CD Reviews 24
§ = World Première Recording
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Digital String Quartet cycles on a budget
String Quartets No. 1 in C major, opus 49; No. 2 in A major, opus 68; No. 3 in F major, opus 73; No. 4 in D major, opus 83; No. 5 in Bb major, opus 92; No. 6 in G major, opus 101; No. 7 in F# minor, opus 108; No. 8 in C minor, opus 110; No. 9 in Eb major, opus 117; No. 10 in Abmajor, opus 118; No. 11 in F minor, opus 122; No. 12 in Db major, opus 133; No. 13 in Bb minor, opus 138; No. 14 in F# major, opus 142; No. 15 in Eb minor, opus 144.
Shostakovich: String Quartets—complete
Rubio String Quartet: Dirk van de Velde (violin 1), Dirk van den Hauwe (violin 2), Marc Sonnaert (viola), Peter Devos (cello).
Brilliant Classics 6898/1-5. DDD. 5-CD set, TT 6:18:16.
Disc 1: Nos. 2, 8 and 13; Disc 2: Nos. 3, 7 and 9; Disc 3: Nos. 5, 11 and 12; Disc 4: Nos. 4, 6 and 10; Disc 5: Nos. 1, 14 and 15.
Recorded at Church in Mullem, Belgium, April-September 2002.
Shostakovich: Complete String Quartets
Shostakovich String Quartet: Andre Shishlov (violin), Sergei Pishchugin (violin), Alexander Galkovsky (viola), Alexander Korchagin (cello).
Regis RRC 5001. DDD. 5-CD set, TT 6:19:17. Also available separately as RRC 2028 (2-CD set, TT 2:34:49)[a], 2029 (2-CD set, TT 2:31:26)[b] and 1024 (1 CD, TT 73:02)[c].
Disc 1[a]: Nos. 1, 3 and 4, Two Pieces for String Quartet, Elegy and Polka, Sans opus D (mislabelled opus 36); Disc 2[a]: Nos. 2, 5 and 7; Disc 3[b]: Nos. 6, 8 and 9; Disc 4[b]: Nos. 10, 11 and 15; Disc 5[c]: Nos. 12, 13 and 14.
Recorded in Moscow 1980-85[a], 1978-85[b], 1980-88[c].
Shostakovich: String Quartets (Complete)
Éder String Quartet: György Selmeczi (violin 1), Péter Szüts (violin 2), Sándor Papp (viola), György Éder (cello).
Naxos. DDD. 6 CDs, only available separately: 8.550972, Vol. 1: Nos. 4, 6 and 7, TT 60:19; 8.550973, Vol. 2: Nos. 1, 8 and 9, TT 60:57; 8.550974, Vol. 3: Nos. 3 and 5, TT 60:21; 8.550975, Vol. 4: Nos. 2 and 12, TT 60:36; 8.550976, Vol. 5: Nos. 14 and 15, TT 61:46; 8.550977,Vol. 6: Nos. 10, 11 and 13, TT 60:45.
Recorded by Phoenix Studios, Budapest, at the Unitarian Church, 1-4 December 1993 (Vol. 1); 14-17 February 1994 (Vol. 2); 6-9 March 1995 (Vol. 3); 28-31 March 1995 (Vol. 4); 1-4 September 1996 (Vol.5); 29 April-4 May 1996 (Vol. 6).
It was Shostakovich’s good fortune, among numerous bad ones, that his string quartets did not have to wait long for public performance. Even as he was writing his First Quartet in 1938, renowned performers such as the Beethoven and Glazunov Quartets were eagerly waiting in the wings for the ink to dry. The Beethoven Quartet became a staunch devotee to the cause, offering public performances of each new quartet as it was written, undeterred by the political intrigues that plagued the composer, let alone the suspicions that surrounded the appearance of any new chamber work. The Beethovens’ sometimes poetic, more often prosaic style may not have produced the most stimulating performances. Yet in return for their abiding loyalty, Shostakovich granted the premiere performances of each of his quartets after the first to them, except the last.
The Borodin Quartet of the next generation, and the Taneyev Quartet thereafter (Aulos AMC2-055-1-6), brought further insights to the repertoire. The Taneyevs’ generous, lyrical warmth brought new expressive dimension to some quartets (Nos. 3, 6 and 14 are good examples), but in others (as in Nos. 9 and 10) the spark necessary to ignite the music was simply lacking. The Borodins, on the other hand, reliably and without exception display a natural, almost effortless connection to the idiom. Their vitality and imagination remain sources of inspiration for both listener and performer (as can be sampled on Chandos’ recent landmark release of the original recordings of the first thirteen Shostakovich quartets, Chandos Historical CHAN 10064(4); reviewed in DSCH 19).
In the intervening decades the number of ensembles that have taken on the complete cycle has grown to include, among others, the Brodsky, Manhattan, Emerson, St. Petersburg and Sorrel Quartets. Those who feel that the Borodins (early or late) and the Fitzwilliams have uttered the last word in the repertoire have some catching up to do. Rather than lament the passing of a bygone era of more authentic performing styles, we find among these newer cycles, especially the three under consideration, some of the finest renditions of this music on disc. We do live in fortunate times.
The Shostakovich String Quartet, founded in 1966, claim the greatest longevity of the three ensembles in this review, as do the recordings of their cycle, which date from the late 1970s and 1980s. They can be counted upon for their intense, tautly knit engagement with the music, both at its extremes, when it falls most naturally into their provenance, as well as at its means. They can be seen as inheritors of the stoic, precision-oriented style of the Beethoven Quartet as well as of the bold and biting flair of the Borodins. Their style is ideally matched to their recorded sound image, where closely placed microphones situate the listener at the very centre of the music making. In that regard they are earnest and up-front to a fault. Their serious manner may at times overlook the lighter side of the music, which is not to say that they lack humanity in its delicate pages. The Shostakovich Quartet comes in especially strong in the later quartets, where their intimate familiarity with the idiom’s complex emotional terrain pays off quite handsomely.
The Éder String Quartet, formed by graduates of Budapest’s Liszt Academy in 1973, offers some of the most elegantly conceived performances of this repertoire. Their ensemble work rests on a foundation of strongly enunciated rhythms and illustrious dynamic contours. These attributes help to lay out the music’s formal architecture with ingratiating clarity. Individual members, first violinist and cellist especially, stand out for the character they bring to their solo passages. The Éder Quartet does a particularly fine job of teasing out the multiple complexions that arise when themes of divergent character and mood are set against each other, as in the finales of the Third, Fifth and Tenth Quartets. They exemplify how such moments can draw a listener in and pull an entire movement together. They are by no means tame in the harsher moments, and are the most ready to recognize and extract the inevitable element of humour in this repertoire.
The Belgian-based Rubio Quartet, the relative newcomers, have been in existence since 1991. Though they lack the technical polish of the Éder and the Shostakovich Quartets, the strength of their cycle rests on its lyrical individuality. The fluency of their approach is supported by the spacious ambiance in which their recordings take place, in contrast to the parlour room acoustic of the Éder recordings and quite opposite to the tight miking in the Shostakovich Quartet. The cello in this arrangement occupies the largest headroom, fine for the most part, except in isolated moments when the microphone seems a tad out of reach. These quibbles become vanishingly small in light of the more significant contributions of the Rubios. By immersing themselves into the nuances of articulation and phrasing, they manage to reveal details that one hears nowhere else. They will at times raise an eyebrow with fresh turns, as in the opening movements of the Third, Fourth and Ninth Quartets. At other times, as in the finale of the Fourth Quartet and the slow movement of the Fifth, their gambits yield impressive returns.
No string quartet worth its salt embarks upon so formidable a cycle without a creative vision and a willingness to take risks. Enter three worthy ensembles. Rather than uniform success, one encounters peaks and troughs, revelations and near misses that make these three journeys all the more interesting.
Quartet No. 1. A modest first instalment for Shostakovich, one whose charms are well assimilated by each ensemble. The Rubio Quartet have a cordial way with the first two movements, whose gentle lyricism receives a slightly warmer reception with the Shostakoviches. In the mercurial pages of the final two movements, the Rubios most cheerfully invoke the fleeting spirit of Mendelssohn. The work is just as well suited to the Éders, who, with irresistible good humour, miss none of the music’s details.
Quartet No. 2. The Shostakoviches show how assertively yet eloquently they can drive a point home with theOverture‘s heavy rhythms and husky sonorities, while the Rubios push their way through in rather rustic fashion. The Éders’ strategy is more about the process of ascent as they underscore, with strength and elegance, the movement’s roomy exchanges of tension and relaxation. The three performances draw their principal distinction from the rhapsodic violin solos in the Recitative and Romance. The Éder’s first violinist, György Selmeczi, establishes an illustrious, if somewhat untroubled, conversational rapport with these passages in his fluent execution. Quite different are the darkly expansive solos of the Rubio’s Dirk van de Velde, which breathe deeply with bittersweet reflection. Different again are the sternly mournful tones evoked by the Shostakovich’s Andre Shishlov, who conveys a sense of travail in his head-on interpretation. Each ensemble brings the movement to a point of high intensity. The Rubios continue to pursue the quartet’s wistful tones, now muted, in the following Valse, while the Shostakoviches draw a taut line. The mighty Theme with Variations receives an impassioned reading from all. The Rubios display an affinity for the individual colouration in each variation while the Shostakoviches harness the diversity within in a more tightly cast net. Midway between them are the Éders, who turn out an impeccably balanced performance that moves purposefully, even as it focuses on the movement’s rarefied complexions.
Quartet No. 3. Shostakovich’s “quartet suite” presents a classic exercise in lyrical interpretation. In the lively dance steps of the opening Allegretto, the Éders take to the ballroom floor with Mozartian elegance. In contrast, the athletic bounce preferred by the Shostakoviches turns the movement’s double fugue into a rousing parlay of team precision. The Rubios, for their part, personalise their performance through a more elastic application of tempi. The catch-your-breath pauses and ritardandi that they place at the sectional junctures of the opening movement are executed with style and civility, as are the pregnant pauses, with due gravitas, at the start of each passacagliastatement of the fourth movement. The Shostakoviches again take well to the music’s rugged hills as they bear down tooth and claw on the heavily accented third movement. They also show their sensitive side in the masculine-feminine exchanges of the following passacaglia. In the fifth and final movement, the Rubios’ violin and cello solos, early on, glide with airborne grace; their final violin solo most touchingly captures the wounds of memory. But the ever-changing complexions of this and other rondo finales of Shostakovich are something of a specialty of the Éder Quartet. Though they enter the movement with a relatively fast tempo, they take in a fuller spectrum of moods and emotional states. Their galumphing cello theme, for example, enters with a jolly grin as wide as Falstaff himself; and before they bring the work to its poignant conclusion, they approach and hold the tender pause mid-movement with a beautiful sense of timing.
Quartet No. 4. In the first and last movements the Rubios exhibit the kind of collective imagination that best represents their cycle. In the final, weight-bearing Allegretto, W. Mark Roberts, in his review (DSCH 10) of a separate release of this performance, found the Rubio Quartet lacking in “Semitic sinuosity” in a movement that “tends to drag”. I respectfully disagree on both accounts. I found that the Rubios’ Hebraic evocations more than meet expectations. They even surpass the Shostakoviches and in this case, the overly poised Éders. Yes, their pauses may be extravagantly long. But with their slower tempi, heavily accented downbeats, and cantorial inflections, the Rubios get a firm grip on the rhythmic moorings and lead the music to its noble destination. While their rendition of theAndantino movement is not as feeling as it could have been, they again place their individual stamp on the openingAllegretto, turning what is usually a brief, ceremonious curtain raiser into an expressive river of sonority. The Fourth Quartet also receives fine performances by the other two ensembles. The Shostakoviches take a hearty tack with generously flowing lines, rapturous crescendi and a vigorous, well-steered finale. The architectural approach of the Éders is marked by rhythmic firmness throughout. They prefer lively tempi, with the exception of the slow, throbbing strains in the Andantino, a rare heart-on-sleeve moment for Shostakovich.
Quartet No. 5. The Borodins and the Fitzwilliams provide outstanding examples of how to meet the opening movement’s high demands. For one thing, they push the antagonistic sonata subjects to their necessary extremes. The otherwise resourceful Shostakoviches fall somewhat short of reaching the same goals, even with their razor-sharp edges and pinpoint attacks. The fluid motion of the Rubios offers a more consolidated impression, yet they, too, could place a little more stress on the first subject’s grinding rhythmic gears. In their favour, the arrival of the Ustvolskaya theme in the central climax it is well marked. It is the Éders who offer the most engaging version of this movement, thanks to their meticulous management of its competing thematic areas. All three ensembles offer fine versions of the Andante. The Shostakoviches display particular sensitively with the soft shimmer of light they admit at the centre of the movement. In one of their high points, the Rubios take this music to a completely different level. The Andante as stilled, impassioned, meditative trance has never before, I dare say, been so beautifully consecrated. The Rubios and the Shostakoviches do particularly well in capturing the accumulating winds of the final Moderato, leading to a rousing return of the Ustvolskaya theme.
Quartet No. 6. The relatively carefree Sixth Quartet, with its concentration on lyrical finesse over conflict, presents few interpretive problems. In the first movement the Éders best capture the ebullience of the first subject’s rising parallel thirds and the reposeful exhalations of the second subject’s open cadences—all this while bringing the music toward an effective central drama. The Shostakoviches’ nervous edge, on the other hand, places the listener on alert from the opening bars as they fiercely, if rather humourlessly, drive the point home. The Rubios’ only manage to gain a tentative hold on the contrasting elements of the first movement. All three ensembles manoeuvre well through the lyrical pastures that follow. The Shostakoviches offer a heavy-handed account of the second movement that captures some but not all of the songful smiles that abound in the Rubios’ corner. The Rubios again redeem themselves with the uncommon tenderness they bring to the following Lento. All bring the work to a sunny conclusion.
Quartet No. 7. The Éders’ performance falls somewhere in between the ultra-tense Shostakoviches and the less urgent Rubios in this most compact of Shostakovich quartets. In the opening Allegretto, the Éders’ pizzicato section seems to whisper more of the music’s inner secrets while the Rubios pointed accents combine polish and vigour when they’re least expected. If the Rubios conjure the most fragrant, otherworldly distillation of the central Lento, the Shostakoviches’ evocation of ice and steel is just as effective. However, neither matches Gyorgy Éder’s chillingly sinister cello solo mid-movement, leading the music down yet another wonderfully uncharted path. Each of the three performances will raise hackles during the furiously accented fugue in the final Allegro, with the most fearsome hackle-raising being perpetrated by the Éders and the Shostakoviches. When calm returns in the final section, the Éders again walk the delicate line between the more sunny-leaning Shostakoviches and the wistful Rubios.
Quartet No. 8. The Eighth Quartet, with its myriad self-quotations, offers a straight-to-the-point mixture of pathos and volatility in what was intended to be Shostakovich’s farewell to life. The Rubios assemble a decent performance, yet the passages that call for brute force, such as the crucial declarations of the final movement, fall better into place with the bolder strokes of the other two ensembles. In elevating the work’s distraught pages to fever pitch, the Éders take the lead with their heart-racing pace and lacerating attacks. The second movement has never had a more explosive reading; while in the fourth movement they pounce, panther-like, upon the three recurring hammerstrokes of fate to stunning effect. The Shostakoviches also invoke merciless agitation, with close microphone placement that plunges the listener face-first into the fray. Their performance, again benefitting from the intimate acoustic, achieves nobility in capturing the composer’s utter desolation in the two Largo movements that form the work’s bookends. The personal connection of the Shostakoviches with the tenderness and despair of these sections is nothing short of profound.
Quartet No. 9. As if born of a single, joyous breath, the five attached movements of the Ninth Quartet alternate between light and dark with some of Shostakovich’s most charismatic lyricism. All three ensembles score high points in the departments of colour and continuity. The Rubios do so with a poetic vision. In the opening Moderato con moto, they invoke a Nielsen-like nature experience of wonder tinged with melancholy. With fleeting tempi, they bring a mythic dimension to the gypsy-inflected Allegretto and its nympholeptic solos. The Shostakoviches, on the other hand, find a little menace. They stir up turbulence in the opening movement in places where the Éders remain subdued. The Éders and the Shostakoviches join the jamboree in the Allegretto with pumping rhythms, the latter with an aggressive edge that leaves the music smiling through gritted teeth. As emblems of memory and frozen time, metaphysically speaking, the Adagio‘s breakaway sequence of pizzicato chords takes on varied forms. In the Rubios the chords float liquid-like in the undulating lyrical stream; in the Éders they reverberate with a piercing edge. Most impressive are the Shostakoviches who, reminiscent of the Borodins, take a dramatically slow tempo and throw emphasis on their thunderously plucked strings. In the final movement, the Rubios outdo the Éders by a few shades of drama, while the Shostakoviches go for higher stakes with bold, stunning gestures.
Quartet No. 10. Three strong performances are given in the Tenth Quartet, a work highlighted by Shostakovich’s most barbaric essay for four solo strings, the second movement Allegretto furioso. The tight, thrusting jabs of the Éders rattle as many rafters as those by the hard-hitting Shostakoviches. In each case, dissonances roar and repetitions burn with corrosive friction. The Rubios sacrifice some of this cathartic urgency, but their broad, heaving phrases and shrieking double-stops bring on a measure or two more of human anguish. In the ever-shifting planes of the opening Andante the Rubios mollify their tense and sombre gestures with an occasional spot of warmth, where the Éders and the Shostakoviches build a stronger sense of foreboding. The Shostakoviches take on the third movement Adagio with particular sensitivity. Each of the three ensembles manoeuvre quickly and gracefully through the rich thematic tapestry of the final Allegretto, with the Éders again being especially sensitive to the movement’s ever overlapping moods.
Quartet No. 11. Here, the disarmingly straightforward thematic material and the short, epigrammatic nature of the seven movements provide yet another fresh path: string quartet as fairytale. The parameters may seem simple but they are hardly simplistic. In the first, second, and final movements, mirth and melancholy are interwoven so delicately they become indistinguishable, leaving the interpreters’ court wide open. The Shostakoviches take a direct approach. They are sombre and straightforward in the outer pairs of movements, hard-hitting in between. They could stand to lighten up a bit, given their abrupt, poker-faced glissandi in the Scherzo. Underlying sadness pervades the Rubios’ performance, as evidenced in their ironically-tendered Scherzo. The sadness is fully realised in their movingElegy (the technical strains on the first violinist in the Etude’s scurrying figures are unfortunately audible). It is the Éders who take the most enchanting route through these seven movements. Their Introduction has an eloquent, storytelling quality, primarily due to the lyrical gifts of their first violinist, György Selmeczi. Their whooping glissandiand brisk tempo in the Scherzo reach for the fantastic element inherent in the music. Their spasms in the followingRecitative descend like lightning bolts; their Elegy is saturated with sadness. And in the Conclusion they bring just enough whimsy back into the mix.
Quartet No. 12. This is the one that makes the rest seem easy, judging by the hit or miss quality of past and present performances. A nearly impenetrable opening movement is followed by a multipart second movement that embodies one of Shostakovich’s most remarkable feats of thematic synthesis. Interpreters may be forewarned. The Rubios demonstrate that a pensive, uniformly low-keyed approach in the opening Moderato, whose thematic areas resist interaction and climactic release, leaves the music rather grey and static. They raise hell in the following Allegrettoand are fine, if somewhat episodic, in bringing out the nuances and crests of the passages that follow. The colourful, persuasive Éders take a more directed route. In the first movement they lift the scalewise material toward ardent peaks. They apply discerning rubati to the faster waltz sections, where phrases are pulled and twisted every which way. They also delve into the stormy portions of the Allegretto with gale wind force, successfully bringing home the sentimentally transformed themes. It is the Shostakoviches, however, who claim mastery over this work. In the opening movement the jaded humour they find in the fragmentary waltz sections contrasts well with their well-realised scalewise theme, which is played with such glowing warmth and broad tempi, it is laid down as a cornerstone of the performance. In the labyrinthine Allegretto, the Shostakoviches impress with the breathing room they bring to each of the sectional transitions. The intensity with which they pull together the movement’s divergent episodes into a compelling sequence of events is also impressive. When the scalewise material returns in its final appearances, one strongly senses a return to the centre of gravity previously established.
Quartet No. 13. Shostakovich’s only experiment with palindromic form gives us one of his bleakest, most macabre visions: a chattering, jazz-inflected dance of death encased in a grim double-lined vault of numbing ruminations. The opening and closing organum-like sonorities, in a Medieval structure no less, seal off any possibility of comfort or consolation from the outside world. In this one-movement slow-fast-slow arrangement, matters of pace and tension come to bear most acutely. In the outer sections all three ensembles capture the overwhelming sense of sorrow with passionately drawn arcs, the Éders with stabbing accents, the Rubios with broad, internalised tones. Yet so much hinges on the tempo and tenor of the central jig. Here the Éders lack the necessary tautness to embody anything more than a whimsical respite from the surrounding darkness (they’re in good company: the rendition by the Beethoven Quartet falls short for the same reason). The Rubios extract far more from the work with their sharply defined contrasts. Their centrepiece is a bracing quickstep whose seizure-like flicks and twitches animate a state of tumultuous physical and emotional distress. In its context it elicits a disturbing combination of pity and astonishment on the part of the listener. It also establishes the necessary polar extremes. And then there are the Shostakoviches, who from the very opening bars press their shoulders against the clock. The Shostakoviches are remarkable in being able to intensify each of the work’s various episodes and at the same time preserve a natural sense of continuity between them. Listen to their pointillistic dissolution before the jig, the sharpness of their wooden taps, the sweeping inevitability of their torturously spastic jig, their lacerating accents in the outer portions. Even the manner in which the solos in the jig’s aftermath are allowed to recover and reflect, unrushed, is an intensification of what came before, as is the final searing note—Shostakovich’s answer, if it hasn’t already been noted, to Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream, rendered here in all its existential anguish.
Quartet No. 14. After the formal experiments of the previous two quartets, Shostakovich returns to traditional paths in the Fourteenth. Or so it might seem. Within its classical demeanour and more stable tonality one discovers a chessboard of perplexing contrasts. Our ensembles provide three superb interpretations. The first movement works well at the lively clip chosen by the Rubios, though some of the intricate juxtapositions in the development section seem a bit squeezed in. The cello solos within are given ample room, both temporally and acoustically, but in the faster passages some of the notes almost get lost in the room’s ambiance. The movement acquires a more sculpted form with the nuances and argumentative peaks provided by the Éders. And from their buoyant opening bars to their cellist’s longing cries of despair, it is the Shostakoviches who pry apart the movement’s rapidly changing facets with the most communicative force. In the Adagio the dialogue between violin and cello in their communion of grief and despair elicits fine playing from each of the three ensembles. The Rubios provide the most expressive platform for the movement’s peak statement, located square and centre, a feature that bears fruitful resonances when the passage reappears in the final movement. There, the moody patchwork is traversed well by each ensemble with the most astute contrasts again being delineated by the Shostakoviches.
Quartet No. 15. Shostakovich’s final installment in the cycle takes us into the leanest textured, most gestural, and grief-stricken depths of his catalogue. Here the element of atmosphere plays a role unmatched in the cycle. Add to that the self-imposed constraints of tempi and dynamics—the work’s six connected Adagios rarely raise their voice above the level of piano—and we enter a whole new world of interpretive parameters. It is the Éders this time who place the greatest emphasis on the contrasts within, though not always to the best ends. Their quick, piercing darts in the “Ligeti” sections of the Serenade provide good foils for the interceding waltz fragments. Throughout the work, however, I found the Éders’ energetic presence a bit too canny. In the Epilogue, for example, their assertive trills leave the music rather earthbound. The more subdued comportment of the Rubios and Shostakoviches, for example their gentler bow attacks, in the sombre lines of the opening Elegy, better invoke the music’s succumbed state of being. In the Serenade the Ligeti-like crescendi of the Shostakoviches are not the sharply pointed stabs of the Rubios, yet their unswerving vibrati, like the edges of a serrated knife, only deepen their cutting power. The Éders make good in the Nocturne‘s haunting viola solo. But the movement’s infinitely wandering sadness receives a more sympathetic treatment in the hands of the Rubios and Shostakoviches. The frantic trills of the Shostakoviches in theEpilogue are just as effective as those of the ghostly kind of the Rubios. Here the Rubios’ slithering violin solos, though not technically perfect, add to the chilling impact. In each case the atmosphere is charged with anxiety and mystery, conjuring up a spectre of death as terrifying as that found in the last two symphonies.
The Two Pieces for String Quartet (not to be confused with the opus 11 Two Pieces for String Octet) are well vetted by the Shostakoviches and provide a charming filler for the first disc in their set. The first piece, Elegy, consisting of a string of melodic morsels from Lady Macbeth, is sensitively rendered with the vocal qualities of their source very much taken into consideration. The second piece is a setting of Shostakovich’s famous Polka from The Age of Gold. For anyone who has lamented a performance of this acid-laced pastry that did not make the most of every last one of its twisty turns, then this classic tour-de-force edition is for you.
The calibre of the accompanying notes for these releases calls out for an audit of the genre. The anonymously written essays that accompany the Éders’ discs offer the only respectable musical commentaries, with enough technical and descriptive details to be of assistance to the informed listener. While print size and format are compressed to near microfiche proportions, Naxos have wisely chosen completeness in the limited space afforded. The chattering notes in the Regis set by James Murray (who opines that the Seventh and Eighth Quartets are Shostakovich’s “most successful excursion into this genre”) are more concerned with historical background than the actual music. The breezy essays in the Rubio set by Yves Senden are rather simplistic and superfluous.
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The Complete String Quartets
Quatuor Danel: Marc Danel (violin 1), Gilles Millet (violin 2), Tony Nys (viola), Guy Danel (cello).
Disc 1: String Quartets No. 2 in A major, opus 68[a]; No. 7 in F# minor, opus 108[b]; No. 5 in Bb major, opus 92[c]
Disc 2: String Quartets No. 6 in G major, opus 101[d]; No. 3 in F major, opus 73[e]; No. 13 in Bb minor, opus 138[f]
Disc 3: String Quartets No. 14 in F# major, opus 142[g]; No. 8 in C minor, opus 110[h]; No. 12 in Db major, opus 133[i]
Disc 4: String Quartets No. 4 in D major, opus 83[j]; No. 11 in F minor, opus 122[k]; No. 9 in Eb major, opus 117[l]
Disc 5: String Quartets No. 1 in C major, opus 49[m]; No. 10 in Ab major, opus 118[n]; No. 15 in Eb minor, opus 144[o].
Fuga Libera 512. DDD. 5-CD set, TT 6:26:22.
Recorded in Studio 2, Bayerischer Rundfunk, München[b-e,h-n], 8-11 October 2001[j-l], 4-6 February 2003[b,e], 20-23 December 2004[h,i,m], 8-11 May 2005[c,d,n]; Bavaria Studio, München, 25-27 May 2005[o]; Farao Studio, München, 12-15 June 2005[a,f,g].
The Danel Quartet is an ensemble relatively unknown outside of the borders of the Western European countries in which they perform and work (and here one might well exclude the UK market). In their early forties, with strong links to France and Germany, their base is now in Belgium. I had the good fortune to hear the quartet perform the cycle of Shostakovich Quartets fourteen years ago in Heidelberg; a wonderfully intimate setting accommodated an audience of a hundred or so who were quite simply swept away by the creative and emotional energies that flowed from the performances of the “youngsters”. Modesty personified, they choose not to dwell on their apprenticeships—with the Borodin Quartet and with Druzhinin of the Beethoven Quartet, or on their achievements—1st Prize in the Shostakovich String Quartet Competition in St Petersburg amongst many. But such affinities inevitably forge talented musicians in a way so difficult to acquire for musicians distant from such cultural realms, be it through lack of opportunity or of simple imagination.
A project mooted ten years past, the Danels have at last honoured the CD catalogue by releasing the self-same cycle of string quartets and, most aptly, in time for the Shostakovich-fest of 2006. The works are contained within just 5 CDs, meaning that each disc is more or less full to the brim, according to the technical constraints of the laser medium, and that the quartets appear in anything but chronological order. Nor are all the groupings particularly logical: No. 1 is wedded with Nos. 10 and 15, a startling, but thought-provoking combination, while No. 2 leads Nos. 7 and 5 (much less effective).
The recordings emanate in reality from a multitude of recording sessions spanning four years and three different Munich studios, the relative consistency within the production team members thankfully avoiding too many noticeable variations in sound quality, musical pitch or style of playing.
The First Quartet, whose key of C Major David Fanning (in his very ample accompanying notes) refers to as carrying “connotations of a new beginning, a turn to (more or less) pure musical well-springs” is at once clear and concise, but could equally be perceived, in interpretative terms, as idiomatic and meandering. Berlinsky describes the first movement as adopting “the tradition of the classical aria” and that is exactly the Danels’ viewpoint; shades of Katerina underpinned by enigmatic lower-stringed rhythms and motifs. Swelling phrasing with disconcerting ritenuti pervades this entire Quartet in a way the Fitzwilliam Quartet (Decca 289455776-2) touch upon, but never quite adopt to the same degree. The Borodins also linger less, although the extra cutting edge of their Russianness instantly sets them apart. Whilst the Sorrells are exemplary, technically, in Quartet No. 1 (Chandos CHAN 10329; reviewed below), I find I miss the inimitable dramaturgy on which the Danels and Fitzwilliams found their interpretations.
The Second Quartet, with its huge symphonic-like brushstrokes over a vast instrumental canvas, challenges its interpreters to retain a sense of overall dimension alongside freehand recitative passages that necessitate a dramatic effect lined with a heightened artistic sensitivity. At no point do the Danel Quartet slacken the tension, while at the same time interpretative proportions are meaningfully established and adhered to. I liked Marc Danel’s slight understating of the Recitative that dominates the second movement, and the brief Adagio section in the fourth movement is held to an eerie perfection.
The opening of the Third Quartet throws up the problematic choice of tempo adopted by Marc Danel—a vigorous Allegretto with crotchet = 112 is here not only grasped at 120, but heralds some untidy edges in the grotesque leaps and bounds that predominate. The Fitzwilliam approach is no less energetic—simply better measured. Conversely, The Danels’ viola attack at the outset of the second movement is perfectly weighted, with the repeated 3-crotchet opening sounding strident and subtly detached, despite Tony Nys’ absolute insistence on the notes being untied, as per the score. The performance of this movement reminded me of the Beethoven Quartet’s recording (Russian Compact Disc RCD 16617) and less so of the later Borodins’ version (BMG/Melodiya 74321 40711 2; deleted).
In his sleeve notes, David Fanning refers to the Fifth Quartet as a “first highpoint in Shostakovich’s increasingly dramatic conception of the string quartet genre”—a point of view embodied through the Danels’ thrilling and moving depiction of the work. (Contrast this to the inappropriate melodrama of, say, the Emersons’ rendition or the rather platitudinous Sorrels; Chandos CHAN 10248; reviewed in DSCH 22). Some risks are taken (the very high exposed upper voices at the climax to the first movement suffer from a certain fragility), but this simply adds to the excellent “live” feeling experienced when listening to the piece.
The Sixth Quartet’s opening two movements rarely inspire a great deal of debate or conjecture, the capricious cadenza that ends each movement being likened to a ruse on the composer’s part, in his striving to bring together the disparate threads of the work. Whatever foundations the piece is built on, the interpretative minefield is a lessened affair, and the ensemble writing typical Shostakovich. The voices share the principal thematic lines and once more the clarity of tone of the Danels’ instruments impresses—little vibrato, sparing rubato—yet is suitably unpredictable: dolentemente ma non troppo with more than a hint of misterioso…
The Seventh Quartet is the shortest of the fifteen, totalling a mere eleven or twelve minutes for its three uninterrupted movements. But it is a weighty drop in the compositional ocean (it is inscribed to the memory of Nina Shostakovich who died in 1955). In the Danels’ interpretation, the second movement Lento, with its throwbacks to the Fifth Symphony and the composer’s own DSCH motif (the late Ian MacDonald referred to its “crystalline precision and intimate eloquence”) and the final Allegro‘s frantic throw forwards to the Eighth Quartet, culminates in an exhausted, hushed finale that exhales a sublime numbness. Indeed, the 5:42 movement will tell you all you need to know about the striking artistic criteria employed by the Danels.
The Ninth Quartet is dedicated to the composer’s second wife, Irina. I read recently a commentary on the work by one Irving Kolodin writing in Stereo Review, May 1974. Perhaps the present interpreters know it too?
“…its excellence reminds me, through some sort of 180 degree perversity, of Saint-Saëns’ petulant remark after listening to the Cesar Franck Symphony: ‘The affirmation of incompetence carried to dogmatic lengths.’ Shostakovich’s E-flat Quartet is not only an affirmation of competence, creativity, and affection quite beyond dogmatism, it is also as close to timelessness in its musical content as anything bearing the name of its composer…”
That timelessness is truly to savour in listening to the extremely taut nature of the Danels’ performance here; the work’s core moods don’t “swing” in a traditional sense, rather they are perfused with fluctuating streams of consciousness: high-spirited, reflective, doubtful, doubting. The greatest hazard in this underrated and seminal work—glibness—is justly banished from the Danels’ mindset. Truly wonderful.
The opening of the Tenth is curiously blighted by some uncharacteristic stiff-armed violin phrasing at the outset (principal opening motif). This is quickly dispelled, even if this opening movement lacks the pricked fluidity that the Ninth Quartet revels in. The massively striking contrast of the second movement, Shostakovich’s Allegretto furioso, is initially something of a ground-out affair; dour and pummelling, no quarter given. The closing bars seethe with uncontainable energy, before the final cosh hammers home its punishing blow. Those who saw Peter Maniura’s groundbreaking documentary on Shostakovich, A Career will surely recall his use, over snowy, desolate shots of St Petersburg, of the third movement of the Tenth Quartet. In the same way that the third movement of the Seventh Symphony tears and shreds comfortable illusions of any inner peace (even victory) into oblivion, here the plaintive railing of the four instruments, rendered exceptionally unsentimental by the Danel Quartet’s feisty tempi, leaves only strained echoes blowing in the wind. This unearthly quality is extended to the finale, which, in spite of key and tempo shifts to a lighter tone and tonality, never quite finds its peace. If you are exceptionally allergic to hearing performers’ rustlings and sharp intakes of breath, be warned: so intimate are these recorded performances that extraneous sounds of this sort are not rare.
Quartet No. 11 adopts a similar, detached manner of string enunciation in the earlier episodes. The Danels draw out of the fourth movement in particular the déjà-vus of the Eighth Quartet, and design a facade onto which the early sections of the seven-movement piece are seeped.
The Twelfth Quartet, dedicated to Dmitri Tsyganov of the Beethoven Quartet, is surely one of the most individual and original of the fifteen works. As David Fanning points out, Shostakovich’s use of the 12-tone scale in this work (culminating, one might say, in the Fourteenth Symphony) is firstly characterised by the opening cello solo, a theme “covering all twelve notes of the chromatic scale without repetition or recursion, and without rhythmic or dynamic differentiation.” The challenge for any performers of this work, be it in the concert hall or the recording studio, is to define an architectural frame, or form, within which the music’s 25 minutes will grow, evolve, surge, recede and finally conclude in a tumultuous fortissimo tutti, whilst permitting the work’s many extraordinary moments the scale of impact the interpreters demand. As the cycle draws to its close, the players use, to differing degrees, sul tastoeffects, which don’t necessarily appear in the score, to create an uncertain, disquieting, fragile timbre. This is used to devastating effect in the Fifteenth Quartet, but is introduced here in the Twelfth, noticeably in the opening pages. The tight ensemble style contrasts with that of the Fitzwilliams’ more overt tendencies, while the later Borodin set has lost some of the innovatory qualities that the early collection achieved. In terms of interpretation, I tend towards the ferocious bite of the Fitzwilliams’ rendition of the opening attaco passages of the second movement, although the convincing narrative style the Danels adopt here is also extremely compelling.
The Fourteenth’s altogether more amenable (or superficially so) first movement opens Disc 3, a less problematicenchaînement than following hot on the heels of its traumatising predecessor. The performance is sound, without ever entirely gaining the emotional high ground. Not so the impassioned second movement Adagio, whose obsessive rhythmic dialogues “at once caress, at once dig and delve into the depths of consciousness,” to paraphrase a commentator from the 1970s. The final movement’s fitful protestations, evocations and prevarications, scatter, like black clouds across a steel-grey sky; finally, night falls.
After all that has gone before, to describe the Fifteenth Quartet appears to be a futile task: the same players with whom we have traversed the myriad expressive landscapes of this great cycle bring no more, no less than their pure art. As wrote Alan George, the viola player of the Fitzwilliam Quartet, who was privileged to have played for the composer:
“… it is pointless making any other observations, as each player can only respond to the notes he sees and the emotions these generate, together with that uncanny awareness that each situation in which this piece is performed is more than usually unique, special—almost final…”
A very highly recommended set.
String Quartet No. 1 in C major, opus 49[a]; String Quartet No. 12 in Db major, opus 133[b]; Piano Quintet in G minor, opus 57[c].
Sorrel Quartet: Gina McCormack (violin 1), Catherine Yates (violin 2), Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola), Helen Thatcher (cello); Martin Roscoe (piano)[c].
Chandos Digital CHAN 10329. DDD. TT 76:56.
Recorded at Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Suffolk, UK, 6-8 May 2003[a], 10-12 January 2005[b,c].
Piano Quintet in G minor, opus 57[a]; String Quartet No. 1 in C major, opus 49; String Quartet No. 4 in D major, opus 83.
Petersen Quartett: Conrad Muck (violin 1) Daniel Bell (violin 2) Friedemann Weigle (viola), Henry-David Varema (cello); Ewa Kupiec (piano)[a].
Capriccio 67 082. DDD. TT 66:02.
Recorded in Studio 2, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich, 20-23 October 2003.
The first of the two recordings under review here brings to completion the distinguished Sorrel Quartet cycle of the Shostakovich string quartets with two highly contrasting works, Nos. 1 and 12, with the Piano Quintet as a filler. This is especially welcome, particularly after having heard the Sorrels’ highly praised recording of the Elgar Piano Quintet with Ian Brown (Chandos CHAN 9894).
Throughout this Shostakovich cycle the hallmark of the Sorrels’ playing has been emotional intensity, both in strong, angry passages and in very quiet passages, holding the listener completely riveted even where the music is pared down to the sparsest textures. In addition there has been a firm grasp of the structure and narrative of each of the pieces—the music makes a satisfying whole, and one gets a good picture of the overall “story” being told.
Compared to the Spring-like and innocent First Quartet, the Twelfth is a difficult and forbidding work, with its dissonances and extreme contrasts of mood. The Sorrels’ rendition of the first movement is pervaded by tenderness and regret, particular in the oscillating figures that occur shortly after the start, a quotation from Beethoven’s opus 59. The first movement draws quietly to a close, preparing the way for the explosive start to the long second movement, which in this recording is a real assault on the ears. The extreme changes of mood of this movement are handled with naturalness, swinging from almost manic frenetic ranting to deadpan poise without seeming at all disjointed or episodic. One is able to ride the waves of emotion and the almost bipolar swings of mood within the movement as if on a rollercoaster. The riveting quality mentioned earlier in the quiet passages is very much present in the slow, static passages in this movement, in particular the quiet reprise of the opening of the first movement that occurs some 16 minutes into the movement. Here, I am struck with a sense of reverent nostalgia as the music climbs with perfect logic out of this stasis point and builds towards the exhilarating finish of the movement.
After listening to this excellent disc, the Capriccio release comes as something of a disappointment. On the one hand, there is nothing to fault technically about the playing and quality of the recording, and there are many pleasing touches (notably a very crisp rendition of the col legno tapping passage in the final movement of the Quintet). However, these finely disciplined performances do not engage the emotions deeply in quite the way this music should; they are “safe” rather than risky, with a matter-of-fact, rather perfunctory style. There is often minimal use of vibrato, and also the sense sometimes of trying to push the music along, without allowing it to breathe naturally. It does not appear that the musicians are passionate about the music in the same way as some other performers.
Another slight irritation is the sleeve notes, given the title Singing in the Dark, which try too hard to look for dissident messages in the music. It is ironic, after the annotator has quoted the composer saying that one should not try to look for particular profundity in the First Quartet, to read, “it is … pervaded by soft sighs that give a sense of how difficult equanimity was to attain.” Is this supposed to be part of the message of the First Quartet? If so, then the Sorrels’ rendition brings it out better than the Petersens’. On another occasion, the notes refer to the last movement of the Piano Quintet as “sometimes very distraught”, again something I don’t particularly catch from this performance; apart from some thrilling dramatic passages, the last movement of the Quintet comes across as largely good-natured, offering consolation after the emotional intensity of the intermezzo.
In summary, then, the Sorrel release is to be thoroughly recommended, and rounds off an excellent cycle. However, the new Petersen disc does not capture the measure of the music, especially considering the strong competition in these particular works.
Hänssler Classic CD 93.113. DDD. TT 51:27.
Recorded in SWR Studio Kaiserslautern, Germany, 28-31 October 2002[a], 13 October 2003[b], 3-9 June 2004[c].
[b]Premiere recording of arrangement.
The Petrushka in Shostakovich who first tumbled onto stage in the composer’s Symphony No. 1 comes of age in 1933 in Piano Concerto No. 1, which opens in a similar curtain-raising flourish but then turns into a mad ride for the diabolical soloist, goaded on by an equally mischievous trumpet sidekick in one of the most extraordinary double concertos in the repertoire.
Of the numerous recordings, two that stand out in memory are Shostakovich’s first account, for its historicity and the sheer novelty of hearing the composer at the keyboard (Classical Treasures CT-10022; reviewed in DSCH 17), no showman in the sense of Rachmaninov nor Prokofiev but certainly enlightening where his own works are concerned, and Martha Argerich’s unapologetically maniacal version (Deutsche Grammophon 439 864-2) for its wicked humour.
In this new Hänssler release 30-year-old Florian Uhlig attempts to shed new light on this somewhat underrated classic by resisting the temptation to madness and instead exploring some of the score’s darker shades. Uhlig pairs up with Jirí Stárek and his band to paint the concerto in greyer Slavic colours, which is refreshing almost to the point where I wondered if I was indeed listening to the right piece of music. The performance reveals fresh detail and brings to relief new contours.
Uhlig is more than technically secure in the solo part, and one suspects his somewhat stiff, brittle approach is deliberately modelled after the composer’s own manner at the keyboard. The crispness of his upper register is particularly welcome in this opus, which has many of those very highly-strung Shostakovich hammering figures right at the top of the octave. The orchestra respond wonderfully, especially in the slow movement and in the various solo-orchestra interplays that other recordings often rush past, such as the high violin squeaks or the hilarious col legnoaccompaniment to the trumpet’s extended solo in the Finale. There are few complaints in this department except for the uncharacteristically loud entry of the strings in the Lento movement, marked piano in the score but here sounding almost forte!
Compared to Shostakovich’s curiously asthmatic trumpet partner in his 1956 recording with Samosud, Peter Leiner’s bright metallic shine provides nearly the perfect companionship, although his final bars are a little straitjacketed and his last big tune (the Archangel Gabriel tune from Hypothetically Murdered) not as campy as it could be. Compare this to Argerich’s trumpeter Guy Touvron, who is the perfect partner in crime. Touvron is the wildcard, unpredictable and very funny. Listen to how his frantic trumpet urges Argerich on in her first entry in the Finale, or how he yawns dismissively at the piano’s flip-flop antics in the bottom octaves, 2:10 into the movement. Touvron is persuasive in his Lento smoky barroom scene where, donning a cup mute rather than the more nasal straight mute, he seduces the despairing and reluctant piano away from her drink for an amusing tryst on the dance floor.
It is in this very section of the Lento where Uhlig’s rather sombre approach fails to take a step back and smile—the irony and drama played out right after the long trumpet solo are brushed off as an extension of previous material, a great opportunity lost.
Here is the heart of what is most lacking in this otherwise exciting performance, that sense of uninhibited madness and theatre that begs to be released from the pages of the score. In this respect Argerich and Touvron steal the show—Argerich’s impeccable sense of comic timing and a strong feel for the absurdities of the score are played off effortlessly against the trumpet’s rolls and tumbles as the duo run circles around the orchestra. In comparison, Uhlig is just frantic without much thought for the humour of it all. Life may have been harsh for Shostakovich in 1933 but the composer dealt with this precisely through comedy, and our young pianist seems to forget this in his conception.
If he lacked that essential dose of lunacy to bring the curtain down on the First Concerto, Uhlig is far more successful in painting a grittier picture of the straightforward Second Concerto. Here his attempts to emulate the composer’s unsentimental approach are far more successful, and the orchestra’s lean, earthy colours help to bring this off beautifully. His clipped, staccato reading of the opening theme is distinctively styled after the composer, and there is wonderful interplay between the soloist and the woodwinds, for example in the way the oboe tries to catch up with the piano in the “drunken sailor” theme.
Overall, Uhlig successfully unearths the more grotesque and sinister undercurrents of this often romanticised work, revealing a sense of manic unease as he maintains a fear-frozen grin that builds into a stormy orchestral tutti. His recovery from that thrashing, at first dazed, then slowly picking himself up to sprint to the finishing line, is a moment of delicious theatre that sets the stage for a breathless, hushed Andante.
The Finale gets off to a brisk and sunny start, with the band’s piquant woodwind textures providing a fruity flavour to Uhlig’s obsessive right hand gestures, and finishes off the concerto sunny-side-up. What has happened to the undercurrent of fear revealed in the development of the first movement? Here it is Berglund and Ortiz who unveil the tension in an ominous whirlwind middle section that builds into a thunderous conclusion, while Shostakovich himself with Samosud pushed the music obsessively and relentlessly, leaving Uhlig rather breezier and more capricious in comparison.
Dimov succeeds in restoring the Russian spirit and particularly Shostakovich’s fingerprints, using both an intuitive feel for which of the four hands should go to the soloist and which to the orchestra, and a deeper understanding of Shostakovich’s orchestral palette to create an orchestration that the composer might have written. The dramatic timpani touches are authentic, and even if the tuned woodblocks are not, they nevertheless add excitement.
The build-up to the first climax at 6:00, whose manic upper registers Dimov rightfully assigns to the soloist, whips up more idiomatic drama than the lush string treatment by Zilberquit. The piano chorale that immediately follows at 6:20 offers a touching Musorgskian tribute, which Uhlig delivers with a luminous, glowing declamation reminiscent ofThe Great Gate of Kiev. Zilberquit entirely misses this beautiful gesture, the trademark pealing of bells that runs through much of this work, and ends up with an intimate musing that is more like Tchaikovsky.
While Zilberquit, who takes 2 minutes longer in her lush approach and who adds another 3 minutes of her own solo cadenza (deliciously conceived but utterly out-of-character), serves up a cross between Rachmaninov and Saint-Saëns, it is Uhlig who steers Dimov’s superior transcription back to Shostakovich territory. Stárek and his band do a magnificent job of underlining the work’s many interesting colours, especially its Musorgskian undertones, and downplaying that rather cheesy main melody, something that Zilberquit and Spivakov unfortunately are happy enough to drive home emphatically with the help of a military drum.
This thrilling performance is the crowning glory to the programme. Uhlig in the main concertos still needs some time to polish his ideas and let them mellow, but his insights are fresh and his style is idiomatic and perceptive. I am sure with time he will be even more commanding.
|London Shostakovich Orchestra|
|London Shostakovich Orchestra|
Cello Concerto No. 1 in E flat, opus 107[a]; Cello Concerto No. 2 in G major, opus 126[b].
Christopher Cox, London Shostakovich Orchestra, Jonathan Ayling (cello).
Dunelm Records DRD0233. DDD. TT 64:46.
Recorded at St. Cyprian’s Church, London, 15 May[a]/13 November[b] 2004.
Cello Concerto No. 2 in G major, opus 126[a]; Symphony No. 12 in D minor, The Year 1917, opus 112.
Christopher Cox, London Shostakovich Orchestra, Jonathan Ayling (cello)[a].
Dunelm Records DRD0234. DDD. TT 78:54.
Recorded at St. Cyprian’s Church, London, 13 November 2004.
Luck and good timing enabled me to be in London to hear both of these recorded London Shostakovich Orchestra (LShO) concerts, and especially to hear the excellent cellist, Jonathan Ayling. Dunelm gives us two choices for opus 126: the November 2004 concert with the Twelfth Symphony, or as an alternative, they have packaged the two Cello Concerti together (the review for the performance of Cello Concerto No. 1 appeared in DSCH 22 and will not be repeated here).
Opus 126 is one of Shostakovich’s most strange and enigmatic scores, and includes some of his most bizarre effects since The Nose. It stunned me when I first heard it, played live at Tanglewood by Rostropovich in August 1975, right after Rostropovich announced Shostakovich’s death to the world. The brazenly audacious combinations and the percussive clackings seemed to be emanating straight from Shostakovich’s corpse.
On the whole, this performance of Cello Concerto No. 2 is excellent, given the rehearsal time constraints for soloist and orchestra for these LShO concerts. Those bizarre effects, especially in the percussion and winds, come off as strangely as they can be. Soloist Jonathan Ayling does a great job with this incredibly demanding piece, full of melancholy in the opening, making many strangled emanations, and giving a full emotional range through this work’s varied travels. The bubliki motif is played with a slyly sardonic yet sad tone, until it becomes almost murderous in the climax. I only wish Ayling took a bit more liberty with rubato at times, such as with the “antique” Haydnesque cadence turns. In the ending, while in the midst of deathly percussive clacking, Ayling continues with his sarcastic little pizzicati and ends just right with the little “giving the finger” gesture Shostakovich calls for—”Ha, I’m not yet dead.” In such a live performance, there are a few gaffes, but none that take away from the passionate immediacy of this performance. Ayling sits in the cello section of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and plays with the Tate Ensemble; I hope to hear him again as he grows with this most unusual music.
The supposedly servile and unsarcastic Twelfth Symphony, amazingly written in the middle of the two great cello concerti and soon after the suicidal Eighth String Quartet, is performed by Cox and his musicians with all stops out, after a slow, uncertain, and overly ponderous opening. But very quickly, he turns up the speed and force, and the music is whipped into a frenzy of revolution. One can imagine young Shostakovich, caught up in the throes of the revolution in his native Petrograd, now later in his life, after reluctantly becoming a party member, recalling the excitement along with the horror (he and his family helped bury the dead in 1917 in Mars Field), and the disappointment and terror to come.
Shostakovich certainly does not write a symphony of glory here: the music constantly shifts between overly-driven optimism, brooding sadness, and wrenching struggle, and just as often mixes them. Such a mixed tone, and the absence of Shostakovich’s usual grotesqueries and black humour, have resulted in the Symphony being often rated as one of his worst efforts, and even as a “cautiously assembled shell, a non-symphony” (by programme annotator Andrew Power, in his otherwise illuminating notes). Performances that can bring meaning to this work of ambiguity are few and far between: Cox does a very credible job and should open some listeners’ ears to the value of opus 112.
There is some superb playing—the percussion in Revolutionary Petrograd, the horn, flute, and bassoon solos inRazliv, the strings in the Khachaturian-like sections of Razliv, the horn solo in Dawn of Humanity. A few unfortunate flubs intrude, particularly a high-pitched squeal a few minutes into the fourth movement, and a few brass bloopers elsewhere in the same movement. The ending is done in all its wrenching dissonance, non-triumph, and stupefying oppression. Certainly not servile! Unfortunately, the LShO had no concerts (hence no recordings) in the year 2005; I greatly hope they are storing up their energies to be part of the celebrations of Shostakovich’s 100th birthday.
Valery Gergiev, Kirov Orchestra[a-f], Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra[d].
Philips 470 841-2. DDD. 5-CD set, TT 5:12:44.
Recorded live at Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, 20-22 November 2001[a], 14-18 May 2002[c,f]; Mikaeli-Martti Talvela Hall, Mikkeli, Finland, 30 June 2002[b]; De Doelen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 19-21 September 2001[d]; Concertgebouw, Haarlem, The Netherlands, September 1994[e].
According to the score, Symphony No. 6 should take approximately 30 minutes in performance; Gergiev’s recording is slightly faster, at just under 28 minutes. At 14:26, Gergiev’s opening Largo acknowledges the faster-paced performances recorded on vinyl by earlier Russian conductors such as Kondrashin (13:26; Aulos AMC2-043-1-10), rather than the more protracted accounts of Western conductors, Bernstein’s second being a most extreme example (22:29; recently reissued in Deutsche Grammophon’s 6-CD set 477 519-3).
One aspect frequently highlighted in previous DSCH Journal reviews is Gergiev’s amazing control of and experimentation with rubato effects and other tempo manipulations additional to Shostakovich’s own directions. Not all of Gergiev’s interventions meet with unanimous approval and there are instances in both Symphonies Nos. 6 and 8 that some will find distasteful. The worst example occurs in the opening bars of the Largofrom Symphony No. 6, which are quite unlike most other recordings. The pace, though in keeping with Shostakovich’s direction of 72 quaver beats per minute, rides roughshod over the deep-felt emotions inherent in the unison lower strings and woodwind. Gergiev completely ignores the tenuto marking in the third bar, preferring to have a deceleration in bar 2 followed by a slight acceleration through bar 3, an interpretation quite dissimilar to, say, the recordings of Jansons (EMI Classics CDC 7 54339 2) or Barshai (Brilliant Classics 6275; reviewed in DSCH 20). Overall, however, Gergiev’s Largo has moments of great beauty, particularly the final section for string orchestra at figure 29 and a more successful additional ritenuto before figure 31.
Further comparisons between the Gergiev and Jansons recordings of the Sixth Symphony reveal that they have similar total performance times (27:52 vs 27:46, respectively) with virtually identical timings for the third movement. Where they differ is in the timings for the first two movements: Jansons takes about a minute longer over the Largoand a minute less for the Allegro second movement. Gergiev’s more relaxed tempo in the Allegro allows him more breathing space to accentuate the wit and sarcasm inherent in Shostakovich’s waltz. Despite the rapid demisemiquaver scale flourishes, every note is heard at this more spacious tempo without sounding hurried. I especially liked Gergiev’s quick one-bar crescendos, mainly in the woodwind from figure 55 onwards, where the phrases end with a thumping sfff on the first beat of the bar, Shostakovich deliberately ignoring all rules of musical decorum. Gergiev’s handling of the Tchaikovsky-like ending is magical: the woodwind upward-rising chromatic scales disappear into thin air. The Presto is equally controlled, parodying Rossini, Spanish dance and circus music with equal abandon.
With regard to sound quality of the Sixth Symphony, the balance is disappointing at times. For example, the woodwind is often virtually inaudible when in unison with strings. In the Largo hardly anything is heard of the cor anglais, clarinet or bassoons in the opening, nor of the colour added by the woodwind doublings at the Sostenutosection just after figure 19.
In his review of three different releases of Symphony No. 8 in DSCH 22, Paul Ingram described how “the Eighth remains … a highly dangerous, murky pool for performers, critics and audiences alike”. As a sound-world, it is rarely easy on the ear or the mind, containing so many disparate and difficult ideas. Gergiev tackles this musical mountain with his usual aplomb, as ever unafraid to tinker with finer nuances of expression to exact even more from the music than the composer asks for. In terms of duration, Gergiev’s live recording (TT 63:16) is not far from the 60 to 62 minutes designated in scores and is similar to those of Haitink (Decca 467 465-2; TT 61:51) and Barshai (Brilliant Classics 6275; TT 64:01; reviewed in DSCH 20).
As with the Sixth, I was again perturbed by the opening of the Eighth Symphony. It is a difficult opening due to Shostakovich’s precise phrasing instructions, which often seem to contradict the norms of bowing and articulation and are tricky to achieve whilst maintaining the fortissimo direction in the first five bars. There is an extraneous demisemiquaver low G upbeat before the opening fortissimo C in the cellos and double basses. I’m not sure whether this was intentional or due to over exuberance on the part of the string players. Shortly after this, there is another controversial tempo manipulation: Gergiev takes the term crescendo molto espressivo as a licence to prolong the seemingly interminable high F#-G ostinato in the first violin at figure 12 and its final downward resolution to a point that is almost unbearable. There is a matching manipulation when similar material returns at the end of the movement (before figure 40). Opinions will be divided over such interventions; there is no doubt that Gergiev sustains and intensifies the emotion, compelling the listener to share in his journey, but some will consider it a syrupy late-Romantic gesture more in keeping with old-fashioned performances of Bruckner and Mahler. After the intensely chromatic and excruciatingly high-tessitura orchestration in the central sections of the first movement, in which the Kirov Orchestra’s first trumpeter is especially piercing, the cor anglais solo is a welcome relief. Gergiev handles thesforzando subito pianissimo string accompaniment suberbly, reducing the tremolos to almost a whisper.
Despite his idiosyncratic tempo interventions, Gergiev often pays more attention to details of dynamics and expression than most, as well as exploiting Shostakovich’s excellent orchestration. Even tiny details, such as thesforzando trumpet punctuations in the opening of the third movement (just after figure 77), seem to have more bite under Gergiev’s baton than many others. This makes it even more annoying when some moments of orchestration are destroyed by poor balance. In the 5/4 section (figure 11 onwards) of the first movement I would have preferred to hear more of the cor anglais when in unison with the viola; Barshai’s recording is better in that respect. Similarly, I had to strain to hear the pizzicato string punctuations beneath the flute frullato (flutter-tonguing) chords at the end of the fourth movement. These pizzicato chords are most audible in the Haitink (if somewhat haphazardly placed) and to a lesser extent the Barshai recording. I am positive Gergiev would not have missed such details in performance.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover”—so the saying goes, but in this case it is important to assess the relevance to the musical content of the packaging of the Gergiev/Shostakovich symphony releases. As the packaging style has evolved, so the reverence for the conductor has increased in inverse proportion to the billing given to the composer and music. Symphony No. 8 was originally released in 1995 with a rather old-fashioned colour CD cover that harks back to the record sleeves of Toscanini and Karajan performances of Beethoven’s symphonies. Nevertheless, this style would have easily accommodated a series of Gergiev/Shostakovich symphonies, requiring only the number in the right hand corner to be changed.
However, the Symphony No. 8 recording was re-released in 1999 under very different packaging, with a bright yellow background. Both the composer and conductor’s names were printed in a pseudo-military stencil font, a technique Philips would re-use later.
For their next release, Symphony No. 7 in 2003, Philips designed radically new packaging more typical of current CD cover fashions in classical and other genres. The cover, now primarily black and white, shows Gergiev, casually dressed, standing in a most contrived pose. The score is open on a double page displaying only the composer’s name written in large Cyrillic type, with a smaller English equivalent barely visible underneath, allowing the Philips design team blank areas on which to superimpose the details of the symphony. This style has been maintained for each subsequent CD or SACD release, but with varying background colour-schemes, the blue for the double release of symphonies Nos. 5 and 9 being the most striking. The colour used to highlight the composer’s name and super-sized symphony numbers also varies within an orange-red spectrum. These high-tech manipulations do look a bit crude and the inconsistencies in alignment and font sizes between releases (best viewed via the Gergiev conducts Shostakovich trailer on Weinstein’s DVD) have a tendency to jar and only reinforce the artificiality of the cover design.
The 5-CD set also has similar reverse inlays, back of booklet and disc images to those for the Symphony No. 7 release—namely, “some chic Red-Army imagery, and war photos,” to quote Paul Ingram. Despite the broader time span covered by Symphonies Nos. 4 to 9 (1935/6-1945), the internal design remains rooted in 1942, as if stuck in a time-warp, with photographic images from the Leningrad front and a detail from Alexei Kokorekin’s painting Weapons for the Front from the Soviet Women. The numbering of the CDs is supposed to look as if it has been daubed on with whitewash through military stencils, the ubiquitous Red-Army cap-badge superimposed at the top. This trendy internal design aids neither our understanding of the music nor the concept of the set.
Whilst there are numerous complete sets and piecemeal recordings of Shostakovich symphonies, no other conductor has released Symphonies Nos. 4 to 9 as a distinct set. Presumably, since both DVD and 5-CD set share the same epithet The War Symphonies and appeared in consecutive months, the CD set has been released as a tie-in to Weinstein’s film. I say presumably, because, if you missed the small advertisement for the DVD on the cellophane wrapper of the CD set, the packaging design would not confirm the connection. Nor do the liner notes make any mention of Weinstein’s film or Gergiev’s participation in it. Whilst acknowledging the political and artistic pressures placed on Shostakovich, Andrew Huth’s notes make no attempt to match the aim of Weinstein’s film, namely, as David Haas wrote in DSCH 11, “to dramatise the viewpoint that the six numbered symphonies (Nos. 4-9) written during the Stalinist terror constitute a heroic sustained resistance to Stalin, a personal war waged with music as the weapon.” It is curious why Philips decided not to make more of the tie-in potential. As it is, the 5-CD set is a strange beast, neither completely self-standing nor fully related to the DVD release, and offering no further insights into Weinstein’s War Symphonies project.
There is much evidence to suggest that Philips have been planning to release this 5-CD set for some time: the introductory notes and translations have a copyright date of 2003; the catalogue number for the overall set (470 841-2) is the first in the sequence of numbers stamped on the individual CDs within the set (470 842-2 to 470 846-2), and the catalogue numbers for the original releases of Symphonies 4 and 7 match those on the equivalent CDs within the 5-CD set (470 842-2 and 470 845-2, respectively). All this makes the interim piecemeal release of the recordings too obviously a revenue-maximising venture. Only the original release of Symphony No. 7 in 2003 had a legitimate excuse because of the recent sixtieth anniversary of the premiere. Moreover, this 5-CD set contains the first and probably only release of Gergiev’s Symphony No. 6 recording, which will rightly infuriate those collectors who have already bought the previous individual releases of the other symphonies. If you do not yet own any of the Gergiev/Shostakovich symphony recordings, however, this set is a bargain with much to enjoy.
Mark Wigglesworth, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.
BIS SACD 1483. DDD hybrid Direct Stream Digital 5.0-surround sound/stereo SACD/stereo CD. TT 69:54.
Recorded at the Music Centre for Dutch Radio and Television, the Netherlands, 20-22 December 2004.
Symphony No. 8 in C minor, opus 65[a]; Festive Overture, opus 96[b].
Vakhtang Jordania, Russian Federal Orchestra.
Angelok1 CD-9932. DDD. TT 64:02.
Recorded at Bolshoi Hall, Tchaikovsky Conservatory, Moscow, January 2003[a]; Radio Palace Hall, Moscow, September 1999[b].
Symphony No. 8 in C minor, opus 65.
Oleg Caetani, Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppi Verdi.
Arts Music 47704-8. DDD hybrid Direct Stream Digital 5.1-surround sound/stereo SACD/stereo CD. TT 53:05.
Recorded live at the Auditorium di Milano, Italy, October 2004.
New recordings of the Eighth have been thin on the ground in recent years, perhaps because it has been so difficult for recent conductors to match the power of classic recordings by Yevgeny Mravinsky (BBCL 4002-2; reviewed in DSCH 11) and Kirill Kondrashin (Aulos AMC2-043-1-10), who lived through the events the Symphony depicts. Conductors face difficult challenges in deciding how to pace the work. On the one hand, interpretations must take the time to respect the music’s moments of emotional devastation and shock, but on the other hand, sixty minutes of numbness will not sustain an audience’s interest, nor will it convey the work’s excitement and vivid sense of theatre. It is easy, for example, to lose the listener in the first movement’s hushed and wandering exposition, or in the disconnected imagery of its development. It is also easy to become so absorbed in the grief of this work that it becomes monochromatic, and misses the imagination, absurdity and biting humour in its imagery. This trio of Eighths presents a wide range of solutions to the challenges of this work.
Georgian conductor Vakhtang Jordania worked in the Soviet Union as Mravinsky’s assistant and also conducted the Leningrad Radio Symphony before defecting to the United States in 1983, where he held conducting positions in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Spokane, Washington. More recently, he returned to the former Soviet Union to conduct the Kharkov Orchestra in the Ukraine and the Russian Federal Orchestra in Moscow. He died in October 2005 of cancer. In this 2003 recording, coupled with a rousing 1999 performance of the Festive Overture, Jordania presents a coherent and respectable Eighth, with middle-of-the-road timings and some very exciting moments. His slower sections do not have the passion of older Russian interpreters like Kondrashin, and he sometimes seems to rush over moments that deserve greater respect and attention. His scherzos are, however, electrifying, full of shrieking woodwinds, scary and graphic. It is almost worth the price of this CD just to hear the mad pounding of the timpanist as the second scherzo moves into the passacaglia.
Jordania’s finale, a sensitive, gradual emergence, is especially lovely. He is even able to make sense of the music that follows the reappearance of the first and third movement’s conflagration: it seems to be full of recollections of absurdities. The clarinet sneaks in impishly, as if chuckling at all the bombast, and the cello’s over-romanticised waltz is interrupted by an especially grotesque bassoon. As the movement closes, Jordania’s string players are wonderfully wistful. There is a gentle sense of sadness, and a very Shostakovichian feeling of open-ended unknowing. It is one of the most convincing and finely-drawn finales I have heard.
At the speedy end of the pacing continuum, Oleg Caetani seems to acknowledge that he cannot compete with the Russians at their own game, and he instead provides a faster, fleeter, more “modern” Eighth. His overall timing for the Symphony is a speedy 53 minutes. The sound of his Milan orchestra is gorgeous, perfectly captured on this disc. If you like the Emerson Quartet’s boxed set of the Shostakovich quartets, you will like this disc. It is a beautifully transparent recording; you hear every dissonance, the side drum is frightening, the piccolos are frenzied. The performance is not insensitive; there is exquisite attention to detail. But if you love this symphony for its compassionate examination of the devastating emotional impact of war, you will find Caetani disappointing. Even more than Jordania, Caetani seems to rush past the moments of grief. For me, this misses the point of the work.
Each of these interpretations has first-rate moments, and Jordania’s recording is especially fine in its finale, but, like Paul Ingram, who reviewed Rostropovich’s Eighth in DSCH No. 23, I find that overall none of these recent interpreters can compete with the classic recordings by Kondrashin and Mravinsky.
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Symphony No. 11, The Year 1905, opus 103.
Oleg Caetani, Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi.
Arts Music 47676-8SACD. DDD hybrid Direct Stream Digital 5.1-surround sound/stereo SACD/stereo CD. TT 66:15.
Recorded live at the Auditorium di Milano, Italy, March 2003.
I must admit at the outset that I hadn’t had the occasion to listen to this symphony in its entirety for quite some time, hence the review process involved a reengagement with the work itself as much as with Caetani’s interpretation and three comparison discs: James DePreist with the Helsinki Philharmonic (Delos D/CD 3080), Paavo Berglund with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (EMI 7243 5 73839 2 9), and Mstislav Rostropovich with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live LSO 0030; reviewed in DSCH 18). In remembering certain commentators’ guarded reaction to the work (such as Robert Dearling’s comment that divorced from its programmatic concerns “some sections of the work cannot be supported from either an artistic or a symphonic viewpoint”), I found myself pondering which interpretation served the work best, from a fresh perspective afforded by my aforementioned distance.
The first movement is in many ways the most problematic because of, in Dearling’s words again, “the huge expanses of almost static music” and the use of the various folk songs. Constant Lambert’s critique of such practices from the perspective of pure symphonism springs to mind—that all you can do with a folk song in a symphony is “play it over again and play it rather louder.” There is a fair amount of repetition in this symphony, in the first movement in particular, and whilst Shostakovich is masterful in the manner he reworks material (due in part to his rich and seemingly inexhaustible modal language that allows him to recolour themes in startling ways), issues arising from the principal materials and the manner of their deployment cannot be sidestepped.
Take the revolutionary song Listen that appears in the flutes at figure 8, repeated at figure 9 and subsequently in the trumpets with only slight alterations. The flute’s repetition of the melody draws even greater attention to its internal repetitions: its second and fourth phrases are identical. In repeating the theme the composer is clearly open to charges of banality or tautology. How is this to succeed? Arguably, by letting these tunes be themselves, and one of the important strategies in doing so is a sympathetic tempo.
This is where, in the first movement at least, Caetani succeeds while the comparison performances produce mixed results. Shostakovich’s metronome markings suggest the movement should come in at a fraction over 13 minutes, and while this movement is capable of sustaining tempi slower than stipulated, there are limits. Caetani takes 15:18, Berglund 18:05, Rostropovich 20:10 and De Priest 17:44. Clearly, Caetani comes closest to Shostakovich’s stated intentions and is all the better for it, whilst Rostropovich’s version best illustrates why Shostakovich set the tempo he did. The aforementioned revolutionary song loses its character in inverse proportion to the slowness of tempo, saddling it, in Rostropovich’s case, with a burden of pathos it was never intended to carry. The movement is, after all, a prelude to the events of the second, and clearly Shostakovich was attempting to paint in music what was “in the air” before that fateful day. Among these was discontent, apprehension no doubt (we are talking about intending a protest march in Tsarist Russia) plus hope for a better future (after all, the marchers sought a positive outcome, simply to be heard, a fact that underscores the injustice of their eventual fate). At a sympathetic tempo Listen (at figure 8) exudes quiet confidence, even a degree of jauntiness due to its fanfare-like melodic configurations and the diatonic Ab major harmonisation. There is foreboding as well, supplied by the lower strings and timpani interjections, doggedly insisting on a mediant pedal of the home key of G minor with its menacing diminished fourth interval Cb-G. The polymodality and the counterpoint of moods it helps create (along with the active/static opposition of the participating strands) functions less effectively if the tune sounds sleepy and enervated, as it does in proportion to the slowness of the tempo. Rostropovich’s attempt to ennoble the tune with excessive rubato is doomed to failure given its in-built banality.
Of the interpretations on offer here, Caetani’s first movement is the most multi-layered emotionally, communicating the requisite nervousness that effectively discharges its subtle energy into the ensuing movement rather than an all-pervading gloom that sits like a dense fog, of which the comparison recordings are guilty, to greater or lesser degrees.
Caetani’s second movement is likewise more than competitive in present company. The strings provide a suitably cavernous tone at the opening and the tempo is quick enough to create real contrast with the preceding movement. Energy is sustained over long periods, particularly at the big string theme at figure 44, which DePreist and Rostropovich broaden slightly with an attendant drop in intensity; Berglund, like Caetani, drives on with a sense of purpose. The transitions in and out of the 5/4 sections are assured (though pipped for crispness and venom by Berglund) and the instrumental balance excellent at the climax up to figure 60, as is the wind chorale version of the first movement’s main theme in its aftermath. The ensuing Allegro is tense and taut, whilst moments like the ascending chromatic snarls prior to figure 83 are guaranteed to make your hair stand on end. The percussion underscores the massacre sequence with great brutality and while the snare, bass drum and timpani occasionally sound ever so slightly out of sync, this lends a chaotic nuance and a palpable malevolence. The aftermath with its semitonal trills on the Palace Square theme is chilling, highlighted by the reprise of the song Listen at figure 95 where the strings rise imperceptibly to answer its first phrase with an admixture of eerie stillness and horror. Here the song stands as a symbol of crushed opposition and the composer has deliberately painted it thus, subsuming its oppositional polytonality into the home key of G minor. A slackening of the tempo here is not too much of an issue, for it underscores the sense of defeat embedded in the notes. That this passage works so well in Caetani’s interpretation is because he sufficiently differentiates it from occurrences in the first movement. The jauntiness that Caetani allowed the theme to convey in the first movement is poignantly absent here.
If the Caetani version has a slight blemish it is the third movement, which lags a little in tempo: his overall duration is 15:19, to Berglund’s 13:19, Rostropovich’s 13:27 and De Preist’s 13:39. It seems to take an age before we receive the relief of the second violins’ countermelody prior to figure 103 (4:45 in fact!). Like the slow movement of the Fifth (which I have commented on in previous reviews) this movement does not benefit from being overly elegiac. The revolutionary song upon which it is based, You have fallen as victims, presupposes a degree of protest and it seems to me Shostakovich wanted his elegy tinged with the faintest hint of anger (an anger that erupts with full force in the finale). DePreist and Berglund get it about right in my estimation— the second violins turn up around the 3:20-30 mark—whereas Rostropovich, although his overall duration is roughly the same as theirs, tends towards Caetani’s morbidity in the handling of this opening theme.
Like the second movement, Caetani’s finale compares favourably with its competitors. While perhaps not as abrasive in the percussion section as Berglund’s, it more than compensates in terms of orchestral balance and sustained momentum. The lower strings possess the requisite barking tone at figure 139 whilst the upper strings are allowed their full “red-romantic” head in the leaping sixth theme prior to figure 149 (with portamento, which sounds thrilling even if it is uncalled for by the score). The climax leading to the cor anglais solo is compelling as indeed is the solo itself, not too self-indulgent with regard to tempo, which sadly is not the case in Rostropovich’s version. After a slightly awkward entry from the bass clarinet (one of few blemishes of this nature) the coda builds in fury as it should and the bells at the end are monstrous, more like the cathedral variety than tubular.
In conclusion, I rate Caetani’s version higher than the comparison discs if for no other reason than he gets the basic platform right in terms of tempo, allowing the music to express what it needs to, especially in the first movement. Many might still opt for the Berglund due to its sonic presence (which DePreist lacks a little in the louder moments) and the more sympathetic reading of the third movement. My reservation regarding that movement aside, the overall flow of Caetani’s reading of the work in its entirety gives him the slight edge.