CD Reviews 15
§ = World Première Recording
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues, opus 87.
Konstantin Scherbakov (piano).
Naxos 8.554745-46. DDD. 2-disc set. TT 64:01 + 77:49.
Recorded St. Martin’s Church, East Woodhay, Berkshire, UK, 15 – 18 June, 1999.
For those unfamiliar with opus 87, Konstantin Scherbakov’s recording makes an excellent introduction to this seminal piano work. And for those who already know and love this music, Naxos’ budget-priced offering is easily worthy of sitting alongside those of its better-known exponents: Nikolayeva, Jarrett, Ashkenazy (reviewed in DSCH 11), Woodward, Weichert and Papadopolous, to name a few.
Scherbakov’s playing is most remarkable for his attention to the detail of the score. Shostakovich is always sparing with his instructions for the pianist, but very precise when he does indicate his requirements. Scherbakov is ever mindful of the composer’s intentions regarding dynamics and articulation, and this results in pieces that are well characterised and contrasting.
Tempo is generally well chosen, though at times tends to be on the fast side, sacrificing grandeur for speed in the likes of the E minor fugue. The relative tempo of the C major fugue, in contrast to its prelude, is a notable oddity and surely not what the composer intended. Scherbakov races in the already fast Bb major prelude, and the tempo in both the D major and C minor works is also wayward, thus giving a sense of rhythmic unsteadiness. Most disappointing is the closing D minor fugue, in which Scherbakov builds up speed much too quickly, his sense of agitation resulting in a loss rather than the desired increase in intensity.
Scherbakov is at his best in the quieter and/or slower pieces. Indeed, some of his soft playing is quite exquisite: for example, in the A major fugue and the F# major prelude and fugue. When the dynamic rises above forte, however, his tone is sometimes hard and jarring.
Perhaps more an artefact of the recording process than of Scherbakov’s interpretation, the upper voices predominate throughout the entire work (more so on the first CD). This is a shame, because Scherbakov obviously has paid careful attention to the voicing, and it’s difficult to believe that he didn’t intend to project the bass more at times.
A notable idiosyncrasy may be encountered on some copies of this release, a ringing telephone being audible about two minutes into the G# minor fugue. This was noticed on a disc purchased in the UK, whereas the review set provided by Naxos Canada and two other pressings bought in the U.S. and Europe were not afflicted. Some listeners may find the inclusion of the phone irritating, but it is barely intrusive and in these days of over-editing I find it rather endearing!
These minor criticisms aside, overall this is a most worthwhile recording from both a musical and an analytical point of view. It is not the most distinctive interpretation available but it is nonetheless a very solid performance. Most importantly, it conveys the sense that this is a single unified work rather than a group of loosely connected pieces.
Finally, there is no hiding the unmusical fact that this release is one of the year’s great bargains.
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
Natalia Gutman Portrait Series, Vol. 1
Cello Concerto No. 1 in Eb major, opus 107[a]; Cello Concerto No. 2 in G major, opus 126[b]; Schnittke: Dialogue for Violoncello and Seven Instruments (1965)[c].
Kyrill Kondrashin, USSR Radio and TV Symphony Orchestra[a]; Dmitri Kitayenko, Moscow State Philharmony[b]; Yuri Nikolaevsky, Gnessin Chamber Orchestra[c]; Natalia Gutman (cello).
Live Classics LCL 202. ADD. TT 75:04.
Recorded Tchaikovsky Conservatory, Moscow, 21 June 1976[a]; 11 November 1986[b]; Gnessin Institute, Moscow, 2 January 1982[c].
Three different Soviet-period conductors are featured in this Shostakovich-Schnittke programme. It is the lead entry in a projected Portrait Series on the Live Classics label, spotlighting the talents of cellist Natalia Gutman.
The disc is immediately worth its weight in gold for presenting hitherto unreleased recordings of Shostakovich’s two cello concerti by high-profile Soviet conductors Kyrill Kondrashin and Dmitri Kitayenko. Kondrashin was one of the legendary Soviet-era interpreters of the Shostakovich repertoire, and his peerless interpretations include the entire canon of fifteen symphonies plus both violin concerti. The regrettable absence of the two cello concerti from that conductor’s Melodiya portfolio has to date been poorly compensated by an earlier live performance of the First Concerto, released on an old Everest LP (SDBR 3342) and subsequently on a mislabelled Intaglio CD (INCD 7251). That recording, made at a Moscow concert in the early 1960s, assembles the “dream team” of Kondrashin at the head of the Moscow PO, and the work’s dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich. The pairing of these two leading Shostakovich interpreters is a match made in heaven. Unfortunately the blessed union is marred by the hissy, monophonic, cassette-quality sound, not to mention highly exposed flubs made by clarinet and horn soloists at critical junctures in the first movement.
There are no such technical shortcomings on the current CD, which combines studio- and near-studio-quality sound with the genuine excitement of live performance. Unlike the pirate issue described above, all three works on this disc had the benefit of professional engineering and strategic microphone placement.
On the performance side, Natalia Gutman is an impressive Shostakovich interpreter. She possesses that brand of sensitivity and physicality that one is happy to find in these works, and is capable of delivering, by turns, graceful lyricism, frenzied tension, and rugged propulsion. Her take on the music is also sweepingly architectural. That approach may overlook some of the music’s nuances, but it does bring out its broad narrative in an engaging manner.
This is not the first time that Natalia Gutman’s performances of both Shostakovich concerti have appeared on compact disc. A 1990 RCA Red Seal release (87918-2 RC) featured Gutman in studio recordings (dating from 1988) with the Royal Philharmonic conducted by the quixotic Yuri Temirkanov. Those performances are acceptable only in their technical quality. Otherwise, their overall lack of depth and nuance leaves a surprisingly bland impression, one that I can only attribute to a less than ideal artistic partnership. The current performances, dating from 1976 and 1986 (and 1982 for the Schnittke) make for quite a different story.
Kondrashin’s rendition delivers no less than what one would expect of him in the First Concerto. The short, interlocking motifs of the first movement have a healthy, thrusting vigour, with sharply defined instrumental attacks characteristic of that conductor’s idiomatically on-target style.
The recording also boasts strong performances from the woodwinds, good registration of bassoon and lower strings, and firmly percussive, if somewhat hollow, timpani strokes. Special mention must be given to the French horn soloist (whose part is prominent throughout the concerto) for providing a robust, aggressive tone that seems to be found only in Russian performances (note Svetlanov/Rostropovich on Russian Disc RD CD 11 109 and Rozhdestvensky/Khomitser on RCA 74321-29254-2). Such hard-edged playing, especially in the first movement, adds an extra measure of intensity that is simply thrilling.
Gutman has a natural instinct for the score. There is something about her vibrato that allows the longer notes to soar with an immense depth of feeling, a passionate quality that complements the movement’s obsessive rhythmic drive. Compare the admirably frenzied energy brought by Misha Maisky under Michael Tilson Thomas (Deutsche Grammophon 445821-2), or the leaner, more aggressive take by Truls Mørk with Mariss Jansons (Virgin Classics CDC 5 45145 2).
The nearly hushed tones of Gutman’s entry in the slow movement are uncommonly moving. The promise of this opening is fulfilled. She proceeds to give a breathtakingly sensitive performance of the entire movement.
The cadenza of the First Cello Concerto is the most finely wrought of its kind in the Shostakovich canon. No one has yet been able to reap as much insight from this eloquent soliloquy as Rostropovich, and trying to find an equally moving, personalized rendition is to engage in an unnecessary, perhaps futile quest. Ivan Monighetti’s cadenza (with Vladimir Valek leading the Prague RSO, Le Chant du Monde LDC 278 1099) is one that is particularly memorable, while Mørk, Maisky, and others have made thoughtfully expressive traversals of this section. Gutman’s cadenza is effective, her phrases are lyrical and broadly paced, yet they tend to follow one another without the breathing room necessary to penetrate the music’s larger dimension. Rostropovich, in his recording with Svetlanov, obtains more expansive results in significantly less time (compare his 4:34 to Gutman’s 5:44 and Monighetti’s 5:12).
Gutman proceeds to take the final movement with the athletic agility she is so capable of.
The Second Cello Concerto presents a completely different set of interpretive challenges. The work’s cryptic labyrinth of emotions has invited certain self-conscious mannerisms on the part of some interpreters, something that Gutman’s larger vision of the work manages to avoid completely.
She confronts the Largo movement squarely, unpretentiously, at a somewhat faster pace than most, without the meditative and atmospheric fussiness favoured by other interpreters. Compare, for example, the hauntingly Sibelian probing of the movement by Truls Mørk, or Misha Maisky’s internally grim volatility. Gutman does not pursue the same expressive realms, yet she produces a Largo with nuance and passion that is as viscerally engaging as anyone will find.
Gutman brings the same attributes to the remaining movements of the concerto. She is most effective in conveying the second movement’s progressively increasing agitation, from its whimsically rising and falling glissandi to its near-explosive anticlimax at the fanfare juncture (surely the strangest fanfare in all Shostakovich). And this same forward momentum allows her, more successfully than the current competition, to project the work as the Sophoclean tragedy it is, its final movements inevitably swept toward a tumultuously devastating conclusion.
Conductor Dmitri Kitayenko, who is not known as a Shostakovich specialist, leads a superbly shaped performance, bringing to the final, whip-cracking, bass-drum pounding climax the explosive monumentality it deserves.
This performance truly brings together the best attributes found in the other recordings. By comparison, Truls Mørk lacks emotional clout in the final movements, while the quirky liberties with tempo preferred by the Maisky/Tilson Thomas team are interesting but not as cumulatively compelling. In DSCH 10 I had praised cellist Frans Helmerson (Polyansky/Russian SSO; Chandos CHAN 9585) for the sense of forward momentum he brings to the piece, even if his manner is a bit detached. Gutman is a cellist with far greater depth. Her broad, architectural approach to the Second Concerto is what works best, and she is clearly at one with Kitayenko, who evokes strong performances from the members of the Moscow PO.
The final work on the programme is Alfred Schnittke’s 1964 Dialogue for Cello and Seven Instruments. It was written at a time when a respectable avant-garde movement had taken root in the Soviet Union, and compositional horizons were expanding in a variety of directions. As the liner notes tell us, Schnittke was then incorporating random sequences and the irregular rhythms of nature into his works, including this Dialogue.
Dialogue is an effectively variegated bravura piece for cello that alternates between restlessly contemplative solo passages and spring-loaded interactions with an ensemble consisting of piano, trumpet, clarinet, and percussion. The highly syncopated instrumental interjections are suggestive of pointillistic devices employed by the progressive jazz school of the 1950s. The piece is not the only Soviet work of its time to be influenced by jazz.
Likewise, the tortured gestures, with their sudden shifts from drama, through angst, to cool, dispassionate reserve, recall a certain recitation style of existential beatnik poetry that was popular in the American counterculture at the time. The work’s lively eleven minutes are guaranteed to entertain the modern palate, blending serious concert hall demeanour with intellectual coffee-house moxie.
Gutman makes the most of the work’s athletic shifts of mood and register, showing herself to be master of many musical idioms. As in the previous works, superior performance and engineering attributes apply.
This release has already found a valuable place in my collection, ranking among my top choices for both Shostakovich cello concerti. In an earnest word, recommended.
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
Hypothetically Murdered, orchestral suite, opus 31a (reconstructed Gerard McBurney, May 1993); The Gadfly, orchestral suite, opus 97a.
Vladimir Fedoseyev, Tchaikovsky Orchestra.
Saison Russe RUS 288170. DDD. TT 62:27.
Recorded Large Studio of Moscow Radio, 6 – 10 June 2000.
Hypothetically Murdered is one of the curiosities of Shostakovich’s youth, one that no doubt suffers its place at the bottom of the listening list because of its association with vaudeville and circus theatre. The 1931 show, featuring the founder of the Tea-Jazz Ensemble, Leonid Utyosov, was billed as a “Light Music Circus Entertainment in 3 Acts”, not exactly a testimony of serious art from a composer best known for his tragedy-laden symphonies.
Yet, ignoring Hypothetically Murdered is a mistake. The first time I listened to this music, I was not only amazed at its complexity and ingenuity, but also convinced that the composer did not merely toss off some pop music for mass consumption, but instead invested compositional genius in this work. Some of its music lives on in one of Shostakovich’s greatest masterpieces, the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. “Vaudeville” hardly does the work justice – think of the underlying mean streak in the gallops of Lady Macbeth and the sarcasm in the schmaltzy music of The Golden Age, sprinkled with the sparse darkness of Five Fragments, and you get a rough idea of Hypothetically Murdered’s sound-world.
In many ways, this score takes the techniques developed in Shostakovich’s earlier ballets one step further. There are signs of a maturing style and a truly wicked sense of humour, plus a great gift for bridging the gap between popular dance hall music and the serious craft of composition. The music may sound trite and at places even mindless, but it is not trivial. On the contrary, it is loaded with the trademarks of a genius seriously at work. The opus is a delightful demonstration of how spontaneously funny music can be – if The Nose was a compendium of rude effects, then Hypothetically Murdered is the epilogue, with an entire addendum on the imaginative use of a flexatone.
McBurney’s orchestration is magnificent; the sound certainly seems consistent with the composer’s works of that period. The original score was lost during the Leningrad siege, but a piano score survives. McBurney says that he reconstructed the orchestral score based on the instrumentation marked out in the margins of the piano score, and by drawing on later compositions in which Shostakovich reused the material.
“When Mila Kovnatskaya found the original of the Overture and the second movement (neither in my reconstruction) it turned out I’d got two or even three details wrong. But the sound was basically right,” McBurney told me. He reconstructed twenty-one numbers using the configuration of Utyosov’s Tea-Jazz Ensemble as a guide. The score includes parts for soprano and tenor saxophone, accordion, and an “out-of-tune upright pianoforte”.
McBurney’s orchestration and reconstruction received its première recording by Mark Elder and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1993 on Cala (CACD 1020), with elaborate CD notes written by McBurney himself. The disc also features the première of McBurney’s orchestration of the Fourth Pushkin Romance from opus 46, and performances of Five Fragments, opus 42, and the Suite No. 1 for Jazz Band, sans opus E.
This current recording by Fedoseyev and the Tchaikovsky Orchestra is only the second recording of McBurney’s score. It is rather unfortunate, then, that Saison Russe present only fourteen of the twenty-one numbers, a deficit of another ten minutes of music that would have fit onto the CD. The missing numbers are not all gems, but surely brilliant pieces like Storm (No. 7) and Dance (No. 9) ought to have been included. I strongly suspect an artistic decision at work here, however, as not only are the key movements retained, but consideration seems to have gone into shaping a satisfying programme that is well paced and less disjointed than the complete set tends to be.
Fedoseyev treats the work as a symphonic suite, painting it with a lush and rich orchestral sound that is captured with great brilliance by Saison Russe’s engineers. There is close miking, but the overall balance is masterly. On the other hand, the première recording by Elder is a complete document that is a thrill to listen to. His is a much livelier affair, transparent and more intimate, with the performers’ enthusiasm often evoking this work’s vaudeville and theatrical spirit. These are significant differences in approach – those who enjoy the madcap hysteria of this Shostakovich genre will prefer Elder’s interpretation, even though some solos tend to be rather vulgar, whereas Fedoseyev may serve newcomers better by supplying an experience closer to the concert sound of the composer’s major symphonic works.
Fedoseyev starts the suite with the third number (Transition to the Field), which, together with the fourth (The Field), acts as a convincing overture, with its powerfully dark colours, a trademark Shostakovich sound combining low strings with tuba and gurgling bassoons and bass clarinet. The mood is nervous, reminiscent of moments in Lady Macbeth, with some excellent woodwind solo playing in The Field.
Act 2 begins with a change of mood – the circus begins with a zany Petrushka, originally scored for accordion and clarinet. Fedoseyev gives the entire solo to the clarinet and adds flutes to the rude chords, to marvellous effect. It is the only time he takes it much faster than Elder, with the clarinet tumbling around like a similar passage in The Golden Age.
Fast-forward to Number 11, Waitresses, a carefree ditty featuring the trumpet in triplets that sounds truly silly at Fedoseyev’s casual stroll. Elder shaves a whole minute off this, eliciting more of the music’s circus atmosphere. To Elder’s advantage, the drum-kit player exercises plenty of restraint with the hi-hats, while Fedoseyev’s accentuates the music’s banality with his dull square-beat.
Act 3 brings us to a cabaret in heaven (where else?) and sets the stage for some remarkable music making. The two Paradise scenes are appropriately heavenly, with the Tchaikovsky Orchestra’s lush strings lending the music a sheen that Elder’s version lacks, his being more true to a ballroom atmosphere. The ensuing Adagio is one of Fedoseyev’s best movements, a smoky blues, using a variety of muted trumpets. The drummer coaxes exquisite effects from his suspended cymbals, and the alto sax and oboe give equally stunning performances. Elder’s players are a bit sleazier; his open trumpet lip-glides as if made of rubber, and the honky-tonk piano in the background lends a deliberately cheap flavour better suited to Utyosov’s stage show than to concert conditions.
The Bacchanalia is the work’s main link to the opera Lady Macbeth, as it was used complete in the scene of Aksinya’s molestation and contains much of the hysteria and the mean streak displayed in the opera. Elder takes it at a dizzying speed that mirrors the frenzy of Rostropovich’s recording of the opera (EMI 7 49955 2). Fedoseyev, although taking a whole minute longer, retains a sense of underlying terror with his sharp and hard-hitting execution. The vibrant sound of a full orchestra in a warm hall also heightens the terror underlying this seemingly innocuous gallop.
Fedoseyev also makes a better show of The Archangel Gabriel number – reused in the Finale of the First Piano Concerto – which, at its more leisurely pace, allows the saxophone to show off its cheek. It is here that Elder’s need for speed overtakes the intention of the music.
The final number, Dance of the Temporary Victors, was originally the Finale to Act 1 but McBurney uses it to end the entire suite to good effect. It is vintage Shostakovich, with the potential to annoy as much as to amuse. Regardless, I found myself whistling the tune after a week’s auditioning! Opening with a deliberately pompous orchestral declamation, Fedoseyev cashes in with much swagger. He prefers a slower trot than does Elder in this number, missing out on a valuable aspect of the music’s madness but really driving those incessant trombone glissandi home, an effect that might truly irritate on a bad day. The drummer ups the banality factor with his mundane two-beat on the hi-hats.
Opening this number, Elder’s strings overdo their vulgar portamenti. What Elder does next, however, is rather attractive, expertly accelerating to the final ditty, a silly, irreverent tune which he takes at a bristling pace, giving the music a final, exhilarating rush. The CBSO players phrase more imaginatively than the Tchaikovsky Orchestra’s musicians. In the end, however, Fedoseyev is the one who finishes in style, a marvellous example of a comedy of excess at its best, with the whistle and gong giving their all for a truly hilarious finish, as compared to Elder’s surprisingly well-behaved closing.
Which recording is preferable is a matter of taste. Completists will want Elder’s full set, but Fedoseyev’s orchestral sweep is irresistible, and his straight-playing style gives the music a lot more dignity that it demands. If the coupling is the deciding factor, then you may consider that where Fedoseyev excels in Hypothetically Murdered, he fails in The Gadfly.
If this film score is your main objective, then you should consider Leonid Grin’s account on Capriccio (10 298). Fedoseyev dashes off this marvellous score in an efficient manner that, in comparison to Grin’s dramatic flair and flexibility, does not convey the full potential of the music. Fedoseyev’s Overture, for example, shaves an entire minute off Grin’s broader, more compassionate reading. The difference is most stark in the nostalgic Prelude, where Fedoseyev clocks in two minutes faster at the expense of the saxophone ensemble’s exquisitely poignant reprise.
As in Hypothetically Murdered, Saison Russe do not present the complete suite, excluding some of the darker movements, perhaps to lighten the mood of this concert. The approach makes sense in the context of the disc as a programme of light music, but for a truly rewarding experience of The Gadfly you will want the Capriccio issue.
Nevertheless, I highly recommend Fedoseyev’s reading of Hypothetically Murdered: he strikes a nice balance between lunacy and artistry in what I consider to be another fine example of the young composer’s genius.
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, opus 35[a]; Chamber Symphony, opus 110a; Schnittke: Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra[b].
Emmanuel Leducq, Kaliningrad Chamber Orchestra, Yakov Kasman (piano)[a,b].
Calliope CAL 9299. DDD. TT 63:31
Recorded Philharmonic Hall, Kaliningrad, 1999.
Yet another First Piano Concerto? And one more Chamber Symphony? Admittedly, not the most original recorded couplings on the market, although the inclusion of the Schnittke concerto, still a relative rarity, pushes up the disc a notch or two on the novelty scale. But with the likes of Kissin and Shostakovich himself still available on CD, can the musicians here succeed in unearthing any new sensations of musical innovation?
For the Shostakovich concerto, the answer is “Yes.” This disc might well merit a major health warning for the conventionalist accustomed to boisterous, emotionally-charged but predictable renditions lacking the razor-edged sharpness that this youthful score surely cries out for (my mind focuses in on Argerich’s 1994 near-miss on DG 439 864-2). Those readers fortunate enough to acquire the new Shostakovich CD-ROM (CHAN 50001; reviewed in this issue) will be able not only to hear but to see an example of what I am referring to – the composer, still in his 30s, tearing through this score with unforgettable energy and inner intensity.
The contender on this disc is Yakov Kasman, a native of the city of Orel, near Moscow, and most notably Silver Medallist in the 1997 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, USA. He is guided by the equally insightful Leducq, a conductor of French origin but whose professional music training took place in St Petersburg, under Musin.
Be not taken in by the Concerto’s opening statement – this is as ‘customary’ as this recording gets! Hereon in, most notably in the outer movements, theatricalities abound. Risks are taken, rules broken; but for this reviewer the occasional loose hair failed to dislodge the Shostakovich Express from its youthful and virtuosic rails.
The starkly contrasting second movement reeks of a smoke-filled Leningrad bar, the piano’s blasé instrumental line only briefly stirring to squabble with strings that quickly subside, heralding the muted smirch of the (uncredited) trumpeter.
If you have any doubts about the raving originality of this performance, skip ahead to the final movement, take a deep breath and feast upon the zany, mickey-taking antics of Shostakovich in the hands of his present interpreters. No need to wind up your metronomes – this is Liberty City, folks!
My civic duties do, however, oblige me to point out moments of worrisome raggedness in this final movement. Perhaps an understandable side-effect of over-excitement, these problems nevertheless scream out for retakes. There is no mention in the (moderately adequate) CD booklet of this recording having been undertaken before an audience, nor is such an entity’s presence discernible, so why no electronic tidy-ups?
I won’t linger over the Chamber Symphony, here in its standard (read – “preferred”) mutation, à la Barshai. The interpretation isn’t faultless, but certainly isn’t faulty either: my preference is for a sparser sound, a closer focus and several grains of extra passion. To be fair, Leducq adds a good number of “personal touches”, such as the extreme stressing of the thrice-repeated notes that introduce the fourth movement (alas, the tuning is less impressive than the conducting).
To the Schnittke and, of course, quite another world. Kasman appears equally at home in this repertoire and the Kaliningrad forces seem even more at ease here, a uniform potency emerging out of the surging accompaniment that unerringly bears the paranoiac piano line. Percussive, emotive, hairlined, desperate – the entire gamut of emotions!
Despite its bumps, this is one disc I shall be taking off my bowing CD shelving on a regular basis. More, please, gentlemen!
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, opus 47[a]; Symphony No. 9 in Eb major, opus 70[b].
Vladimir Spivakov, Russian National Orchestra.
Well-Tempered Productions WTP 5190. DDD (HDCD). TT 73:59.
Recorded live Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, 7 March 2000[a]; 9 September 2000[b].
Spivakov presents straight-faced, by-the-score recitals of both symphonies. The Russian National Orchestra observe Shostakovich’s dynamic markings scrupulously, and offer shimmering divided strings and pungent brass.
Neither performance, however, says anything that has not already been uttered with more conviction by other teams. Proceedings in this bland account of the Fifth Symphony feel routine and detached. There are moments to admire in the Ninth Symphony’s performance, notably the tangy trumpet solos, but the whole is afflicted by tentativeness in both direction and playing, exemplified by the rhythmically unsteady piccolo.
This is the first CD bearing the High Definition Compatible Digital label to cross my desk. HDCD encoding uses the least significant bit (LSB) of the compact disc’s sixteen bits to encode additional information. This yields the equivalent of twenty bits per channel when played on CD- or DVD-players that have circuitry to interpret the code stored in the LSB. HDCD-encoded CDs remain fully compatible with standard players, although opinion is divided on whether or not HDCD-CDs perform as well as regular ones on players that cannot read the specially encoded LSB.
As none of my players have HDCD decoder chips, I was unable to assess the recording under optimal conditions. In my non-HDCD playback, the acoustics were bright, with apparently bottomless bass, and I obtained floor-shaking sound-pressure levels at a relatively low volume setting.
On the negative side, the recording lacked front-back depth, placing some stage noises startlingly close to the listener’s seat, and the dynamic range was rather compressed. Of course, those with low wattage may find these qualities more serviceable than the demanding signal levels and dynamics that BIS supply for Mark Wigglesworth’s ongoing Shostakovich intégrale. Also, owners of HDCD-decoding CD-players should not experience these weaknesses.
Audiophiles intrigued by these technical features should beware of the faithfully recorded coughs and rustlings emanating from the audience. Such distractions could be overlooked if these live concerts supplied more electricity than the average studio recording would generate. They do not. For this reason, one is also less inclined to excuse the occasional mistake, such as the glockenspiel’s forgotten F# at Fig. 41+1/12:36 in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, or the missing drumbeat at Fig. 79+4/2:54 in the finale of the Ninth.
At full price, this release is uncompetitive.
W. Mark Roberts
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
Symphony No. 10 in E minor, opus 93[a]; The Big Lightning unfinished operetta[b]*.
Valeri Polyansky, Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Russian State Symphonic Cappella[b], Vsevolod Grivnov (tenor – Yegor/Tommy)[b], Dmitry Fadeyev (bass – Semyon/Manager)[b], Oleg Dolgov (tenor – Architect)[b], Andrei Baturkin (bass – Mayofel)[b], Tatiana Sharova (soprano – Old Woman)[b], Anatoly Safiulin (bass – Bass Solo/Voice from the megaphone)[b].
Chandos CHAN 9522. DDD. TT 74:14.
Recorded Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, June 1995[a]; April 2000[b].
*World première recording of complete suite.
The red poppy on the cover of this release hints that the main attraction is The Big Lightning suite (for the connection, read on). Nevertheless, this new Tenth is superior to the majority of instalments thus far in Polyansky’s symphonic cycle.
For the most part, tempos in the symphony are uncontroversial. Whereas Vladimir Ashkenazy on Decca (433 028-2) makes a compelling argument for greater rhythmic flexibility, the present performance demonstrates that a steadier baton is not out of place. Only in the second movement is Polyansky’s phrasing slightly too deliberate to deliver fully on the threat of its opening bars. On the other hand, pacing is well judged in the third movement, which feels more surreal than in many competing versions. The one notable cause for complaint is the aftermath of the finale’s first climax, where Polyansky brakes to the slowest crawl I have ever encountered in this segment, contradicting Shostakovich’s explicit Listesso tempo (same tempo) marking.
This symphony’s insecure moodiness is incompatible with polished sound, and the Russian State Symphony Orchestra are more idiomatic than, say, the plush Philadelphia Orchestra for Mariss Jansons (EMI 7243 5552322 8). Polyansky’s stars are his wind soloists, alternately plaintive and edgy – listen, for example, to the chilling entry of the oboe at Fig. 32/10:20 in the first movement. The strings are the weak link, for while they convey an affecting fragility, as in the first movement’s coda, they sound a trifle thin under duress.
The acoustics are surprisingly reverberant considering the excellent engineering we usually obtain from this label. The main casualty is the snare drum, whose notes are often smeared together. When it counts, however, solo instruments are cleanly focussed. I suspect that an imperfect edit, rather than musician error, causes the violins to waver off D natural at Fig 28+5/8:51 in the first movement.
This newcomer ranks some rungs below Ashkenazy’s more fluid and engrossing account, but above Jansons’ popular version, which strikes me as self-conscious in its tempo shifts. Still, if you are serious about this symphony, you cannot beat Herbert von Karajan’s hair-raising 1966 recording (DG Galleria 429 716-2). He drives the Berlin Philharmonic far past their comfort zone, utterly smashing the myth that these players cannot match the raw intensity of Russian forces.
First among home-grown alternatives may be the 1976 live concert with Mravinsky at the helm of the Leningrad Philharmonic on BMG/Melodiya (74321 25198 2). That gloomy, powerhouse performance is little handicapped by its inferior recording and bronchial audience.
Chandos’ pairing is the second recording (and the first all-digital one) of the unfinished comic opera The Big Lightning. This was to have been Shostakovich and Futurist poet Nikolai Aseyev’s answer to a commission for an opera about “the class struggle in the West”. Leningrad’s Maly Opera Theatre announced progress on the operetta in 1932, but Shostakovich later reported that Aseyev’s libretto had not suited him. The project was scrapped and forgotten until 1980, when Gennady Rozhdestvensky rediscovered its nine completed numbers in the theatre’s library, in orchestral and vocal score. Rozhdestvensky’s 1984 première recording (with Polyansky as chorus master; BMG/Melodiya 74321 59058 2) omits the sixth number, making the present release the first recording of the complete suite.
Although Aseyev’s libretto has not been found, the vocal score to the surviving numbers reveals that his plot re-hashed the formula of Shostakovich’s 1930 ballet The Golden Age: a Soviet delegation pays a visit to a generic capitalist country, where the Soviets defeat the nefarious plans of their hosts.
The suite begins with a bombastic orchestral Overture that leads without pause into a Scene in which the chorus and tenor (Tommy) portray the staff at a Western hotel preparing for the arrival of their Soviet guests. Their lively banter about the minutiae of cleaning is interrupted by a dour waltz in which the Manager threatens to add any idle bodies to the unemployed millions.
Then follows the jaunty Architect’s Song, which gives naïve directions for making the visiting Bolsheviks feel at home. Noteworthy here is the deployment of a flexatone in the quotation of a tune from Glière’s ballet The Red Poppy – this underscores the Architect’s command to hang a red poppy to “get the stern occupant into a placid mood”. The winds accompany his observation of the Russian love for kvass with an inebriated rendition of the Russian peasant song The Little Birch Tree, well known to Western listeners as the second subject in the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.
Next comes a wordless Scene with an American. The music, a frenetic polka, is recycled from the Transition to the Kitchen number of Hypothetically Murdered, and is decidedly un-American in character. This is succeeded by Mayofel’s song, in which a bass croons a love ballad worthy of Puccini to the fictitious Soviet automobile “Silver Bullet”, which, in a feat of wishful thinking, roundly defeats a Buick and a Ford on the racetrack.
The sixth number, Telephone calls, is true theatre of the absurd, presenting the unsung words of one Semyon attempting to phone the embassy and reaching instead an Old Woman who promises to remove his corns quickly and painlessly. The orchestral accompaniment is sparse: trills on triangle and violins to represent the ringing phone, a tune for the Old Woman that is far too effervescent for her topic of conversation, and a fearsome outburst from drums and brass that heralds the Voice from the megaphone. He announces nothing other than his identity as a guard at the duraluminium plant, the relevance of which is elusive, since neither he nor the plant are mentioned again.
After this, Semyon delivers a brief but rousing anthem of his love for the Soviet Union that is taken up by the chorus. Semyon’s song leads into the even shorter Duet of Semyon and Yegor, which rejoices in the patriotic ties that shield our heroes from the “hostile Lilliputians” who surround them. The tune here presages the sixth Fool’s song in Shostakovich’s incidental music to Kozintsev’s 1941 stage production of King Lear.
The orchestra conclude the suite with a Procession of models, in typical Shostakovich music-hall style, which is a meatier re-scoring of the Waitresses number from Hypothetically Murdered.
The performance leaves little room for improvement. While some listeners may prefer Rozhdestvensky’s crisper articulation in the Overture and other orchestral passages, I find him to be a trifle hasty, not permitting as leisurely an appreciation of The Big Lightning’s textures as does Polyansky.
The singers on this new release are uniformly more appealing. The Russian State Symphonic Cappella seem to have more fun with this light material than do the USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir on Melodiya. Vsevolod Grivnov makes a more tuneful Tommy than does Victor Gukov on the 1984 version, and beside Oleg Dolgov’s commanding Architect, Melodiya’s Victor Rumyantsev sounds effete.
Finally, Chandos provide this work with a transparent sound-space, handily defeating Melodiya’s disorienting balance and cavernous acoustics.
Although none of The Big Lightning is strikingly original or memorable, it remains an enjoyable way to spend seventeen and a half minutes. This first intact recording is a must for completists, especially since Chandos present the vocal text in Cyrillic Russian alongside English, French and German translations (Melodiya supply none). The respectable performance of the Tenth Symphony helps to justify the price of admission.
W. Mark Roberts
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
This is the first in a projected complete set of Shostakovich symphonies from Georgian conductor Vakhtang Jordania on his new Angelok1 label (“angelok” means “little angel” in Russian, and refers to the label’s sponsor). It is an auspicious beginning, breathing fresh life into this much-recorded work.
This performance’s most striking feature is its brisk flow. The disc’s total time shaves eleven minutes off the duration of my current digital favourite, James De Preist’s spell-binding account with the Helsinki Philharmonic (Delos D/CD 3080). Listeners wedded to the musical equivalent of a hallowed historical epic may find Jordania’s tempos to be unduly rushed. Others will discover that he makes events feel more immediate, more contemporary.
In many ways, the opening movement is the most illuminating; there is a genuine feeling of anticipation of momentous events to come. The performers enunciate in quiet, abrupt voices, as if afflicted by great tension. This is not so much a depiction of the icy palace square as a premonition of the trouble that will soon fill it.
Whether your mind peoples the second movement with milling crowds or you hear only notes, this traversal stimulates considerable excitement. The episode launches at a frenetic clip, but obviously even this is insufficient for Jordania’s purposes, for when the guns let loose at Fig. 84 he accelerates without warning (or licence to do so from the score) from minim = 110 to a breathless minim = 152. The performers can barely maintain ensemble at this speed, heightening the sense of panic.
To be sure, In Memoriam sounds far more reverent at a more conventional pace – in De Preist’s hands this movement lasts forty-five percent longer than in Jordania’s. Yet Jordania’s approach works on strictly musical grounds, unfolding as an organic process. Tempos are less precipitous in the final movement, with freer rubato that sits in the ear naturally, but not complacently.
The Royal Philharmonic seem perfectly attuned to Jordania’s conception of the symphony. Special mention goes to the glassy ripples emanating from the violins in the first and final movements, and the sure-toned yet plaintive wind-solo work throughout. The recording casts the orchestra in a spacious, realistic acoustic.
Regrettably, there is an egregious editing flaw at the transition between second and third movements. These are performed attacca in concert, but were obviously recorded in separate sessions for this release, as the join into the third movement shears off the strings’ first pizzicato note, leaving only its reverberation.
That flaw aside, Jordania’s Eleventh presents a thought-provoking and persuasive alternative viewpoint, ably translated by fine playing. Strongly recommended to any who are willing to set aside preconceived notions of this symphony’s programmatic and musical content.
W. Mark Roberts