DSCH Journal

DSCH CD Review

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Natalia Gutman Portrait Series, Vol. 1
Cello Concerto No. 1 in Eb major, opus 107[a]; Cello Concerto No. 2 in G major, opus 126[b];
Schnittke: Dialogue for Violoncello and Seven Instruments (1965)[c].
Kyrill Kondrashin, USSR Radio and TV Symphony Orchestra[a]; Dmitri Kitayenko, Moscow State Philharmony[b]; Yuri Nikolaevsky, Gnessin Chamber Orchestra[c]; Natalia Gutman (cello).
Live Classics LCL 202. ADD. TT 75:04.
Recorded Tchaikovsky Conservatory, Moscow, 21 June 1976[a]; 11 November 1986[b]; Gnessin Institute, Moscow, 2 January 1982[c].

Three different Soviet-period conductors are featured in this Shostakovich-Schnittke programme. It is the lead entry in a projected Portrait Series on the Live Classics label, spotlighting the talents of cellist Natalia Gutman.

Rostropovich, Cello Concerto No. 1, Kondrashin, Moscow PO
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The disc is immediately worth its weight in gold for presenting hitherto unreleased recordings of Shostakovich's two cello concerti by high-profile Soviet conductors Kyrill Kondrashin and Dmitri Kitayenko. Kondrashin was one of the legendary Soviet-era interpreters of the Shostakovich repertoire, and his peerless interpretations include the entire canon of fifteen symphonies plus both violin concerti. The regrettable absence of the two cello concerti from that conductor's Melodiya portfolio has to date been poorly compensated by an earlier live performance of the First Concerto, released on an old Everest LP (SDBR 3342) and subsequently on a mislabelled Intaglio CD (INCD 7251). That recording, made at a Moscow concert in the early 1960s, assembles the "dream team" of Kondrashin at the head of the Moscow PO, and the work's dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich. The pairing of these two leading Shostakovich interpreters is a match made in heaven. Unfortunately the blessed union is marred by the hissy, monophonic, cassette-quality sound, not to mention highly exposed flubs made by clarinet and horn soloists at critical junctures in the first movement.

There are no such technical shortcomings on the current CD, which combines studio- and near-studio-quality sound with the genuine excitement of live performance. Unlike the pirate issue described above, all three works on this disc had the benefit of professional engineering and strategic microphone placement.

On the performance side, Natalia Gutman is an impressive Shostakovich interpreter. She possesses that brand of sensitivity and physicality that one is happy to find in these works, and is capable of delivering, by turns, graceful lyricism, frenzied tension, and rugged propulsion. Her take on the music is also sweepingly architectural. That approach may overlook some of the music's nuances, but it does bring out its broad narrative in an engaging manner.

This is not the first time that Natalia Gutman's performances of both Shostakovich concerti have appeared on compact disc. A 1990 RCA Red Seal release (87918-2 RC) featured Gutman in studio recordings (dating from 1988) with the Royal Philharmonic conducted by the quixotic Yuri Temirkanov. Those performances are acceptable only in their technical quality. Otherwise, their overall lack of depth and nuance leaves a surprisingly bland impression, one that I can only attribute to a less than ideal artistic partnership. The current performances, dating from 1976 and 1986 (and 1982 for the Schnittke) make for quite a different story.

Kondrashin's rendition delivers no less than what one would expect of him in the First Concerto. The short, interlocking motifs of the first movement have a healthy, thrusting vigour, with sharply defined instrumental attacks characteristic of that conductor's idiomatically on-target style.

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The recording also boasts strong performances from the woodwinds, good registration of bassoon and lower strings, and firmly percussive, if somewhat hollow, timpani strokes. Special mention must be given to the French horn soloist (whose part is prominent throughout the concerto) for providing a robust, aggressive tone that seems to be found only in Russian performances (note Svetlanov/Rostropovich on Russian Disc RD CD 11 109 and Rozhdestvensky/Khomitser on RCA 74321-29254-2). Such hard-edged playing, especially in the first movement, adds an extra measure of intensity that is simply thrilling.

Gutman has a natural instinct for the score. There is something about her vibrato that allows the longer notes to soar with an immense depth of feeling, a passionate quality that complements the movement's obsessive rhythmic drive. Compare the admirably frenzied energy brought by Misha Maisky under Michael Tilson Thomas (Deutsche Grammophon 445821-2), or the leaner, more aggressive take by Truls Mørk with Mariss Jansons (Virgin Classics CDC 5 45145 2).

Maisky, Tilson Thomas, Cello Cto Nos. 1 and 2
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The nearly hushed tones of Gutman's entry in the slow movement are uncommonly moving. The promise of this opening is fulfilled. She proceeds to give a breathtakingly sensitive performance of the entire movement.

Mork, Jansons, Cello Cto Nos. 1 and 2

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The cadenza of the First Cello Concerto is the most finely wrought of its kind in the Shostakovich canon. No one has yet been able to reap as much insight from this eloquent soliloquy as Rostropovich, and trying to find an equally moving, personalized rendition is to engage in an unnecessary, perhaps futile quest. Ivan Monighetti's cadenza (with Vladimir Valek leading the Prague RSO, Le Chant du Monde LDC 278 1099) is one that is particularly memorable, while Mørk, Maisky, and others have made thoughtfully expressive traversals of this section. Gutman's cadenza is effective, her phrases are lyrical and broadly paced, yet they tend to follow one another without the breathing room necessary to penetrate the music's larger dimension. Rostropovich, in his recording with Svetlanov, obtains more expansive results in significantly less time (compare his 4:34 to Gutman's 5:44 and Monighetti's 5:12).

Gutman proceeds to take the final movement with the athletic agility she is so capable of.

The Second Cello Concerto presents a completely different set of interpretive challenges. The work's cryptic labyrinth of emotions has invited certain self-conscious mannerisms on the part of some interpreters, something that Gutman's larger vision of the work manages to avoid completely.

She confronts the Largo movement squarely, unpretentiously, at a somewhat faster pace than most, without the meditative and atmospheric fussiness favoured by other interpreters. Compare, for example, the hauntingly Sibelian probing of the movement by Truls Mørk, or Misha Maisky's internally grim volatility. Gutman does not pursue the same expressive realms, yet she produces a Largo with nuance and passion that is as viscerally engaging as anyone will find.

Gutman brings the same attributes to the remaining movements of the concerto. She is most effective in conveying the second movement's progressively increasing agitation, from its whimsically rising and falling glissandi to its near-explosive anticlimax at the fanfare juncture (surely the strangest fanfare in all Shostakovich). And this same forward momentum allows her, more successfully than the current competition, to project the work as the Sophoclean tragedy it is, its final movements inevitably swept toward a tumultuously devastating conclusion.

Conductor Dmitri Kitayenko, who is not known as a Shostakovich specialist, leads a superbly shaped performance, bringing to the final, whip-cracking, bass-drum pounding climax the explosive monumentality it deserves.

Helmerson, Polyansky, Russian SSO, Cello Cto No. 2, Symphony No. 12

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This performance truly brings together the best attributes found in the other recordings. By comparison, Truls Mørk lacks emotional clout in the final movements, while the quirky liberties with tempo preferred by the Maisky/Tilson Thomas team are interesting but not as cumulatively compelling. In DSCH No. 10 I had praised cellist Frans Helmerson (Polyansky/Russian SSO; Chandos CHAN 9585) for the sense of forward momentum he brings to the piece, even if his manner is a bit detached. Gutman is a cellist with far greater depth. Her broad, architectural approach to the Second Concerto is what works best, and she is clearly at one with Kitayenko, who evokes strong performances from the members of the Moscow PO.

The final work on the programme is Alfred Schnittke's 1964 Dialogue for Cello and Seven Instruments. It was written at a time when a respectable avant-garde movement had taken root in the Soviet Union, and compositional horizons were expanding in a variety of directions. As the liner notes tell us, Schnittke was then incorporating random sequences and the irregular rhythms of nature into his works, including this Dialogue.

Dialogue is an effectively variegated bravura piece for cello that alternates between restlessly contemplative solo passages and spring-loaded interactions with an ensemble consisting of piano, trumpet, clarinet, and percussion. The highly syncopated instrumental interjections are suggestive of pointillistic devices employed by the progressive jazz school of the 1950s. The piece is not the only Soviet work of its time to be influenced by jazz.

Likewise, the tortured gestures, with their sudden shifts from drama, through angst, to cool, dispassionate reserve, recall a certain recitation style of existential beatnik poetry that was popular in the American counterculture at the time. The work's lively eleven minutes are guaranteed to entertain the modern palate, blending serious concert hall demeanour with intellectual coffee-house moxie.

Gutman makes the most of the work's athletic shifts of mood and register, showing herself to be master of many musical idioms. As in the previous works, superior performance and engineering attributes apply.

This release has already found a valuable place in my collection, ranking among my top choices for both Shostakovich cello concerti. In an earnest word, recommended.

Louis Blois


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