CD Reviews 10
§ = World Première Recording
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Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, opus 99(77)[a]; Cello Concerto No. 1 in Eb major, opus 107[b].
[a]Dimitri Mitropoulos, New York Philharmonic, David Oistrakh (violin).
[b]Eugene Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich (cello).
Sony Classical Masterworks Heritage MHK 63327. ADD mono[a]/stereo[b]. TT 63:46.
Recorded 2 Jan. 1956, Carnegie Hall, New York[a]/8 Nov. 1959, Broadwood Hotel, Philadelphia[b].
Reissues of world première recordings.
This recording of the cello concerto is the comparative version to which I referred in my review of Revelation’s Rostropovich disc in DSCH 9, having previously appeared on a CBS Masterworks Portrait album. Shostakovich himself was in attendance at the recording sessions, which followed hot on the heels of the U.S. première, making this perhaps the most authoritative recording of the concerto available to us. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s playing is at once virtuosic and responsive to the cellist, and if, finally, they don’t convey the last measure of hollowness (listen to the second movement) their engagement with the music is fanatical … besides, the cello bears the main burden of anguish. In the outer movements, Rostropovich barges forward fearlessly, leaving no sense that his playing is the tamer for taking place in the studio.
The new 20-bit digital remastering is remarkably successful, simultaneously filtering out more hiss and reporting higher frequencies than the previous CBS remastering. Acoustics are stable and rich with no compression in loud passages.
The remastering of the Violin Concerto is no less admirable, and if the original mono tape has the violin unnaturally spotlit, this is rarely distracting. Oistrakh’s is a bravura performance, for sheer mastery unsurpassed by modern successors. In the Passacaglia, Oistrakh’s rhythmic footing is now and then questionable, but by such microscopic degrees that I hesitate to mention it. That movement does sound a little remote, which might reflect a lingering subconscious impulse to hold this politically fraught opus at arm’s length (Irina Shostakovich is not the only witness from those times to recall Oistrakh’s fear of putting his stamp on this piece).
Elsewhere, though, Oistrakh leaves one in absolutely no doubt as to his organic connection with his instrument, and it is precisely in the more technically dazzling sections (the Scherzo, the Andante of the third movement, and the final movement) where one is least conscious of his role as intermediary, so accurate and seemingly effortless is his tone. Even in that devilish second movement, the New York Philharmonic provide sterling support.
The packaging of this release is quite special too. As in Sony’s earlier release of Fritz Reiner recordings featuring his sober reading of Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony (MHK 62343), the conventional plastic jewel case is replaced by a cardboard folder of the same dimensions, containing the booklet notes affixed to the front cover, and a sleeve holding the CD glued to the back cover. This format successfully recalls the packaging of vinyl LPs, and the notes to the present release include an article on (and an old advertisement for) long-playing records in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of that medium. Better still, the artwork and liner notes are reprinted from the original LP issues, and there are no less than twenty-one archival photographs of Shostakovich and the performers at the recording sessions, only a few of which appeared on the original releases. Documentation is meticulous. All in all, this is a most creative and classy production that should appeal to anyone encountering these recordings for the first time, and stir fond memories for those of us fortunate enough to have known these performances in their LP incarnations. Recommended with all possible enthusiasm.
W. Mark Roberts
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Symphony No. 15 in A major, opus 141[a]; Violin Concerto No. 2 in C# minor, opus 129[b].
Kirill Kondrashin, The Symphony Orchestra of the Moscow Philharmony (Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra), David Oistrakh (violin)[b].
Icone ICN-9408-2. ADD. TT 69:49.
Recorded 27 May 1974[a]/13 September 1967 (listed incorrectly as 21 Feb. 1967)[b], Concert Hall of Radio Moscow.
[b]Reissue of world première recording.
Here is the very same famous performance of the Fifteenth Symphony as reappeared most recently on BMG/Melodiya’s Kondrashin cycle (coupled with the Ninth; Melodiya 74321198462). As BMG have yet to release these discs in North America, despite their availability in other markets for four years, this appearance on Icone Classics is welcome.
But better burn the accompanying notes, which are banal at best, downright incompetent at worst, consisting of a breathless sprint through Shostakovich’s biography, with not a single word of description about the music on this CD. Indeed, all that the author (who wisely remains anonymous) has to say about the Fifteenth Symphony is that it “is one of four symphonies subtitled “The Year 1917.” It was completed in 1961.” Um … that would be Symphony No. 12, and if there are three other symphonies bearing that subtitle, they’re not Shostakovich’s. The transmogrifying of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra’s name as “The Symphony Orchestra of the Moscow Philharmony” is also unfortunate, as it is bound to sow confusion in the catalogues.
Listening to this performance again, it is clear why it is one of the most highly regarded entries in the Kondrashin cycle, and why for many it remains a top recommendation for the Fifteenth. The musicianship in this virtual concerto for orchestra is first-class throughout. Kondrashin’s first movement, at 7:02, is faster than even the fleet-footed Mravinsky (with the Leningrad Philharmonic; Melodiya 74321-25192-2) by over half a minute. This is not a toy-shop, but a lunatic asylum. Kondrashin turns in one of the most paranoia-inducing second movements on disc, his orchestra playing with a pent-up intensity that produces the sensation of eyes boring into one’s forehead.
Not to say that the entire performance is emotionally unvarying; take for instance the carefree, true-piano string work in the melody that takes up at Fig. 143/11:30 in the finale, presumably signifying a coming-to-terms with the preceding stirrings of the Wagner Fate motif. Thus the succession of divided whistles on winds and the eerie celesta ascension feel all the more disquieting, denying a comfortable contemplation of the end.
This is easily superior to Mravinsky’s 1976 reading, which sounds tame by comparison, and is a must-have performance for anyone with an interest in the symphony. It should be noted that Icone’s remastering has less analogue hiss than Melodiya’s, the recording coming up so well that one could almost be fooled into thinking one was listening to a modern triple-D production. The disc’s cueing, however, is unnecessarily stingy, with no new track for the third movement of the symphony.
The Second Violin Concerto gets only two tracks, and all we find out about it in the notes is the year of its composition – correct, mercifully. But the annotator has demoted it to Opus 29. Furthermore, Shostakovich did not complete the concerto until May 1967 and it did not receive its première under Oistrakh until 13 September 1967, so the recording date given here, 21 February 1967, is impossible. In reality, this is the recording of the première concert, which has been reissued over a half dozen times since its original appearance and is still currently available on Russian Disc (who also list the recording date incorrectly, as 1968; RDCD 11025)[the Russian Disc release has been deleted since this review first appeared, but the same recording of the Second Violin Concerto resurfaces on RCA Red Seal’s 2-CD album entitled David Oistrakh: The Essential).
This is a very subdued performance, cloaked by unending dusk throughout the first and second movements. Such outbursts as are unavoidable are reluctant and restrained. Even in the frenetic third movement, both soloist and orchestra resist any glimmer of light. The work becomes a half-hour-long Nocturne, a gloomy and depressing experience – which is obviously exactly what the performers intended.
Two essential performances, then, marred by poor quality control in the documentation.
W. Mark Roberts
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Symphony No. 15 in A major, opus 141[a]; Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, opus 102[b]; The Gadfly Suite (ed. Lev Atovmian), opus 97a: Romance[c] and Folk Feast.
Mariss Jansons, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Robert Truman (cello)[a], Mikhail Rudy (piano)[b], Joakim Svenheden (violin)[c].
EMI CDC 5 56591 2. DDD. TT 74:56
Recorded April 1997, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London.
Listening to the symphony, I found many of the same descriptions creeping to mind as when I auditioned Mariss Jansons’ distinctive reading of the Fifth (see DSCH 9). Here, again, is a synoptic view, an achievement all the more praiseworthy in the Fifteenth, segmented organism that it is. And here again, Jansons has something unique to say.
Consider, for example, the second movement, which Jansons stretches to an incredible 17:03, exceeding even Valeri Polyansky’s sprawling account (also reviewed in DSCH 9). Unlike Polyansky’s version of the movement, however, Jansons’ does not fizzle out. To be sure, it lacks the chill of Sanderling’s take (at 15:21, still long-winded; Berlin Classics 0090432BC), nor does it bring to mind the Hieronymous Bosch hellscape of Ashkenazy’s performance (Decca/London 430 227-2; deleted). Instead, the approach to the central climax becomes a surreal funeral procession, the formality of which is cut through and made painfully personal by Robert Truman’s elegiac cello work. On the other side of said climax (which here recalls the raging against the dying of the light in Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration), the symmetrically balanced slowness transports the listener from the realm of time and space.
Jansons’ direction makes structural sense not only within movements, but across the symphony as a whole. Listen to the third movement, Allegretto, on its own, and it sounds perfectly conventional. In context, though, additional forcing turns out to be quite unnecessary, since after Jansons’ intimate second movement, the Allegretto appears that much more grotesque, intrusive and unwelcome.
There are also fresh discoveries at a local scale, like the more-prominent-than-usual timpani tattoo from Fig. 124-2/4:49 in the fourth movement, in which the metrical prescription for which beats should be emphasised is exaggerated: an irregular heartbeat calling attention to itself … or perhaps an ominous knocking at the door?
But the single detail in this reading that struck me most forcefully was, paradoxically, far more subtle. It comes a short while later in the fourth movement, at Fig. 132/8:12, with the entry of piccolo and flutes. As I listened to this performance for the first time, I started to register mild annoyance with the swapping of usual emphasis on the wind melody (which I’d previously assumed was the main point at this juncture) with the randomly swirling semiquavers in the strings, the latter’s volume increasingly eclipsing the winds. But then, just twelve seconds later at Fig. 133, I received the awful realisation of the logic behind this nuance: those deceptively aimless swirls resolve into a malevolent tornado that drags the listener into the destruction of the climax (which boasts easily the most shattering cymbal clash I’ve heard in any performance of the Fifteenth).
This, then, is a compelling interpretation on many different levels. If it does not displace the transfixing account from Ashkenazy and the Royal Philharmonic as my top recommendation, it joins them at the front of the pack.
How quirky, though, to partner this intense work with the entirely untroubled Second Piano Concerto, a 19th birthday present from Shostakovich to son Maxim! While sequential listening would be profoundly anticlimactic, taken on its own merits the concerto wins a delightful performance. Mikhail Rudy delivers a bouncy, characterful first movement, a second full of tender affection, and a last brimming with good-natured humour. As for the orchestra, everyone concerned is quite superb; moreover, they sound as if they’re enjoying themselves immensely.
The two most-familiar movements from Lev Atovmian’s arrangement of The Gadfly are an equally odd choice of makeweights. No matter; solo violinist Joakim Svenheden’s tone in the Romance could hardly be more swoon-provoking nor the orchestra’s turn at his melody more sweeping. I don’t believe that we’ve ever before heard such fabulous shine in the trumpet flourishes of the Folk Festival (here labelled Folk Feast). Again, the orchestra clearly relish this music.
To top it off, the recording is in the demonstration class, with a wide, three-dimensional stage image, excellent focus and bass extension capable of inflicting structural damage on your foundations. All told, the album is an unqualified success.
W. Mark Roberts
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Symphony No.12 in D minor, opus 112; Cello Concerto No. 2 in G major, opus 126[a].
Valeri Polyansky, Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Frans Helmerson (cello)[a].
Chandos CHAN 9585. DDD. TT: 75:25
Recorded March 1996, Moscow.
This Chandos release has the distinction of coupling the two most enigmatic orchestral works in the Shostakovich canon: the Twelfth Symphony and the Second Cello Concerto. Written only five years apart from one other (1961 and 1966), each raises many perplexing questions while occupying vastly different worlds of creativity. In the concerto, a pervasive aura of mystery is invoked as nowhere else in the Shostakovich canon to achieve a profound and haunting beauty. The Symphony, on the other hand, is baffling for opposite reasons: its utter absence of vision. Each work presents its own set of interpretive challenges, undertaken here by Valeri Polyansky in his ongoing survey of the composer’s orchestral music.
The Second Cello Concerto marks a major sea change in Shostakovich’s music. Written during a year of setbacks in the composer’s health, its chamber-like instrumentation and darker, more inwardly turned character are two of the many features that have caused some to call it the inaugurating work of the final period. As the shadowy cousin of the First Cello Concerto, it lacks the obviously ingratiating qualities that have assured the earlier work’s enduring popularity, such as the robust themes, extended cadenza, and romantic slow movement. Its slow-fast-slow arrangement of movements also sets it apart from its predecessor.
The intriguing aspects of the Second Cello Concerto instead lie in its rich tapestry of detail. Underlying its strange lyrical beauty, the work boasts a cohesive level of thematic and intervallic organization that one is more likely to find in the composer’s string quartets. Another level of organization is found in its long-range dramatic plan. There is but one principal climax in the entire work that takes place near its final pages (this attribute alone is unique in the Shostakovich canon, though there are similarities to the Fourth Symphony), a tragic moment of revelation for which everything preceding it is an extended preparation. The path to this tumultuous eruption takes place through a broadly arched, yet bewilderingly digressive accumulation of tension by way of a brooding Largo, a comic-turned-manic Scherzo, and a most unorthodox finale. The final movement is a rondo whose series of episodic detours forms one of the most confounding and tantalizing musical rebuses of the century: a bizarre fanfare, a string of cantilena themes, a mechanical dance. The listener is left to ponder how these disquietingly self-contained and contrasting parts relate to each other and in their midst, to the singular climax which passionately binds them together. The interpreters of the work must do the same as well as decide how to negotiate these episodes in order to maximize their strange and powerful impact.
I have found that performances of the opening Largo tend to be more uniformly successful than those of the final two movements. This is due to the monolithically brooding, but by no means straightforward, nature of the movement whose sonata subjects engage in a mutually probing rather than conflicting dialogue with each other. The more difficult interpretive challenges lie in the more actively conflicted music in the remainder of the concerto. The cellist, for example, must be able to understand and respond to the contradictory layers of emotion in these movements and in doing so, maintain the considerable level of inner tension that the music demands. More important and perhaps difficult is the challenge to soloist and conductor of being able to sustain, through its myriad episodes, the sense of inevitability that is so much a part of the work’s cumulative impact.
Judging from the merits of existing recordings, this also implies certain minimum tempo requirements. In two of the longest performances on record (Mariss Jansons/London Philharmonic on Virgin Classics CDC 5 451 45 2 and Tilson Thomas/London Symphony Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon DG 445 821-2), soloists Truls Mørk and Mischa Maisky give wonderfully expansive readings of the Largo, yet the tone of each soloist is a shade too complacent to properly engage the music of the final two movements. The Virgin Classics is a disc otherwise worth pointing out for two reasons, the particularly good performances from the orchestra that Jansons elicits (listen to the expressive flair of the French Horn fanfares in the third movement), and the exemplary clarity of the recorded sound.
A performance that completely fails and one whose tempos are even slower, is that of Yuri Temirkanov’s (RCA Red Seal 7918-2 RC) in which both conductor and soloist Natalia Gutman give a disappointingly drab and apathetic performance. The only longer performance is that of Konstantin Krimets and the Russian PO (Arte Nova 74321 49688 2) where cellist Kyrill Rodin maintains a viable presence, yet in a performance whose extremely slow tempos in the final rondo do more to disconnect rather than constructively bond the music’s diverse sections.
At the other tempo extreme cellist Ivan Monighetti offers the shortest performance on record, demonstrating that a fast pace does not rule out an emotionally engaging and highly personalized performance. This he delivers, if not in ideally recorded sound, with conductor Vladimir Valek and the Prague Symphony Orchestra (harmonia mundi LDC 278 1099).
Mtsislav Rostropovich, to whom the work is dedicated, is the unassailable master at being able to penetrate the work’s essence with gripping authority. In his five recorded performances of the work, he has tended toward the faster end of the tempo spectrum with great effect. Significantly, he is able to maintain the essential forward drive in the final rondo while imparting character to its highly variegated sections. Rostropovich’s performance with David Oistrakh conducting the Moscow State SO (Revelation RV 10087; reviewed in DSCH 9) has a splendid intensity, if it is a bit too hard driven. Still, this and any one of his other superb performances with Jean Martinon/CSO (on a bootleg Aries LP), Seji Ozawa/BSO (DG 439 481-2) and especially Svetlanov/USSR State SO (Russian Disc RD CD 11 109 [deleted; Rob Cowan reports that the version by these performers on EMI is distinct from the version on Russian Disc]) speak from the music’s soul and should be required listening for those with a serious interest in the work.
In the current disc, the tempos taken by Polyansky and cellist Frans Helmerson fall somewhere within Rostropovich’s range of performances, yet at the same time give the impression of moving the music ahead at a faster rate. This is due to the ‘quick read’ approach taken by conductor and soloist where forward momentum takes interpretive priority over the reflective shading of details. The performance does lack a certain amount of nuance and may run a bit cool in comparison to its competition. Yet one must acknowledge what works and what effectively serves the music. This performance does do both and I was quite moved by it, though I do have my reservations.
In the Largo, for example, the dramatic pauses in Helmerson’s phrasing do sound a bit clipped where they breathe with more nuance in Rostropovich’s hands. Likewise, there is a matter-of-factness to the manner in which Helmerson thrusts the glissandi in the Scherzo. He is energetic, though a bit distant in the tortured cadenza leading up to the principal climax. Rostropovich, in the same cadenza, is far more visceral as he battles face-to-face the demons that torment this work. The explosive climax which follows has emotional clout, though seems a bit swept into the forward stream under Polyansky. It is given more monumental status, appropriate to its structural importance, in the fine performances by Schiff/Shostakovich (Philips 412 526-2) or Rostropovich/Svetlanov.
At the same time, Helmerson plays with impressive precision and with a great deal of reactive alertness. His somewhat aloof approach, moreover, seems to work well with the enigmatic nature of the music. Polyansky’s strong forward current imparts more than the prerequisite tension as discussed above, and accentuates the essential sense of inevitability toward its final destination.
It is a performance, once again, whose strength lies in the breadth of its conception rather than in its attention to details. Though it would be nice to have both attributes, it is fair to say that these artists are more successful in bringing this work together than a good number of their competitors. Of the sixteen recordings of the Second Cello Concerto, Polyansky’s would not be my first pick, yet I have no hesitation recommending it as a preferred competitor among currently available choices. The fine orchestral playing is well served by Chandos’ sonics.
The paper-mache prop that Shostakovich calls his Twelfth Symphony brings us to a musical mystery of a completely different sort. In his fine liner note, Eric Roseberry makes an attempt to define a coherent extramusical program to the Symphony by relating the cryptic (and outright obscure) movement titles to events in the life of Lenin. This is, of course, the ostensible narrative of the work, but in the listening, the music seems deliberately construed to be nothing of the sort. Rather it seems to be a cagily assembled shell, a ‘non-symphony’, perhaps intended for the consumption of the non-musical bureaucracy. Though I disagree with Ian MacDonald’s excessively literal approach to musical interpretation, we may stand on common ground in not accepting this work at face value but rather as some sort of patronizing gesture with an ‘unmusical’ vengeance. Though it was written a year before the dissident Thirteenth Symphony, one cannot help entertaining the notion, as MacDonald also does in his book, that the Twelfth was offered as a preemptory gesture of appeasement in anticipation of the official reaction to its politically charged successor. Shostakovich, in cunningly assigning these works the adjacent opus numbers 112 and 113 almost seems to be saying, Indeed so; How many more signals do you need?
There is only one movement in the Twelfth Symphony worthy of repeated listenings and deserving of the adjective ‘symphonic’. That, of course, is the opening movement, whose sturdy tunes variously recall Borodin’s, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and the finale of the composer’s own Tenth Symphony. The music’s endless melodic invention, uninterrupted flashes of inspiration and rhythmically charged interplay propel the movement forward with breathtaking momentum. Its prolonged athletic exuberance, furthermore, is unparalleled in any Shostakovich first movement. It is music that neither probes nor transforms the soul, but what a gloriously boisterous and eminently choreographable sound it makes.
Unfortunately, the engaging music of the Symphony ends with this movement. The remainder of the work does really sound as if it were written as a last minute fill-in, as Lev Lebedinsky quotes the composer (Elizabeth Wilson, p. 346), in three or four days’ time. Regardless of that, one only needs the testimony of the music itself to draw a conclusion. The last movement, for example, is generally acknowledged by various commentators to be suffering from a drearily and blatantly miscalculated rate of repetition, one that seems suspiciously unlikely for a composer of Shostakovich’s sensibilities. And the demolition derby that comprises the brief third movement is too banal and bombastic to make any serious claim as a symphonic movement.
It is in the slow movement Razliv where we find one of the more disturbing curiosities of the Shostakovich canon, a subtly and skillfully disguised musical vacancy. There are those who find merit to this part of the score, yet I hear a movement whose materials are developmentally paralyzed. Unlike the typical climax-driven Shostakovich slow movement, its musical phrases are dislocated from one another and avoid any kind of interactive or reactive process. The result is a patchwork of inert episodes that are strangely ineffective, as if set wandering in musical limbo. There is one paragraph of genuine beauty where the strings seem headed toward a culmination (track 2, 4:06) at which point the otherwise stillborn chorale motif is nicely enveloped into the crest of the phrase. Yet the destination soon vanishes as we return to inert gestures, the blank pizzicato phrase, the wooden chorale motif, the musical necropolis. The various instrumental solos toward the end of the movement sound particularly out of place as they take on the reflective posture of solos in previous Shostakovich symphonies. In this movement they simply noodle around in an expressive vacuum, sleepily rehashing the nonevents which precede them.
Regarding the performance, the first movement’s very physical level of communication requires a response in kind, and Polyansky delivers with more than gusto. His rhythmic punctuations and reactions to the mercurial transitions are sharp and well-turned. The tempo is brisk without being excessive, with fine dynamic control of the work’s gymnastic gestures. Most important, Polyansky maintains the “thrill” effect all the way through with admirable aerobic stamina. Compare the Inbal/Vienna performance (Denon CO-78968) of recent vintage where the tempi are similar if not faster, but which does not have as favourable an aggressive edge in terms of instrumental attack. The percussion orgy in the third movement is also handled with ample ammunition and does not disappoint. Even in the ill-fated Razliv section, Polyansky displays sensitivity to mood and phrasing as if he were conducting a real Shostakovich slow movement.
The one grievance I would voice is that the orchestral image on the Chandos recording is a bit recessed, which is not the case with the more intimately recorded cello concerto. As a result, some details of the fast passage work do not come through as sharply as they do in, say, the classic Mravinsky performance on Melodiya. The latter recording pretty much sets the standard for all Twelfth performances to follow and is benefited by a nice crisp acoustic. Chandos’ added ambience fortunately does not detract from any of the other praiseworthy attributes of this fine performance.
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Symphony No. 7 in C major ‘Leningrad‘, opus 60.
Mark Wigglesworth, BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
BIS CD-873. DDD. TT 79:22.
Recorded 2 & 4 Dec. 1996, Brangwyn Hall, Swansea.
Two more different approaches to the Leningrad symphony could hardly be imagined. Wigglesworth’s first entry in his projected Shostakovich symphonic cycle portrays the impact at the battlefront; with Polyansky we experience the effects of history-making events at a personal level, perhaps that of a grieving survivor.
Wigglesworth himself supplies BIS’ booklet notes, and his description of the symphony makes it obvious that he conceives of it pictorially. Accordingly, he delivers it in installments, demarcated by wide tempo swings and extreme variations in dynamic level. This occasionally feels gratuitous. At the beginning of the first movement’s march, the side drum is quite inaudible at any volume setting that would permit playing the climax without shattering one’s eardrums and relationships with one’s neighbours. When the muted trumpet and trombones pick up the theme at Fig. 29/10:36, they play with at least a p or two more than the single one Shostakovich indicated, so the sforzando sneeze on horns at Fig. 31-1/11:23 sounds comically incongruous. At the other end, the snail’s pace at which Wigglesworth approaches the last movement’s final climax caused my attention to wander.
Those are a number of negative comments, but this is by no means a poor performance. The net result of Wigglesworth’s direction is a truly menacing and cruel Leningrad, his orchestra playing as if possessed. His conducting successfully translates his conception; take his troubled second movement, mirroring what he writes about it: “Shostakovich titled the second movement ‘Memories’. They are sad memories. Sad because it is so hard to dance now. It is even hard to remember how you used to dance.” And if, at times, I felt that Wigglesworth was imposing himself on the symphony, well, so did Bernstein in his Deutsche Grammophon remake (DG 427632-2) which is, nevertheless, rightly regarded as one of the top recommendations – sometimes impositions work out nicely!
By comparison, Polyansky’s performance is more symphonic. It does not follow, however, that it is bland, as I found to be the case with Yuri Temirkanov’s oddly uninvolving traversal with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (RCA Red Seal 09026-62548-2). On the contrary, it is emotionally intense … its emotions just happen to be directed internally. Polyansky’s second movement paints an image of untroubled times in a way that Wigglesworth’s doesn’t, so it is doubly effective when that image is disturbed by the troubling premonition in the middle of the movement. The third movement is genuinely mournful, evoking a real sense of loss and emptiness that I found most affecting (the mourning in Wigglesworth’s version isn’t as intimate).
Although Polyansky’s performance is not as spectacular as that on the BIS disc, his orchestra play very well. Fans of authentic Russian brass sound will enjoy the raspberries blown in the concluding climax, and rarely have I found the song beginning on solo flute at Fig. 112+2/3:37 in the third movement as expressive as here.
Chandos’ sound serves the martial idée fixe of the first movement superbly, the side drum seeming to begin far off in the distance, marching ever nearer as the volume increases. While bass is not as overpowering – and cymbal crashes not as sharp – as one has come to expect in the digital age, they do sound more similar to what one hears in a live concert.
To call this a thinking man’s Leningrad would be to insult other rewarding alternatives, including Wigglesworth’s, so I’ll content myself with saying that this is a performance that I will be taking off the shelf at regular intervals.
W. Mark Roberts
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This is the latest in a series of appearances by Shostakovich fils on Czech labels and with Czech orchestras. It is one of the most unusual interpretations of the work on disc, especially when one considers its source. This is decidedly not the merciless and apocalyptic assault of Järvi (CHAN 8640), nor does it resemble the Mahlerian monolith of Rattle (EMI 5 55476 2). Instead, Maxim Shostakovich fingerpaints hallucinatory vignettes whose nearest kin, strange to say, is Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique!
The psychotropic effects of Maxim’s performance are attributable to the way he exploits the strangeness of the symphony’s orchestral effects, letting out the reins on markings in the score that are glossed over in other accounts that present (some would say, “fabricate”) a more unified feel. Rarely do muted trombones sound so strangled, or harps as percussive and reverberant as they do here. More than once I was sent running to the score to check some detail that sounded off, only to find it staring me in the face – no, that accented semiquaver on flute and clarinets in bar Fig. 60+6/15:20 of the first movement is not an editing mistake!
Not all the instrumental effects provoke the sensation of having eaten bad mushrooms, and there is some fine and characterful playing, such as the violin solo beginning at Fig. 100/23:43 of the first movement, which overflows with tremolo, and the superb piccolo work in the second.
As I intimated above, this is not a violent account. Climaxes are blunt, especially the first climax of the third movement, in which the three discrete cymbal clashes called for in the score are replaced by a crescendo roll that is audible only towards the far end of the plateau. Later on, the main climax undulates ponderously like rolling seas, and the long coda afterwards is nothing so much as a meditation on mist, impalpable and dissolving into nothingness. If you want what feels like a prophetic vision of nuclear war with a lone survivor wandering through the ashes, nobody has portrayed that better than Järvi, but Maxim’s hypercoloured dreamland has its own unique merits.
This is a live performance, though you wouldn’t guess that from the absence of audience noise (there is no applause at the end). A minor point: translation of the original Czech booklet notes is error-prone, with the second movement described in English as “dimply-coloured”, while a deletion at this point in the French translation ascribes the description of the Largo/Allegro to the Scherzo. As to matters of substance, though, this reading is safely recommendable to anyone looking for a novel conception of the symphony.
W. Mark Roberts
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Kapell in recital
Piano Concerto No. 1, opus 35[a]; Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C, opus 37 (Largo & Rondo only)[b]; Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition[c]; Bach/Busoni: Nun komm der Heiden Heiland[d].
William Kapell (piano) with:
[a]Eugene Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra, Samuel Krauss (trumpet).
[b]Leon Barzin, National Orchestral Association.
Arbiter 108. ADD mono. TT 70:33.
Recorded 1 December 1945[a], 26 April 1937[b], 28 October 1951[c,d].
That the notes to a historical release should say something about its performers and performances seems numbingly obvious (what is it about the recording in question that justifies introducing it to a new generation of listeners?), yet often this isn’t the case. From New York’s independent Arbiter Recording Company comes one of the better examples of how a historical release should be presented. Not only can we read commentary on these recitals and Kapell’s attitude towards the works by his widow, Dr. Anna Lou Dehavenon, but also several extracts from the American pianist’s letters that lend insight into his views on performance, contemporary compositions and his role as artist. The picture these paint is of a pianist passionately committed to the soul of the music rather than mere technical perfection, to artistic integrity instead of catering to public tastes. To a pianist friend Kapell wrote, “Sometimes my fingers work, sometimes not, – the hell with them! I want to sing anyway. And my heart seldom doesn’t work. So don’t brood over technique too much. Remember that you are a musician.”
On the advice of his teacher Olga Samaroff, Kapell made a specialty of the modern Russian repertoire, and Shostakovich’s Concerto entered his repertoire the year before this performance (which is a radio relay, Kapell never having made a commercial recording of the work). Kapell’s respect for a score did not blind him to the wit and sarcasm in Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto, which he called “a hilarious piece of nothing”. Appropriately, it is an impetuous performance, full of tongue-in-cheek slyness. Samuel Krauss on trumpet is no match for Kapell, and although in the first movement Ormandy extracts spry playing from his plush orchestra, the Philadelphia players can’t manage not sounding a bit Hollywoody in the slow movement. The limitations of the 1945 recording obscure orchestral detail, but Kapell’s notes come through clearly. The 23-year-old’s nimble playing is more tangibly humorous than most, making this a noteworthy version despite the acoustics and incongruous orchestral backing.
As to the eclectic assortment of works accompanying the Shostakovich, the Largo and Rondo of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto represent Kapell’s first recording, made when he was a mere fourteen years of age. The 1937 recording shows its age, and it is not always possible to discern the finer points of Kapell’s style, but his confidence is always apparent. Mussorgsky’s Pictures come from lacquer discs and a preservation tape made of them, so the sound quality is very poor. The reading is characterful, though, and pianists and lay-listeners with a high tolerance for extraneous noise will find much of value. Though Kapell’s live recital – just two years before his tragic death in a plane crash – of Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Nun komm der Heiden Heiland was taken from shellac pressings too, the sound is infinitely better, and with playing of this ravishing beauty, it contributes towards making this disc a satisfying purchase for those with the ears to appreciate a distinctive pianistic personality.
W. Mark Roberts
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Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, opus 35; André Jolivet: Concertino for trumpet, strings and piano; Concerto for trumpet and orchestra No. 2; Edison Denisov: Con Sordino for trumpet and piano; Jaan Rääts: Concerto for trumpet, piano and strings, opus 92§.
Lutz Köhler, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Reinhold Friedrich (trumpet), Thomas Duis (piano).
Capriccio 10 575. DDD. TT 67:20.
Recorded 21-25 August 1995 & 10-11 June 1996, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem.
§World première recording.
With such a prominent trumpet role, it is unjust that Opus 35 is usually referred to as simply the “First Piano Concerto” – and it makes sense to include the work in a compilation such as this in which the trumpet and not only the piano is the featured instrument.
Still, it is the pianist that is the best part of this performance. Duis’ playing is sure-footed, with especially fine dynamic control. While Friedrich equals current rivals in the first two movements, I was disappointed by the strain apparent in the crucial parting flourishes of the third movement; and surprised, given Friedrich’s ample power in all other works on this disc. It should also be said that there is very little humour in this reading, the decision seeming to have been to emphasise darkness wherever it lurks. This naturally works best in the second movement, both Duis and Friedrich blowing in cloudier weather than forecast. The orchestra are not as manoeuvrable as they might be, skidding off Shostakovich’s slippery corners more than once. On top of this imperfect ensemble, orchestral violin tone is rather thin and wheezy.
The notes state that Friedrich and Duis were the first to record the Estonian Jaan Rääts’ Concerto for trumpet, piano and strings, but not that this is said première recording. In the absence of any indication I can find otherwise, however, the première this is. It’s a polystylistic single-movement work in which the relationship between instruments is democratic. Sadly this does not translate into a synergistic relationship, and while I found the driving string parts instantly attractive, the trumpet’s role seems almost an afterthought. Whatever the merits of the music itself, there’s no denying that Friedrich plays his part superbly, with rich, muscular tone.
Edison Denisov’s Con Sordino from 1995, dedicated to Friedrich, spotlights the ethereal potential of the trumpet. It’s a paradoxical piece; less than seven minutes in duration yet pregnant of utterance; intricately branching while retaining the pungent directness of haiku. The trumpet’s role here is of Unanswered Questioner, while, in the background, note clusters on the piano feather out like frost on a windowpane. The work is minimalist in the manner of Olivier Messaien’s introspective interrogations.
Unlike the Russian Denisov, André Jolivet actually was a fellow-traveller with Messaien in the “Jeune France” group, but the two works of his on this compilation are more akin to Darius Milhaud’s irreverent style. His Concertino for trumpet, strings and piano from 1948 provides dazzling detail work for the trumpeter. Its opening section is an in-your-face exercise in the avant garde, though the second movement, marked Meno vivo, briefly touches a Shostakovian melancholy before moving without pause into a garrulous and brassy third movement.
To be honest, I found the Concertino to be more of a showcase for a variety of brass effects than a musical invention of much consequence, and the same is true of Jolivet’s Concerto for trumpet and orchestra No. 2 of 1954. Opening with amusingly rude waa-waa effects (covering and uncovering the bell of the trumpet), the first movement is another seemingly improvised frolic. The slow second movement hybridises Blues with traditional classical form. The third movement is perhaps the most interesting, with bizarre percussion effects, and rhythms and colours one would normally associate with a jazz band.
This album is easily recommendable to trumpet aficionados, but I think not to most Shostakovich collectors.
W. Mark Roberts
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From Jewish Folk Poetry, opus 79[a]; New Babylon film music, opus 18.
Valeri Polyansky, Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Tatiana Sharova (soprano)[a], Ludmila Kuznetsova (mezzo)[a], Alexei Martynov (tenor)[a].
Chandos CHAN 9600. DDD. TT: 69:37
A debt of gratitude is owed Gennadi Rozhdestvensky for his splendid restoration and arrangement into suite form of Shostakovich’s landmark first film score, New Babylon. One wonders what might have happened to this invaluable score if the conductor had not, early in 1976, discovered the instrumental parts in a storeroom at Moscow’s Lenin Library. In the twenty-two years since his première recording of the work with members of the Moscow PO (on Melodiya; currently available on Russian Disc RDCD 11064), this rollicking and vibrant music has received surprisingly little attention. The current performance of the suite by Valeri Polyansky is the first to appear in so many years, the only other recorded version being that of James Judd and the Berlin RSO, whose digital release of 1990 (Capriccio 10 341/42) marked the world première of the complete, unabridged score.
The music to New Babylon was written just as Shostakovich’s style had rapidly shifted away from its experimental phase, epitomized by the Second Symphony and the opera, The Nose, toward a lyrical style which embraced popular dance forms in a most idiosyncratic fashion. The scores from this period (1928 – 1936), which include the ballets The Age of Gold and The Bolt, are characterized by nervous, densely packed lyricism, and effortless manoeuvering of rapid episodic changes, features which seem perfectly tailored to the animated demands of the cinema.
New Babylon‘s score contains all of these attributes plus what must have been the young composer’s greatest musical joy at the time, the expression of outrageous sarcasm and grotesque humour in an endless stream of lyrical wit. That and the setting of the film, about the 1871 Paris Commune, led Shostakovich to adopt a carefree, if somewhat heavily rhythmic, Gallic demeanour that would become a recurring feature of his subsequent light music.
The three recorded versions of New Babylon offer plenty of good choices. Each is competitive with one another on matters of performance, to varying degrees, and each represents a recording first. Eric Roseberry’s liner note states that Polyansky uses the seven-part, 45-minute suite arranged and recorded by Rozhdestvensky. The music unquestionably follows Rozhdestvensky’s cuts, however the sound of the recording suggests that Polyansky is using larger forces than the small ensemble that appears in the elder conductor’s original recording. The differences are slightly more than a matter of reinforcement and size, as I have noticed xylophone highlighting and string section embellishments in Polyansky’s recording which do not appear in Rozhdestvensky’s.
According to other sources, two instrumentations of the original score were prepared at the time of its composition in 1929, a lighter one to accommodate a smaller pit orchestra and another for a larger ensemble. Polyansky’s version of the suite was evidently enhanced by parts taken from the expanded edition and thus, is something of a world première.
In comparing the merits of the three versions, the wonderfully individual character of the instrumental work that Rozhdestvensky, in his heyday, was able to elicit from his ensemble imparts a liveliness and personalized quality that is simply unmatched in the other two performances. His is a performance that I would not want to do without. James Judd also handles the score with buoyancy, yet some of the time he seems to be racing and pacing the clock, no doubt due to the fact that his version includes every last musical filler and repeat which Rozhdestvensky filters out of his arrangement. Judd’s complete New Babylon lasts almost twice as long as the suite and times in at 83:49. For those who can’t get enough of this preciously short-lived and wickedly offbeat period of Shostakovich’s music, this fine recording is one to consider as well.
Polyansky brings his own dashing showmanship to the music, energetically negotiating the sharp episodic turns and detours, leaving not so much as a single audible seam in its bustling musical patchwork. He is alternately gracious and sardonic in the Paris movement’s sumptuous waltz sequence, and dives forward with more than due fanfare into the surprise appearance of Offenbach’s Cancan. He also scores high atmospheric points with the solo work in The Siege of Paris and the eerie cymbal crescendi in the opening bars of Versailles.
One of the ongoing pleasures of the Polyansky disc is the superb clarity of its digital sound, a feature which is superior to that of its discmates. The orchestra has a nicely distributed presence without sounding too close or distant, permitting a splendidly clear registration of the almost constant solo work. With Rozhdestvensky’s rendition again in current rerelease, Polyansky’s version offers a very attractive alternative.
Shostakovich’s first important song cycle, From Jewish Folk Poetry, opus 79, was completed in October 1948. It was one of the works, along with the First Violin Concerto, completed the previous March, whose première was strategically delayed until after Stalin’s death. The anti-Formalist decree of February of that year put Shostakovich and other Soviet composers on the alert for transgressions against official boundaries of musical acceptability.
According to Laurel Fay, the opus 79 songs, with their basis in folksong, were originally intended as a gesture of compliance with the decree, yet had the misfortune of having been completed in Fall, 1948, when Stalin was launching a fierce new anti-Semitic campaign. Not everyone agrees with this position. Those opposing this view feel that the choice of Jewish material was a conscious gesture of protest from the point of conception. The truth seems to lie somewhere in between.
Through his music, Shostakovich expressed a strong spiritual identification with Jewish music, and implicitly, with the Jews themselves as an oppressed group, in works such as the Second Piano Trio and especially the Scherzo of the suppressed Violin Concerto. It is possible, given the composer’s practiced skills of musical self-defense, that he might have intended to walk the fine line of dual expediency in the poorly timed opus 79 songs, intending them as an offering of both public conformity and private dissidence. The impression of strategic intent is fortified by the content of the texts in which hardships of Czarist Russia are expressed in the first eight songs followed by the glorification of Soviet life in the final three. To subscribers of dissident thought in Shostakovich’s music, it would not be the first time that the composer tagged on a suspiciously upbeat finale to a serious work as a patronizing and compensating gesture. Even by the most conservative interpretation, one must acknowledge that the composer must have had some idea of the controversial nature of an explicitly Jewish theme, particularly in the midst of Zhdanovshchina, and even before it.
Performances of From Jewish Folk Poetry were surprisingly scant in the first 30 years of its existence and, fortunately, have increased in frequency and quality in recent years. The grandfather of all recordings, made in 1955, features the performers who premièred the work, Nina Dorliak, Zara Dolukhanova, Alexei Maslennikov, and the composer as pianist. That monophonic version still remains a very effective and listenable performance (available on Russian Disc RDCD 15015).
Yet the expressive dimension of the work was considerably expanded with the long-delayed release of its orchestral version. It is hard to believe that no new recording of the cycle was issued until 1970 when Kurt Sanderling, the Berlin City SO and soloists premièred the orchestral version in German translation in a very fine performance on a Helidor Wergo LP (reissued as Berlin Classics BER9016).
Another decade-long hiatus preceded Svetlanov’s 1980 recording (issued on Melodiya in 1982; not currently available) with the USSR SO, soloists Raisa and Galina Borisova and Alexei Maslennikov. Despite the many strengths of its fine vocalists, Svetlanov’s orchestral accompaniment is surprisingly bland to the point where it significantly detracts from the quality of the performance. The orchestral version’s first digital representation with Bernard Haitink in 1986 (reissued in Decca/London’s boxed set 444 430-2 [reissued on Ovation 425 069-2]) again features good voices, but the performance suffers from that conductor’s typically overly-premeditated tempos. Yuri Ahranovich’s subsequent performance of the first eight songs with the Jerusalem SO (Stradivari SCD 8005) in its first Yiddish version is full of wonderful vitality, though the recording suffers from a number of imperfections associated with live-audience taping. A new generation of performance and technical excellence was introduced with Neeme Järvi’s strongly individual interpretation on a 1994 Deutsche Grammophon release with the Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra and soloists (DG 439 860-2).
The current version of the cycle under Valeri Polyansky achieves technical and interpretive strengths competitive with Järvi’s. As in Järvi’s performance, Polyansky’s orchestra is not merely a neutral backdrop but an ongoing shaping force, whether in the background or as an active participant as in the heightened drama of the sixth (The Deserted Father) and seventh (Song of Misery) songs. The three soloists are wonderfully expressive and fully in the moment. They are also impressively united in execution and interpretation in the songs that include more than one singer. The sorrow of the opening song, Lament for a Dead Child, for soprano and mezzo, is finely wrought and heartfelt. In the eighth song, Winter, all three are wonderfully evocative of the wind’s aching chill. Mezzo-soprano Ludmila Kuznetsova’s vocal quality is particularly noteworthy and her rendition of the third song, Lullaby, is stunning. Tenor Alexei Martynov has a firm tone and a strong dramatic energy which he demonstrates in the The Abandoned Father and A Good Life, the ninth song. I would have preferred a bit more presence in soprano Tatiana Sharova’s voice, whose performance is nevertheless very dedicated. I also would have preferred a more lively rendition of the catchy second song (The Thoughtful Mother and Aunt, with the memorable “by-by-by” syllables) and the final song, Happiness.
Regardless, these soloists are comparable, even somewhat preferable, to the soloists in Järvi’s equally desirable rendition of From Jewish Folk Poetry. For this performance and the one of New Babylon, this Chandos disc is a welcome addition to the discographies of these relatively neglected yet essential Shostakovich scores.
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Sinfonia for Viola and Strings in Bb minor (arrangement by Alexander Tchaikovsky of String Quartet No. 13, opus 138); Brahms: Clarinet [Viola] Quintet in B minor, opus 115 (transcribed by Yuri Bashmet; reduction of double bass part by Yuri Golubev).
Yuri Bashmet (viola), The Moscow Soloists.
SONY ASK 60550-S1. DDD. TT 65:11.
Recorded 21-22 March, 1998, Henry Wood Hall, London.
World première recordings.
Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Quartet, with its alternately grim, gritty and grotesque turns of expression, seems a most unlikely candidate for chamber transcription. Yet, through the zealous efforts of both arranger and performers, this most unusual entry in the Shostakovich canon receives a uniquely impressive representation in this new Sony release featuring Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists.
With this recording, chamber arrangements of no less than seven different Shostakovich quartets have appeared on CD. To my knowledge these consist of Quartets No. 3 (Barshai, chamber orch.) , No. 4 (Barshai, chamber orch.), No. 7 (Paul Archibald, brass quintet), No. 8 (Barshai and others), No. 10 (Barshai), No. 13 (A.Tchaikovsky, this release) and No. 15 (Misha Rachlevsky, strings). The much overworked Eighth Quartet leads the rest in recorded versions, with the Tenth Quartet coming in a close second. Transcriptions, even the least fitting, are themselves interpretations in that they present opportunities for new perspectives on familiar works. That is why they pique our curiosity. In the current offering, transcription is combined with a set of boldly different performance decisions, providing not one, but two levels of interpretive departure for consideration.
The setting of Quartet No. 13 for viola and strings was prepared by the Moscow-born (1946) composer Alexander Tchaikovsky (apparently no relation to either Piotr, Boris or Andre of musical reputation*), some of whose compositions (a piano trio, a piano fantasia and a clarinet concerto) have appeared on the Melodiya label. The choice of viola as featured instrument ties in with the fact that Shostakovich had dedicated each of his last quartets to a different member of the Beethoven Quartet and each contains a prominent part for the instrument of its dedicatee. In the case of Quartet No.13 (1970), it was violist Vadim Vasilievich Borisovsky, who had retired from the ensemble in 1964 and who died in 1972.
The Thirteenth Quartet is one of the grief-stricken, yet potent works of the composer’s later years which, like the Twelfth Quartet, Fourteenth Symphony and Violin Sonata, led the composer to push his musical language to its chromatic extreme. In these works, Shostakovich dabbled in the serialist’s palette without ever losing his diatonic footing, deploying tone rows in a lyrical framework that opened up new avenues of expressive severity. The dark abyss from which these works emerged also inspired bold new experiments in form, of which the Thirteenth Quartet is perhaps the boldest. Here we have Shostakovich’s only experiment in full-scale symmetry, a single movement work whose five sections are arranged, mirror-like, in successively increasing and decreasing tempo around a central section of highly contrasting material. In Shostakovich’s hands, the symmetry is not used as an artifact of neoclassicism, but rather as a unique and ingeniously exploited expressive opportunity.
Though the album refers to the arrangement as one for ‘viola and strings’, the liner notes provide no information whatsoever about the details of the scoring or the instrumental make-up of the Moscow Soloists. Among the distinguishing features of Mr. Tchaikovsky’s arrangement, though, is its lightness of touch. In other transcriptions of the composer’s quartets, one finds, to varying degrees, a uniform thickening of texture throughout so that one is always aware of added instrumental weight. In the current arrangement, the presence of the ensemble is so gently blended into the background that its effect is to add highlighting while meticulously preserving the work’s intimate quality. In fact, entire passages, solo and otherwise, seem to appear in their original scoring as dictated by the expressive needs of the moment. The results are subtle and most effective.
One feature that stands out in particular is the presence of the double bass, whose reinforcement of the cello part adds a wonderfully resonant gravity to the work’s dark ambience. The instrument also enhances some of the more atmospheric effects such as the eerie trills (Fig. 48/16:09) and widely spaced ‘ghost’ chords (Fig. 59/23:33) in the final section.
The featured viola part is neither used in a bravura manner nor excessively pushed to the foreground. It is, at times, given a part originally written for one or another string, a feature which sacrifices some of the notable instrumental interplay throughout the quartet.
The aspect of this recording that departs considerably from the norm is the performance itself, where the daringly broad tempi taken in the outer movements bring the total timing of the work to an astonishing 27:33. Compare this with the timings of the Beethoven (18:12; Consonance 813008), Borodin (19:56; Melodiya 74321-40711-2), and Fitzwilliam (19:11; Decca/London 289455776-2) Quartets’ recordings of same. The expansive tempi do rob the work of much of its dramatic sweep and transforms the outer section into a kind of pensive dirge reminiscent of the adagios of the Fifteenth Quartet.
Listeners’ reactions to this approach will vary, but I found myself responding positively after a number of playings. Mr. Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists pour so much emotion and nuanced dynamics into these sections that they are able to carry the line with considerable sustaining force. The listener is also able to savor, as in no other performance, the painful yet exquisitely graceful stream of dissonant sonorities that shade the broad lines of the work’s outer sections.
The approach is not without its tradeoffs. The principal one of these is that, in its expanded gesture, the stabbing three note figures which are repeated throughout the second and fourth sections lose some of their anguished fury, even if they do acquire a compensatingly larger-than-life quality. In the second section, a series of pile-on sonorities should bring these stabbing motifs to a wrenching crux, an effect which is somewhat neutralized in the current performance. As a result the manner in which the second section leads to the third, through a pointilistically dissolving segue, loses some of its dramatic (though not lyric) continuity.
The jazzily syncopated central section of the Quartet is not subject to the same tempo extensions, nor could it be. The borrowed idiom insists upon a certain ‘swing’, a finger-snapping ‘beat’, without which the contradictory layers of meaning imposed upon it would be lost. In this strange and memorable episode, the low string beats out a steadily pulsed pizzicato vamp (itself a tone row) in 4/4 time while the upper-register instruments engage in a jerky, syncopated Dance of Death to the accompaniment of falling jazz-like riffs and hollow percussive raps on the bellies of the instruments (struck by the back of the bow). The split semantic levels of jazzy scherzo humor imposed upon a sort of hysterical, marionette-like dislocation grows in climactic intensity at Fig. 28/12:50 when a series of broadly arched phrases adds yet a further layer of heightened emotion. The Moscow Soloists’ handling of this section is most stirring. The plucking bass brings along its own jazz associations and works particularly well.
In the final section of the work, the material from the first section returns, its level of despair intensified rather than relieved for the experience. The viola solo’s doleful swan song has never sounded so stripped of hope and unconsoled as it does in Mr. Bashmet’s broadly drawn lines.
One feature of this arrangement which I take issue with is on the very last note. In the final bars of the original score, the strings leap up a tritone from E natural (two octaves above middle E) to a sustained Bb above. In the original score, the Bb is held with steadily increasing volume and then is abruptly cut off in a final sforzando. In Mr. Tchaikovsky’s arrangement, the final cut-off is topped off with a short, added accented note played by other strings, an embellishment which destroys the pure effect of a lone voice crying out into the darkness and suddenly silenced. While Shostakovich tolerated, even approved of, various instrumental arrangements of his music, we know from Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered that he would object to the smallest deviation from the special instrumental effects in his quartet music (see Valentin Berlinsky’s account of such an instance, p.245). The rest of the arrangement withstanding, I somehow think that the final ‘topping off’ note might not have received the master’s imprimatur.
That aside, the performance is one whose daringly broad tempi are likely to test a listener’s patience and just as likely to reward it. This is an earnest and heartfelt performance that lends a fresh emotional perspective to one of the lesser known works of the composer’s canon, one worth hearing more than just a few times. That combined with the lovingly performed Brahms clarinet quintet in its viola arrangement add up to a very worthwhile purchase.
[* in DSCH No. 6, Winter 1996, p. 4, Irina Shostakovich is interviewed as saying “More recently Boris Tchaikovsky made an excellent arrangement of the 13th String Quartet for viola and string orchestra.” Either she momentarily had Alexander confused with Boris, which I feel is the case, or there exists yet another arrangement of same work by the better known of the two Tchaikovsky’s.]
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DSCH Aphorismes: Hommage à Dmitri Chostakovitch
Ten Preludes, opus 34 trans. for violin and strings by Ilmar Lapinsch[a]; Two Pieces (Prelude and Scherzo) for string octet, opus 11[b]; Two pieces for string quartet, Sans opus D (originally opus 36), trans. for string ensemble by Alexandre Brussilovsky[c]; Recitative and Romance from String Quartet No. 2, opus 68, trans. for violin and piano by Dmitry Tsyganov[d]; Aphorisms, opus 13, trans. for violin, bassoon, percussion and piano by Boris Bekhterev and Vladimir Spivakov[e]; Alfred Schnittke: Praeludium in Memoriam D. Shostakovich for two violins[f]; Steven Gerber: Elegy on the name “Dmitri Shostakovich” for solo viola[g].
Alexandre Brussilovsky (conductor & violin), Ensemble Ricercata de Paris, Nathanaëlle Marie[f], Françoise Renard (viola)[g], Pascal Godart (piano)[d,e], Amaury Wallez (bassoon)[e], Dominique Probst (percussion)[e].
Suoni e Colori SC 53006. DDD. TT 67:20.
Recorded August 1996, l’Eglise St.-Apollinaire de l’Argentière la Bessée (Hautes-Alpes)[a-c,f,g]/Maison de la Musique de Nanterre[d,e].
[a,c,d,g]World première recordings.
In 1976, while on tour in France with violinist Alexandre Brussilovsky, the pianist Mikhail Rudy (the same as on the EMI disc reviewed above) defected. Brussilovsky was punished in Rudy’s place upon his return to the Soviet Union, his performing career effectively destroyed. Since emigrating to France in 1985, however, this enterprising violinist has founded his own chamber ensemble, the Ricercata de Paris, and recording label, Suoni e Colori, from whence this intriguing assortment originates.
Ilmar Lapinsch’s transcription of 10 of the 24 Opus 34 Preludes for violin and strings is a sheer delight. It is thoroughly Shostakovian in sound, so much so that it takes effort to remind oneself that the composer did not write it in this form originally. Neither is it a simple translation of the original piano score. Lapinsch has judged superbly when to follow literally and when to deploy novel effects – a tempo change here, an octave shift there, major surgery elsewhere (to name but one example, the violin line in the last page of the Prelude No. 12 departs radically from what appears in the piano version). One repeatedly hears Jewish inflections in these works (listen in particular to Prelude No. 13/track 4), and while this is partly due to the particular affinity of the violin to the Jewish idiom, it also attests to a vaguely Jewish sound latent in Shostakovich’s personal style before conscious incorporation of Jewish motifs (his 24 Preludes date from 1932-33, his completion of Benjamin Fleishman’s Rothschild’s Violin and the Second Piano Trio not until 1944). The notes do not state which of the 24 Preludes are included; in order, they are Nos. 2 (A minor), 6 (B minor), 12 (G# minor; rendered as Allegretto non troppo instead of the original Allegro non troppo), 13 (F# major), 17 (Ab major), 18 (F minor), 19 (Eb major), 21 (Bb major), 22 (G minor), and 20 (C minor).
The unusual scoring of the Opus 13 Aphorisms for violin, bassoon, percussion and piano yields decidedly un-Shostakovian sonorities, but instead that generic modernist sound converged upon around the world by those contemporary composers destined to remain forever unknown. This is not the backhanded insult it appears to be, meaning only that one does not sense the superimposition of any one distinctive musical personality on Shostakovich’s opus. This arrangement views this 1927 work through the lens of developments in instrumentation during Shostakovich’s lifetime, thus linking the old melodic lines with later modes of expression. And although Shostakovich did not employ all of those modes of expression in the manner presented here, there are fleeting connections, especially to the spartan style of his final sonatas.
This time-traveller’s presence on this disc as a foil to the Preludes is especially appropriate. The percussionist has a starring position, reminding one of the key role played by percussion in the evolution of serious music this century. The percussionist also provides important links with later works by Shostakovich, most notably through the appearances of his perennial woodblocks.
A rival account by the Moscow Contemporary Music Ensemble is available on a Triton disc that will be reviewed in full in our next issue (17 011; coupled with both Piano Trios). Both accounts are satisfying, though the Suoni e Colori players inject much more energy into their recital in the Etude. Brussilovsky’s violin tone is richer throughout than Alexander Melnikov’s on Triton, so if a decision were mandatory, one could choose between Brussilovsky’s warmth and Melnikov’s intentionally lighter touch.
The Two Pieces for String Octet is the one Shostakovich piece on this disc not transcribed into a new form (confusingly, the English notes speak of “opus 11 for String Quartet”, but the French text has it correctly as “pour Octuor à cordes”). Tempo in the Prelude is broader than in the version by the New Century Orchestra that I reviewed in DSCH 9 (New Albion NA 088 CD), resulting in greater emotional resonance. The Borodin and Prokofiev Quartets on Melodiya (in the quartet cycle; 74321 40713 2) are even more patient, but without a gain in impact, and their adenoidal recording cannot match the radiance of Suoni e Colori’s. In the Scherzo, the Ricercata de Paris is much less aggressive than either alternative; of the three, the New Century Orchestra get my vote, though the Ricercata de Paris win the election once the Prelude is included in the count.
Incidentally, the track listing in Suoni e Colori’s booklet places both movements in track 12, but the CD switches to a new track for the Scherzo (appropriately so). The listing is thus off by one for all subsequent tracks, an unfortunate mistake that may mislead or at least confuse the uninitiated.
No less successful is the world première recording (though not advertised as such) of Alexandre Brussilovsky’s own string orchestra transcription of the Two Pieces for String Quartet, opus 36. The first movement (Elegy) is the same music as Katerina’s bedroom aria (“Zerebyonok k kobilke toropitsya”) at the end of Act 1 in Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Although I found the shrill central crisis to be on the melodramatic side, the weight of the string orchestra lends an unconsoling warmth, and helps to sustain Brussilovsky’s broad tempo; at 5:48, he takes significantly longer than either the Shostakovich Quartet on Olympia (4:11; OCD 531) or the live performance by Gidon Kremer, Annete Bik, Veronika Hagen and Thomas Demenga on ECM New Series’ Edition Lockenhaus Vol. 4/5 (4:36; ECM 78118-21347-2) in the original quartet versions. One is unlikely to encounter a more moving performance of this music in any of its incarnations.
As for the second movement (Polka), drawn from The Age of Gold ballet score, this falls midway between the primordial orchestration and the string quartet, gaining some of the lightheartedness of the latter version (though it’s not as inebriated as on ECM) while adding the impression of laughter-in-unison of the former.
I was less convinced by Dmitri Tsyganov’s transcription for violin and piano of Recitative and Romance, which is the second movement of String Quartet No. 2 (a fact that the notes neglect to mention). The cello “pedal” that underpins much of the movement in the quartet version, giving it its atmosphere of Orthodox worship, is replaced by arpeggios on the piano that sound for all the world like a Hungarian cimbalom. Some may admire the unusual sound, but I found that the piano fails to replicate the rapt piety of the sustained cello line, and also reduces the emotional impact of the movement’s lyrical section, singing more of a lullaby than the unrequited-lovesong of the quartet version.
Schnittke’s Praeludium in Memoriam D. Shostakovich from 1975 is a gut-wrenching lament, based on barely-recognisable mutations of the DSCH motto, behind which pizzicato strokes mark time like some fateful pendulum. The second violinist transports to stage left near the end and shadows the first violin as if in solidarity. It is an impressively concise and affecting composition. Brussilovsky invests it with all possible anguish, and Nathanaëlle Marie is a sympathetic echo.
Unlike the most famous solo instrumental meditation on Shostakovich’s name, Ronald Stevenson’s monumental Passacaglia on DSCH, and Stevenson’s Recitative and Air, which are both based on the DSCH motto (performed by the composer-as-pianist on Altarus AIR-CD-9091(2)), American Steven Gerber’s Elegy on the Name “Dmitri Shostakovich” for solo viola uses original motifs, pulled from the letters S-H-S-T-A (Eb-B-Eb-B-A) and D-M-T (D-E-B). Repeated listening has not changed my opinion that the work is essentially academic. Note progressions are not automatically good music because they derive from someone’s name – Shostakovich’s own motto used intervals that coincidentally work musically and are characteristic of his style. Again, though it’s not billed as such, this is a world première recording.
The performances are first-rate. Especially in those Preludes that I so enjoyed, Brussilovsky could not be more sensitive to colour. The recording is bright and sharp, both desirable qualities in this repertoire. The notes include a testimonial from Irina Shostakovich welcoming these performances … sentiments with which I wholeheartedly agree!
W. Mark Roberts
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Vol. 1: String Quartet No. 1 in C major, opus 49; String Quartet No. 4 in D major, opus 83; String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, opus 110.
Globe GLO 5157. DDD. TT 60:45.
Recorded Aug. 1996, Utrecht.
Vol. 2: String Quartet No. 3 in F major, opus 73; String Quartet No. 15 in Eb minor, opus 144.
Globe GLO 5171. DDD. TT 66:04.
Recorded Sept. 1997, Utrecht.
These two discs proved to be a most pleasant surprise, for I had not previously encountered this group, and was not expecting great things. The Flemish Rubio Quartet have been playing together since 1991, clearly sufficient time to have coalesced a common musical purpose, with extremely precise coordination among the four musicians. Their approach to the Shostakovich quartets is fresh and thought-provoking, so it should come as no surprise that the comparison that continually came to mind when listening to these performances was the Fitzwilliam Quartet (their Shostakovich cycle is available anew on Decca/London boxed set 289455776-2) – exalted company indeed.
To see what I mean by the freshness of these readings, one need only listen to the First Quartet. As a composition, it is straightforward in mood, and the Rubio Quartet play it in a straightforward manner, yet I doubt that the first movement has ever sounded more innocent. The Rubios emphasise the dance-like qualities of the quartet as a whole.
Theirs is not a complacent, polished reading of the Third Quartet, but rather a fully-involved, purposeful one. Much attention is paid to rhythmic detail, stressing the variety contained in each movement, most notably the first. The accompanying notes make much of the titles which Shostakovich noted above each movement in the autograph score. Those are likely a red herring, but the third movement, entitled “The forces of war unleashed”, is indeed played with stark brutality, with the emphasis on the staccato markings. The following Adagio is that much more mournful in contrast, and genuinely moving once one gets over the huskiness of the cello tone (which I suspect is as much the fault of the recording acoustics as of the instrument – curiously, the last movement is richer-toned than the preceding movements). Though I’m not a fan of the Rubio’s slow take on the climax of the finale, this certainly did not strike me as out of context relative to what precedes and follows.
The Rubio Quartet are keen to highlight the rhythmic peculiarities of the Fourth Quartet. The striking opening of the first movement is delivered with power, before relaxing into what ends up verging on a waltz. They emphasise the syncopations in the second movement, but not for mere effect, and it comes off as genuinely poignant. On the minus side, the Jewish themes in the last movement are not particularly idiomatic, their legato lacking Semitic sinuosity, and that movement as a whole tends to drag. There are also a few questionable notes under the duress of the more intense passages.
That last criticism adheres even more firmly to the second movement of the Eighth Quartet, the Rubio’s resources stretched to the breaking point. At the speed with which they tear through, they simply do not have enough force to apply to each note to make much of an emotional impact. Altogether, this entry is my least favourite among the current batch of quartets. I found my attention fixating on the accuracy of the notes rather than the music behind them. This is not an ordinary composition, and to my mind at least, it needs to be played with some sense of what’s at stake. This performance left me neither shaken nor stirred.
Happily, quite the reverse holds for this team’s reading of the Fifteenth Quartet. The Rubio’s sensitivity to rhythm is especially conspicuous throughout. Listen to how pulse is maintained at a rock-steady pace throughout the expansive first section, Elegy; even in the pauses one feels the forward momentum. The searing waves of superheated sound that lead into the next section (those notes rising from ppp to sffff) put to rest any residual concern that this quartet is technically deficient where it counts. The Rubios do “ghostly” very well indeed, and the Nocturne had my hairs standing on end. In sum, this is a Fifteenth that gives the impression of coming from the other side of the grave.
Although these would not be a first recommendation, they contain much to admire, and I’m looking forward to future entries in this cycle. Those on a budget might wish to skip Volume 1 and that disappointing Eighth.
W. Mark Roberts
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Complete Shostakovich Quartets
String Quartet No. 3 in F major, opus 73[a]; String Quartet No. 7 in F# minor, opus 108[b]; String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, opus 110[c].
Yggdrasil Quartet: Henrik Peterson (violin 1), Per Öman (violin 2), Robert Westlund (viola), Per Nyström (cello).
BIS BIS-CD-913. DDD. TT 70:27.
Recorded Sept. 1997[a,c]/May 1998[b], Länna Church, Sweden.
The current disc is the first in yet another projected complete cycle. This recording is much more flattering to the instruments than is Globe’s, but although the Swedish Yggdrasil Quartet formed a year before the Rubio, their coordination in these pieces is not as precise in timing nor as well-judged as to balance.
The Yggdrasil’s performance of the Third Quartet is symptomatic of the differences between their conception and the Rubio’s. Their playing lacks the latter’s fluidity. I don’t, of course, mean to suggest that this is a flowing composition, with all of its sharp turns, stops and starts, but across those discontinuities one should be able to sense a direction of movement, and this is where the Rubio score over the Yggdrasil, most notably in the third movement, which is equally juddering in both accounts but not as driving in the Yggdrasil’s. The Swedes are also more prone to exaggeration, with heavier application of rubato in the first movement. The expansiveness of their Adagio is marred by the awkwardness of their tempo changes, which seem contrived.
Things work better in the pithy Seventh Quartet, which crams so many varied ideas into such a short duration that the Yggdrasil’s highlighting of effects and mood swings suits it well. The Lento central section is hypnotic, with a glissando guaranteed to chill the bravest blood. But while I admired the opening and concluding Allegrettos and the Lento, the Allegro sounded muddled; a less self-consciously pyrotechnical attack would have permitted greater vehemence.
As for the Eighth quartet, I found my reaction puzzling; it’s a more technically-assured performance than the Rubio’s, and unlike in the Third, the Yggdrasil players nudge the score only rarely and when it makes intrinsic good sense. Yet I found myself left unmoved by the performance, and found it difficult to put my finger on exactly what was wrong until the Seryozha refrain in the second Largo at Fig. 62/4:38; there is no heart in it – it is merely played, not sung. And this lack of emotional connection with the music is what is wrong with the quartet as a whole.
In short, I do not find the Yggdrasil to be sympathetic to the composer. Whereas the Rubio Quartet impart the wonder of discovering these works and their possibilities, the Yggdrasil Quartet seem to be more of the conquistador variety of explorer, too ready to impose their rule without regard to indigenous sensibilities.
W. Mark Roberts
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String Quartet No. 3 in F major, opus 73; String Quartet No. 7 in F# minor, opus 108; String Quartet No. 12 in Db major, opus 133.
Philharmonia Quartett Berlin: Daniel Stabrawa (violin 1), Christian Stadelmann (violin 2), Neithard Resa (viola), Jan Disselhorst (cello).
Thorofon CTH 2238. DDD. TT 71:30.
Recorded 1994, 1995, 1996, Waldkirche Berlin-Heiligensee.
Unlike the other “complete quartets” discs in this issue, this appears to be a one-off production. A pity, for the music-making on this disc is as exemplary as one would expect from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s first concertmaster, chief second violinist, and chief violist (and though Jan Disselhorst isn’t head of his section, he’s an even match here). They yield a weightier sound than either the Rubio or Yggdrasil achieve.
A major weakness is that in the first movement of the Third Quartet, the Philharmonia omit the Fig. 11 repeat, excising a whopping 99 bars (almost a minute and a half). I find this deplorable, though with the Philharmonia’s slow pace and languid phrasing perhaps some listeners will not mind.
As to finer points, I’d have preferred a little more angularity in the third movement, which the Philharmonia smooth over, not offering much contrast with the preceding Moderato con moto. The Adagio is appropriately gloomy, though, with rich grain on low strings alternating with a gossamer-light thread in high register. The concluding Moderato exemplifies the Philharmonia’s long-range vision, their sensitivity to local colour never distracting them from the tour as a whole.
After the Yggdrasil’s account, the Philharmonia’s interpretation of the Seventh Quartet sounds downright depressive. Instead of the former’s scintillating showpiece, they present a moody and troubled work. Even the impish theme that opens and closes the quartet sounds morose. It is a valid take on this opus, one worth getting to know.
This performance of the Twelfth Quartet is also very fine. The Philharmonia instill emotion into every section: from a bittersweet opening Moderato, through uneasy expectancy, abandonment, the forbidding return of the opening tone row, now dehumanised, to a return to longing, and finally an almost triumphant close.
Few listeners, I imagine, will be disappointed with these performances, and I hope that Thorofon can enlist the Philharmonia for future outings in this repertoire. But be warned about that bonsai first movement of the Third, which is certainly grounds for dismissal.
W. Mark Roberts