CD Reviews 13
§ = World Première Recording
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Cello Sonata in D minor, opus 40; Moderato for piano & cello in A minor, sans opus D; Prokofiev: Cello Sonata in C Major, opus 119; Adagio, opus 97b (transcription after the ballet Cinderella); Ballade in C minor, opus 15.
Gary Hoffman (cello), Philippe Bianconi (piano).
Le Chant du Monde LDC 2781112. DDD. TT 60:09.
Recorded Salle Olivier Messiaen, Grenoble, 13 – 16 December 1998.
This release differs from the many available recordings of the Shostakovich and Prokofiev cello sonatas in that it includes the more rarely performed works that make up the complete oeuvre for cello and piano for both composers.
Immediately apparent to the listener is the overly reverberant recording setting, at times completely obscuring the pianistic detail and not doing the cello any favours either. If the overall disc had to be summed up in one word that word would be “luscious”. Luscious, however, seems somewhat incongruous in the context of opus 40. There is no doubt about the technical skills of either player but from an interpretive point of view this performance leaves the listener feeling more perplexed than satisfied.
The opening Allegro is pleasing enough but the romantic approach that these players adopt may be better suited to Brahms. A problem that crops up in this movement and elsewhere on the disc is the dubious tuning of the lower register of the piano.
The second movement Allegro is taken at a cracking pace – in excess of 200 crotchet beats per minute! Given that much detail is lost in the cello part and dynamic contrasts are often ignored, it is difficult to understand why this tempo was adopted. The third and fourth movements are more satisfying musically than the earlier ones, though the third movement Largo doesn’t reveal the hoped-for emotional depth. The final Allegro movement is of the sunny variety, pleasant to listen to but not suggestive of any great insight into the work.
In summary, whilst the technical abilities displayed by the players in this work are of a high standard, their musical conception of it as a whole is disappointing.
In the same year as he composed the Cello Sonata (1934), Shostakovich also wrote his brief Moderato for cello and piano. This work languished until it was premièred posthumously by the cellist David Geringas and the pianist Yevgeny Koroyov in Hamburg in 1986. Only two and a half minutes in length, this work merely provides an interlude in the context of this disc. Chances to hear it may be rare, however, and it is thus of interest for the sake of Shostakovich completeness.
It is immediately obvious that this duo is much more at home with the Prokofiev Sonata. The romantic approach that the players adopt at almost all times sits more comfortably with this work and the ensemble playing is of the highest order. Hoffman and Bianconi seem more sympathetic to the music and to each other here. Similarly in the crowd-pleasing transcription from the Cinderella ballet, these die-hard romantics milk the piece for all it’s worth.
Prokofiev’s Ballade in C minor was premièred by its composer and the amateur cellist (and dedicatee), Nikolay Ruzsky, in 1914. Since that time, however, it has been largely neglected. It may well be a worthy piece in its own right but so uniform is the approach of Hoffman and Bianconi to all the works on the disc that interest tends to wane by the final bars. That may sound like an indictment but is not intended so. If your taste in cello playing tends toward the “luscious”, then this is the disc for you.
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Piano Trio No. 1, opus 8; Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, opus 67; Schnittke: Trio for violin, cello and piano.
Trio Bamberg: Jewgeni (Yevgeny) Schuk (violin), Stephan Gerlinghaus (cello), Robert Benz (piano).
Thorofon CTH 2397. DDD. TT 64:51.
Recorded Bayrischen Rundfunk, MSH, kleiner Saal, Studio Franken, Munich, 8-10 June 1998.
Piano Trio No. 1, opus 8; Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, opus 67; Bloch: Three Nocturnes; Martin: Trio on Irish Folk Tunes.
Grieg Trio: Solve Sigerland (violin), Ellen Margrete Flesjo (cello), Vebjorn Anvik (piano).
Simax PSC 1147. —D. TT 63:34.
Recorded Lommedalen Kirke, Norway, 12, 15-18 June 1998.
Piano Trio No. 1, opus 8[a]; Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, opus 67[b]; Seven Songs to words (Seven Romances on Poems) of Alexander Blok, opus 127[c].
Bartos Trio: Galina Danilova (violin), Csaba Bartos (cello), Irina Ivanickaia (piano), Maria Aszodi (soprano)[c].
Hungaroton Classic HCD 31780. DDD. TT 64:28.
Recorded Hungaroton Studio, Hungary, 29 May – 2 June 1997[a,b]; 11-14 September 1997[c].
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, opus 67; Tchaikovsky: Piano Trio in A minor, opus 50; Peter Kiesewetter: Tango pathetique.
Gidon Kremer (violin), Mischa Maisky (cello), Martha Argerich (piano).
Deutsche Grammophon 289 459 326-2. DDD. TT 79:21.
Recorded live Sumida Triphony Hall, Tokyo, May 1998.
Readers may be surprised to learn that Opus 8 had to wait until 1982 to appear on record, owing to the disappearance of Bars 257 to 278, which Shostakovich never saw fit to rewrite. Only in 1981 were the missing parts restored by Boris Tishchenko. The notes to the Grieg Trio’s Simax release point out that the Oslo Trio, who handled the recording première, were also Norwegian, but modestly neglect to mention that their LP bore the Simax badge (PS 1014; CD reissue PSC 1014).
This latest Simax recording of opus 8 is marked by a sprightly bounce to convey Shostakovich’s more modernistic pages, and an innocent sweetness for bars in which the young composer surely had his beloved Tatyana Glivenko, the trio’s dedicatee, in mind. Still, there is a coolness to this performance that I find underplays the work’s emotive potential.
A much more emotionally fraught interpretation of Trio No. 1 can be heard in the Bamberg Trio’s unusual take, with eerily deliberate phrasing of passages that others treat as Impressionistic fancy, and a panic-stricken dash through the manic second theme. Theirs is an unsettling account that is apt to leave the listener on edge. The same features make it an interesting alternative version for anyone wishing to expand their view of this early work. Be warned, though, of the presence of significant huffing and puffing from the stage, plus what sounds like an editing hiccup at 8:29.
A healthier, more conventional recital comes from the Bartos Trio, who invest their playing with more passion than either alternative considered here. Where the Bambergs were breathless, the Bartos are impetuous. Where the Grieg Trio served up misty nostalgia, the Hungarians deliver bittersweet longing. Of the three versions under consideration here, the Bartos’ approach seems to sit most naturally with the work, yielding an engaging conversation with the teenaged author.
All-star teams have not fared as well as one might expect in the Second Piano Trio; witness the dismally inaccurate and superficial entry from Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax on CBS Masterworks MK 44664. I was expecting more success from the new DG entry, as I’ve greatly enjoyed Martha Argerich’s Beethoven and Bach sonata performances with Gidon Kremer and Mischa Maisky individually. The present disc, however, would not be a good illustration of the buzzword “synergy”. It is a decidedly quirky reading, with hints of syncopation that never quite make it and that leave the impression of poor coordination between the three musicians. More than once I found myself wondering if this were intended to be a crossover production. The booklet notes do little to suggest otherwise, devoting two pages to the music, but a breathless three to an article about the trio’s adventures in Tokyo, written in a style more appropriate to coverage of a Spice Girls tour.
Technically, Argerich is the weakest link in the chain, clanking out her notes without finesse. Maisky and Kremer also have their crises; to give just two of many examples, the cello’s voice cracks at Fig. 4+3/1:56 in the first movement, and a short while later, Kremer’s intonation wobbles at Fig. 26+1/7:20. Such failings would be easier to overlook if one sensed a deep emotional connection in this performance, but that too is lacking. Crucially, this Largo gives no sense of the depth of grief that Shostakovich must have felt at the loss of his dearest friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, the work’s dedicatee. The overall feeling I come away with is that this team have had too little time to digest this opus individually and to rehearse it together.
Though far more cohesive than the Argerich-Kremer-Maisky performance, little need be said about the Grieg Trio’s rendition of Trio No. 2, which is tediously mechanical, with leaden phrasing throughout. All players sound as if they are on auto-pilot. Matters are not helped by Simax’s congested recording, which results in the instruments coming across as rather wheezy.
The Second Trio fares far better in the hands of the Bamberg Trio, who instil greater dynamic contrast and emotional engagement. Like the Vienna Piano Trio’s version on Nimbus (NI 5572) that I lauded in DSCH 11, this reading is shrouded in darkness, though here the gloom is more immediately threatening and less mournful. Listen, for example, to the aggressive way in which the Bambergs tear through the second movement. It is an impressive display, and there are many fine turns of phrase within it, but on first audition it struck me as self-consciously virtuosic. Repeated hearings convince me that its violence is a well-judged counterpoint to the third movement, which the Bambergs present more as an entreaty than a lament, in a frail and vulnerable voice.
In terms of its sense of present danger, the Bamberg’s take on the final movement is consistent with the preceding sections. There is no merriment whatsoever in its Jewish dance motifs, which were inspired by Shostakovich’s horror upon learning that SS guards had forced death camp inmates to dance beside their own graves.
Intentionally or not, the Bambergs graphically conjure up this sickening image in the mind’s eye of anyone aware of this explanation for the appearance of such disquieting Jewish themes in an opus dedicated to a non-Jewish friend who died of heart failure. The technical bases for this impression are the Bambergs’ rushed tempo, which sounds forced, especially as they enter the last movement, and their abbreviated, seemingly apprehensive bowing.
If the discography for Trio No. 2 were not so glutted, the Bartos Trio’s performance would be highly recommendable. Their playing is solid and accurate, though not clinically so, painting a wide spectrum of colours. What prevents me from ranking their account higher is that their recital does not click as securely as with the Vienna or Bamberg Trios. One senses a certain lack of long-distance perspective. Still, the Bartos Trio respond sensitively to the moment-by-moment ebb and flow of mood, and I imagine that few listeners would find them actively disappointing.
Turning now to couplings, Argerich-Kremer-Maisky supply an idiosyncratically jazzy take on the Tchaikovsky Trio, plus their concert encore, Tango pathetique by Peter Kiesewetter (about which the notes say nothing – it lasts just over two minutes and sounds exactly like its title).
Simax offer attractive, atmospheric trio pieces from two Swiss composers, Ernest Bloch and Frank Martin, written within about a year of Shostakovich’s First Trio. Bloch’s Three Nocturnes, with its post-Ravellian soundscape, is a more suitable match to Shostakovich’s Opus 8 than the folkloric, jazzy Martin work. Both are far too lightweight, however, to counterbalance Shostakovich’s Second Trio.
In contrast, Thorofon give us the uncompromising two-movement work that Schnittke wrote for string trio in 1985 and arranged for piano trio in 1992, thus replicating exactly the Vienna Piano Trio’s programme on Nimbus. As excellent (because disturbing) as is the Vienna team’s performance of the Schnittke, the Bamberg Trio manage an even more other-worldly depiction. The Bamberg’s first movement is downright spooky: a tour through a haunted house. It flows more freely too, coming in over a minute sooner than on Nimbus, leaving the impression of a clearer grasp of an overall structure – but then, the Vienna Piano Trio’s more disjointed approach is undoubtedly intentional. In the second movement, the Bamberg Trio’s legato playing is less convincing, the Vienna Trio’s spikier style sounding more authentic.
The line-up on Hungaroton is cleverly arranged to offer trio works from Shostakovich’s early, middle and late periods, consummated by a fine recital of the Blok Romances for piano trio and soprano. Maria Aszodi has a rich, earthy voice that is equally adept at belting out the terrible prophecy of Gamayun and crooning the romantic reverie of The city sleeps. Coordination between trio and soprano is excellent, not just in terms of timing, but also emotional inflection.
Deutsche Grammophon’s live recording is decent, though the strings sound a bit tinny. As mentioned above, Simax’s acoustics are unflattering. Thorofon’s are not demonstration quality either, reverberating during forte playing, though I hasten to add that they work wonderfully in the Largo of the Second Trio. Hungaroton manage a more open sound with pleasing stereo imaging.
The Vienna Piano Trio’s disc remains essential, but if you have the space, consider adding the Bamberg Trio’s entry to your collection, and don’t shy away from the Bartos Trio if their programme appeals.
W. Mark Roberts
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Piano Quintet in G minor, opus 57[a]; Suite of Romances (Seven Romances) on Poems of Alexander Blok, opus 127[b].
Members of the Esbjerg Ensemble: Ulrich Staerk (piano), Sakari Tepponen (violin)[a], Niels Christian Ollgard (violin), Michel Camille (viola)[a], Alexei Kalatchev (cello)[a], Dorothea Wolff (cello)[b]; Nina Pavlovski (soprano)[b].
Classico CLASSCD 273. —D. TT 56:43.
Recorded Mantziusgarden Concert Hall, Denmark, 31 March – 2 April 1998[a]; 26 – 28 May 1998[b].
A much gloomier recital of the Seven Blok Romances than the one on Hungaroton comes from soprano Nina Pavlovski with members of the Esbjerg Ensemble, a 12-person international group based in Denmark. Pavlovski took private tuition with Galina Vishnevskaya, who premièred this work with Rostropovich, Oistrakh and Vainberg, and Pavlovski’s shrieking oratory will sound familiar to anyone who has heard the première. That recording appeared in 1998 on BMG Melodiya, coupled with historic recordings of Satires, opus 109, Shostakovich’s orchestration of Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, and Prokofiev’s Five Poems by Anna Akhmatova (74321 53237 2). Revelation released the première of the Suite the same year, coupled with Symphony No. 14 (RV10101; deleted).
Be warned that Pavlovski, like Vishnevskaya, is not easy to listen to in this work, her shrill voice setting one’s teeth aquiver in Gamayun, The Storm and Music. There is also little affection in Pavlovski’s voice in We Were Together, a feature that arguably is called for as a foil to the nervy string writing in this movement. Nevertheless, her tone works perfectly in Hidden Signs, over which an icy hush falls. If you are indeed looking for a bracing experience, you would do better with the present performance than the one from Maria Aszodi and the Bartos Trio.
The Esbjerg players deliver a similarly sombre reading of the Piano Quintet. Sorrow and regret are never far away in this 1940 score, though, as Ian MacDonald has noted, the work’s ironic qualities are usually underplayed by Western performers. Such criticism does not apply to the Esbjerg Ensemble’s dark shading of each movement.
Hearing the quintet played this way reveals that Communist functionary Moisey Grinberg’s criticism of this work’s nomination for the Stalin Prize – “This is music that does not connect with the life of the people” – was perilously perceptive. In the Esbjergs’ hands, the first, second and fourth movements are undeniably mournful, with an intensity best described as reverent. Even the third movement, Scherzo, is not allowed to fly free. Thus, what a magical ending it is, when, in the closing bars of the Finale, the blinds are finally pulled up and sunshine streams in.
Sensitively played and clearly recorded, these performances are decidedly worth hearing.
W. Mark Roberts
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String Quartet No. 4, opus 83; String Quartet No. 7, opus 108; Piano Quintet in G minor, opus 57[a].
Schidlof Quartet: Ofer Falk (violin 1), Rafael Todes (violin 2), Graham Oppenheimer (viola), Oleg Kogan (cello), Ian Brown (piano)[a].
Linn CKD 065. DDD. TT 69:26.
Recorded Big School, Christ’s Hospital, Horsham, UK, 3-5 October 1996.
String Quartet No. 2 in A major, opus 68; String Quartet No. 3 in F major, opus 73.
St. Petersburg String Quartet: Alla Aranovskaya (violin 1), Ilya Teplyakov (violin 2), Konstantin Kats (viola), Leonid Shukaev (cello).
Hyperion CDA67153. DDD. TT 66:43.
Recorded St. Petersburg Recording Studio, April 1999.
String Quartet No. 4 in D major, opus 83; String Quartet No. 6 in G major, opus 101; String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, opus 110.
St. Petersburg String Quartet.
Hyperion CDA67154. DDD. TT 69:40.
Recorded St. Petersburg Recording Studio, April 1999.
String Quartet No. 3 in F major, opus 73; Beethoven: String Quartet No. 4 in C minor, opus 18, No. 4.
Cailin Quartet: Clara Baek (violin 1), Sophia Baek (violin 2), Stine Hasbirk (viola), Therese Astrand (cello).
Classico CLASSCD 265. —D. TT 53:14.
The Schidlof Quartet supply technically assured performances of all three works on their disc, and Linn’s recording sounds admirably natural. In the end, though, I find that the Schidlofs play things too safe in the two quartets, with lax tempos and bland articulation. They are, for example, unwilling or unable to whip up the kind of steely intensity in the Seventh Quartet’s third movement that one hears with a team like the Shostakovich Quartet (Olympia OCD 532), and phrasing throughout that work is excessively deliberate.
The distributor’s promotional material suggests that Shostakovich’s works have deep resonance with this all-Jewish quartet, pointing to the hints of Jewish chant in the main theme of the Fourth Quartet’s finale. It is certainly the case that they maintain a forward flow throughout this quartet, but in the second movement this slows to a sluggish trickle, and there isn’t a trace of turbulence in the third. Even the aforementioned Jewish-sounding passages in the fourth movement have rarely sounded less idiomatic. My recurring impression is that this performance is simply too complacent.
As if the addition of pianist Ian Brown injects some much-needed fire into their veins, the Schidlofs are more inspiring in the Piano Quintet’s first and last movements, though as one might predict by this point in the review, the Schidlof/Brown Scherzo is utterly untroubled. Across the board, the Esbjerg Ensemble’s presentation is more emotionally involving, especially in the Fugue and Intermezzo, which sound prosaic on Linn’s release.
No complaints of underplaying adhere to the first two volumes in the St. Petersburg String Quartet’s projected intégrale. All five quartets here receive powerhouse performances, supplying the very same level of full-frontal assault one obtains from the Borodins (BMG Melodiya 74321 40711 2). The St. Petersburgs’ tone is splendidly rich and meaty, and though the musicians and engineer don’t trouble to sanitise these performances, one hears cross-hair targeting of virtually every note. All this is captured in glorious Hyperion sound.
The recital of the Second Quartet possesses all of the qualities that permeate the different performances on these two discs, with its robust string tone, unhesitating plunge into forte passages and sensitivity to colour. A more rapt atmosphere in the Recitative and Romance would be sensible, but the outer movements are strongly characterised.
In the Third Quartet’s performance one is struck by the natural handing off of voices from one instrument to another.
The St. Petersburgs are sympathetic to the work’s many mood shifts, and there is evidence of long-range planning, with restrained attack in the second movement to save the all-out firestorm for the third movement. Here is a romantic, very “Russian” take on the Adagio, and a bucolic ride through the closing movement that provides stark contrast for its climax.
The renditions on Hyperion’s second volume are entirely consistent with what came before. An almost Brucknerian wall of sound opens the first movement of Quartet No. 4, but then the St. Petersburgs take time to linger in the interludes. The second movement, Andantino, is positively ravishing. The Jewish motifs in the finale could be rendered with more sinuosity, but still have a strong impact by being belted out so forcefully.
The Sixth Quartet is the most desirable performance in the lot, thanks to its striking sense of momentum. What an irresistible rip tide carries the listener through the first movement – it’s almost a pity leaving for the second movement, though that soon captivates at its own tender pace. Not to be missed either is the sheer beauty of the following Lento, where again it is impossible not to luxuriate in the textures of the St. Petersburgs’ sound. This performance alone is worth the price of admission.
How highly you’ll rate this disc’s recording of the Eighth Quartet will depend on how unnerving you believe it should be. This is certainly an exciting and captivating performance, with a gloomy opening movement, bitter violence in the second, an eerie dance in the third with a particularly creepy E pedal on the cello from Fig. 46, plus well-judged juxtapositions of depressive brooding and harsh hammer blows in the closing movements. What I missed, however, was the insupportable desperation one hears with the Shostakovich Quartet (Olympia OCD 533).
Indeed, this is a proviso that applies to my assessment of all of these readings: they never suggest the gnawing insecurity buried in the scores. Even the Andantino of the Fourth Quartet, as impassioned as it is, is sung with a full belly in a warm room. I could not shake the feeling that, without being complacent, these readings take too much at face value. Playing of this quality can hold its head high in any company, so I have no hesitation in giving these releases a thumbs up, but for the reasons just mentioned, they would not be my first choice in this repertoire.
I cannot imagine how Hyperion could improve on their recording, but as Ian MacDonald correctly points out, Robert Matthew Walker’s commentary for these works mars the overall production. His notes speak of the fictitious war-hero cum cultural despot “Marshal Zhdanov”, Matthew Walker’s unhappy mix-up of Marshal Georgy Zhukov with Andrei Zhdanov. Confusingly, the section on the Eighth Quartet repeats the standard line that seeing Dresden’s ruins “directly inspired” Shostakovich to write the work in just three days (despite the fact that the composer had visited the city ten years earlier without being thus inspired) – then, in the very next paragraph, comes the non sequitur that the wealth of self-quotations is explained by the fact that Shostakovich included himself among the victims of fascism and war in the quartet’s dedication, and that he regarded this as his last work because he intended to commit suicide after being forced to join the Communist Party. One hopes that Hyperion demand more accurate and integrated annotation in future issues.
It may seem utterly unfair of me to compare the youthful Cailin Quartet alongside musicians the calibre of the St. Petersburg Quartet, but you’ll find their CDs in the same bin at the record store, costing the same amount. Furthermore, the Cailins had been playing together for five years at the time of this recording. Still, these performances sound like heroic efforts of youth musicians, rather than mature conceptions of seasoned performers. The Cailins engage Shostakovich’s Third Quartet bravely, but work hard just to make it through, never transcending the many technical challenges far enough to offer real musical insights. Indeed, the Cailins’ technical skills are frequently stretched past their breaking point. There are too many serious inaccuracies to enumerate here, with wrong notes and stumbling entries littering the Moderato and Allegro, and not hard to find elsewhere. The Cailins do possess a winning sweetness of tone in Beethoven’s Opus 18, No. 4, but here again I do not see why one would select this disc when so many world-class alternatives are available. If you wish to support a young team with a great deal of heart, by all means purchase this CD, but if you are seeking musical depth, look elsewhere.
W. Mark Roberts
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Vol. 1: String Quartets: No. 6 in G major, opus 101; No. 7 in F# minor, opus 108; No. 10 in Ab major, opus 118.
Chandos CHAN 9741. DDD. TT 68:24.
Recorded Potton Hall Studio, Westleton, Suffolk, 23-25 February 1998.
Vol 2: String Quartets: No. 3 in F major, opus 73; No. 4 in D major, opus 83; No. 11 in F minor, opus 122.
Chandos CHAN 9769. DDD. TT 78:47.
Recorded Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, 29 September – 1 October 1998.
Last year, the Sorrel Quartet gave an extraordinary weekend cycle of the Shostakovich Quartets in a superb venue in the tiny Suffolk village of Cratfield. All who were there will remember the impression they made, and I am told by the concert organiser that the locals who attended the concerts still talk about them “in hushed tones”. It was therefore of considerable interest to me to see if they are able to capture some of the same magic in a recording studio. Obviously this was going to be much more of a challenge without the presence of a rapt audience. Vicci Wardman explained to me at Cratfield that they had considered inviting friends along to the recording sessions, to generate some atmosphere, but felt that it was too much of a risk. If anyone coughed or fidgeted during a “take”, it would have to be redone, wasting time and money.
In the end, however, these recordings (which predate Cratfield) do not disappoint at all. Many of their qualities that had impressed me so much at Cratfield can also be heard on these two disks, recorded with superb sound quality using Chandos’ 20-bit recording technology.
These are very sensitive performances. Following the first movement of the Fourth Quartet with the score illustrated to me that the musicians are keen to bring out all the nuances in the score, without over-exaggerating. At first listening, I was a little taken aback by this rather beautifully shaped playing; the Fitzwilliams (Decca/London 455 776-2), for example, are noticeably faster, and produce a veritable assault on the ears. However, repeated listening to the Sorrels’ interpretation of this movement has convinced me that this is a perfectly valid approach. If you like your Fourth Quartet to be hot mustard, then this may not be the recording to suit you, but I, for one, am won over by this more rounded approach.
These players are very good at bringing out all the separate voices in counterpoint; I noticed this particularly in the build up to the early climax of this movement. I am reminded of one of the more purely musical reminiscences in Testimony, where the composer talks about the importance of bringing each separate voice out in piano playing; that it was advice he had offered to a concert pianist, who took the advice seriously and found it brought his playing alive. It seems, whether or not Testimony is authentic, that this is very important advice, and the Sorrels have apparently taken it to heart.
Another point where this is noticeable is during the Third Quartet; often one can hear interior voices of despair standing out against the painful clamour being produced by the other instruments (for example at the climax of the fifth movement). The effect is emotionally devastating. The Sorrels are also very good at playing the quiet passages with great intensity; in particular the third movement of Quartet No. 6 is very effective, making time stand still, much the way they did so effectively at Cratfield.
All this discussion of sensitivity and control might lead to the impression that these are rather milk-and-watery performances, but nothing could be further from the truth. When required, the Sorrels produce a tremendous sound; in the fugue in No. 7, the third movement of No. 3, and the Allegretto furioso of No. 10, the anger literally explodes from the speakers, the intensity and passion of the quiet passages transformed into overwhelming rage. They also produce a much more sinister reading of No. 11 than I’ve heard before; the humour in the Humoresque movement is very black indeed, verging on horror.
If I have one small criticism to make, it is not to do with the playing, but in the program notes to the Sixth Quartet. The writer makes much of the fact that this is a “smiling, graceful” quartet, giving the impression that it is a happy piece. While the Sixth is less troubled as a quartet than some of the others, I do not feel that happiness underlies it. It tries to be happy, but there is always the hint of troubled times and sadness behind it. I would say that the Sorrels’ performance captures this extremely well; for example in the way the final movement builds up to what should be an ecstatic climax, but strains too hard, giving way to dissonance, and breaking up into disconnected bits of hollow laughter, as if you realise that what you are laughing at isn’t very funny at all. As this ends, the “morse-code” on the cello returns, similar to the viola at the start of the first movement. In this performance, it is very brusque and deliberate, as if returning to reality with a bump.
In summary, these are heartwarming (and at times heartbreaking) performances, and I have no hesitation in recommending them warmly. A box of tissues is recommended for the emotionally sensitive.
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String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, opus 110; String Quartet No. 10 in Ab major, opus 118; String Quartet No. 11, opus 122.
Sofia String Quartet: V. Valchev, N. Gagov, V. Gerov, K. Bespalov.
Gega New (Bulgaria) GD 168. DDD. TT 57:17
Recordings of the Eighth Quartet have proliferated since the advent of laser technology, so much so that the browsing buyer is more likely to focus his or her attention upon the complementing items on offer, a little in the manner of yet another Moonlight Sonata or Trout Quintet. Here the self-referential masterpiece is partnered by the near-neighbourly Tenth and Eleventh Quartets, a trio rarely released together, it seems.
What might there to be inspire here, then, where other discs are left floundering on the shop shelves? Aside from the programme, the first aspect of particular note is the atypically strident rhythmical pulse – evidently the Sofia’s natural style, given the consistent nature of these performances. Whilst this can lend an impressively gripping allure to the more vivacious sections of, say, the Eighth, the approach leads to moments of fragility in the more introspective zones of these creations, so much so that the underlying strata that underpin Shostakovich’s huge chamber landscapes lack substance.
An unspecial Eighth is followed by a more wholesome entity, the Tenth, whose sharper edges suit the ensemble’s brittle conception of the oeuvre. The third movement is especially powerful; very moving and steeped in grief. “Very Eastern European,” a friend remarked, spontaneously.
No biographical information is available in the meagre booklet – a pity, as it would be interesting to know a little more about the group, especially in light of the disparate ensemble playing in the Eleventh. Again the tempo is quick, the pulse emphatic, yet sadly the electricity thereby generated seeps away far too incautiously, astride staggered entries and fine-tuning anomalies.
As much to disappoint as to please, so I don’t expect many readers to be scouring the shelves for this release. But the Sofia Quartet do display a good deal of potential and empathy for Shostakovich’s music, so it’s to be hoped that with time, other, more polished releases may be forthcoming.
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The String Quartets
Emerson String Quartet: Eugene Drucker (violin), Philip Setzer (violin), Lawrence Dutton (viola), David Finckel (cello).
Disc 1: String Quartets No. 1 in C major, opus 49[a]; No. 2 in A major, opus 68[a]; No. 3 in F major, opus 73[a]
Disc 2: String Quartets No. 4 in D major, opus 83[a]; No. 5 in Bb major, opus 92[a]; No. 6 in G major, opus 101[b]
Disc 3: String Quartets No. 7 in F# minor, opus 108[b]; No. 8 in C minor, opus 110[b]; No. 9 in Eb major, opus 117[b]; No. 10 in Ab major, opus 118[b]
Disc 4: Two Pieces for String Quartet, Sans opus D: Elegy and Polka[b]; String Quartets No. 11 in F minor, opus 122[c]; No. 12 in Db major, opus 133[c]; No. 13 in Bb minor, opus 138[c]
Disc 5: String Quartets No. 14 in F# major, opus 142[c]; No. 15 in Eb minor, opus 144[c].
Deutsche Grammophon 289 463 284-2. DDD. 5 disc set; TT 75:26+76:57+77:56+68:32+60:38.
Recorded live Harris Concert Hall, Aspen, Colorado, June – July 1999[a]; July 1998[b]; July – August 1994[c].
Much anticipated, this set does not disappoint. Do not be dissuaded by the “live” recording. An opening statement tells us that the Emerson String Quartet consider the audience to play an active role in performances of Shostakovich’s quartets, so that they felt it was “natural and even essential to include the public in the recording process.” The live audience was asked to be as quiet as possible during taping, a request that was obviously respected, for these recordings are every bit as clean as a studio production. In the bargain, we acquire the palpable electricity that a concert generates.
The Emersons’ First Quartet is a study in nostalgia, with affectionately lilting accents on the violins, the whole tinged with a thin film of sadness that is more wistful than tragic. Dynamic balance among the four musicians is exquisitely judged, and the volume level is modulated to best serve the overall argument; take, for instance, the notably restrained entry into the third movement. Tempos also chosen thoughtfully, as in the central section of the same movement, where the Emersons adopt a relaxed, bouncing pace. These decisions help to increase the impact of the finale, which takes on a more energetic demeanour.
In the Second and Third Quartets, the Emersons provide the psychological frissons that I found to be absent from the St. Petersburgs’ versions. Some idea of the greater sense of excitement on Deutsche Grammophon can be gained from the timings of the first movement of the Second, which the Emersons whip through in 7:57, as compared with 8:44 for the St. Petersburgs. The Recitative is far more tense and otherworldly, and the Romance more captivating, thanks to the leaner sound the Emersons invest them with.
Indeed, the Emersons’ sound is not as plush as one might predict of an American quartet, but having witnessed their ample richness in other repertoire, both in concert and on disc, I can attest to the fact that this is a conscious decision attuned to the composer.
And what dividends this pays in the imploring voice of the first violin in the last movement of the Second Quartet and the Adagio of the Third. Similarly, the cold sound of the Emersons makes the mechanical motifs in the Third Quartet’s second movement sound, though not quite menacing, at least pitiless. And there is menace aplenty in its Allegro non troppo, with snarling strokes of the cello.
If the Emersons’ handling of the opening of the Fourth Quartet doesn’t give you goosebumps, you’re probably dead. This sets the stage for a thoroughly challenging tour through this quartet. In contrast to the St. Petersburgs’ sweeping Andantino, the second movement is genuinely shattering in the Emersons’ reading. The third movement actually takes half a minute longer on DG than on Hyperion, a substantial difference given its short overall duration, becoming more introspective. Here the finale is similarly philosophical, with peremptory delivery of the climax, keeping the focus on the rambling discourse.
A highly individualistic Fifth Quartet arises from the Emersons’ legato playing – it’s very much “connect the dots” in the first movement. The convoluted middle movement is tentative and subdued, and as with the Recitative of the Second Quartet, the Emersons create the sensation of nothingness that I imagine one would obtain by being immersed in a sensory deprivation tank. Actually, “Being and Nothingness” would be a fitting title to the Emersons’ conception of the last movement, which sounds almost unbearably preoccupied with existence itself. The close of the movement is truly transcendent, the Emersons slowly spiriting us away from earthly concerns.
As I wrote above, the St. Petersburgs’ performance of Quartet No. 6 is very fine, and the Emersons’ advantage is not so great here. This DG set arranges the quartets in order of opus number, so the Sixth Quartet arrives as a welcome relief after the existential angst of the Fifth. Even so, the Emersons’ cool, spare tone never allows one to relax fully. Some listeners may prefer the more driving rhythm of the St. Petersburgs, but after repeated auditions I give the nod to the more intellectual approach of the Emersons.
Quartet No. 7 is a virtual symphony in under a dozen minutes, and the Emersons’ unusually harried traversal of the first movement sets up the seriousness of their view of this quixotic little piece. One cannot evade the tunnelling eyes in the middle movement, where again the Emersons are successful at depicting an emotional void, nor the blistering passage through the Allegro section of the third.
The Eighth Quartet isn’t quite what one would expect based on the overall tone of the other works in this set. The opening movement is not as harrowing as it could be; rather, it reminds one of the yearning recollection in Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration. The second movement, however, is truly terrifying in its brutal onslaught and skeletal tones. String sound is very watery in the third movement, but tension is not maintained throughout to the optimal degree. Similarly, although the hammer blows of the following Largo are more fateful than they sound in the St. Petersburgs’ performance, they still fail to chill the blood as they do in the Shostakovich Quartet’s hands.
What the Emersons do create here, however, is the very real impression of weeping in the cascading DSCH motifs of the last movement. I find that Lawrence Dutton overdoes his mini-crescendo at Fig. 72+5/3:06, spoiling the leave-taking mood somewhat, but this is a minor point. Overall, this Eighth comes across as a thinner and less devastating work than it can be, although one could argue that it does a better job of conveying the sheer exhaustion that Shostakovich undoubtedly felt while composing it.
As excellent as all of these readings are, the clear standout is No. 9, despite – or maybe because of – the fact that this quartet is certainly no popular favourite. This performance elevates it beyond its apparently diffuse structure. The Emersons’ approach is to repeatedly allow tension to build then partially recede before ramping up again, each time retaining more and more stress. Stasis in the third and fourth movements, with their bizarre pluckings and growls, yields the swirling morass out of which the finale resolves its unidirectional form, heading inexorably to a genuinely triumphant close, one of the few real victories that Shostakovich seems to have written for himself. And what a hard-won victory it is! You’ll appreciate the audience’s thunderous reaction, which gives you permission to erupt with a few Bravos of your own.
Ten years ago I heard the Emerson Quartet deliver the Tenth in concert, an experience that left a lasting impression and that I described in the newsletter of the old Shostakovich Society, DSCH XVII. The current interpretation is a little cooler in the bracketing movements than I remember the one I heard being, but overall it’s no less moving, with insatiable fury in the second movement, and inconsolable grief in the third. The pizzicato work in the finale is especially impressive. Presumably because the disc was pushing 78 minutes, the performance ends abruptly, shorn of audience reaction.
Inclusion of the Two Pieces for String Quartet allows the Emersons to depart from the sound world of the quartets proper. The first piece is a setting of Katerina’s aria, “The foal runs after the filly” from Lady Macbeth, and is played with aching beauty. In contrast, the second piece is the rollicking Polka from The Golden Age, which demonstrates that the Emersons have quite the sense of humour.
Quartet No. 11, a world in a thimble, receives yet another brilliantly judged interpretation, with a subdued Introduction and the bouncing theme of the second movement tightly strait-jacketed, so that the eruption of the Recitative must have stopped the hearts of any in the audience who were new to the quartet. The scurrying motifs of the Etude and the decidedly unfunny Humoresque are whipped off at dizzying tempos, and the Elegy clearly laments whatever transpired during those two movements. As intended, the closing movement fizzles out without resolving anything.
Following that, the opening of the Twelfth Quartet is welcome commiseration. The Emersons overlay their voices cleanly in this movement, but one is more likely to be too moved by their emotion-laden delivery to notice technique. Technique is more conspicuous in the abstract second movement, in which success depends more on painting moods with the disparate musical pigments, rather than outlining a plot. The strength of the audience’s reaction is a measure of how well the Emersons achieve this goal.
The Emersons supply a ghoulish Thirteenth Quartet without resorting to exaggeration. This performance vies with the Ninth as “best of set”. Hearing it, one can only agree with annotator Paul Epstein that the quartet “reflects, in part, the world of pain and drugs in which [it] was written.” Tempos are ideal, and the players rarely raise their voices above a hoarse whisper. This recital is a truly traumatic experience.
The last two quartets come from the same mould as the other performances, with supreme sensitivity to dynamic balance and tempo, and a steadfast refusal to overplay. The final movement of the Fourteenth is especially noteworthy for the sense of inevitability one gets from this interpretation … while listening, it’s hard to envision it being played any other way. The Fifteenth Quartet is very much the last word, and the Emersons sustain its sense of leave-taking throughout. A more fitting end to this remarkable set is unimaginable.
These performances are so outstanding that the release would be desirable if the CDs came in a greasy paper bag, but Deutsche Grammophon cleverly package all five in a multi-mount jewel case that occupies no more shelf space than a typical two-CD set. DG also provide a generous 40-page article by long-time Emerson Quartet annotator Paul Epstein, interspersing relevant quotes from relevant Russians with mini-chapters on different socio-political and musical aspects related to the quartets.
One of the most telling comments I can make about this set is that it is possible to listen to the entire six hours at a sitting without once losing interest. As much as I revere the Fitzwilliam, Borodin and Shostakovich Quartet cycles, the Emersons’ set now becomes the obvious first recommendation. If you can manage only one CD purchase this year, this is it.
W. Mark Roberts
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The Unknown Shostakovich
Overture (Entr’acte) to Der arme Columbus, opus 23; Two Preludes (orch. Schnittke) §; Tishchenko: Cello Concerto No 1 Schumann: Cello Concerto, opus 129 (orch.
Valery Polyansky, Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Ivashkin (cello)[a].
Chandos CHAN 9792. DDD. TT 59:38.
Recorded in Mosfilm Studios except [b] in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire.
§World première recording of orchestration.
The Unknown Shostakovich is the enticing title of a new collection from Chandos promising no fewer than three world première recordings. However, when Chandos promise a première, count your spoons! Just as their “première” recording of Shchedrin’s Symphony No. 2 was beaten to the tape by over 30 years and even to CD by about ten, so the three premières here shrink to just one. But enough – what is the disc like?
It opens with the overture to Der arme Columbus. This is not the première that Chandos claims; Rozhdestvensky’s 21-year-old recording (his second of the piece) appeared in a collection reviewed in DSCH 11. Polyansky is less sparky at the beginning but outshines Rozhdestvensky at the end; a good performance of this enjoyably brash and fun opener, typical of Shostakovich’s theatre music of the time.
Boris Tishchenko wrote his First Cello Concerto in 1963 and six years later Shostakovich reorchestrated it as a thirtieth-birthday present, though Tishchenko seems to have been unimpressed by the gesture. Again despite Chandos’ claim, it has appeared before (as, indeed, has the original). Tishchenko’s bizarre scoring (17 winds, percussion and harmonium) is ameliorated in the reorchestration, but the music – cramped, obsessive, claustrophobic and ultimately explosive – is just as powerful. Starting with a long, slow, mood-shifting cantilena for solo cello, the orchestra slowly accretes to the soloist’s line. The whole work continues to be a paradox, gripping but hard to grasp, with the cello and orchestra seeming to drift in and out of shared and different worlds. Shostakovich’s orchestration is immensely effective and thought-provoking. Perhaps inevitably, Shostakovich’s contemporary works come to mind – neither the Second Cello Concerto nor the Fourteenth Symphony is far away, and yet Tischenko’s concerto retains its individuality. Hopefully this disc will encourage more performances of the work in either orchestral guise.
Next up comes Schumann’s Cello Concerto, retouched by Shostakovich three years before composing his own second concerto for the instrument. Coincidentally this was at the same time as Tishchenko was composing his concerto. If Shostakovich felt that Tishchenko had orchestrated his concerto oddly, and at the same time wanted to draw it nearer to his own idiom, he thought Schumann had done his badly due to depression, and generally tried to help the earlier composer express himself better. He added only piccolo and harp, and the renovation is relatively understated: minor changes such as occasionally replacing the violas with bassoons, though the string pizzicati at bar 691 are given to shrilly Shostakovichian woodwind. Alexander Ivashkin is more flexible than conductor Polyansky, but the soloist is so closely miked that some grunting and sniffing is caught.
Finally, after about fifty-five minutes we come to the only real première on the disc. Shostakovich’s Preludes, opus 2, Nos. 5 and 2 were orchestrated by Schnittke in 1976 in the style of Lyadov and Rimsky, the first like a music-box and the second a bell-filled distant landscape. Chippings from the workbenches of both composers perhaps, but enjoyable nonetheless and an effective way to come down after the intensity of the Schumann and Tishchenko.
While I may have carped about ‘première recordings’ claims this disc is certainly the easiest way to hear some of these pieces, but with performances of this standard that’s not the only reason to buy it.
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Ballet Suites Nos. 1-3, Sans opus P, Suite from The Bolt, opus 27a, Suite from The Golden Age, opus 22a, Suite from Zoya, opus 64a[a], Suite from Pirogov, opus 76a.
Maxim Shostakovich, Chorus[a] and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, Leon Zaks and Anatoly Levin (solo violins)[a].
BMG 74321 66981 2. 2 disc set. ADD. TT 76:42 + 67:03
Recorded in Moscow, 1966, 1967 and 1975.
BMG’s releases of Melodiya material are proving incredibly valuable in restoring to the catalogue both major performances of standard repertoire and rarer pieces d’occasions. While Rozhdestvensky’s symphony cycle (reviewed in DSCH 11) is certainly the former, the present set probably falls into the latter camp. It’s strange to think that in the mid-1960s when Maxim and the Bolshoi’s forces went into the studio they produced the first complete recordings of the suites from The Bolt and Pirogov, and it was the first time that anything from Zoya had been laid down. Now of course there are (sometimes several) rival versions for everything in the set.
While grouping the three ballet suites together might seem to make sense, I find them a bit indistinguishable, and can only usually manage one at a time. It might have been better to split them over the two discs interleaving the more pungent suites from The Bolt and The Golden Age (though the Waltz Scherzo from the First Ballet Suite actually derives from the industrial ballet). As with all light music, characterisation is everything, and Maxim and the Bolshoi Orchestra are certainly up for it, helped by the very forward recording with almost every solo highlighted. Having said that, for me those very qualities and the relentless jollity helped make each suite a solo dish.
The first disc is completed by the suite from The Bolt, a much more witty and varied collection and, apart from some blaring brass, much the most enjoyable piece so far, particularly with its quacking woodwind.
The second disc opens with The Golden Age, and an Introduction that is witty if slightly hard-driven. The following Adagio features weird sounding sax and clarinet but that doesn’t detract too much from its enjoyability. The most famous movement is the Polka (this performance was previously released on CD coupled to Maxim’s first account of the Fifth Symphony). Like the Introduction it’s taken at a fair (though not extraordinary) lick. Moments that are usually reined in for comic effect are ruthlessly ridden over, which lessens the wit, but against that the wind solos often have a bizarre and hilarious motor-horn quality. Both here and in the final Dance the playing has an exhilarating edge-of-seat quality – a couple of times it feels as if it’s going to go off the rails, but always somehow manages to cling on.
The Introduction to the suite from Zoya presents a problem; to be frank there is little that anyone can do with its opening. This nine-minute would-be tone poem starts with some of Shostakovich’s least memorable music, though the later choral music is more effective, and the violin solos towards the end are touching (if here a little underplayed). Having collapsed large parts of the film’s 35 music cues into a five-movement suite, it was inevitable that some structural joins would show.
Even in Prokofiev’s expertly reworked Alexander Nevsky cantata not all conductors succeed in disguising the fact that The Battle on the Ice is built from several sections that are completely separate in the film. But from there on things improve; the militaristic Scene (reminiscent in parts of the near-contemporary Eighth Symphony) has a suitably frenzied side drum. In the Tchaikovskian opening of Prelude (actually an orchestration of Shostakovich’s own Prelude, opus 34/14) the strings are a bit grainy but that could equally be the recording. They certainly lack the last ounce of passion necessary in such music, and the blaring brass in the middle section hardly helps matters. Frustrating, as the outer parts of this movement can be very effective. The brilliant March bursts in with brass fanfares though Shostakovich adds enough melodic and harmonic twists to make what could be a tiresomely overblown movement enjoyable. The Finale opens with an echo of what occasionally seems the mandatory You Fell as Victims as well as quoting Glinka’s Ivan Susannin, but this multi-section movement also has some touching and effective scene-painting.
The suite from Pirogov is approaching the status of standard repertoire on disc, with recordings from Serebrier and Mnatsakanov (reviewed in the last journal) as well as some fragments from Chailly. There is some enjoyable music here, and the stitching of the music is much less obvious. The opening fanfares and some of the later, driving chase music set the military scene, though some of the keening themes presumably portray the eponymous surgeon’s concern and the pain of his patients. I have to admit to a soft spot for the Finale simply because it’s so daft – quite how it escaped the various ballet suites I don’t know. There isn’t much between the various performances – the couplings are more likely to affect your choice.
The recordings mostly date from the mid 1960s, with The Bolt, from 1975, the most modern. For this release BMG have dropped NoNoise remastering in favour of the more successful 24 Super Bit which does manage to curb some of the harsher aspects of the recordings. These are some of the most easily listened-to transfers of Soviet material, though, perhaps in an effort to suppress hiss, the ends of one or two movements fade out with unnatural rapidity.
As with the other releases in this series, there are a few bloopers in the notes, for example the recording dates are misreported, Kozintsev’s first name was Grigori: in addition he did not direct Michurin, the full list of soloists as reported in Derek Hulme’s catalogue is missing, and the front cover image, far from being as claimed Natalya Goncherova’s Fresh Fallen Snow is a detail from Olga Rozanova’s Fire in the City (Cityscape). Goncherova’s painting can be seen on the Rozhdestvensky set that includes the tenth and eleventh symphonies.
No-one will ever claim that much of this music plumbs the depths of profundity (though to some degree I would except the Adagio from The Golden Age) but, in small doses it is certainly entertaining and the film scores are good examples of the work he was doing in the medium at that time. In such characterful performances this is certainly worth investing in.
Quite what the recently announced restructuring of BMG will mean is uncertain, but it is to be hoped that they manage to continue to release material from this treasure trove, as so many other sources have come and gone in recent years.
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Jewish Music From Russia
From Jewish Folk Poetry, opus 79a, for soprano, contralto, tenor and orchestra, sung in the Yiddish language[a]; Prokofiev: Overture on Hebrew Themes, opus 34, for clarinet, string quartet and piano[b]; Serge Slonimsky: Rhapsody on Hebrew Themes for piano, flute, string orchestra and percussion[c].
Andrei Tchistiakov, Bolshoi Orchestra [a,c], Eva Ben-Zvi (soprano)[a], Elena Goubina (alto)[a], Nikolai Kurpe (tenor)[a]; Anton Dressler (clarinet)[b], Julia Zilberquit (piano)[b,c], Glinka Quartet[b].
Saison Russe RUS 288166. DDD. TT 58:49.
[a]World première recording of complete Yiddish version.
The world première recording of the Yiddish language version of Shostakovich’s most frequently recorded song cycle, From Jewish Folk Poetry, has at last arrived. It is one of three offerings under the title Jewish Music from Russia that also includes instrumental works by Prokofiev and Serge Slonimsky (born 1932). The album title points to a genre of Russian music that has received precious little recording attention, a situation of surprising neglect in the presence of a “mighty handful” of composers and works falling into this category. While Shostakovich and Prokofiev were not Jewish themselves, most of the music of this genre was penned by Russians of Jewish extract (that includes Mr. Slonimsky). Most celebrated of these today is Moishe Weinberg (Vainberg). It is less known that a determined collective of composers of an earlier generation, born in the 1880s, pioneered a Jewish National movement in Russian musical circles – one that sought to incorporate authentic Hebrew materials into Western composition.
The effort was led by Mikhail Gnessin and Alexander Krein, and included names such as Yuli Engel, Joseph Achron, and Alexander Veprik. Their original work influenced a later generation of Jewish composers such as Lev Knipper, Julian Krein and Boris Kliusner, whose names remain almost as obscure. Hopefully this album will be the beginning of a series devoted to this intriguing and almost forgotten chapter of Russian-Soviet music.
The principal work under consideration is the long-awaited Yiddish version of FJFP in its complete form. Except for the final three songs, the Yiddish version had previously been recorded on a Jerusalem Records CD in 1988 with Yuri Ahronovich leading the Jerusalem SO and vocalists. It was paired with Weinberg’s Sixth Symphony. That earlier version was a live performance whose sound quality falls well short of today’s digital standard.
As for matters of authenticity, we learn from the album’s excellent liner notes, written by noted Shostakovich scholar Joachim Braun, that the composer had wanted “to have the actual Yiddish poems sung in his opus 79”. It is not clear whether the composer, himself, drafted the Yiddish version, with possible musical and textual alterations, or whether it was adapted by other hands. In either case, the fact remains that the music was initially conceived using texts in Russian translation rather than in the original Yiddish. The degree to which the vocal part is better suited to the Russian or Yiddish versions will be for listeners to decide. In addition to matters of musical suitability, one’s acclimation to the familiar Russian version of a vocal work also exerts its influence on how one will respond to a translated version.
Through language, the human voice possesses its own characteristics of musical articulation, ones that are far more flexible and diversified than those of any other musical instrument. And these characteristics, which include explosives, percussives, aspirations, sibilances, etc., become as bonded to the music to which they are set as the attributes of articulation associated with any other musical instrument so chosen. Thus any kind of textual change alters, to varying degrees, the quality of the musical expression in ways whose success is not always guaranteed. A previous “original language” effort was once applied to another Shostakovich vocal work, the Fourteenth Symphony, in which the texts of the variously contained poets were translated into their original languages of German, Spanish, and French, and recorded by Bernard Haitink on London records. The result was an aesthetic failure, partly due to the unsuitability of the vocalists chosen for the recording, and partly due to the syllabic shifts that often do not suit the character of the music. That experiment has not been repeated.
The volatile, expressionistic nature of the Fourteenth Symphony makes it a work in which music and syllables have a fairly high degree of expressive interdependency. On the other hand, the melodic stability of FJFP bargains for a less demanding syllable-note relationship. And so I found the Russian-to-Yiddish syllabic shifts in this performance to have little impact on the music in the absolute, or abstract sense. But in this work, the extramusical factors of language and culture beg for consideration. Being a work based on Jewish folk vernacular, the Yiddish translation distinctly enhances its already powerful ethnic character, yielding a version that fits hand-in-glove into a musical idiom so intimately bonded to its linguistic roots. Phrases such as “Moyshele, in gribl, Oy!” (“v magile Moishele” in the original Russian) in the first song, and “der vinter iz do shoyn” (“Vernulis i stuzha i veter”) in the eighth, catch the ear with their ethnic distinction and at the same time blend well with the expressive intentions of the music.
At the end of the sixth song, The Abandoned Father, the tenor climactically repeats the words “Tsirele, dochka” (“Tsirele, daughter”) in the original Russian version. The Yiddish replacement “Tsirele, feygl” has a similarly explosive quality and carries the moment with no loss of intensity. The Yiddish version also lends its shading to the contralto’s solo in the tender second song, Lullaby.
There is but one notable place where something is lost in the translation. This occurs in the catchy tune that begins the second song, The thoughtful Mother, where the memorable Russian syllables “baï-baï-baï” are replaced with the Yiddish “schlof-schlof-schlof”. This is a less mellifluous alteration that robs the tune of some of its childlike tone – perhaps an alternate choice of syllable in this one phrase might be chosen for future performances.
The three soloists give a commendable performance and are fully immersed in the work’s unique expressive character. The Yiddish words and syllables were articulated audibly and clearly, and to these ears (which have heard the Yiddish language spoken more than a few times), the pronunciation by the three Russian-born soloists seems authentic enough (as does the pronunciation in the aforementioned Jerusalem performance). Nikolai Kurpe’s husky tenor has no trouble reaching full expressive volume in a performance that stands out for being the most emotive of the three soloists, sometimes to a point that lends an unexpected dramatic focus. His climactic moments in the sixth song are memorable, and he brings a similar passion to his prominent solos in the seventh and ninth songs. One would not expect a soprano as brightly toned as Eva Ben-Zvi to be ideally suited to this cycle, yet her attractive voice and energetic presence bring a nicely blended buoyancy to the ensemble. Her somewhat mannered style of pronunciation brings out the Yiddish syllables with a deliberate precision that I found pleasing. Contralto Elena Goubina lends a grounding presence to the ensemble with her stable bearing, both earthy and expressive in the Slavic sense, and delivers a fine performance in her solos in the third song and elsewhere. Conductor Andrei Tchistiakov leads the Bolshoi Orchestra in as supportive an interpretation as any.
It was a revelation and a pleasure to hear FJFP in its Yiddish version and to follow the words on the written page (the complete Yiddish and English texts are provided side by side). The current version is likely to spawn other recordings of same, and I would not be surprised if the Yiddish version eventually overtook the Russian version as the performing standard.
Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, written 1919, was one of the first concert works to be stylised in the fashion of klezmer music, an ethnic borrowing that strongly influenced both Shostakovich and Slonimsky. While it may have broken new ground, the composer himself had doubts about the work’s merit and never assigned it an opus number. I have never found it to represent Prokofiev at his best. The piece begins promisingly with a pair of strong, rustically evocative ideas that are offset, in sonata form, by a broad cantilena theme. On successive appearances, however, the initial material remains somewhat rigid and fails to interact and develop to any appreciable degree. The strength of the piece remains with the colourful quality of its tunes.
The Glinka Quartet, supplemented by clarinettist Anton Dressler and pianist Julia Zilberquit, offer a nicely turned performance, with well shaped dynamics and a tempo whose leisurely but bouncy swagger aptly captures the flickering alternation of gay and mournful moods. The all-important solo highlights are handled superbly with special merit to Mr. Dressler and cellist Oleg Smirnov.
Serge Slonimsky’s 25-minute Jewish Rhapsody offers a novel blend of Eastern and Western musical attitudes. Shunning the conventional symmetries and phrasings of Western music, it sets out on an improvisatory course, a series of conversational exchanges between individual instruments in a fashion suggestive of the open-ended forms of Eastern classical music. The piano is the principal conversant in this sparsely and delicately scored work, its pensive and exotic commentaries are marked by frequent flourishes, florid arpeggiations, and gong-like clusters that mimic the sound of harp and percussion. The short phrases that pass from piano to strings, then flute, have a strong Hebraic quality as a result of intrinsic scale patterns, ornamental embellishments, and in general, a mournful pensiveness. The work creates the impression that the listener is eavesdropping on a series of ruminations among rabbinical fathers where ancient Biblical truths about life and religion are passed along in a continuously lyrical, rhapsodic narrative. After a number of hearings, I became quite enchanted with the work and its novel means of expression.
I cannot imagine a more deeply committed performance of this Jewish Rhapsody than the one the piece receives here. Kudos to all the musicians for meeting the unusual demands of this music, with particular mention of pianist Julia Zilberquit for the very personal quality she brings to her instrument’s central role.
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The Sun Shines Over Our Homeland, cantata, opus 90, for children’s chorus, mixed chorus, and orchestra; Song of the Forests, oratorio, opus 81, for tenor, bass, children’s chorus and orchestra; Suite from the opera The Nose, opus 15a.
Michail Jurowski, Kölner Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Wladimir Kasatschuk (tenor), Stanislaw Sulejmanow (bass).
Capriccio 10 779. DDD. TT 75:48.
Recorded Philharmonie, Köln, 3-8 June 1996.
Few conductors have diversified the Shostakovich recording repertoire more than Michail Jurowski. While noted specialists Gennady Rozhdestvensky and Neeme Järvi have taken momentary pause from their pioneering work in this field, Jurowski’s decade-long series on Capriccio continues to turn out one all-Shostakovich program after another, focusing on the less familiar portions of the catalogue. The technical and musical merits of the series have earned it respectability, if some of the vocalists in recent recordings have fallen somewhat short of so-called “world class” status. The current instalment, featuring three previously recorded works, continues Jurowski’s recent exploration of repertoire combining voice and orchestra.
The two works for chorus and orchestra that lead the program – the 1949 oratorio, Song of the Forests and the 1952 cantata, Sun Shines Over Our Motherland – are closely linked in a number of respects: period of composition, stylistic details and attitude, performance forces required, and not least, in the adverse political circumstances that prompted their creation. Both works date from one of the most politically troubled periods for Soviet composers, the years following the public reprimands of 1949 to Stalin’s death in 1953. The works are extroverted offerings that obligingly comply with the aesthetic guidelines set forth by the Formalist attacks of the time.
The seven-part Song of the Forests sings the praises of Stalin’s reforestation program while the text to the single movement Sun Shines… could not be more generic in its patriotic puffery. Each is set to nauseatingly inflated lyrics by the poet-laureate of Soviet literary hacks, Yevgeni Dolmatovsky.
The celebratory tone of this pair of works belies the horrifying fact that they were written as survival measures, insincere public demonstrations of Shostakovich’s obedience and musical rehabilitation. The composer’s true attitude is revealed in a private remark he passed about Song of the Forests, as related in Laurel Fay’s Shostakovich: A Life: “I sat down at night and, within a few hours dashed off something ‘haphazardly’. When I submitted what I had written, to my amazement and horror, they shook my hand and paid me.” (In the fifth movement, Komsomol Youth Step Out, for example, Shostakovich even stoops to write a genuinely rousing march that mimics the style of the Soviet Army Chorus’s repertoire, a genre he once said he detested).
Both works are written in a stable, late 19th Century musical language and seem to have been written in a kind of detached, “automatic pilot” mode of creativity. Many of the harmonic progressions and melodic phrases seem to be drawn from a predictable, almost prefabricated reservoir of gestures similar to that found in the numerous film scores penned by the composer during the same troubled period. They offer a primary example of Shostakovich’s “dumbed down” musical language that he reserved for public or official consumption, a genuinely quantifiable doublespeak, subversive in its patently superficial manner. While they contain no great moments of inspiration, the music in these choral works is extremely listenable, lyrically ingratiating and at times, clever. At the very least, one may be impressed with the composer’s effortless command of technique in the finely crafted passages for chorus and orchestra.
The charms of Song of the Forests have attracted a number of leading Soviet conductors dating back to 1950 when Yevgeny Mravinsky’s performance was cast on a series of Melodiya 78s, subsequently reissued in the LP era. Unfortunately, its poor monophonic fidelity does not justify digital reissuing and it remains a mere curiosity. The work became known in the West after the mid-1970s, mainly through the very fine performance on an EMI/Angel LP by Alexander Yurlov and forces, originally issued by Melodiya. The performance by Yevgeny Svetlanov, recorded on Melodiya and issued in 1980, did not receive worldwide distribution. After a hiatus of more than a decade, the oratorio digitally resurfaced in a renaissance of releases in the 1990s. In 1994 Russian Disc reissued the aforementioned analogue performance with Yurlov, soloists and the Moscow Phil. and State Boys Choir (RD CD 11 048). That was followed in 1997 and 1998 by two digital performances: respectively, Vladimir Fedoseyev with the Moscow RSO (JVC 6503) and Yuri Temirkanov with St. Petersburg performers (BMG/RCA 6887).
The current performance by Jurowski is a splendid addition to this pedigree. The choral forces and soloists have a fine ensemble sound and perform with gusto and admirable sensitivity to the various lyrical moods of each movement. I was impressed with the warmth and beautiful phrasing of the male chorus in the opening movement. Also, the woodwind detail in the second, the all-inclusive ensemble work in the fifth, Komsomol Youth, and ditto in the bombastic fugal finale, Glory. The alto and treble boys’ choir also ring in with impressive verve and discipline. Solo bass Stanislaw Sulejmanow gives a solid, sensitive reading, particularly in his major solo in the third movement, Remembrance of Things Past. Sulejmanow has an unusually broad vibrato, both in pitch and period, so that it is almost suggestive of the phenomenon of “tape wow” on certain held notes – something that may cause distraction in some listeners (he is outstanding as the soloist in Jurowski’s more recent blockbuster performance of Shostakovich’s cantata Execution of Stepan Razin, to be reviewed next issue). Tenor Wladimir Kasatschuk is both expressive and idiomatically on target in his featured solo in the sixth movement, Future Stroll. The placement of the various choruses, soloists and orchestra provide a broadly spacious, well-balanced sound that situates the listener directly in the conductor’s podium – a nice place to be in the opulent sonority of these happy, untroubled waters. If superficial music requires profound interpretation to sound like anything, Song of the Forests has its requisite in Michail Jurowski.
The fourteen-minute Sun Shines Over Our Motherland offers the same interpretive invitations as its abovementioned companion and enjoys a similar set of performing attributes. Jurowski is not as daring as Yurlov in stepping up the tempo in the central fast section, yet he provides a lively, well-judged performance with a beautifully controlled and recorded complement of forces. Nothing more, nothing less could be asked for in this parallel pair of patriotic potboilers.
It is a pity that Shostakovich’s mutinously experimental opera, The Nose, has been such a stranger to stage and studio, and as much a pity that the extracted suite has remained equally as obscure. Nose represents the ne plus ultra of Shostakovich’s early, off-centred theatrical anarchism, and the suite, at 25 minutes length, offers a concentrated cross-section of this rebelliously madcap phase of the composer’s career. The composer assembled the 7-part suite in 1930, shortly after the opera’s scandalous première in January that year.
The Nose Suite’s three contained vocal numbers seem arbitrarily chosen, as the omission of any number of other arias from the opera – especially the one sung with nose pinched – seems hard to justify. The four instrumental numbers, on the other hand, are indispensable. They include the infamous all-percussion interlude from Act I (an idea seemingly influenced by Alexander Tcherepnin’s 1927 First Symphony), the opening Overture and a final Galop, both taken from Act I. The centrepiece and longest movement of the suite is the instrumental interlude from Act II. That movement is a microcosm of the just-completed Second Symphony, a monolithic arch that gradually builds contrapuntal density toward a frantic climax, then winding its way down to the murmurings of the opening pages.
Rozhdestvensky’s 1975 recording of the complete opera (reissued in 1998 on BMG 74321 60319 2; reviewed in DSCH 11) has an interpretive panache that drives the work forward with all intended raw satire and modernist electricity. Comparatively, Jurowski’s tempos are less driven and lack the swagger of the inimitable Rozhdestvensky.
Yet the superb, exacting musicianship of Jurowski’s players and their engaging vitality keep this performance of the suite quite alive. The greatest tempo difference between the two conductors occurs in the Act II interlude, which Rozhdestvensky takes at 4:39 compared to Jurowski’s 6:31. The latter performance brings an effective symphonic heft, even a frightening intensity, to this number, that the elder conductor’s more nonchalant tempos overlook..
Bass Stanislaw Sulejmanow simply does not have the comico-dramatic flexibility required for a work as theatrically loaded as Nose. No matter that the part is written for baritone, his rendering of Kovalov’s Aria is a bit stiff, his concluding crocodile tears positively wooden. Sulejmanow’s declamatory style is more effective in the mournful Kovalov’s Monologue, which he renders with much feeling. Tenor Vladimir Kasatschuk falls effortlessly into the satiric spirit of the work in his rendition of Ivan’s Song, zanily adorned with balalaika and flexatone.
A major plus of the new recording is the sonic clarity of the engineering and the close, radial distribution of the instrumental ensemble around the listener. The rapid-fire rhythmic exchanges in the all-percussion interlude come across with particular vividness, as do the flashpoint instrumental relays of the delightfully offbeat Overture.
There is no mention in the notes of where the individual numbers in the suite fall into Nose‘s story, and the attendant copyright siege apparently prevents any portion of the libretto from being printed. Alas, patience may one day pay off. The texts to the Dolmatovsky-inspired works, however, appear in full in both German and English. How lucky can we get?!
Jurowski once again assembles a colourful, finely crafted program that for many will fill in some noteworthy gaps in the Shostakovich library.
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Shostakovich conducts Shostakovich
Cello Concerto No. 1 in Eb major, opus 107[a]; Cello Concerto No. 2, opus 126[b].
Maxim Shostakovich, Prague Symphony Orchestra, Jiri Barta (cello).
Supraphon SU 3414-2 031. DDD. TT 66:07.
Recorded live Dvorak Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, 14 November 1996[a]; live Smetana Hall, Municipal House, Prague, 2 March 1999[b].
The present recording of the First Cello Concerto appeared just a couple of years earlier, on SU3278-2, coupled with the suite from The Golden Age. As that programme occupied a mere three-quarters of an hour, Supraphon’s more generous repackaging of the concerto is welcome.
This entry is not, however, a high point in Maxim Shostakovich’s traversal of his father’s works with Czech players. Both the young soloist and the Prague orchestra serve up a tepid Concerto No. 1, failing to disturb in its Moderato and never taking flight in its outer movements.
Its younger sibling’s batteries need recharging too, though one might argue that the performers’ apparent lack of desire to get anywhere in particular is fitting for its inchoate swirlings, especially in the Largo. Jiri Barta sounds to be capable of handling this material without undue discomfort, but he remains emotionally apathetic. The orchestral playing is less than first rate.
To be fair to the musicians, this recording does not show them to advantage. In Concerto No. 1, cellist and orchestra may as well have been recorded in separate rooms, as Barta is miked so closely that we are able to monitor his breathing with clinical accuracy, whereas the other players (percussion excepted) are cast far behind him. The soundstage is more realistically depicted for No. 2, but acoustics remain fuzzy. Finally, the audience could have tried harder to stifle their coughs. All in all, this release is uncompetitive.
W. Mark Roberts
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Britten The Performer
Symphony No. 14 opus 135, for Soprano, Bass and Chamber Orchestra[a]; Britten: Nocturne, for Tenor, Seven Obligato Instruments and Strings, opus 60[b]
Benjamin Britten, English Chamber Orchestra [a,b]; Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano), Mark Reshetin (bass)[a]; Peter Pears (tenor), Richard Adeney (flute), Peter Graeme (cor anglais), Thea King (clarinet), Martin Gatt (bassoon), Ifor James (horn), James Blade (timpani), Osian Ellis (harp)[b].
BBC Music BBCB 8013-2. ADD. TT 77:32.
Recorded live Maltings, Snape, UK, 14 June 1970[a]; live Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 27 November 1967[b].
In many ways Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 is one of his most brilliant creations. Far from the morbid self-absorbed work inspired by the looming shadow of death it is often taken to be, the 11-movement work contains some of his most inspired ironies and rich dramatisations. From startling spectral timbres to the sabre-sharp rhythms, this work continued to break new ground for the ageing composer. Whether one sees it as a reaction to impending death, or the exorcism of decades of having to witness it in its many forms, the No. 14 is a powerful statement that demands powerful execution.
While the number of good recordings of the work are steadily increasing, no single recording can yet claim to be the definitive issue. The most authoritative recordings are sonically compromised, while modern hi-fi recordings simply cannot match the early Russian performances.
This recent issue from BBC Music under the Britten The Performer series takes the No. 14 one step closer to that ultimate recording. Recorded live on 14 June 1970 at the Aldeburgh Festival at Maltings, Snape, UK, this represents the symphony’s world première outside the USSR. That it is conducted by the dedicatee of the work Benjamin Britten and sung by two of the soloists who first premièred the work in the USSR will certainly add to the historical value of the recording. As the icing on the cake, the sleevenotes are written by the very same Donald Mitchell who prepared the original programme notes to this 1970 concert.
Mitchell’s fascinating notes and additional insights make compelling reading, and almost makes up for the absence of texts for both the No. 14 and Britten’s Nocturne. As Mitchell observes, these two works share a special kinship, and to be able to compare their texts would have been especially useful.
Britten’s recording competes with Rudolf Barshai on Russian Disc using the same soloists. Barshai’s is a near première (RDCD 11192, recorded Oct 6 1969), and his reading is as authentic as one can hope to get. It is also a terrifying performance of remarkable precision and power. The soloists sing as if their lives are at stake, the ensemble is so crisp one can hardly believe they have just learnt the score, and the Moscow Chamber percussion descend upon the work like a pack of bloodthirsty hounds. Never before have I heard castanets and woodblock invoke such terror.
Marred only by a thin recording and a tendency to distort at the loud passages, Barshai’s session is high-voltage, and is unique for the inclusion of a slight modification of the score: the addition of percussion at the last two bars, a suggestion of Barshai’s which Shostakovich undertook but later dropped (see Wilson, Pg 414). Another similarly harrowing recording is conducted by Rostropovich using the very same performers, issued by Revelation just before they pulled back the label. The Rostropovich (Rev 10101, 12 Feb 1973) is a good alternative to the Barshai: it is nearly as arresting, the performance is just as assured and the soloists are more seasoned. It is unfortunately in mono, and loses out slightly to Barshai in sonic clarity (admirers of Rostropovich might also investigate his recording on Teldec for better sound).
That said, Britten does a marvellous job with the score and the English Chamber puts in a committed performance. The re-mastering is impressive, and the sound is warm and spacious with the timbres and textures well defined. There is some audience noise later in the performance, but by that time the listener is likely to be too captivated to notice.
The soloists too are given ample breathing room and are well-placed within the soundstage. The strings are full bodied and the basses are especially meaty considering there are only a pair of them. Their fullness and resonance is particularly appreciated in the sixth movement where the eerie combination of pizzicato and col legno is audible from the start at a reasonable volume. There are brief moments of slight distortion, chiefly in the sixth track (In the Sante Prison) and in the peak of the bass line in Lorelei, but thankfully these are isolated. (I also detected a slight aberration while listening on headphones, a strange electronic beeping that begins at 3:30 into the disc and continues sometime into the Malaguena. It is not noticeable on speakers and it is unclear if it’s only my copy that has this defect).
Britten opens with the bleached wintry colours reminiscent of his own Peter Grimes seascape, and paints the rest of the work with similar colours. The Malaguena is not as vicious as Barshai’s, and the percussion, while enthusiastic and alert, could give just that last ounce of fury that makes the Moscow forces so fearsome. The English Chamber seems to have slight trouble with the quick movements, which are tricky and require razor-sharp response. They tend to be a little cautious, and the mixed meters of the third movement (Lorelei) and the angry eighth movement (Zaporozhian Cossack’s Reply) do not quite take us over the edge. But while speed and attack are not the ECO’s strongest points, the readings are nevertheless passionate and spirited and the orchestra’s conviction comes across forcefully.
The slow movements are perhaps where the ensemble excels. The Suicide is haunting, and Vishnevskaya gives the impression of floating above the ethereal string textures. There is a stylistic oddity between the fifth and sixth movements where Britten pauses for about 5 seconds (the score is marked attacca or ‘without pause’). I do not know if this is deliberate. It does have the effect of structuring the first five movements as the ‘first movement’ and the next two as the ‘slow movement’, but it is nevertheless unusual.
Vishnevskaya’s trademark delivery of Look Madam is the centrepiece of the symphony, the veritable mad-scene of the work. In both the Barshai and Rostropovich recordings she abandons precision of pitch to convey the full anger of the character with magnificent theatricality. Here she seems to take more care in the pitching, but her stamp of authority is undiminished.
Britten’s Zaporozhian Cossacks Reply does not approach the fury of his rival Russians. Here Barshai is the most vehement, especially in the buildup of trilling block chords that ascend like an angry swarm of bees. Fortunately Reshetin throws all his weight behind the orchestra, and makes a powerful reading of the broad declamatory lines. After an impassioned O Delvig, Delvig, Britten serves up a desolate Finale. In the final pages one wishes the percussion would unleash all that they can give, to put the final nail in the coffin as it were.
Vishnevskaya and Reshetin are the driving force behind this performance, leading the English Chamber through the dark depths and tricky minefields of the work with effortless authority. The pair are more polished here in Aldeburgh, although I miss some of the tension (and Mme Vishnevskaya’s hysteria) of the Barshai and Rostropovich performances.
Britten’s Nocturne is the perfect companion to Shostakovich’s harrowing symphony, and Peter Pears the perfect compliment to the scintillating Russian pair. The work seems to take up where the Shostakovich leaves off. It shares the same sense of darkness, of terror and indignation, of anger. The protagonist searches for light in a cold world: while Shostakovich surveys the real world and finds only corpses, ending his earthbound work in defiant fury, Britten takes over by slipping into a nightmarish dreamworld where salvation might possibly lie.
Recorded in London in 27 Nov. 1967, the Nocturne sounds even more vivid than the Shostakovich Symphony. And here more than in its predecessor (Serenade) Britten pushes the boundaries of the genre. Each song is set to a remarkable solo obligato – most gripping is the mocking bassoon accompanying Tennyson’s Below The Thunders of the Upper Deep and the timpani provoking fear in the Wordsworth setting. Britten closes his work in a way that seems to sum up both works on this disc.
A setting of Shakespeare that while on one level is personally directed to his life-partner Pears also serves to resolve the questions left behind by Shostakovich.
The coupling of the two works thus makes this a compelling issue, and a special one for all its historical aspects. While Britten conducting the Shostakovich No. 14 will not reach the horrifying heights of terror delivered by Barshai or Rostropovich – indeed, will anyone ever do, for the two are certainly in a league of their own? – it is a searching performance and one that ought to find a permanent place in any Shostakovich collection.
C H Loh
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Mravinsky was no stranger to Czech audiences, having presented Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony to great acclaim at the Prague Spring Festival as early as 1947, at the helm of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Regrettably, those first performances were not recorded, but later Prague concerts with his own orchestra and the Czech Philharmonic were preserved for broadcast over Czech Radio. This is the provenance of the recordings appearing in this mid-priced boxed set, which were released separately by Praga in 1994-95. Here they are presented in four jewel cases, all contained in an attractive slipcase bearing sepia images of the maestro at different times of his life. Each volume has its own booklet, with remarks on its programme. Sadly, there is no overall commentary for the set to put these performances in context, aside from one sentence in the short blurb about the conductor that is duplicated in the notes for Volumes 1 and 4.
The English version of said article has Mravinsky “creating” The Song of the Forests, Violin Concerto No. 1 and Cello Concerto No. 1, though the French original and German translation rightly credit him only with leading their premières!
Documentation aside, this new set is a treasure-trove for DSCH readers, as five of the seven works included were penned by Shostakovich. Missing from its rightful place in the collection is a live recording of the Tenth Symphony from 3 June 1955, formerly available on Praga PR 250053.
NOTE: Since this review was written, all of the Shostakovich Symphony recordings appearing in this boxed set have been identified as being reproductions of original recordings made in Russia and Vienna, not Prague. In Praga’s Eleventh and Twelfth Symphony pressings, audience noises have been added to the original studio recordings. For reference purposes, my review is reproduced below unedited, but many of my comments have been invalidated by this discovery. The details about recording dates and venues listed by Praga for these four symphonies are erroneous. These misattributions were first revealed in Amoh and Forman’s Mravinsky discography, discussed below, and my assertions to the contrary are mistaken. Full details are contained in my report in DSCH 15 on misattributed recordings on the Praga label. WMR.
Vol. 1: Symphony No. 5 in D minor, opus 47; Bartok: Music for strings, percussion and celesta, Sz 106.
Yevgeny Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra.
PR 256016. ADD stereo. TT 70:19.
Recorded live Prague, 1967.
A classic Mravinsky Fifth here, which reinforces, rather than expands our view of his conception of this work. As usual, the maestro commands a daringly swift base tempo even in the Largo, and uses rubato freely. In preparing the work’s première, thirty years earlier, Mravinsky coaxed indications of the correct tempi from a recalcitrant Shostakovich by intentionally playing the piano reduction at wrong speeds, and he was thus privy to the composer’s original thoughts on this aspect of performance. By 1967, however, Mravinsky had taken possession of the work, writing,
“The long life of this symphony has in itself brought about essential changes to the tempi that we marked down at that time [i.e., 1937].” Mravinsky’s tempi minimize somewhat the impact of desolate passages, but deliver a visceral thrill everywhere else.
Present are trademark details like the substitution of F for Ab at Fig. 127-2/7:54 in the countdown to the Finale’s climax, a relict of earlier versions of the score which Mravinsky never saw fit to correct. The Leningrad Philharmonic are on top form, playing with stunning strength and precision. This powerhouse performance must have been nothing short of overwhelming to experience in person, so it’s a pity that we are denied hearing the audience’s reaction at its close.
As to the recorded sound, the stereo image is serviceable, and the dynamic range is quite impressive. The level of tape hiss, however, varies from very loud to blaring. The silver lining is that this may distract you from the audience’s coughing.
This volume proves Bartok’s Music for strings, percussion and celesta to be a most fitting partner to Shostakovich’s Fifth; concert programmers take note. Mravinsky reaches the very core of the work. It’s no exaggeration to claim this as a performance to challenge title-holder Fritz Reiner, particularly in the first movement, which winds up an almost unbearable amount of tension. Listen too for the foreboding of Mravinsky’s Adagio, heightened by spooky glissandi.
Vol. 2: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, opus 54[a]; Symphony No. 12, opus 112[b].
Yevgeny Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra.
PR 256017. ADD mono. TT 65:51.
Recorded live Prague, 21 May 1955[a]; 6 January 1962[b].
Clearly, the Sixth Symphony struck a personal chord with Mravinsky, for here is another authoritative reading to place alongside later versions that have been available over the years (only his January 1972 account, on Melodiya 74321 25198 2, remains in the current catalogue). Like those, this one preserves its share of coughs from the audience, but, given its age, the mono recording is outstanding. Each instrument is clearly delineated, instrumental tone is rendered with stability, and even the loudest passages are quite free of distortion.
Anyone searching for a Sixth Symphony Largo to stand their hairs on end need look no further, as this Prague reading serves it up every bit as chilled as in Mravinsky’s other recordings. It succeeds both as a threnody to the victims of Stalinism, as Sigrid Neef aptly described this movement, and as the unanswered cry of an individual deprived of human contact. The winds played more plaintively in Mravinsky’s 1965 reading on a long-deleted Melodiya LP (ASD 2805), but the Leningrad strings spare the Prague audience none of the anguish they shrieked at their compatriots. The concluding movements are as sarcastic as one could wish. As far as precision of ensemble and richness of sound go, the playing of all the Leningraders is exemplary.
As Laurel Fay reveals in Shostakovich: A Life, Mravinsky was not the first to première Symphony No. 12, “The Year 1917”, on 1 October 1961 as officially listed. That dubious honour had been snatched two hours earlier by Abram Stasevich with the local orchestra in Kuibyshev. The current performance from just three months later would, however, appear to be the Prague première. There’s no denying the commitment that Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic display towards this ugly duckling of the Shostakovich oeuvre. Orchestral playing is excellent, Mravinsky’s basic tempo moves the proceedings along briskly, and there is genuine pathos in the second movement. The audience’s applause is boisterous.
The Mravinsky discography maintained by Kenzo Amoh and Frank Forman claims that this Twelfth (in its former guise as Praga PR 254017) is not, in fact, a live Prague recording, but rather a Moscow studio recording from 1961. This conclusion is based on its movement timings being the same as a BMG(Japan) issue of the Moscow recording (BVCX 4026), and on the claim that it sounds like a studio recording. Not having the BMG(Japan) release to hand, I can’t comment on any similarities between these two discs, but the occasional cough that surfaces above the strident analogue hiss plus the loud ovation at the end of the Praga issue leave no doubt in my mind that it is a live recording. I see no reason to question Praga’s labelling.
Vol. 3: Symphony No. 11 in G minor, opus 103.
Yevgeny Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra.
PR 256018. ADD mono. TT 60:49.
Recorded live Prague, 3 June 1967.
This performance of “The Year 1905” is identical to the previous Praga incarnation (PR 254 018) that I reviewed in detail in DSCH 9 – as are the booklet notes and cover art, for that matter. Those who balked at purchasing the full-priced single-disc release can now acquire it at a bulk discount!
Coming back to this recital for this review, I am struck anew by its grandeur and the high quality of the playing. Unlike all but one other entry in this set (Symphony No. 12), this recording preserves the audience’s applause, something I’d have preferred to the abrupt silence terminating the other pieces. Otherwise, the recording quality is indifferent. Do not, however, let this cause you to miss this performance’s subzero Palace Square, panic-stricken massacre, and epic mourning.
The afore-mentioned Mravinsky discography also questions the date and venue of this recording, claiming that it was actually taped in the Large Studio of Moscow Radio on 2 February 1959. This is based on the supposed correspondence between movement timings for PR 254018 and BMG(Japan) BVCX 4025. I don’t have a copy of the Japanese release, but I reviewed the Moscow performance in DSCH 9 when it appeared on Revelation RV 10091. The Mravinsky discography lists this as the same version as on BVCX 4025, correcting the recording date supplied by Revelation from November to February. I can confirm that the Revelation and Praga issues are indeed different performances, with different movement timings for all but the third movement – and, as for that, the timing was also identical in the 1957 version on Russian Disc (RD CD 11 157).
Furthermore, the additional claim that PR 254018 sounds like a studio recording is perplexing, given the conspicuous audience noise and applause. I am confident that Praga are indeed supplying what they advertise.
Vol. 4: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, opus 77[c]; Prokofiev: Symphony No. 6 in Eb minor, opus 111[d].
Yevgeny Mravinsky, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra[c]/Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra[d], David Oistrakh (violin)[c].
PR 256019. ADD mono[c]; stereo[d]. TT 71:15.
Recorded live Prague, May 1957[c];1967[d].
The performance of the First Violin Concerto on offer here is also contained in Praga’s 6-CD set, “David Oistrakh in Prague” (PR 256007). It is marred by a poorly engineered mono recording that fluctuates in sound level and captures an undue amount of audience fidgeting. Set beside the world première recording that Oistrakh made with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic the previous year, now available on Sony Masterworks Heritage MHK 63327 (reviewed in DSCH 10), this version presents a seemingly less sure-footed soloist, whose tone and rhythm are not always flawless. Both he and his orchestral accompaniment are capable without being inspired, and their interaction is less than intimate. Emotional intensity peaks sporadically in the Passacaglia, but this is a relatively lukewarm reading overall. The première recording is technically and musically preferable.
Prokofiev’s balletic Sixth Symphony is a more attractive feature on this volume, though the poorly balanced stereo recording doesn’t do the performance justice. Mravinsky and the Leningraders expand the diversity of moods and colours within each movement, alternately startling the listener with the modernity of Prokofiev’s spiky outbursts, then tugging at the heartstrings with moments of sweeping melodrama. It’s a thoroughly engaging rendition that deserves repeated listening. The audience’s contribution is not hard to ignore.
As a set, Mravinsky in Prague is well worth its price for anyone who doesn’t already own these particular recordings on previous releases.
W. Mark Roberts