CD Reviews 22
§ = World Première Recording
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Satires (Pictures of the Past), opus 109; Musorgsky: Detskaya (The Nursery); Prokofiev: Five Poems of Anna Akhmatova, opus 27; Britten: Ekho poeta (The Poet’s Echo), opus 76.
Joan Rodgers (soprano), Roger Vignoles (piano).
Hyperion CDA67355. DDD. TT 58:55.
Recorded All Saints Church, East Finchley, London, 15-17 July 2003.
Shostakovich: Complete Songs, Volume 4 – 1932-1968: The Unknown Shostakovich
Song of the Counterplan from the film Counterplan, opus 33[a]; The Tender Maiden from the film The First Echelon, opus 99 (listed as Tender Girl Song from The First Train)[b]; Daybreak (The Dawn is Rising)[c] and Song of Peace[d] from the film The Meeting on the Elbe, opus 80; Lullaby[e] and Song of the Lantern (The Little Lantern Song)[f] from the concert spectacle Victorious Spring, opus 72; There Were Kisses (We Had Kisses), sans opus X[g]; Spring, Spring, opus 128[h]; Satires (Pictures of the Past), opus 109[i]; Antiformalist Rayok, sans opus X[j].
Victoria Evtodieva (soprano)[b,d,e,f,i], Liudmila Shkirtil (mezzo-soprano)[b], Mikhail Lukonin (baritone)[a,c,d,g], Fyodor Kuznetsov (bass)[h,j]; Yuri Serov (piano); St. Petersburg Youth Chamber Choir, Yulia Khutoretskaya (artistic director and conductor)[j].
Delos DE 3313. DDD. TT 55:09.
Recorded St. Catherine Lutheran Church, St. Petersburg, 23 January, 8 and 16 February, 2002.
[c,e,g]World premiere recordings.
[h]World premiere recording of original score.
Shostakovich’s Satires takes a critical view of life in the Soviet Union, under the disingenuous subtitle Pictures of the Past. Sasha Chorny’s pre-World War I verses have lost little of their social relevance today. In 1960 they provided Shostakovich with an opportunity to skewer such targets as art critics, Philistinism, and the new Soviet idealism. The cycle has gained renewed attention recently. In the last issue of the Journal (DSCH No. 21), I reviewed two new releases of the work, a reissue of the classic Vishnevskaya/Rostropovich performance on EMI Classics (7243 5 62829 2 6) and a lively new version by Magdalena Kozená on Deutsche Grammophon (471 581-2). Two more performances now emerge, one by Hyperion’s Joan Rodgers and another by Delos’ Victoria Evtodieva.
Joan Rodgers possesses a polished, bright-toned soprano with a healthy Slavic vibrato and a distinct coloratura sensibility. The strength of her performance draws on each of these elements. She also has a way of bringing the texts of these Satires to vibrant, engaging life. Her flexible dynamic range seems to expand the work’s expressive range. Her satirical inflections are well honed, lending a dignified projection to the work. She gives the verses her handsome best, dramatizing the haughty exhortations in Misunderstanding and in the irregular lines leading up to the climactic repetition of “Mavra, Mavra, Mavra”. Her theatrical flair is evident in her exclamations of wonder and delight in Spring Awakening and in the dramatic turns of the final Kreutzer Sonata.
Victoria Evtodieva is a soprano of very different stripe. The vulnerable quality in her voice gave true distinction to her performance of the Blok Romances in Delos’ second volume in this series (DE 3307; reviewed in DSCH 18). And here again, in Satires, her focus on each phrase suggests a strong personal involvement in the text, enhanced by closer microphone placement, in contrast to the more extroverted projection of Rodgers. Evtodieva offers a beautifully lyrical and expressive rendition of Satires, as can be heard in the soaring lines of Spring Awakening. She also projects most effectively the shifting postures in the quotes within Misunderstanding. At the same time it seems that Evtodieva takes the music of this cycle a little too seriously, holding back on the inflections that would provide more of the comic edge that the notes cry out for.
While Rodgers’ and Evtodieva’s recitals may lack the cabaret spirit and more playful inflections that Vishnevskaya and Kozená bring to their performances of Satires, their renditions are nevertheless worthy. The operatic version of Rodgers and the more staid version of Evtodieva carry the work well and each will give much pleasure for its virtuosity and refinement.
The remaining cycles on Joan Rodgers’ recital disc comprise a colourful programme. Rodgers offers an engaging rendition of Musorgsky’s Nursery cycle, and brings out with equal vitality the sweet, pensive melodic turns in Prokofiev’s early Akhmatova cycle. She also does justice to the sensitive moods and wide ranging subjects of Pushkin’s lyrics in Benjamin Britten’s Poet’s Echo cycle.
From the start of Delos’ admirably organized, internationally acclaimed survey of the complete songs of Shostakovich, the ensemble at hand has invariably provided the kind of close attention ideally suited to this repertoire. Each release has constituted a treasure of both interpretation and discovery. The series has featured complete, multilingual texts to each of the works; the regular appearance of world premiere recordings that Delos humbly neglects to acknowledge; and the topical or chronological grouping of songs on each disc. Volume 1 covered the songs written between 1950 and 1956 (DE 3304; reviewed in DSCH 18); Volume 2, The Last Years, the songs between 1965 and 1974; Volume 3, The Early Works, the years 1922 to 1942 (DE 3309; reviewed in DSCH 20). With most of the major works accounted for, the current volume reaches deeper into the undiscovered corners of the catalogue and digs up a lightweight programme of rarities and more world premieres.
The long-awaited restoration of Rayok to the catalogue in a brand new performance is one of the highlights of this fourth instalment of Delos’ series. Rayok, the only work in Shostakovich’s catalogue with a libretto of his own authorship, may have begun as a private spoof to be heard only among an inner circle of friends. Yet, as the years went by, Shostakovich seems to have been preparing it for posterity. Two decades after the initial draft, he was still making additions as if the inspiration were still fresh. How persistent are the wounds to the psyche! Rayok exacts sweet revenge against his oppressors for the many humiliations inflicted upon him. It is a hilarious and priceless send-up.
Work on Rayok began only months after the notorious reprimands of 1948. It is based on a Musorgsky vocal work of the same name that also satirizes the relationship between artist and authority. But Shostakovich’s Rayok takes the plot a step further, fleshing out a saucy little drama with singing parts for a host, three main characters, and a group of musical figures collectively sung by a chorus. The libretto consists of extended arias by each of the three principals who in turn espouse what good, Realist, ideologically sound music should and must consist of. The arias, in their linguistic mannerisms and musical inflections, are redolent of the Party’s top bureaucrats, suggesting, in the characters of Yedinitsin, Dvoikin and Troikin (Firstman, Secondman and Thirdman), the figures of Stalin, Andrei Zhdanov, and Dmitri Shepilov, respectively. The various musical quotations include Stalin’s beloved folksong, Suliko, in the first aria; a lezghinka in Dvoikin’s aria; and Kamarinskaya, a popular song by Tikhon Khrennikov, among others, in the third. A recurring theme and Shostakovich’s gift for musical continuity hold this mirthfully mischievous drama together.
Only four recordings of the work have appeared prior to this one, and no two of them are exactly the same. This is partly due to the history of the work and to the various arrangements that have been made of it. Rayok was written in phases over a period of two decades. As already mentioned, it was roughly sketched out in 1948, up to but not including the part of Troikin. This character was added in 1957 after the Second Congress of Musicians, which was presided over by Zhdanov’s successor, Shepilov. This version concludes with the Kalinka chorus. A finale, consisting of an extension of Troikin’s aria with interspersions by the chorus, was written between 1965 and 1968 but only discovered in May 1989. Rostropovich’s premiere recording of the work (Erato ECD 75571; deleted; reissued on Elatus 0927-49621-2) uses the 1957 version in a performance that predates by a few months the discovery of the new finale. All subsequent recordings use the completed 1968 version.
Rayok is alternately referred to as either a cantata or an opera, depending on whether a solo bass or different players sing and act out each of the main roles. In the mid-1990s two cantata versions appeared within a year, each in fresh instrumental arrangements and each featuring bass Aleksei Mochalov, who single-handedly takes on the various roles. The first of these (Triton 17 008; deleted), performed by the Moscow Chamber Music Theatre Orchestra under Anatoli Levin, uses an orchestration by Boris Tishchenko; in the second (Music Masters 01612 67189-2; deleted), Vladimir Spivakov leads his Moscow Virtuosi in his own percussion-spiked instrumentation (both releases were reviewed in DSCH 9). The latter performance is a personal favourite. Mochalov combines campy spirits with an exceptionally deep, resonant bass whose authoritative weight wonderfully reinforces the sense of mock pomposity. High points in the Spivakov include saucy percussion accents and the madcap fervour of Dvoikin’s “it must always be authentic” section; in the Tishchenko orchestration used by Levin, the bleating tuba in Troikin’s recitation of Russian composers in waltz time. The Rostropovich recording presents the work in its operatic format (in two versions, Russian and English, back to back on the same disc). In comparison to later renditions, this one is somewhat darker and more heavy-handed, yet the various performers are not lacking in the necessary satirical bite. Another operatic performance, this time in piano score, was released on Le Chant du Monde/Saison Russe in 1993 (LDC 288 075; deleted).
The Delos performance presents the composer’s final version in cantata form with piano accompaniment alone. Fyodor Kuznetsov steps into the various roles with all due ceremony and a subtle twist of sarcasm. His resonant bass projects the mock heaviness of the proceedings quite effectively. He also makes good of key moments of levity in the roles of the principals. Note the rising inflection on Dvoikin’s words, “musical torture machine”, the joviality of the “hey Glinka Kalinka” section later in the same aria, and the wrongly accented pronunciation of Rimsky-KorSAH-kov in Troikin’s waltzing recitation. Though Kuznetsov carries off the drama quite well, I still think he might have injected a little more stylisation into the parts. This is true especially in light of the burlesque-like enthusiasm of the chorus whose spirited interjections liven up the proceedings. In my review of Volume 2 of Delos’ series, I found Kuznetsov’s comic sensibilities showing strong in his wonderful rendition of the Lebyadkin Verses, but coming up a bit short in his rendition of the Preface and the Krokodil Romances. Nevertheless, in the present recording, the listener is bound to get more than a few chuckles out of Kuznetsov’s delivery and the ensemble work. In short, this is a classic performance of Rayok.
One of the shortest, if not the shortest work to occupy an opus number in the Shostakovich catalogue is the two-and-a-half-minute song, Spring, Spring, to words by Pushkin. The verse expresses exasperation with the melancholy brought on by the arrival of Spring and a longing for the “blizzards and long dark of Winter’s night.” What a deliriously morbid inspiration to catch the eye of the ailing Shostakovich in 1967! With its broad lines and nervous filigrees cast over hollow, eerily roaming harmonies, Fyodor Kuznetsov captures every dark nuance as he brings the song to its chilling peak. This is the world premiere recording of the original score. A previous issue of the work, orchestrated and performed by Rozhdestvensky, leading the USSR Ministry of Culture Orchestra with bass Yevgeny Nesterenko, appeared on a Melodiya LP (C10 26307 004) and was later reissued on a BMG/Melodiya 2-CD release (74321 59058-2; deleted; reviewed in DSCH 11).
Of all Shostakovich’s catchy numbers, the Song of the Counterplan, with which the album begins, is probably the best known within and outside Russia. Its theme gained international popularity in the early 1940s in its arrangement as the “United Nations Hymn” (the united nations in question being the wartime Allies rather than the later global organisation). The song was originally written for the 1932 movie, Counterplan, co-directed by Sergei Yutkevich. The informative liner notes, written by pianist Yuri Serov, quote Yutkevich’s account of Shostakovich writing and rewriting the song. Shostakovich, we are told, produced “numerous sketches” as he strove for “agility, springiness, and pliability”. It is rather surprising that Shostakovich, otherwise noted for his quick working methods, would have to work so hard at refining such a spontaneous sounding gem. Baritone Mikhail Lukonin brings off a lively yet dignified version of the song, offering a handsome contrast to the jingle-like rendition recorded elsewhere for chorus and orchestra (see reference below).
The Tender Girl Song from the 1956 film The First Echelon is a hauntingly affectionate duet for two female voices that, in the current version by Victoria Evtodieva and Liudmila Shkirtil, gratifies completely.
Shostakovich’s long-term collaboration with the capable but undistinguished lyricist Yevgeni Dolmatovsky has often puzzled scholars and commentators. The liner notes provide some plausible speculations on their creative alliance. Simply put, the two men got along well. And Dolmatovsky’s politically harmless if not outright pandering dishwater (most notably in Song of the Forests) provided Shostakovich with just the right inoffensive texts for troubled times. The two Dolmatovsky songs on this disc, Dawn is Rising and Song of Peace, both from the film The Meeting on the Elbe, are hearty numbers (the jacket and the liner notes incorrectly state that Song of Peace comes from film The Fall of Berlin, a mistake originating with Sovetskii Kompozitor’s published score). Both are sung by Lukonin who, in Song of Peace, is joined by Victoria Evtodieva in the disc’s other duet; a particularly stirring performance.
The music to the concert spectacle Victorious Spring consists of three songs scored for soprano and tenor soloists, choir and orchestra. The two songs that Shostakovich arranged for piano accompaniment are included on this disc. Both are sung beautifully by Victoria Evtodieva. The Little Lantern Song enjoyed great popularity in Russia for obvious reasons: it’s a real charmer.
Finally, We Had Kisses, is an undated song with lyrics by Dolmatovsky that Shostakovich most likely wrote in the mid-1950s around the time of his marriage to Margarita Kainova (so speculates the annotator). It is sung with amorous warmth by Lukonin.
As far as I can determine, three songs make their world premieres on this CD: Dawn is Rising, the Lullaby from opus 72, and We Had Kisses. The remaining songs have appeared in various forms on one or another obscure and long-forgotten Melodiya LP (one particularly nice compilation of these and other Shostakovich songs for chorus and orchestra was found on the 10-inch D 5062-3).
The exceptional liner notes on the Delos disc, as already noted, were written by Yuri Serov, the very gifted accompanist in this series. I have praised Serov’s pianism in previous reviews of these discs for his complete command of the Shostakovich idiom. He is everything one looks for in an accompanist. In the music of lighter vein, he sparkles with wit when appropriate, displaying flashes of personality while maintaining full support of the soloist. The included booklet contains a complete set of texts in both phonetic Russian and English. Noteworthy is the English translation of the Rayok libretto, the best and most fluent I’ve seen so far.
There are any number of features that make this Delos CD highly recommended, not least among them the fact that many of the rare songs contained within may not find their way to disc again for quite some time. This edition is a worthy addition to a distinguished series.
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Twenty Four Preludes, opus 34 (Nos. 8[a], 14-15[a], 16, 17-19[a], 22[b], 23[c], 24[a]); Three Fantastic Dances, opus 5[a]; The Age of Gold (Polka), opus 22[a]; Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, opus 67[d]; String Quartet No. 3 in F major, opus 73[e]; A Child’s Exercise Book, opus 69[a].
Dmitri Shostakovich (piano)[a-d]; David Oistrakh (violin), Milos Sádlo (cello)[d]; Beethoven Quartet[e].
Symposium 1314. ADD. TT 79:38.
Recorded Prague, 26 May 1947[a,d]; USSR, 1946[b], 1950[c]; 1947[e].
Symposium’s boldly simple title keeps the lid on a particularly lively can of worms. Simply put, in many cases, these are not first recordings. But while “premiere” is a useful marketing tag (though no guarantee of quality), the fact that this isn’t what it says on the tin doesn’t detract from the interest of recordings by Shostakovich and/or regular collaborators predating his debilitating illness.
Confusion still surrounds the early recordings but even so, the composer-performer history of these pieces is telling. The opus 34 Preludes are the most confusing, with recordings through the 1940s and 1950s. If the 1947 sessions were the beginning of a cycle, it came to nothing and some of these numbers and others recorded in 1950 only appeared posthumously. Shostakovich concentrated on the ten pieces presented by Symposium. No single recording included them all, so this disc must draw on more than one session, apparently the 1947 set plus No. 22 from 1946 and No. 23 from 1950. The recording date of No. 16 is unclear.
Though not all are the promised premieres (Harriet Cohen gave us No. 14 in 1942, and Stokowski recorded his transcription in 1935 and 1940), these early recordings by Shostakovich are to be treasured (how sad that he didn’t enter the studio earlier and include his other repertoire). The craziness of No. 8 contrasts wonderfully with No. 14, the most substantial of the set, though the snapped climactic rhythm is slightly odd. With only a minute or two to make a mark, the need for vivid characterisation sometimes overrides technical perfection: No. 16 seems a tad hurried and the left hand work is sometimes blurred, but No. 17 has a wonderfully wistful and slightly shabby quality. Then, after a couple of slow, withdrawn pieces the last prelude breaks in clownishly, but even then can’t keep it up and the middle section darkens. Background hiss continues between the pieces, implying that they all appeared on one side of a disc, which of course they never did, so at least some of it must have been provided by Symposium, presumably to unify the set.
After recording the Three Fantastic Dances in Prague in 1947, Shostakovich returned to them in 1958. Eileen Joyce beat him to the tape (1938) as did Heifetz with Harry Glickman’s arrangement (1945). The 1958 recording does not show the composer at his technical best so, though an inferior recording, this taping is preferable.
Although the Polka from the Age of Gold is one of Shostakovich’s most popular encores, he only recorded it once in 1947. Yet again the composer was left at the gate though he could at least claim the first solo piano recording. He does not strive to make it comical, showing his faith in the music without the addition of “interpretation”.
Shostakovich’s first recording of the Second Piano Trio was with the Beethoven Quartet’s Dmitri Tsyganov and Sergei Shirinsky in 1946. But this isn’t it. Here, the following year in Prague, he is partnered by Oistrakh and Sádlo. Both recordings have appeared on CD already (Dante, Revelation, Doremi and Eclectra). As has been noted in DSCH Journal reviews, the 1947 performance isn’t flawless: the opening harmonics are earthbound and marred by fingering noises, and though the entries of Oistrakh and the composer improve matters, it is occasionally a little garbled thereafter. Nevertheless it’s a compelling reading and the transfer is acceptable.
When it comes to premieres, the Beethoven Quartet managed the double with the Third String Quartet: in the concert hall (in December 1946) and the studio (the following year), perhaps reflecting their status as dedicatees. Sadly, the vagaries of the catalogue mean that their complete cycle is not as well known as some other ensembles’, though it should be a permanent fixture.
The Third, one of the most substantial quartets, is the last in a series of five-movement pieces. The Eighth Symphony of three years earlier is a clear counterpart and orchestrations of the quartet by Barshai (Deutsche Grammophon 435 386-2; deleted; due to be reissued in March 2005 on DG 477 544-2) and Turich (Beaux BEA 2022; reviewed in DSCH 17) see it as trying to break the bonds of its medium. The movement titles imply that it had been cooking for a while and though subsequent suppression casts a pall over their validity, they have some value, while not constituting an explicit programme.
Calm unawareness of the future cataclysm certainly doesn’t apply to the Beethovens’ first movement, which starts as a hesitant, would-be insouciant stroll through open fields before taking us almost unnoticed into a denser-forested fugal development and we begin to sense that this piece is altogether more serious than we might have thought. The bolder-striding openings of the Fitzwilliams (Decca 289455776-2), the Shostakoviches (Regis RRC5001) and the early Borodins (Chandos CHAN 10064(4); reviewed in DSCH 19) – all faster than the Beethovens’ epic 7:42 – sound cursory in comparison.
The Fitzwilliams smoothly join each note of the rising figure that opens the second movement (Rumblings of unrest and anticipation) but the Beethovens carefully separate them. This gives it an implacability and violence, hinting at the toccata of the Eighth Symphony, a feeling that is increased by the little-changing tempo, though at a couple of moments there are huge ritardandi.
The forces of war unleashed originally headed the third movement and is entirely appropriate to the slashing music, but at 5:09 the Beethovens give it one of the slowest performances – the Shostakovich Quartet come in at a cracking 3:53, making the violent sections more powerful without losing the Beethovens’ weight and bringing the movement to a shockingly peremptory end. Against that, the gentler passages work better in the older group’s less hard-driven hands.
Homage to the Dead might be expected to be the finale, though it is the fourth, passacaglia, movement, with alternating “choral” and solo episodes, which test all the members of the group. For the Beethovens this is the heart of the work and each member invests their individual “songs” with intense feeling before the finale (The Eternal Question – Why? And for What?), in which they wrap each other’s music in tenderly caressing counterpoint.
Did Shostakovich really believe, as he wrote on the score of the Eighth Symphony, that “all that is beautiful will triumph”, a Dostoevskian view of beauty as a saviour of the world? Certainly the quartet ends with the same desperate but ambiguous beauty that had made the symphony such a downer, and makes the two works such obvious candidates for exercises in compare-and-contrast. Yet the quartet was well received, an odd fate for a work that thumbs its nose at so much of what was expected at the time. The Beethovens brilliantly reflect that constantly shifting position, making this one of the central interpretations of this work.
Finally, what Symposium calls A Collection of Children’s Pieces is A Child’s Exercise Book. This is another genuine premiere recording and the composer’s only taping. It’s a fun few minutes, made all the more so by Shostakovich yapping out the titles before embarking on his super-objective readings (though he omits the last thirteen bars of No. 7, Birthday). It’s a great way to come down after the rigours of the Trio and the Quartet. Nevertheless, the overall layout of the disc is unsatisfactory: the grouping of the Fantastic Dances, the Polka and the Preludes makes them seem like a single set, while the two big, serious pieces are side by side, with A Child’s Exercise Book bringing up the rear. Alternating larger and smaller pieces would have been better.
The sleeve-notes comprise a quick introduction to the composer, with most of the disc’s contents going unmentioned. Neither the recordings’ provenances nor the individual track timings are given.
The treble suffers under the “Authentic Transfer Process” and Doremi balanced signal and noise better. The significant improvement is in the quartet where the old Consonance release was extremely harsh: this is far more listenable. If only it could now be joined by the other fourteen! All of these recordings have appeared on CD before, though unaccountably they flit through the catalogue and, despite Revelation’s attempt, we still lack a definitive collection of the composer’s recordings in acceptable transfers, with comprehensive annotation. A centenary project for 2006?
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Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, opus 67; Beethoven: Piano Trio in D major, opus 70, No. 1, Ghost; Ravel: Piano Trio in A minor.
TrioMats: Mats Zetterqvist (violin), Mats Rondin (cello), Mats Widlund (piano).
Daphne 1016. DDD. TT 76:59.
Recorded Ytterjärna Concert Hall, Sweden, December 2000.
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, opus 67; Tchaikovsky: Piano Trio in A minor, opus 50.
Le Trio Rachmaninoff de Montréal: Natalia Kononova (violin), Velitchka Yotcheva (cello), Patrice Laré (piano).
Atma Classique ACD22271. DDD. TT 68:09.
Recorded Salle Claude-Champagne, Montréal, 10-12 January 2003.
Piano Trio No. 1 in C minor, opus 8; Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, opus 67; Copland: Vitebsk Trio (Study on a Jewish Theme).
Trio Wanderer: Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian (violin), Raphaël Pidoux (cello), Vincent Coq (piano).
Harmonia mundi HMC 901825. DDD. TT 54:49.
Recorded Espace Projection, IRCAM, Paris, May 2003.
In the jungle of Shostakovich recordings, few niches are more crowded than the Second Piano Trio, making it difficult for new arrivals to gain a claw-hold. Not that this seems to serve as any sort of deterrent, for here are three more recent competitors, and another is reviewed below by Judy Kuhn.
Sweden’s TrioMats coalesced in 1997, but its members previously had long and distinguished individual careers. Their concise booklet notes suggest a keen awareness of the circumstances surrounding this composition. Sadly, their execution is not up to snuff, right from the excessively raspy cello harmonics that open the Trio. One has a strong sense that the musicians are trying too hard, rushing the second movement to the brink of their technique, heavy handed and plodding in the fourth. There are several instances of dubious intonation throughout the performance. Daphne’s recording doesn’t do them any favours, reporting an almost indecent amount of heavy breathing in the third movement. The coup de grace is a high-frequency electronic whine that slides in and out of the background.
Founded in the same year as TrioMats, Trio Rachmaninoff de Montréal is as multinational as its home city, hailing from France (Laré), Russia (Kononova) and Bulgaria (Yotcheva). They have a less adversarial relationship with Shostakovich’s score than TrioMats, conveying more varied emotion, exemplified by highly expressive cello work in the third movement and true desperation from all players in the fourth. Laré shines with his nimble-fingered pianism. Again, though, there are technical disappointments, mainly concerning Kononova’s pizzicato articulation. The repeated col legno clacks from Fig. 100/8:23 of the fourth movement are also unsuccessful, no two sounding the same.
The Trio Wanderer are in a higher performance tier. Shostakovich’s score is a thicket of detailed markings for the string players, but this poses no hardship to either Phillips-Varjabédian or Pidoux, who have secure mastery of the varied means of coaxing sound from their instruments.
Following their high-octane first movement, the Wanderers’ gangly gestures strongly suggest the forced nature of the gaiety in the second. This gives way to the genuine emotions of their Largo, which goes beyond sorrow to anguish, succeeded by utter loneliness. This reading is one of the most eloquent translations I have encountered of Shostakovich’s loss of his beloved friend Ivan Sollertinsky.
The Wanderers’ fourth movement is similarly transfixing, replacing private grief with historic dread. There is a cruel sting to the violin’s pizzicato Es in the opening bars, and in the central climax, the extra emphasis Coq places on the slurred rocking motif (A-Gb) extinguishes any doubt that his leaden-footed dance is performed under duress. At the end, literal adherence to the molto vibrato indication that heralds the final Adagio section extinguishes the violin’s plaintive personality.
David Fanning has pointed out in Gramophone that the violin and cello do not apply mutes as instructed in the score at Fig. 92/7:24 of the fourth movement, for the reprise of the Trio’s first theme. I concur that this thwarts the potential of this moment, as Fanning so eloquently puts it, “to convey a sense of impotent struggle, of a passionate lament almost strangled in the throat.” I am not quite as ready, however, to write off the otherwise sterling performance on account of this omission, regrettable as it is.
Certainly there is no cause for complaint with the Trio Wanderer’s performance of Shostakovich’s under-appreciated Piano Trio No. 1. Without discarding the prickly seeds in this fruit of teenaged passion, the Wanderers give exquisite expression to its romantic intercourse. I have not encountered any truly unacceptable recordings of this short opus, but much prefer this one to the rather cold version by Kagan, Gutman and Wirssaladze (Live Classics LCL 110), reviewed below by Iain Strachan.
The third piece on Trio Wanderer’s programme, from the pen of Jewish-American composer Aaron Copland, makes a fitting companion, sharing much of the experimental spikiness of Shostakovich’s First Trio and heavily dependent upon Jewish motifs like his Second. Of his Vitebsk Trio, Copland wrote, “It was my intention to reflect the harshness and drama of Jewish life in White Russia.” Thus, the bold, angular delivery of the Wanderers is wholly appropriate.
Not content with attacking the Shostakovich salient for their very first recording venture, TrioMats have simultaneously opened up fronts with Ravel and Beethoven. Their robust style seems better suited to Beethoven’s Ghost Trio than Ravel’s shimmering masterpiece, but as with Shostakovich’s Second Trio, there are much stronger competitors in both works.
Trio Rachmaninoff supply a thoughtful recital of the Tchaikovsky Trio with which their disc begins. Here again, the field of recordings is crowded. This work is not, I must confess, a personal favourite; I have never warmed to its asymmetrical design and proliferation of variations. It is also debatable whether this coupling makes for a satisfying programme. Although both works are dedicated to dearly departed friends, the much longer Tchaikovsky Trio does not come close to the intensity of emotion in the Shostakovich.
Of these three discs, then, the only one likely to take root is the Wanderers’. Harmonia mundi’s realistic recording does them proud.
W. Mark Roberts
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Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, opus 67[a]; String Quartet No. 1 in C major, opus 49[b]; Piano Quintet in G minor, opus 57[c].
St. Petersburg String Quartet: Alla Aranovskaya (violin 1)[a-c], Ilya Teplyakov (violin 2)[b,c], Alexei Koptev (viola)[b,c], Leonid Shukaev (cello)[a-c]; Igor Uryash (piano)[a,c].
Hyperion CDA 67158. DDD. TT 76:15.
Recorded St. Petersburg Recording Studio, December 2003.
This is the final volume of the St. Petersburg Quartet’s Hyperion cycle of Shostakovich Quartets, which has been generally well-received by reviewers. The St. Petersburg players are fine instrumentalists, and their warmth has been well captured by Hyperion’s recording. The issue for some listeners may be whether beauty of sound is given too much emphasis in these performances, with the result that some of the music’s strangeness and originality is lost. The First Quartet, Piano Quintet and Second Trio were written between 1938 and 1944, from the end of the Great Terror until the latter part of the Second World War. Shostakovich’s world includes much more than shimmering beauty and it sometimes seems that the St. Petersburg players are unwilling to look unflinchingly at its complexity.
The problem looms largest with the composer’s Piano Trio No. 2, written near the end of the war. Much of the Trio is dance music, but it dances ironically, even ghoulishly, and its dances are framed by moments of horrified grief, as might be felt when confronting unspeakable devastation. The Trio opens with such a moment. The solo cello, seemingly stunned into inarticulateness, is heard in false harmonics, which cellist Leonid Shukaev plays beautifully. Violinist Alla Aranovskaya does not seem to share or respect the cello’s grief, however. Her sound warms up quickly and she soon covers Shukaev’s harmonics, her assertiveness intruding on the numbness of this special opening moment. The main Moderato section of the movement begins a little more slowly than the marked tempo but the St. Petersburg players insert a sudden and unmarked accelerando and the rest of the movement is played much faster than marked: about crotchet = 192, instead of the marked tempi of 120 and 138.
Telling comparisons are the composer’s own first recording of the Trio, made in 1946 with Dmitry Tsyganov and Sergey Shirinsky of the Beethoven Quartet (Doremi DHR-7787; reviewed in DSCH 18) and a fine recent disc by the Trio Wanderer (Harmonia mundi HMC 901825; reviewed above). In both of these, the cello’s opening is followed by hushed entries in both the violin and piano, which share instead of displacing the cello’s shock. The Trio Wanderer gives the cellist time to recuperate slowly, so that even when cellist Raphaël Pidoux comes out of his harmonics, he is able to keep his sound covered and tentative. The Wanderers then begin the Moderato quite slowly, enhancing the sense of emerging with difficulty from their stunned beginning.
In contrast, Shostakovich and the Beethoven Quartet members begin the Moderato very quickly, much faster than the marked tempo (which may very well have been annotated after this early recording), maintaining the same tempo as the movement progresses, so that at times the music seems to stagnate in the middle of the movement. By the time of the composer’s 1947 recording with David Oistrakh and Milos Sádlo (Doremi DHR-7701 and Eclectra ECCD-2046; reviewed in DSCH 14), the composer had settled on a gradual tempo change from Adagio to Moderato to poco più mosso. This pacing, which makes musical and emotional sense, is reflected in the tempo markings shown in the score, but these have been disregarded by the St. Petersburg ensemble.
The St. Petersburg players create a lovely, inward-exploring third-movement passacaglia. In the second-movement scherzo and finale the St. Petersburgs also play beautifully, at times excitingly, but often without the grotesque undercurrent that makes this music more complex than other Slavic folk-inflected works like the Dvorák Dumky Trio. Thus, their scherzo is slow in comparison to the marked tempo and loses the sense of frantic hanging-on-by-your-fingernails that is found in the composer’s recording.
The St. Petersburgs’ finale is also comparatively slow, almost gentle. The string sound is beautiful, but the St. Petersburgs’ luxuriant vibrato seems inappropriate in this context. The players’ pizzicato accompaniments lack energy, becoming almost lethargic at times (although first violinist Aranovskaya’s pizzicati at the opening of the finale are wonderfully jarring). In contrast, the Wanderers’ pizzicati are amazingly varied, at times jarringly twangy (at the finale’s beginning), at times huge, thwacking off-beats, but always dynamic and involved. Nuances of vibrato in the Wanderers’ bowed passages create bizarre shadings. Short notes remain short in the piano, making its quiet spots downright spooky, not just mysterious. Overall, in comparison, the St. Petersburgs’ interpretation sounds quite bland and tame. The Trio Wanderer’s recording is grand, and I would certainly recommend it over the St. Petersburg ensemble, both for its sensitive performance of the Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio and for its couplings.
All recordings of the Piano Quintet must contend with Shostakovich’s own prize-winning performance with the Beethoven Quartet (Doremi DHR-7787; reviewed in DSCH 18). This 1955 recording, which benefits from the performers’ fifteen years of Quintet performances, has great assurance in its overall shaping and pacing. The delicate interaction between Shostakovich and Tsyganov gives a wonderful insight (often missing from the Beethovens’ too-early quartet recordings) as to why these players were so important to Shostakovich. The St. Petersburgs’ slow tempi add six minutes to the composer’s 29-minute timing and they are even slower than those of the Borodin Quartet with Sviatoslav Richter (in the Borodins’ CD set of all fifteen quartets, BMG/Melodiya 74321 40713 2; deleted). The St. Petersburg players, however, lack the Borodins’ extraordinary intensity, so it is not surprising that their Prelude seems to get bogged down. They take a faster tempo in the second-movement fugue, and thus lose the prelude-and-fugue sense that the composer achieves by keeping a steady tempo through the two movements. But the St. Petersburgs’ second movement does have wonderful moments where they find stillness and intimacy.
I want the scherzo to be an extraordinarily rude intrusion after the fugue’s quiet conclusion, and the St. Petersburg players are, to my taste, far too polite – neither fast and exciting like the composer’s 1955 recording, nor percussively stompy and ominous like the Borodins’. The St. Petersburgs’ Intermezzo is lovely, but at the end they stop (or their recording engineer does) and there is a moment of complete silence before pianist Igor Uryash begins the finale. This he takes much too quickly, his opening tempo completely unrelated to that of the Intermezzo. Although his playing is often fine, Uryash here mutilates the radiant transition to the finale and misses the Quintet’s great arrival moment, captured exquisitely both by the composer and Richter. This seems like criminal insensitivity on Uryash’s part and, when combined with the St. Petersburgs’ generally bland performance, provides good reason to recommend that readers look elsewhere for a recording of the Piano Quintet.
The St. Petersburgs’ First Quartet, like the rest of the disc, is filled with lush lyricism. Its first movement is much faster than the composer’s uncomfortably slow 80-to-a-crotchet marking and the St. Petersburgs’ playing flows along nicely and quite romantically. There seems to have been a deliberate decision on their part to play down some of the stranger aspects of the score, which were much more apparent in their 1994 recording (with String Quartets Nos. 2 and 4 on Sony St. Petersburg Classics SK 64584; deleted) and which gave greater emphasis to the first movement’s occasional troubling dissonances. The scherzo of this earlier recording also moved at a truly breakneck speed, thus seeming all the more unnerving and frightened.
It seems a pity that the St. Petersburg Quartet has evolved to the rather uninteresting approach to Shostakovich shown on this most recent offering, as they are clearly capable and sensitive players. But, in my view, this disc offers little that is new or interesting in a competitive field where more imaginative versions of all of these works are available.
String Quartet No. 5 in Bb major, opus 92; String Quartet No. 15 in Eb minor, opus 144.
Sorrel Quartet: Gina McCormack (violin 1), Catherine Yates (violin 2), Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola), Helen Thatcher (cello).
Chandos CHAN 10248. DDD. TT 68:49.
Recorded Snape Maltings Concert Hall, UK, 15-17 January 2004.
Oleg Kagan Edition Vol. XXX
Piano Trio No. 1 in C minor, opus 8[a]; String Quartet No. 15 in Eb minor, opus 144[b].
Oleg Kagan (violin 1), Grigory Zhislin (violin 2)[b], Yuri Bashmet (viola)[b], Natalia Gutman (cello), Elisso Wirssaladze (piano)[a].
Live Classics LCL 110. ADD. TT 53:26.
Recorded live, Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival, Finland, 27 July[a] and 29 July[b] 1982.
Two enormous peaks, with a still, sad centre that returns at the end. This concise description of Shostakovich’s Fifth Quartet occurred to me after listening to the Sorrel Quartet’s excellent recording in Vol. 5 of their already distinguished cycle. The most impressive feature of this recording is that it gives such a good idea of the overall shape of the piece.
The Sorrels capture well the contours of the music’s fluctuating moods in the first movement, beginning with a relatively brisk tempo, and rising rapidly to passionate heights in the repeat section, followed by an easy transition to more relaxed music. The playing in the slow second movement is of great tenderness and sweetness, and at times produces an almost unearthly calm. Following this, the third movement begins almost as if picking up the morning’s duties in a leisurely fashion after the lonely yet beautiful night of the second movement. The build up of tension towards the climax in this and the first movement is inexorable and very finely judged, reaching a tremendous peak before being dissipated through the gruff barking of the cello. This leads eventually to a grandiose statement of an excerpt from Ustvolskaya’s Clarinet Trio that appears as a motif in many of Shostakovich’s works. The transition to a jaunty waltz theme, leading to the return of the still sad calm at the end appears natural and almost inevitable in this performance. It all makes sense, and one has the impression of listening to an unfolding musical story. At the end, time really seems to have come to a standstill, leaving the listener utterly lost in the music, and content just to be there, where all the tension has at last been resolved, albeit into sadness.
In the Emerson Quartet’s account (Deutsche Grammophon 289 463 284-2; reviewed in DSCH 13), one gets a more analytical view of the music; the four voices can be discerned with great clarity, and one gets a good picture of how the music fits together – the parts that make up the whole. However, I have the impression of listening to four exceptional soloists, rather than of a string quartet playing as one person. The Emersons give one a good feeling for the components of the musical texture, bar by bar, promoting understanding of what makes up the music harmonically. By contrast, the Sorrels give a better understanding of the large scale structure of the quartet, and that, together with the quality of the integrated playing makes, for me, a more satisfying listening experience.
One (very picky) criticism is that in the exquisitely played final bars of the Fifth Quartet a somewhat intrusive extraneous noise (possibly wind, or traffic passing by) has come in over the playing. This is probably only really noticeable on headphones, but it is a shame that it should come at such a beautiful and quiet moment in the music, for one of the Sorrels’ major strengths is the ability to retain absolute concentration and passion in the most quiet and thinly textured music.
Much the same analogy of a continuing narrative is carried over into the Sorrels’ account of the Fifteenth Quartet, a work that can sound somewhat disjointed in some recordings. The violent mood swings in the second and third movements can make the music sound episodic, rather than an integrated whole. The Sorrels do seem to make the piece a finely told story, characterised by smooth flowing movement (especially in the sinuous Nocturne movement).
The first movement is played at an even pace that draws the listener into the heart of the music’s solemn tragedy. A particularly moving point is the entry of the fourth voice (the viola) in the opening threnody, not particularly because of any particular way in which it is played at that point, but because it seems to be part of a well-thought out whole. The use of the senza vibrato style of playing (believed to have been favoured by the composer for this work) often adds a keen and pure edge to the sound. In the second movement, the tone row of hairpin crescendi that begins the movement sounds extremely pure, the notes floating in out of nothing, and building up smoothly towards some particularly stunning sforzandi. Again, the movement as a whole makes sense and does not appear disjointed, despite the disparate elements, the screaming single-note crescendi, the limping waltz, and the full-blooded chords. The sense of flow and narrative continues right through to the last movement, with fine shaping of the florid scurrying passages.
This recording is easy to listen to; some may not like this feature, considering instead that Shostakovich’s last quartet should be uncomfortable, riddled with morbid fears. Does it feel like death, with fragmentary memories of the earlier movements returning and then fluttering away? Certainly at the end, with a kind of liturgical chant played above a trill on the viola, one gets the impression of attending occasion of high seriousness, such as a funeral, where all the levity and laughter have been wiped from one’s being. And strangely we often crave such moments, because, in the words of Philip Larkin:
… someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious.
This, from the poem Churchgoing, seems to sum up the feel of the last page of Shostakovich’s score – liturgical, yet secular, and deadly serious. This excellent new release from the Sorrel Quartet provides a host of opportunities to satisfy this hunger for seriousness.
The second disc under review provides a markedly contrasting view of the Fifteenth Quartet. The Live Classics label was founded to provide CD recordings of the work of the remarkable violinist Oleg Kagan, who during his tragically short life, left scant legacy of studio recordings. This label assembles collections taken from live performances featuring Kagan and friends. The quartet in this recording is an ensemble consisting of Kagan, Grigory Zhislin, Yuri Bashmet, and Kagan’s wife, Natalya Gutman.
The most immediately noticeable aspect of this performance is the extremely slow tempi, much slower than the Sorrels’, except in the last movement, where the Sorrels are slightly slower. This is most marked in the first movement, which lasts in this performance an incredible 15:06 compared to the Sorrels’ 11:31. The score says 80 quarter-notes to the minute, but the Kagan ensemble take the opening passage at around 58. This makes the opening movement seem interminable, but this is clearly a deliberate choice. In sharp contrast with the flowing movement of the Sorrels’ account, we have a much bleaker feel to the music, one of stultifying oppression. Perhaps the performers had in mind the composer’s instructions to play the first movement “so that flies drop dead in mid-air”.
Does this deliberate choice of slow tempo pay off? I am unconvinced that it does on CD, though I suspect it was mesmerising in the atmosphere of the live performance. Another noticeable aspect of this performance is much greater use of vibrato, particularly in the hairpin crescendi, producing a truly eerie sensation.
The programme notes provide a fascinating historical insight into the “first performance” of this work, linking it to Kagan and Gutman. Shostakovich was very keen to hear his new quartet played as soon as possible after completion, so he asked Kagan and Gutman to organise a performance with friends after a few days of studying the score. Thus Kagan duly played at the first performance in Shostakovich’s apartment. However, Natalya Gutman recalls that this had to be kept secret so as not to hurt the feelings of the Beethoven Quartet, who were supposed to play the premiere. The performance on this disc dates from 1982.
The ensemble playing is good; one does not get the sense of four soloists thrown together, but of an instinctive understanding between the players as in a regular quartet. Though the volume is from the Oleg Kagan Edition, Kagan by no means overshadows the other players (as indeed one should not in a quartet). For a better appreciation of his mastery, there is a tumultuous performance of the Shostakovich Violin Sonata, accompanied by Richter, coupled with the Viola Sonata with Yuri Bashmet (Moscow Studio Archives MOS19064 or Regis RRC 1128; reviewed in DSCH 20).
The quartet is coupled with a performance of the First Piano Trio. This student work, some ten minutes long, is very enjoyable, giving few hints of the composer’s characteristic “voice”. Some of the music is reminiscent of 19th century French music, and this alternates with more spiky music, perhaps influenced by Prokofiev or Stravinsky. There is a truly beautiful central romantic theme , reminding us that this work was written for the composer’s girlfriend, Tatyana Glivenko.
High recommendation, then, for the Sorrel disc, and eager anticipation for the completion of their cycle. The Kagan disc has considerable historical interest, and a very unusual interpretation of the Fifteenth Quartet, but will be of less interest as a “first choice” recording.
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20th Century Architects
String Quartet No. 8 (arr. for trombone quartet)[a]; Schoenberg: Litany from String Quartet No. 2 in F# minor (arr. for trombone and strings)[b]; Berg: Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano (arr. for trombone and piano)[c]; Webern: Sonata for Cello and Piano (arr. for trombone and piano)[d]; Stravinsky: Concertino (arr. for trombone quartet)[e]; Hindemith: Sonata for Oboe and Piano (arr. for trombone and piano)[f]; Messiaen: Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes from Quartet for the End of Time (arr. for trombone quartet)[g].
Mark Hetzler (trombone), Nay Palm Bones[a,e]: Jeff Peterson, Jeff Thomas (tenor trombones), Harold van Schaik (bass trombone); Lisa Leonard (piano) [c,d,f,g], Miami Symphonic Strings[b].
Summit Records DCD 394. DDD. TT 65:11.
Recorded Wertheim Performing Arts Center, Florida International University, Miami, summer 2003.
The Eighth Quartet performed by a quartet of trombones? It may just be the most outrageous version of this popular quartet yet, and the sheer audacity of the enterprise makes it well worth a listen. For the record, it turns out pretty well, though it may not please the purist, and it is certainly not flawless. That four tenor-bass instrumentalists try their darndest to do justice to a string quartet of the stature of the Eighth is worthy enough of praise; that these lengthy leviathans manage at all to navigate some of the trickiest passages is remarkable. Teaming up with two tenors and a bass trombonist to form the Nay Palm Quartet, Florida-born trombonist and arranger Mark Hetzler demonstrates that this work is remarkably well suited to brass voices.
Of course I jumped straight to the diabolical second movement (Allegro molto) just to see how they would manage, and I am pleased to report that the foursome score high on agility as well as spirit in most places. The crispness of the trombones gives a sharp edge to the chugging toccata of this movement, heightening the effect of Shostakovich’s maniacal maelstrom of quarter-notes that lash out like a relentless torrent of abuse.
The trombones’ sombre tone lends a funereal darkness to the opening Adagio chorales and a cataclysmic finality to the declamations in the fourth movement. Deft playing brings suitable grotesquerie to the third movement, where trills are executed using lip pressure. The players’ remarkable dexterity and subtlety bring off the chromatic rustlings of the central section of this movement to great effect. The funeral march at 1:50 of the fourth movement is beautifully played on the high register, acquiring through the trombone’s clarion tones an almost religious poignancy.
The fifth movement is perhaps the most satisfying, with its beautifully calculated build-up and wind-down and some exquisite timbral shading to bring this epilogue to a moving conclusion.
The entire performance sounds absolutely effortless, and there seems little that the trombones cannot execute, with the lone exception of the triplet arpeggios of the second movement’s Jewish dance sections (the quotation from Piano Trio No. 2), which Hetzler admits are impossible to perform on the instrument. The hurdy-gurdy triplet motion that is such a brilliant moment in this quartet is regrettably reduced to a somewhat comical oompah duplet figure. While far from ideal, it is unreasonable to expect more from an instrument that has no valves (discounting the F extension); imagine playing a violin with just one finger!
One stark blemish in this otherwise polished account is the unauthorised allargando that takes place just before the recapitulation of the Jewish dance mentioned above. It’s a vaudeville moment as Shostakovich’s masterful rhythmic build-up grinds to a grand halt, before galloping off again on the Jewish theme. This comic double-take crosses the line from grotesque to ridiculous, which would be entirely acceptable in some of the composer’s music but not here.
Elsewhere in the latter half of the third movement and in the fourth movement the quartet seems to lose the thread that binds the quotations that the composer weaves, and the result is episodic rather than fluid. For example, the knocking motif fails to connect with the Lady Macbeth quotation (Seryozha, my love), whereas in the finer performances of these movements on string quartet one would often not notice when one quotation begins and the other ends. This, indeed, is the magic that Shostakovich creates; making the difference between a series of quotations and a structure that moved the composer to tears with its sheer perfection.
But let not my nitpicking put you off this wonderfully performed and very attractive programme, one which has much that would appeal to both lovers of brass music and 20th century music. And it’s not all trombones either, the combinations of trombone solo with strings and piano in various tracks provide enough variety to keep the listener glued from start to finish.
For example, relish an intriguing performance of the third movement of Schoenberg’s early Second Quartet played by strings and Hetzler on the trombone solo, a biting account of Messiaen’s jazzy Dance of Frenzy for piano and trombone, some lovely cantilena playing in Hindemith’s Oboe Sonata transcription, as well as Berg’s Clarinet Sonata and Webern’s brief Cello Sonata where Hetzler pairs up with the piano. The quartet reunites for a searing account of Stravinsky’s Concertino, a 1920 work originally conceived for a string quartet that works wonderfully on brass.
To conclude, apart from the mannerisms that I have noted in the Shostakovich Eighth Quartet, there are few bones to pick with this fascinating display of trombone virtuosity. All the transcriptions were made by Hetzler, who writes me that, “My goal in doing this arrangement (and all the transcriptions on this disc) was always to connect with the spirit of the composer’s music. Being a trombone player, I had to connect with that spirit the only way I knew how – on trombone – and this means that I must make conscious decisions as to what will sit comfortably on my instrument, without taking away from the composer’s intentions. Very little was changed from the original in all the pieces I have programmed on this disc. I hope that people out there won’t see this as a ‘Look what trombones can do’ project, as that takes away from the beauty of the music I’ve programmed. I did not want this project to be a novelty. I hope people can hear the MUSIC on this disc.” And music there is aplenty.
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Chamber Symphony, opus 110a; Symphony for Strings (listed as Chamber Symphony), opus 118a.
Lev Markiz, Amsterdam Sinfonietta.
Challenge Classics CC72130. DDD. TT 48:58.
Recorded Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, September 1989.
There are now several recordings of Rudolf Barshai’s Eighth and Tenth Quartet transcriptions, and a number of opus 110a-118a pairings. What sets these recordings by Lev Markiz apart is that they are perhaps the most symphonically conceived of them all.
These performances impart a sense of the composer’s epic symphonies with their large-scale drama pitched against their terrorised soliloquies. Markiz has a broader canvas in mind than the intimate dialogue of the string quartet from which these pieces originally sprung. The opening argument of the opus 110a is more than just a canon on “DSCH”; there is a brooding sense of unfolding drama, a feeling of symphonic exposition, with the Allegro molto movement bursting forth like the development, dashing headlong into the Jewish dance with a ferocity that approaches the hysteria of the early Borodin and Fitzwilliam Quartet performances.
Likewise, the Passacaglia of opus 118a descends into a desolate landscape reminiscent of the fourth movement of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony – just compare how the wistfully “optimistic” final movement sprouts from this wasteland in the same manner as the finale of the symphony does from its Passacaglia movement.
Markiz leads the polished Amsterdam Sinfonietta on a furious journey: the performances are crisp and sharp, and as hard-driven as I have heard. The glistening string sound of the Dutch ensemble has a glorious sheen, tempered with a tough leanness, perfect for this music. The basses are especially nimble and haves a wonderful presence, bringing out fine detail in the lower end. The ensemble displays deep understanding and plenty of enthusiasm for these two works, bowing furiously with resin abounding.
The spectacular playing is aided by a wonderfully transparent and meticulously detailed sound, offering immaculate placing of voices and illuminating the many interlocking parts of, for example, the second movement of opus 118a, which sparkle with the multifaceted splendour of a finely cut diamond. If this disc leaves you a little cold at first, then turn the volume up a few notches; I initially found it somewhat unengaging, but soon concluded that this was not the fault of the performance but of the recording level, which is significantly lower than, say Juha Kangas’ BIS disc (CD-1256; reviewed in DSCH 17). Despite the technical superiority of the Amsterdam ensemble and the superb engineering of the present disc, BIS’ sound is more concentrated and forward, and packs a powerful punch.
Comparing the performances on these two CDs finds Markiz’s ensemble matching Kangas’ Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra in many aspects. The Amsterdamers play the slow movements of both works very well, with deft tonal shading and beautifully hushed solo playing; sample, for instance, the hushed, terrified solo in the opus 110a Allegretto or the masterfully crafted opening movement of opus 118a. Their Allegros match the Finns’ in ferocity and fire.
Indeed, it is a tough choice between the two performances of opus 110a. Markiz’s sympathy for the score shines through in practically every bar, and the entire five-movement work is tautly moulded, from the searing Allegro molto to the grotesque waltz of the Allegretto, to the dramatic insight of the terrifying death knocks and impassioned eulogy of the fourth movement which dissolve so poignantly into the series of quotations which weave in and out of consciousness like a distant memory, capped with a supremely touching final movement where each entry of the fugue not just a thread in the musical tapestry but a voice of its own, with its own story to tell, culminating in a shimmering forte that echoes the desolate string tutti of the Eighth Symphony.
In the end I think the Finns have just a little more terror in their performance, especially in the relentless assault of the Allegro molto where they have the sort of maniacal, reckless abandon that carries the music from the ferocious to the terrifying. What they lack in the precision of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta they make up for in a singularly bloodthirsty attitude.
Markiz’s opus 118a is even more compelling than his opus 110a, especially in the outer movements. The opening Andante unfolds like a series of question marks held together by intuitive use of phrasing and short pauses, and the shiver of the sul ponticello tremolos are chilling indeed. The grotesque Allegretto furioso sees plenty of fine playing, especially in the inner voices and in the multi-part dialogues. There is such a startling variety of timbres played with such finesse here that I am reluctant to say that I still prefer the unbridled hysteria of the Ostrobothnians in this movement. Markiz starts off a little slower than Kangas, losing out on the impact of such a rabid interruption of the calm in the preceding movement, and although he accelerates into a fiery finish, the Finns have the edge – the way their notes flurry around like a swarm of bees, the way the clashing multi-stopped chords spit and bray, the way the obsessive high melody on the violin takes the entire movement over the edge of sanity. But only just; no one would accuse Markiz and his band of being timid here. They whip up quite a storm by the end of the movement, paving the way for a Passacaglia that is completely defeated and numb from the beating it has taken. I like the way Kangas ushers in the reprise of the Passacaglia theme, but Markiz’s theatrical touch is highly effective in adding a dash of colour to an otherwise relentlessly grey work.
In the end it is this theatrical quality that sets this performance apart from the competition – while Kangas will have you at the very edge of your seat, Markiz does nearly the same, but with significantly more polish and style.
I only regret that the disc offers a meagre 48 minutes of music, which is rather stingy by today’s standards. Only Deutsche Grammophon’s 1990 release of these works by Barshai with the European Community Chamber Orchestra shared this lack of generosity (DG 429 229-2; deleted), and those recordings are due to be re-released in March with other discmates (DG 477 544-2). The New Century Chamber Orchestra (New Albion NA 088 CD; reviewed in DSCH 9) and the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin (Claves CD 50-9115; deleted) include the Two Pieces For String Octet and the Requiem for Strings (Misha Rachlevsky’s arrangement of String Quartet No. 15), respectively. Kangas’ white-hot performance of the main works paired with the premiere of the Suite on Finnish Themes is hard to beat.
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Hamlet, opus 32, incidental music to 1932 production[a]; Hamlet, incidental music to 1954 production; King Lear, opus 58a, incidental music to 1941 production[b].
Mark Elder, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Luba Suchevskaya (Player-Queen)[a], Igor Khokhlovin (Player-King)[a], Louise Winter (mezzo-soprano)[a,b], David Wilson-Johnson (baritone)[a,b].
Signum Classics SIGCD052. DDD. TT 73.03.
Recorded Birmingham Town Hall, 13-15 June 1994.
Two majestic works are brought together on this reissue of a 1995 Cala programme (CACD 1021): Shostakovich’s incidental music to Akimov’s 1932 stage production of Hamlet and to Kozintsev’s 1941 stage production of King Lear.
Shakespearean heroes are characterised by the intensity of their passions and in their Russified version this trait is even more pronounced. The equivocal character of Hamlet, between foolishness and profound wisdom – just like a Russian yurodivy – would have been the perfect way in which to “encode” messages levelled against the authorities, just as was required in the political situation of the early 1930s.
Akimov presented the play as if it were no longer suitable for modern Russian audiences and needed to be updated, but in fact the work was perfectly relevant. This deliberate confusion between seriousness and sarcasm is reflected by Shostakovich in the very short, fragmentary movements, put together here like a curious puzzle; some of the scenes were added by Akimov and their place in the production is not clearly determined.
One very important feature of the music is its use of contrasting effects – for instance the opening Prelude, in which an idyllic Shepherd’s horn follows a bombastic fanfare and precedes a Funeral March played fortissimo; or again the Romance sung at the feast followed by a Can-can, and the elephant-like march of The Beggars passing by followed by the Requiem quoting the Dies Irae – all of which are well underlined by the lively interpretation on this CD. In addition, the spoken Russian phrases included on the disc also sound very musical – the literaturnost, a characteristic of Russian culture, which binds literature with other arts, is present in this music, even without the images of the play.
The much shorter score to King Lear begins in a more dramatic and operatic fashion with Ballad of Cordelia. But just as in Turgenev’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s drama, A King Lear of the Steppe, in this stage version Kozintsev intensifies the comportment of the characters and adds texts that are not taken from Shakespeare. Shostakovich also added unexpected elements like the short song-cycle with variations on Jingle Bells resulting in a distancing effect. The short instrumental numbers that follow recall the music to Akimov’s Hamlet. Kozintsev’s own 1954 stage production of Hamlet reused much of this King Lear score, plus a Gigue and Finale composed by Shostakovich, which are both presented here.
The intention behind bringing together these pieces on CD was clearly to underline the similarities between the Shakespeare-inspired pieces by Shostakovich. What the historian Rudnitsky said about Akimov’s Hamlet production also applies to this programme: if it had not been produced, it would have to be invented!
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Symphony No. 4 in C minor, opus 43[a]; Adagio fragment of 1934[a]; Symphony No. 15 in A major, opus 141[b]; Five Fragments for Orchestra, opus 42[a]; Interview with Mstislav Rostropovich by Jon Tolansky[c].
Mstislav Rostropovich, London Symphony Orchestra.
Andante AN4090. DDD. 3-CD set TT 72:41 + 61:41 + 48:58.
Recorded live, Barbican Hall, London, 26 February 1998[a], 28 October 1998[b]; London, January 2002[c].
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, opus 43; Adagio fragment of 1934.
Oleg Caetani, Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi.
Arts Music 47703-2. DDD. TT 68:10.
Recorded live, Auditorium di Milano, Italy, March 2004.
Although a mere six years separate Rostropovich’s 1992 recording of Symphony No. 4 with the National Symphony Orchestra (Teldec 0630-17046-2; deleted) from this 1998 live recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, the differences between them are striking. First, there are dramatic tempo changes. Rostropovich is far more scrupulous about Shostakovich’s metronome marks in his earlier recording, though there is some historical justification for a few of his later changes. For instance, what seems an eccentrically slow first movement retransition at Fig. 91 in the LSO performance is actually marked at something approaching Rostropovich’s tempo on Shostakovich’s two-piano reduction, recently issued by DSCH Publishers, Moscow.
But some other changes do seem merely eccentric; in particular, there seems no justification at all for the slowness of the finale’s Allegro. In the LSO performance, this whole section is deprived of the air its whirlwind aggression needs, and sags terribly. Ponderousness seems a characteristic of this recording overall though, and it may well indicate a desire to do something new with the symphony – to avoid becoming over-visceral and to bring some of Shostakovich’s more uncomfortable metronome markings (which we are now unused to hearing) to our attention. On the other hand, some of the radical, indeed revelatory, aspects of Rostropovich’s Teldec performance concern precisely this bold attempt to realise such tempo indications. The most striking moment comes about 15 minutes into the first movement. Shostakovich indicates a sudden drop in tempo from quaver = 138 to quaver = 60, more than halving the speed at the moment of climax. To the best of my knowledge, no conductor has actually observed these marks faithfully, but here Rostropovich comes close, and the result is magnificent. All the more puzzling, then, that he should step back into line with the LSO to do what most other conductors do here, decreasing the speed only to quaver = 120; still a drop in tempo from the preceding 138, but not nearly so dramatic. The whole sense of catastrophe at the moment of climax is greatly weakened by doing so, and the LSO performance is thus deprived of this additional distinction.
The later recording is taken from a concert, and though these live performances often gain in atmosphere what they may lose in accuracy, the LSO recording actually sounds more engineered than many a studio recording, which is disappointing. Apart from Rostropovich’s brief spoken introduction to the Adagio fragment at the start of the Fourth Symphony disc and a modest snippet of applause at the very end, there is nothing in the sound to indicate that it is a live performance. The heavy-handedness of this tampering is particularly evident in the at times overwhelming bass: worst affected is the central climax of the finale, which is almost completely drowned by timpani. This can happen in a live performance, of course, so one can’t be certain that this fault lies entirely with sound engineers. But there are other oddities: the ending of the second movement is noticeably louder than in the earlier recording, which spoils its unearthly quality. Most bizarrely of all, in the finale the celesta’s final enigmatic top D has vanished altogether. Once again, this might have been a performance quirk, but it seems unlikely.
The most attractive feature of the LSO set is that it comes with the Fifteenth Symphony, some entertaining interviews with Rostropovich, the complete Five Fragments and the unfinished Adagio fragment that partially found its way into the Fourth Symphony’s finale. It is also supplemented by two essays, one about Rostropovich’s relationship with the LSO, and the other an excellent general essay about Rostropovich and Shostakovich by Elizabeth Wilson. Still, the coupling with Fifteenth Symphony means that the LSO set remains in stiff competition with the Teldec set of the complete symphonies, which includes a performance of the Fifteenth as fine as its Fourth.
The LSO performance of the unfinished Adagio was not the first commercial recording; Rozhdestvensky’s performance was issued by Melodiya in 1988 (A10 00319 000; deleted), along with the Five Fragments and four piano drafts. But this was the UK premiere and, as such, made the 1998 Fourth Symphony concert something of a historical event. Inevitably, other conductors have been drawn to this fully orchestrated, rejected sketch, and Oleg Caetani’s recording of the Fourth Symphony, also issued in 2004, proudly (if misleadingly) advertises itself as “including fragments of the unpublished movement”. In fact, the Adagio fragment is unmistakeably the prototype for the finale. A significant portion of it is strikingly similar to a passage in the finale (Fig. 186 – 188), evoking some of the violent scenes from Lady Macbeth even more strongly than the finale itself does at this point; for a brief moment at Fig. 188, the music is identical. It is therefore rather surprising to read in the liner notes for Caetani’s CD that the Adagio fragment could have replaced either of the opening movements; the author then suggests firmer links with the first movement. Though the factual content of this essay is not wholly reliable in any case, the poor quality of the translation hardly does it any favours. Low-quality liner notes seem to be a weakness of the Caetani set; a pity, given the standard of both playing and recording.
Caetani’s reading of the Fourth Symphony is fine in many ways. Where no ambiguity arises, his tempi are absolutely precise, and after the LSO’s boomy, woolly sound, the crispness of the Arts recording is a relief. But he has no interpretative surprises either: the first movement climaxes at an altogether too straightforward quaver = 94, a standard tempo for conductors who feel uneasy about Shostakovich’s own directions. In fact, there is really very little scope for ignoring this particular marking in the score: in all editions including Shostakovich’s own two-piano reduction, the indication here is a very clear quaver = 60. Caetani, like so many others (including, sadly, Rostropovich in the LSO recording), normalises this moment so that it has all the drive and energy it needs to sound comfortable, thereby becoming bland. That may seem an inappropriate term for a performance that blisters with such furious heat; but the equation loud + fast = exciting does not always make for the most moving or effective performances. When so hard-driven, nothing really registers. This proves the complete ruin of the cor anglais solo near the end; solos that follow that should sound elegiac sound merely casual. Overall, the orchestral playing of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi lags behind that of the LSO: the flute frullati at the end of the development don’t quite come off, and there are other instances of untidy ensemble throughout. Caetani’s metronomic precision quickly palls, and it is hard not to miss Rostropovich’s infinitely richer, deeper flexibility.
In terms of stark choice between Caetani, the new Rostropovich and Rostropovich’s old Teldec recording, the best overall performance is still the Teldec. But – masters of clever marketing that they are – the LSO have done everything possible to make their new set indispensable. Their booklet essays are excellent, the interviews with Rostropovich throw up gems of amusing and touching anecdotes, and by including the Five Fragments they are more than one step ahead of Arts and Caetani. Though there is much to admire in Caetani’s performance, there really is no comparison with Rostropovich’s; despite occasional leaden moments, the LSO recording never for a moment sounds rushed or casual, which is infinitely worse. While Caetani’s hard-driven approach can easily feel superficial and unsatisfying, Rostropovich’s reading offers something new and fresh from the very first bars; repeated acquaintance with it might well prove more deeply rewarding.
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Symphony No. 4 in C minor, opus 43.
Valery Gergiev, Kirov Orchestra.
Philips 470 842-2. DDD. TT 64:09. Also available on hybrid SACD surround/SACD stereo/CD stereo 475 619-0.
Recorded live, Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, 20-22 November 2001.
The Jansons performance is the more understated of these two new recordings, although it contains a great many highlights. The second movement is effortless throughout, from the limpid and emotionless opening paragraph, to the sinuous and perfectly intonated parallel fifth flutes at Fig. 127, to the wonderfully mechanical coda. The third movement’s funeral march is exquisitely rendered, the woodwind soloists articulating with accuracy and poise, while the balance between the various duet combinations (such as the cor anglais and clarinet after Fig. 163) is exquisite, allowing the lithe contrapuntal lines to crawl about in delicious equilibrium. The central divertissement likewise features splendid performances from the various soloists. The coda throbs its way to oblivion with ice-cold string lines leading to the bleak final pages – the trumpet’s fanfare beautifully controlled against the celesta’s sad tolling. Prior to this, the grinding tectonic plates of Db minor and C minor at Fig. 253 could not be more foreboding.
In the first movement too there are highlights – the second subject area from just before Fig. 6 shares similar qualities of clarity of line with the second movement. The violin solo from Fig. 100 up to the bassoon rendition of the principle theme catches the ear; it is as if we have been dropped into a realm of one of the violin concertos being played by one of the world’s best, such is its expressive tone.
So far so good it would seem, but the highlights listed above are largely quieter, less densely scored moments. What lets this recording down are some of the grander moments. Although the opening march theme of the first movement is crisp and the ensemble a model of precision, it lacks energy and the requisite sense of menace, the tempo dragging slightly. The cataclysmic ffff at Fig. 30 is not sufficiently overwhelming – in spite of the dynamic marking, there is a sense of something being held in reserve. Like the opening march, a slightly laboured tempo is also an issue at Fig. 48 where the chain of descending ninths sounds ungainly, while the tuba’s rendition of the waltz theme beneath them struggles to speak, sounding more like a succession of tones than an actual theme.
With this movement clocking in at 28 minutes, Jansons is not guilty of dragging his heels entirely, the duration less than both Gergiev and Haitink (Decca 444 430-2). All the same, I felt the movement became bogged down at crucial junctures. Significantly perhaps, the shortest rendition is Kondrashin’s at around 25:30 (Aulos AMC2-043-1-10). If it carries any kind of provenance, this might suggest that Shostakovich intended a more energetic approach, particularly in the development section from Fig. 48 onward where Kondrashin makes up most of the ground. This net culmination of energy, tempo and volume is reasonably consistent with works such as the Fifth and Eighth Symphonies, suggesting it is the effect the composer wanted. The sense of gradually changing into higher gears is what is lacking in the bigger picture of Jansons’ interpretation. The furious fugue at Fig. 63 is accurately played at a quickish tempo but fails to impart the hysteria of some of its competitors, Kondrashin and Previn (EMI 7243 5 72658 2 9) in particular. Moreover, due to the sluggish tempo leading up to it, it sounds somewhat episodic, whereas Kondrashin’s momentum makes it sound a more logical outcome of what precedes it.
Not all the climactic moments throughout the symphony fall short – the percussion stampede just after Fig. 75 and the augmented renditions of the march theme that follow build to a whirling cacophony and the big fanfare at Fig. 160 in the finale carries itself with a suitably swaggering vulgarity. Unfortunately, the critical moment in the finale, the apotheosis (Fig. 238 to 246), again doesn’t quite deliver the emotional weight needed. The tubas are quite high in the mix initially allowing their rather commonplace diatonic descent from tonic to dominant to catch the listener’s attention at the expense of the grinding dissonances above it. The woodwind’s ff rendition of the fanfare motive at Fig. 242 is a little bland, lacking the bite and rasp it needs, while the culminating section from Fig. 243 fails to scale the tragic, Mahlerian emotional heights.
This recording doesn’t quite deliver the forceful experience of being emotionally pummelled, in spite of the undeniable quality of many of it constituent parts.. Cut free of the more visceral hits this symphony can deliver, I found myself listening more to its symphonic workings, discovering innumerable subtle connections I hadn’t noticed before. This was rewarding in itself, but for full marks this work needs to deliver its full explosive emotional payload.
Much of what I found lacking in the Jansons recording is present in Gergiev’s. The opening march theme, while not noticeably quicker than Jansons, at least has more bite, partly because the eight horns are more prominent, providing a more aggressive bark. Similarly they provide a stronger Gb counterweight to the altered F minor chord in the rest of the orchestra at Fig. 30 – the more pronounced clustered semitone dissonance combined with a temple bursting ffff from the rest of the wind and brass makes for a very crushing assault. The crucial stepping off point of Fig. 48 is quicker than with Jansons, providing the sense of urgency I previously found lacking. The tuba’s rendition of the waltz theme sounds correspondingly more animated, like some evil beast waking from slumber. After pulling back the throttle somewhat for the woodwind’s jaunty take on the principal march theme, the energy levels gradually build towards the string fugue at Fig. 63, which is as furious as one is likely to hear. Like Kondrashin, Gergiev manages the larger tension and release mechanism of this central section to telling effect.
With some relief we emerge from the fugue’s hysteria but there is scant time to draw breath before building to the next ferocious summit, the augmented march theme. Just prior to Fig. 79 Shostakovich has the entire orchestra play fffp rising back to fff within the space of a bar. Here Gergiev abruptly reins in the tempo, allowing the orchestra more time to articulate this difficult manoeuvre before accelerating again towards the false recapitulation at Fig. 80. There is nothing in the score to justify this but the effect is quite astonishing, such that one feels the composer may have approved of the innovation insofar as it allows us to hear the fff then a clearly audible p before the ensuing rise back. Certainly no shortage of savagery here! Similarly superb is the echo of this just prior to the recapitulation proper (Fig. 90), the six dissonant chords for brass and percussion. It seems clear the composer wished each chord to begin as loud as the previous one ended. In many interpretations this doesn’t quite happen, the volume dipping down slightly at the start of each, but Gergiev and his orchestra are exact in their execution and by the fifth chord it sounds as if they could not possibly get any louder – when they do on the sixth chord, the effect is truly terrifying. The scherzo maintains the high standards set thus far.
As in the first movement, Gergiev takes a more energetic approach than Jansons in the finale. After the funereal march, the Allegro proceeds with a Tchaikovskian vigour, while the moronic two-note fugue that ensues seems desperate to escape itself. This more energetic approach continues through to the divertissement; the bassoon solo in particular prattles inanely (with excellent articulation of the staccato semiquavers) to marvellous effect. In contrast to Jansons, Gergiev does not thrust the soloists too far into the spotlight throughout, which allows more details of the accompaniment to peep through. Jansons may be truer to the score in this regard, the trombone especially being routinely f against p in the strings: this said,I prefer the higher level of dialogue that results from Gergiev’s approach.
The apotheosis, which I felt let the Jansons disc down somewhat, is splendidly rendered here, especially the climax after Fig. 243. A slightly faster tempo allows the polyrhythms to create more tension while the more prominent horns add to the sense of anguish, forlornly wailing their b6-5 reverie in the midst of the chaos before providing the grisly dissonances that mark the final cadence before Fig. 245. The coda is also excellent, though with one or two surprises. The muted trumpet towards the end sounds like a cor anglais – the principal’s mute of choice being responsible, one surmises. The celesta delivers a most delicate performance, the upper final notes dissolving like snowflakes into the strings’ boundless and empty sea.
In conclusion, the Gergiev is to be recommended unreservedly, aside from the occasional idiosyncrasy that may not be to the liking of purists. As a live recording it compares very favourably with the excellent Caetani rendition (Arts Music 47703-2; reviewed above), slightly eclipsing it in my estimation. Jansons’ is an at times thought-provoking interpretation that I would recommend, but with a few reservations for readers who prefer to be thoroughly brutalised by this work.
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Cello Concerto No. 1 in Eb major, opus 107[a]; Symphony No. 5 in D minor, opus 47.
Christopher Cox, London Shostakovich Orchestra, Jonathan Ayling (cello)[a].
Dunelm Records DRD0227. DDD. 2-CD Set TT 28:6 + 55:33.
Recorded live, St. Cyprian’s Church, London, 15 May 2004.
Here is another instalment in the ongoing series by the London Shostakovich Orchestra, a very worthy endeavour of rather uneven quality, due to severely limited rehearsals and a difficult recording venue. I’ll start with the best first, the Cello Concerto No. 1. This is not the most polished performance by soloist or orchestra – take several early flubs by the solo horn for example – but it’s a somewhat raw, on-the-edge reading that draws one in. There are wonderful moments of wind, brass, and string playing here. Young Jonathan Ayling doesn’t play safe, and you can almost hear his sweat. You certainly do hear his bow movements and finger taps, but these are not at all distracting. The Moderato is deeply affecting, especially in the celesta’s dialogue with the cello, despite a few missteps in the cello’s high harmonics. Ayling takes a thoughtful and probing approach to the cadenza, and while there are a number of missed notes, the sense of struggle is keen and appropriate. He gets bogged down towards the cadenza’s end in the tight runs but then picks up right into the Allegro, where he shows much more agility and speed and conquers the equally tight runs here. Ayling is an accomplished cellist, already with a number of premieres and awards to his name. In addition to his solo work, he sits in the cello section of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. His performance of the Second Cello Concerto at the LShO’s November 2004 concert was less adventurous, but definitely a great first effort for this infrequently performed piece.
The tedious performance here of the Fifth Symphony made for difficult reviewing. It seems that Cox, while so good in the concerto and other Shostakovich works, tries for a record slow interpretation. He comes in at just over 55 minutes, the slowest performance I know of. Compared with the famously slow Rostropovich (Teldec 4509-94557-2; deleted ), Cox is over five minutes longer in the first movement, marginally so in the second, almost four minutes longer in the third, and a half-minute in the fourth. This comes off not as a grand statement, but as a stodgy and painful reading from the start. There’s a real lack of tension due to the lines being drawn out so much, leading to lethargy and severe strain on the players, resulting in poor intonation throughout. This is a serious problem in the central march in the first movement where an increased tempo doesn’t help much. The orchestra seems worn out in the most riveting section of the entire symphony, in the third movement where the celli cry out with stabbing double bass responses.
The performance is best some time after the beginning of the fourth movement when the tempo finally speeds up considerably, and one senses relief on the part of the musicians, who play at their top level here. The preface to the coda (those repeated timpani notes) is excessively slow, while Cox tries to take the coda at a grand pace. Thankfully, he doesn’t rein in the trumpet dissonances (hidden in so many performances), and the conclusion is one of struggle. The same forces’ live concert in November 2004 of the Twelfth Symphony, which shares so much with the Fifth, came off as a more cohesive whole than this Fifth.
The programme notes, by Andrew Power, are quite good, although he does not take note of the more recent findings on the personal meanings of some of the themes and mottos.
I wish here to emphasize the amazing nature of the performers – they give these all-Shostakovich concerts with only two rehearsals, one a week before the concert and the other the day of. Given that the players do not perform together regularly, their concerts and recordings are an act of incredible devotion and of inspired musicianship. Their recording of Symphony No. 12 and Cello Concerto No. 2 should be available soon.
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Symphony No. 8 in C minor, opus 65.
Semyon Bychkov, WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk) Sinfonie-Orkester Köln.
Avie AV 0043. DDD. TT 61:57.
Recorded Philharmonie, Köln, 12-17 March 2001.
Symphony No. 8 in C minor, opus 65.
Vladimir Fedoseyev, USSR TV and Radio Large Symphony Orchestra.
Moscow Studio Archives MOS 19062. ADD. TT 58:49.
Recorded live, Grand Hall, Moscow Conservatoire, 5 May 1985.
For a great symphony, the Eighth has inspired an odd mixture of awe, defensiveness and indifference ever since its 1943 premiere. Like all art, the Eighth is part of the history it depicts, but it has endured an especially rocky historical ride, while remaining truly present in effect, when heard live. A whole history could be written just of the various attempts to qualify or to deny its success, all prefigured and engendered by the work’s own coda, and by the symphony’s overall dramatic outline. Even the Eighth’s recorded history seems to reflect the uncertainties of its early reception. Herbert von Karajan had few doubts about opus 65, but EMI wouldn’t, and Deutsche Grammophon didn’t record it with him. A Berlin Eighth came, at last, from Semyon Bychkov on Philips, in 1993 (432 090-2; deleted): excellent playing in the middle movements, and plenty of subtleties in the Adagio, along with some self-conscious tempo changes and unusual phrasing in the opening paragraphs.
Like most Eighths on disc, Bychkov’s first stab floundered somewhere between manner and meaning. His 2001 remake on Avie is more coherent, but not more slavish to the severities of the printed score. Bychkov makes a laudable attempt to keep things moving, but the big climaxes sound over-prepared, and over-egged. This conductor does better with the Eighth live.
Accounts of the symphony have been getting slower, it seems, and the recent forty-year boom in expansive Bruckner and Mahler performances has left its mark on the recorded projection of the Eighth’s rhetoric. Maybe it was the growth of this trend, and the accompanying verbal assertions, which so irritated the late Ian MacDonald:
“…the Eighth swings a sandbag against the listener’s skull, its emphases and alienative contrasts displaying the strained excesses of a depleted imagination. Tremendous in conception and often overwhelming in execution, it is none the less more admirable for its intentions than its deeds.”
(The New Shostakovich)
This seems to hold good for both Bychkov interpretations, despite the imposing climaxes and the obvious commitment and sincerity. The intricacies of the score, however, give the lie to the sandbag theory. In fact, MacDonald had been annoyed by the elevation of the work’s stature as a symphony, a process begun in the UK by Edward Greenfield’s Gramophone review of André Previn’s 1973 LSO recording (EMI Matrix 7243 5 65521 2 8; deleted). There, the conductor’s sustained control of pianissimo (better than his 1992 remake, Deutsche Grammophon 437 819-2; deleted), together with the outstanding engineering, had helped give the impression of a revelation, when compared to Soviet recordings. Yet all this criticism, discovery, and supposed re-discovery of the Eighth seemed odd, especially when it came from some of the composer’s most prominent champions. It suggested that the doomed Solomon Mikhoels could have been right on the money, when he made his early (defensive) remarks on the critical discourse surrounding opus 65 (quoted in Laurel Fay’s Shostakovich: A Life): “…all that signifies is that the listeners are not sufficiently cultured. In the musical sense, they are illiterate.”
The Eighth remains, then, a highly dangerous, murky pool for performers, critics, and audiences alike. But it also depicts murkiness, as well as the physical depletion and “blown fuses” which were for MacDonald part of the reason for the work’s failure, rather than unique constituents of its expressive strength. His comments were otherwise a welcome warning against complacency, and lack of context, and he was moved to praise the ironic illumination of the closing Allegretto, through the prism of Nielsen’s Sixth. Yet a couple of years earlier another British critic, David Fanning, had made a similar Nielsen connection, in a broader context, while writing in the main of the Shostakovich Tenth in The Breath of the Symphonist. For MacDonald the Adagio‘s cor anglais solo was “interminable,” but for Fanning it was revelatory: “…the cor anglais recitative strikes me as a profound rethinking of the role of a first movement recapitulation.” The most cursory examination of the score makes Fanning’s point, but recordings rarely help, and often make a meal of this, and the other dramatic highlights.
Kitaenko has given us what can seem one of the most interminable Eighths yet, on disc. The opening is very promising, but these players cannot always sustain tension or narrative line at these tempi, especially in the final Allegretto (no such thing at 15 plodding minutes, irony-free, with a bungled climax). While the result is appropriately uncomfortable, it can also be as dull and thudding as MacDonald’s sandbag. Capriccio have provided very good sound for Kitaenko, nevertheless. It’s a more ambient recording than the Avie, with more sense of the Philharmonie’s acoustic. Avie’s sound has tremendous punch (notably in the middle movements, better played by this rival Köln band under Bychkov), but it doesn’t sound natural, any more than did the same team’s Leningrad Symphony, which was taped later, but issued last year (Avie 0020; reviewed in DSCH 19). If you want a well-engineered Eighth, Kitaenko on SACD may be your best choice, but in my view there has been little progress in stereo Eighths since the Haitink on Decca (467 465-2).
So which way for the truth in the Eighth, historical or present? Maybe conductors should pause and pay heed to Daniel Zhitomirsky’s early-warning signal: “Take care, this music is not what you think it is at all, you will answer for this and pay due retribution” (Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered). A clue lies among the work’s cultural referents, hinted at by David Fanning, and steamrollered by the Avie and Capriccio releases. Fanning points up the connections between motivic figures in the Adagio of the Eighth Symphony, the Fifth Quartet, the First Violin Concerto, and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred. The motto theme of the Tchaikovsky programme symphony seems to be all over the Shostakovich work, especially at climactic moments. Another Byronic reference, Harold in Italy, is implied by the near-barcarolle of the viola passages towards the end of the Eighth, while the cor-anglais brings to mind not just Sibelius’s swan of death, but Wagner’s steersman, and the descent of Tristan and Isolde’s love into madness and extinction. This Romantic world, as escape and ideal, seems as present (if disillusioned, and ending badly) as the history of music and literature, in a symphony more often projected as a war-torn soundscape, dripping blood.
Fortunately, Vladimir Fedoseyev and his Moscow band are able to convey some of this uneasy, shifting fantasy (and expressive nuance) in their 1985 live account, which grows in security as it proceeds. The cor anglais solo is urgent, like Kondrashin’s, while the steadier Allegro develops some suitably inhuman features, before an ideally paced and projected passacaglia and a tragically insouciant finale. The recap. of the Adagio‘s recap. is assimilated, for a change, and the last five minutes ooze instrumental confidence and character, rather than shell-shocked numbness. The coda is played Andante, as marked; Shostakovich says farewell to his symphony more easily than some of today’s conductors care to admit, as they turn this coda into an echo of Mahler Nine’s lingering end.
As a reading, Fedoseyev’s is on a far smaller scale than the two competitors, but it is more convincing as an experience. Sound is atmospheric and undistracting, until the levels vary, and the faders fade, which unfortunately they do at climaxes, and in the quiet sections. The CD reissue is well worth a listen, for historical reasons, as well as for enjoyment, if that’s an appropriate word to associate with the Eighth. Some part of the truth is here, as it is in Kondrashin’s wayward and untidy live 1967 gallop through the score (Altus ALT067; reviewed in DSCH 21), and in Rozhdestvensky’s later, bitter Russian reading (BMG/Melodiya 74321 53457 2; reviewed in DSCH 11; deleted), or in the fine Barshai versions (Brilliant Classics 6275; reviewed in DSCH 20).
Shostakovich was aiming higher than Wagner, though, in 1943. Like the Second Piano Sonata from the same period, and like the later quartets, the Eighth Symphony is a formal and expressive response to late-Beethoven and Bach, heard via Berg and Prokofiev, and pointing to the idiom of late Schnittke. The greatest of individual symphonic achievements from the past are set in opus 65 against the global suffering and personal isolation of the Russian composer’s present, all achieved through the careful assembly of indelible, often contradictory musical images. The rhythms and tonal architecture also echo Beethoven (opus 131 in particular), though this is the obverse of the Ode to Joy, while the motivic integration across the movements is Haydnesque.
For the whole truth (nearly) and for “…an acute sense of psychic danger” (Fanning) there is no substitute, by a very long way, for the 1947 Mravinsky recording (BMG/Melodiya 74321 29406-2; reviewed in DSCH 11; deleted), which is almost certainly unavailable as I write. The recording needs a permanent place in every collection. Playing there was to the manner born, and the meaning was clear in every bar, but history, having provided a matchless first recording, has kept it under wraps. The early vinyl releases were okay, but noisy, while the BMG CD transfer was quirky, off-key, and No-Noised. This is no way to treat the greatest recording of one of the greatest of all minor-key symphonic epics.
Mravinsky was a superb exponent of another C-minor Eighth: Bruckner’s (also part of the Shostakovich book of referents for opus 65). Mravinsky’s first recorded account of the Shostakovich Eighth has all the gravitas of a Furtwängler Bruckner reading, but it nails the work, and its soundworld, once and for all. Our competing conductors do not sound as though they are directing the same piece, and indeed they are not. A few months after the Leningrad recording came Zhdanov and condemnation; then the Eighth’s historical problems really began. The work and its history were changed utterly. It seemed no one knew what the work was any more, except the dedicatee.
We need to set history straight: locate the masters of the 1947 recording, or good copies, then assemble a first-rate tube-driven analogue playback system, and make the first-ever high-resolution transfers of the Mravinsky Eighth, for the new millennium. The sound won’t be great, but we do need to hear what’s there. With such a startling, heart-stopping document in free circulation, and with a moratorium on new recordings for a while (time for serious thought), we might, finally, see the Eighth assume its rightful place in our own troubled, current history. This music has to mean as much to its current performers as it did to Mravinsky and the Leningraders, before it sounds right. No other symphony matches hope with helplessness like this Eighth. Few other works of art in any medium have managed to describe and enact those despairing struggles in the chasm between deed and intention, where we live our life, then fizzle-out under the big clock in the sky.
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Symphony No. 9 in Eb major, opus 70[a]; Symphony No. 10 in E minor, opus 93[b].
Oleg Caetani, Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi.
Arts Music 47675-2. DDD. TT 80:35.
Recorded live, Auditorium di Milano, Italy, February 2003[a], March 2002[b].
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, opus 47[a]; Symphony No. 9 in Eb major, opus 70[b].
Valery Gergiev, Kirov Orchestra.
Philips 470 651-2. DDD hybrid SACD surround/SACD stereo/CD stereo. TT 73:58. Also available on CD 475 065-2.
Recorded live, Mikaeli-Martti Talvela Hall, Mikkeli, Finland, 30 June 2002[a]; live, Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, 14-18 May 2002[b].
Of Shostakovich’s works without words, the Ninth Symphony is his most overtly sarcastic. Entrusted with its premiere, Yevgeny Mravinsky defended it as “a work directed against philistinism … which ridicules complacency and bombast”. By this he pretended to mean the philistinism of the bourgeois, but few can have failed to recognise that the composer’s contempt had Stalinist pomp fixed in its cross-hairs. Generally unperceptive, Danilo Prefumo’s booklet notes for Arts Music describe the Ninth Symphony as “carefree”, lacking the “bitter sarcasm” of the Tenth, but Oleg Caetani’s own written contribution is more promising, identifying the Ninth as Shostakovich’s “reaction against the way Stalin exploited the victory” over the Nazis.
Caetani’s baton successfully delivers on this promise, yielding one of the least carefree, most bitterly sarcastic recordings yet of this brief yet remarkably eventful opus. The conspiratorial violin and piccolo solos of the first movement would seem merely cheeky were it not for the Milanese orchestra’s spark-spitting brass, which depict an antagonist as dangerous as self-important. There is real risk in mocking such company, and being witness to this is unsettling for the listener.
Indeed, this is a highly involving performance throughout, thanks largely to the distinctive timbral qualities of the cast, captured by a razor-sharp recording. Chills set in from the beginning of the second movement, courtesy of the haunting woodwind entry, and are heightened by the guttural lower strings that follow. The expressive bassoon lament of the fourth movement feels particularly vulnerable. As for the preposterous march climax of the fifth, it has rarely sounded this rancid; you can almost taste the bile.
Gergiev’s conception of the Ninth is also convincing and well recorded. He chooses significantly different tempi for each movement than Caetani (incidentally, Philips’ printed track timings mistakenly deport a minute and a half from the third movement to the fourth). Gergiev’s opening Allegro is more deliberate, but in the other fast movements he is fleeter of foot than Caetani. This renders well the absurdity of the trumpet’s bullfight melody in the third movement, and builds great anticipation in the approach to the grand climax of the fifth, then sprinting to the close.
The greatest difference between these two versions is in the second movement, which Gergiev completes more than a minute sooner than Caetani (6:47 versus 7:55, respectively). Most conductors, Russian and otherwise, have been tempted to play the movement slower than its metronome marking, crotchet = 208. At that tempo it would barely last six minutes, and would lose any trace of the gravitas it exudes at a slower pace. However, Richard Pleak and Derek Hulme revealed in DSCH Newsletters XIII and XIV that Shostakovich was adamant that this symphony, its second movement in particular, not be dragged out. As suggested by Ian MacDonald, “what Shostakovich probably wanted was something more slyly ambiguous: a subtle satire on official mourning decreed by a government which killed more of its own citizens than Hitler.” At approximately crotchet = 139, Gergiev is already much slower than the marked tempo, though he is in good company; Kondrashin plays it at virtually the identical speed (Aulos AMC2-043-1-10). Caetani’s crotchet = 124 ought to be well beyond the pale, yet tempo is not everything, and his interpretation conveys more acidity than solemnity.
Indeed, if I could recommend only one of these new Ninths, I would choose Caetani’s over Gergiev’s, thanks largely to the more vivid characterisations of the Italian musicians. For example, Caetani’s bassoonist pays far more heed to Shostakovich’s dynamic markings in the fourth movement than does Gergiev’s. But in truth both performances are praiseworthy; buyers selecting on the basis of the weightier couplings on these CDs can be reassured that they should find either Ninth rewarding.
Philips’ otherwise exemplary recording registers occasional low murmurs of uncertain origin, which I found slightly distracting in the second movement of Gergiev’s Ninth. This is a greater problem in his Fifth Symphony, especially in the Largo, where indistinct vocalisations break the mood. A pity, because in all other respects this is a Fifth that makes one sit up and take notice.
Here is a study in the power of rubato, with accelerations and decelerations initiated then revoked often within a couple of measures. Take Gergiev’s superb handling of the symphony’s opening, with subtle tempo modulation of the high violin and flute theme, imparting a strong sense of requiem. Even his more striking interventions, like the ritardando he applies at the entrance to the Moderato section of the first movement, generally feel more like discoveries than idiosyncrasies.
The one reservation I have concerns another unmarked rit., this one beginning at Fig. 119/6:55 of the finale. Gergiev brings the proceedings almost to a standstill, stalling the strings. The musical logic and intended emotional impact of this interruption are unclear.
The Kirov Orchestra provide clean execution. Performing highlights include the hair-raisingly spooky coda to the first movement, and the uniquely froggy voice of the contrabassoon in the second. Overall, this is an unexpectedly original and persuasive take on this most familiar of Shostakovich’s symphonies.
There is much less score kneading in Caetani’s Tenth Symphony, with the noteworthy features relating to dynamics rather than tempo. In the first movement, for instance, three long Ds on violins terminate the dance section at Fig. 28+4/8:13; there is a crescendo marked for the third of these, but Caetani applies a crescendo and diminuendo within each of the first two as well, making a more decisive separation between sections. In the third movement, the fourth iteration of the Elmira motif begins with the horn blanketed by the strings, but as the strings dim the horn theme grows more distinct, as if emerging to launch the Largo segment. Orchestral volume is also finely judged throughout the grinding second movement, not the first place one would think to look for dynamic nuance. The players do not indulge the lugubrious tendencies of the fourth movement but blast out splendidly in its climaxes.
In this live concert there are a few less-than-perfect moments: delivery of the climax of the first movement is not as crisp as it could be; the triangle’s tone is variable as it underlines the second theme of the third movement; the first note of the flute solo at Fig. 150+2/2:25 of the finale is inaudible. On balance, however, the orchestra put in a good day’s work.
The acoustics for Caetani’s Tenth are decent, though not as clear as for his Ninth. Arts Music include audience applause, which follows immediately after each symphony. This will please some listeners and displease many more; providing a separate track for applause would go a long way to satisfying both camps. The audience are otherwise as quiet as mice, so with a thoughtful Tenth and blistering Ninth, this CD would be an excellent entry point for anyone wishing to dip into Caetani’s ongoing Shostakovich cycle.
W. Mark Roberts