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DSCH CD Review

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The Gamblers, Chistiakov

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 No. 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.

The Gamblers, Krzysztof Meyer's completion, Jurowski

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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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