier bag. This results in a change to the sergeant’s words from “They’ve both drowned. We can’t save them, the current’s far too strong!” to “The slut has suffocated her, we can’t save her. She’s dead”. Compared to Rostropovich’s recording, Sonyetka’s death is somehow less palpably horrifying, perhaps because her death is more instantaneous and she only manages one scream instead of three.
Nonetheless Winge’s ending does have dramatic power: as the other convicts sing their final lament, “Ah, steppes, you are so endless”, they glide away silently in their cattle trucks, leaving Katerina alone (to die from hunger and hypothermia presumably), handcuffed to the corpse of Sonyetka. Anissimov takes the final chorus at a significantly slower speed than Rostropovich, but this only serves to increase its impact and solemnity; the chorus are particularly moving in this number, with superb diction and articulation. Although the ending is unexpected, the speed at which Katerina pounces on Sonyetka with the carrier bag, animal-like in pursuance of her prey, is true to Leskov’s original descriptions of Katerina’s murders, performed “in a single movement”. Reversing the usual habit of making many stage tragedies end in darkness, the stage lighting is increased during the final bar’s crescendo to emphasise Katerina’s isolation on the empty stage. Shostakovich’s ending is very abrupt; even at Anissimov’s stately tempo, there is too little time to contemplate Katerina’s fate, as the dramatic tension generated by this increase in light and volume is immediately broken by a sudden plunge into darkness and a rushed curtain call.
Seated in the theatre auditorium, an audience can take in the whole scale of the stage space in a way that is lost to those viewing a filmed version from the comfort of their living room. We are at the mercy of the camera crew and their choice of what to highlight via close-ups and different camera angles. Fortunately there were no overly close shots of tonsils, although we do get rather too intimate with the soft palette of the Shabby Peasant in his final mime. The filming of the police barracks, trying to capture the rows of beds and policemen, was perhaps the most jarring and amateurish. I felt as if some of the shots were taken from the back of the orchestra pit, panning right along the front of the stage. Viewing Shapiro’s film of Katerina Ismailova (Lenfilm, 1966), I was struck by the oppressive nature of the two main location settings, the “middle of nowhere” provincial merchant’s house and yard, and the bleak snow-covered steppes of Siberia. In both, a vast emptiness emanated from the surrounding land and sky. Personally, I would have liked more opportunities to view the whole stage in Winge’s production, to judge if his large empty stage set had a similarly oppressive effect.
Essayist Teresa Lloret describes Stein Winge’s stage direction as “indifferent to the opera’s social and political background”, and writes that he “considers the work a profound meditation on the human condition”. Winge has attempted to give the opera a universal, Shakespearean quality, made more relevant to our contemporary experiences by removing it from the particular confines of 19th-century Russian provincial life. Kozintsev successfully used this approach in his film of King Lear (reviewed below), which similarly had settings, costumes and props from a non-specific ancient time.
Compared to buying an opera on CD, where you expect to get a substantial booklet containing all the cast and production details, a libretto in various languages and a detailed plot synopsis, it is hard not to feel short-changed by this DVD set. There is a choice of subtitles in six European languages and an option for no subtitles at all for those who find them more annoying than helpful, but no printed libretto. Neither is there any information regarding who actually provided the translations used in the subtitles, but it appears that EMI re-used Joan Pemberton Smith’s translation from Rostropovich’s recording. Maybe I am being too greedy and should be satisfied with being able to see the production and have a running translation displayed, but I do like to browse through a libretto. The glossy single-sheet booklet only lists the cast, directors, act/scene divisions as they appear on the disc menus and those involved in the production of the DVD. The second disc also has an electronic booklet in pdf format, which can be accessed via any computer with a DVD-ROM drive and Adobe Acrobat Reader 6.0. This contains a brief essay by Teresa Lloret (available in all the languages of the subtitles, except Italian for some reason), but only has a few sentences about Stein Winge’s stage direction and the plot, in addition to the usual regurgitated history of the 1936 Pravda article, “Chaos instead of music”. For purposes of navigating through the DVDs, the interactive menu language is in English only.
Playing the DVDs on good equipment reveals superb visual quality, and I didn’t experience any problems with the sound quality. Whether you like what you see and hear is another matter entirely. I would strongly advise you to give this interpretation a chance and judge for yourself.
Script & Director: Grigory Kozintsev.
Music: Dmitry Shostakovich.
Cast: Yuri Yarvet, Elsa Radzinya, Galina Volchek, Valentina Shendrikova, Oleg Dal, Karl Sebris, Leonhard Merzin, Regimantas Adomaitis, Donatas Banionis, Alexei Petrenko, Yuozas Budraitis, Vladimir Yemelyanov, Alexander Vocach.
Ruscico (Russian Cinema Council) Collection. DVD-Video. 2-disc set TT 71 min + 69 min.
Sound: Russian (mono), Dolby Digital 5.1: Russian, English, French.
Subtitles: Russian, English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Hebrew, Swedish, Chinese, Arabic, Japanese.
Bonus material: D. Shostakovich’s Music, The World of King Lear, Interview with G. Volchek, Biography of W. Shakespeare, Filmographies, Photo album, Future releases.
After the post-war split of legendary Soviet directors Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, the work rate of both former collaborators slowed considerably. Kozintsev made just five more films before his death nearly thirty years later in 1973: two bio-pics, Pirogov (1947) and Belinsky (1950, released 1953), and three literary adaptations, Don Quixote (1957), Hamlet (1964) and King Lear (1970). After considering The Tempest Kozintsev began work on Petersburg Tales, a Gogol project that would be cut short by his death. Shostakovich provided (or was intended to provide) music for all these except Don Quixote, which was scored by Kara Karayev.
King Lear, then, was not envisaged by either Kozintsev or Shostakovich as a last statement. Nevertheless, it does express a sentiment of summation, and deals with themes that had always been important to both men, but that with age grew increasingly urgent: duty, civic responsibility, reputation and redemption.
Just as Kozintsev turned to long-term collaborator Shostakovich as composer, so the set designer was Yevgeny Yenei with whom the director had worked since the 1920s. Yenei’s elemental designs reinforce the film’s unforgiving atmosphere: the interiors all stone and rough-hewn wood, the exteriors grey, damp and clammy or barren and oppressively hot. It is a world without fresh, clean air. FEKS’s and Kozintsev’s regular cameraman Andrei Moskvin had died in 1961 but he was replaced on Hamlet and Lear by his occasional assistant Jonas Gritsius. Both films are marked by mobile camerawork and unusual angles and lighting effects. We sit beside God as Edmund squints up into a shaft of light and throws a bitter stone at his creator. Among the most exciting scenes here is that of Lear assembling his hundred knights, his horses, dogs and (unwilling to completely divest himself of kingly accoutrements) eagles, as the camera rushes backwards and the rapid cuts move us past the dogs’ stalls while we hear The Beginning of the Catastrophe. This is just one of the scenes where images and music reflect or counterpoint each other to great effect: in the storm we are again high in the clouds as Lear and the fool stagger across a barren landscape, thrashed by the wind and rain and Shostakovich’s music. Yet none of these effects feels forced, rather they subtly add to the atmosphere.
On the other hand, most of the actors had not worked with Kozintsev before, and the casting of Lear caused particular problems. The choice fell on the Estonian Yuri Yarvet. He was only fifty at the time, and indeed looked even younger a couple of years later when he appeared in Tarkovsky’s Solaris with his Lithuanian Lear co-star Donatas Banionis. Shot on the Estonian coast, Lear has several other Baltic contributors, including Regimantas Adomaitis (Edmund), Karl Sebris (Gloucester) and Yumas Budraitis (the King of France).
Kozintsev’s lifetime contributions often illustrate how he inspired those who worked with him. Yarvet’s career had been almost exclusively in his native Estonia and he even had to improve his Russian to gain the part, which he willingly did, though some lines still defeated him and for these he was filmed with his back to the camera to avoid lip-synch problems.
Meanwhile, despite his increasingly debilitating illnesses, Shostakovich found the prospect of working on another Shakespeare project with Kozintsev irresistible, and committed himself to it far more deeply than on certain of his other films. He intended to visit the set regularly, and although illness prevented his travelling, he was able to make it to the recording sessions, making a few last minute alterations that now throw up a few discrepancies between the published score and what we hear in the film. Despite (or perhaps because of) his separation from the production, he wrote about twice as much music as made it into the film; a complete recording of the 70 or so numbers could prove illuminating. Echoing Yenei’s designs, it is one of his most granitic scores; curt and trenchant, it seems not to care if we warm to it, concentrating instead on stating said the vital. Ironically, this apparent indifference is often more fascinating and attractive than something that appears too eager to please. In this respect, the most overtly emotional movement is, unsurprisingly, the choral lament with its pre-echo of the Thirteenth String Quartet. Though Shostakovich did not intend Lear to be his last film score, it is a brilliant sign off to an often troubled cinema career.
Outside the home country, Russian and Soviet films have not always been easy to obtain on video or DVD. Apart from films by Eisenstein and Tarkovsky (often in differing transfers from more than one company) less famous works have often proved elusive, usually being tied to successful cinema releases rather than launching untested films on the audience, implicitly denying access to older films. Fortunately Ruscico – the Russian Cinema Council – has started an extensive programme of releases of both obscure and well-known titles: fairy tales such as Barbara the Fair with the Silken Hair sit alongside a blockbuster edition of War and Peace. Still, it is surprising that such a well-known film as King Lear, though it has been available on video, has had to wait so long for a DVD release.
At 137 minutes Lear would easily have fitted on a single disc but it is split over two of about equal length. Though it is slightly annoying to have to change discs halfway through (a flashback to LPs!), at least it does reflect Kozintsev’s two-part structure. The discs are well chaptered with sixteen on the first disc and fifteen on the second, and the interactive menus are in Russian, English and French.
For the film itself there are four sound options: the most preferable being the original mono track. However those who prefer more modern sound can choose Dolby 5.1. To create this surround-sound version, Ruscico’s sound editors supplemented the restored mono soundtrack with various other sounds, such clanking armour and burning torches. Hollywood sound libraries were used for some of these ambient noises; the sound editors improvised others themselves. Alongside this are dubbed English and French versions though they use a slightly disinterested lone male voice for all the parts with the Russian audible beneath. Sadly the English occasionally goes astray from what is actually being said. As well as being able to watch the film dubbed, viewers can choose from subtitles in thirteen languages (where known, the translator is in brackets): Russian, English, French (Hélène Karkovski), German (Gerald Böhm), Dutch, Spanish (Pablo Enrique López Rodríguez), Italian (Eleonora Volpe), Portuguese (Alexandre Bazine), Japanese, Hebrew, Chinese, Arabic and Swedish (Carl August Hagberg). None translate the complete credits. I’m not equipped to comment on most of these options, but for the English I do question the use of Shakespeare’s original text. Kozintsev employed Pasternak’s translation, which used more modern language while maintaining much of the imagery: returning to Shakespeare, while familiar to English-speaking audiences, removes any discontinuity that Soviet audiences may have felt between the historical visuals and the modern language. A preface might have been helpful to explain the decision to viewers.
Divided between the two discs are approximately 45 minutes of moving image extras and some text of varying degrees of interest. There are trailers for six Ruscico DVDs though all have faults including being in the wrong aspect ratio. With this caveat Ashik Kerib (2:06) and Andrei Rublev (3:42) are the best presented. War and Peace (4:34) and A Cruel Romance (2:36) add English commentaries. Anna Karenina (3:03), scored by Shchedrin and featuring his wife Maya Plisetskaya has a Russian commentary but French onscreen titles with English subtitles. For Agony (2:50) we are subjected to a trailer with an English track and almost illegible Spanish subtitles, though we still hear some of Schnittke’s masterful score. While these trailers are welcome, it is strange that Ruscico could not locate better materials and transfer them in the correct ratio as they did with the films.
There is a brief text biography of Shakespeare, with Soviet film adaptations of some of the plays noted (though Arnshtam’s Romeo and Juliet is from Prokofiev’s ballet). There are also text biographies of major cast and crew, again with omissions and occasional slips: Shostakovich did not score Messengers [or Envoys] of Eternity. Each disc has a brief slide show Photo Album; the first is a selection of rehearsal photographs and posters for the film (the quality of some of them betraying their origin in books), the second being stills from the film. The World of King Lear (1:42) is a slideshow of stills from various (mainly Russian) stage productions and paintings based on the work. Mikhoels features, as does a photograph of Shostakovich, Kozintsev and some cast members from the 1941 stage production. Backed by the Romance from The Gadfly, D. Shostakovich’s Music (3:01) is a collection of photographs (mostly well-known to devotees) with a Russian commentary and English subtitles uncontroversially outlining his life. Unfortunately the photographs are not captioned and text and image rarely coincide: mention of Dunayevsky brings a photograph of Mravinsky, while Ermler and Tsekhanovsky are not identified. Chronologically the photographs race ahead of the text and we read about Aphorisms as we see a photograph of the premiere of From Jewish Folk Poetry. Finally, his birth-date is slightly confusingly given in Old Style (12 September 1906).
The highlight of the extras is an undated but obviously recently filmed interview with Galina Volchek, who played Regan (19:17), which reveals her immense admiration for Kozintsev. After describing her childhood meeting with him – her father was a cameraman who, along with Kozintsev and many other cinema workers was evacuated to Alma-Ata during the war – she explains how she came to be cast in Don Quixote, the less-than-satisfying career that followed and her role in King Lear. Typecast as a secondary character actress, some, including Volchek herself, doubted Kozintsev’s choice. Questions were even raised about the appropriateness of her nose! Kozintsev quelled these doubts, even going as far as screen-testing another actress before calmly returning to his original decision from which, one feels, he had never wavered. She also explains the predatory significance of her costume and tells how the scene where she kisses her dead husband Cornwall was originally shot in a much more sensual way even though everyone knew that censorship would mean it couldn’t be used. It would have been good to see some alternate scenes (the storm was another one that was shot twice) but perhaps they no longer exist.
The transfer of both the visuals and the soundtrack is good (there are many good prints of the films, which must have made the job a little easier). The disc is available in both PAL and NTSC versions. The PAL version is visually superior, with a sharper picture and better contrast, while the NTSC suffers from ghosting on rapid movement. However, there is a minor problem that – like all PAL material – it runs at 25 frames per second, 4% faster than the original film. However, no one – even those with perfect pitch – is likely to notice and if you have the choice, as with all Ruscico material, get the PAL version for its better quality.
Obviously this is a mandatory purchase for all Shostakovichians and the good news is that Ruscico is due to release Hamlet on January 24th in PAL and February 4th in NTSC. It might be too much to hope that all Shostakovich-scored films might appear in DVD but several have been released on videotape and would warrant an upgrade to the newer medium.
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Master Class: Borodin Quartet
Master class: String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, opus 110; Beethoven: String Quartet No. 4 in C minor, opus 18.
Valentin Berlinsky, Dominant Quartet: Do Phuong Nhu (violin 1), Ekaterina Pogodina (violin 2), Anna Sazonkina (viola), Tatiana Egorova (cello).
Concert: String Quartet No. 2 in A major, opus 68; Beethoven: String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, opus 59, Razumovsky No. 2.
Borodin Quartet: Ruben Aharonian (violin 1), Andrei Abramenkov (violin 2), Igor Naidin (viola), Valentin Berlinsky (cello).
Director: Tatiana Vorona; Script: Roman Dikhtyar.
Ruscico RUSD9566DVD. Stereo/Dolby Digital 5.1. Colour. 2-disc DVD-Video set TT 180 min.
Subtitles: Russian, English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese.
Bonus material: V. Berlinsky About His Master Class; Reminiscences by V. Berlinsky and Z. Berlinsky; Interviews with students; The Quartet’s Rehearsal; The Quartet About Themselves; Interviews with I. Shostakovich, Yu. Bashmet, V. Tretyakov, V. Berlinsky, M. Yakubov, L. Berlinsky; Biographies; Posters; Video Archives; Photo Album; Leaflet with a list of all works performed by the Quartet from 1944 to 1999.
Concert recorded Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, 2002.
This richly appointed 2-disc set is, above all, an affectionate tribute to the sole surviving member of the original Borodin Quartet, Valentin Berlinsky. While the concert, interviews and historical bonus materials do a fine job of documenting the past and present of the ensemble, this production orbits around the cellist.
At the core is a master class in which Berlinsky coaches the youthful Dominant Quartet, beginning with Beethoven’s opus 18, No. 4. As all dialogue is in Russian, the subtitles are essential; a few unidiomatic translations in the English version do not impede understanding. As the Dominants play, Berlinsky frequently interrupts with nuggets of wisdom about bowing and fingering technique, emphatically but with gentle humour: “Tania, maybe it’s not right to say to you, a lovely woman, that you have to play more manly, but I will say it anyway!” His pointers relate principally to the evolving moods of the work, as when he exhorts, “Smile, will you?” Liking what he hears, “You see, it’s quite different now!”
Along the way Berlinsky reminisces fondly about the Borodins’ original first violinist, Rostislav Dubinsky, and gossips about sour relations within the exalted Beethoven Quartet. There are hints, too, that the current members of the Borodin Quartet do not see eye to eye on all performance matters, Berlinsky at one point confessing, “I don’t like the way the Borodin Quartet plays this movement now.”
Turning from Beethoven to Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet, Berlinsky retells an anecdote recounted in Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, about going to play the work to the composer at his apartment, a performance that moved him to request, “Please, go on playing it like this.” Given this endorsement, plus Berlinsky’s personal connection to the composer, the fact that, as he reports, he has played this quartet 480 times, and the wealth of insights he shared with his students during their Beethoven presentation, there is high anticipation of the revelations awaiting in Shostakovich’s Eighth.
Thus, it comes as a great disappointment when Berlinsky allows the Dominants to play opus 110 from start to finish without once calling a pause to dispense advice! His only input during the recital is an occasional silent gesture calling for greater emphasis. At the end, a visibly moved Berlinsky thanks the Dominants and gives leader Do Phuong Nhu an unimpeachably grateful kiss on the lips. His only recommendation is that they should work on their intonation, which is “not always exact”.
In terms of the Dominants’ grasp of the material, however, Berlinsky feels that they correctly understand Shostakovich’s ideas, which he attributes to nationality. “For example, the episode ‘Worn out by unbearable bondage’: when some Western quartets play it – when, as we say, the infidels play – they don’t understand what they’re singing about. … They don’t know this song and they don’t know what it’s about.”
There is no programmatic overlap between the master class and the recent concert on the second DVD. We have a backstage pass to watch the Borodins relaxing and tuning up before the concert. Here Berlinsky’s hypothesis about innate Russian sensitivity to Shostakovich’s idiom frays at the edges, with first violinist Ruben Aharonian opining, a propos of the Second Quartet, “Maybe I sound blasphemous, but the composer overburdened these phrases with repetitions. … Sometimes it seems to me the composer didn’t know himself what to do with this theme, with its solemnity.” With a witheringly incredulous stare, Berlinsky puts an end to such conjecture: “He could take up some other theme, but somehow he chose this one.”The concert opens with Shostakovich’s Second Quartet, a work so familiar to these musicians that playing it now seems virtually an autonomic function. This fuel-efficient rendition does not generate as many horsepower as the Borodins’ 1967 recording (Chandos CHAN 10064(4); reviewed in DSCH 19), especially in that bedlam Waltz of a third movement, where the echoes of Symphony No. 4 are less frenzied. But the second movement, Recitative and Romance, is effective at freezing time, and the players catch fire in the fourth.
For the second half of their programme, the Borodins offer an aristocratic reading of Beethoven’s second Razumovsky Quartet. The performance is generally unhurried and pastoral, with storm clouds blowing through without dampening the ground. Nevertheless, enough muscle is applied for Berlinsky to snap a string at the beginning of the Presto, requiring a quick trip offstage for repairs. The same fate befalls Aharonian’s violin on the quartet’s very last note, to the amusement of all in the hall. The enthusiastic audience extract an encore from the Borodins in the shape of the Presto from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13, opus 130. We follow the musicians into the chaos backstage to receive the praise of well-wishers.
There is a great deal more to this package than these main attractions. We are privy to the Borodins’ rehearsal for the concert; there are moments of testiness here, but there is naught but respect when the members are interviewed separately about one another. The previous recipe of the Borodin Quartet, with Mikhail Kopelman, Abramenkov, Dmitri Shebalin and Berlinsky, is represented by a performance of the second movement of Shostakovich’s Quintet with Sviatoslav Richter, who maintains, throughout, the monolithic countenance of an Easter Island moai. Going back further, we have the Nocturne from Borodin’s Quartet No. 2, played gorgeously by Dubinsky, Yaroslav Alexandrov, Shebalin and Berlinsky. There are extended interviews with Berlinsky discussing his family, his friendship with Shostakovich, and his students, plus interviews with his students, family and colleagues discussing him. Also valuable are biographies of the various members of the Quartet throughout its history, and an assortment of still photographs. The overall production quality is high, with good sound engineering and crisp cinematography.
One lingering regret is the missed opportunity to learn more about the nuances of performing Shostakovich’s most popular quartet from arguably its most authoritative living performer. Nevertheless, we do get a creditable uninterrupted recital of the work from a talented young ensemble (in surround sound no less), one of sufficient emotional depth to deeply move Berlinsky himself. Overall, I cannot imagine that any reader of this journal would not consider this set a most rewarding acquisition.
W. Mark Roberts