CD Reviews 25
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The Execution of Stepan Razin, opus 119[a]; October, opus 131[b]; Five Fragments, opus 42[c].
Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony, Charles Robert Austin (bass-baritone)[a], Seattle Symphony Chorale[a].
Naxos 8.557812. DDD. TT 52:22.
Recorded at the Seattle Center Opera House, June 1996[a]; S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, February 2000[b]/February 2005[c].
This performance of the Execution of Stepan Razin dates from 1996 and has only now been released. Gerard Schwarz is mainly known as the conductor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, a post he has held since 1985, and for a distinguished series of recordings exploring the lesser-known works of 20th century American music. While a number of these recordings have earned high critical acclaim, Schwarz is generally regarded as a competent conductor with a hit-or-miss track record of interpretation, even in his own area of concentration. What, then, could he possibly do with a major work by a Russian composer with whom he is not usually associated?
Schwarz joins an elite company of conductors who have broughtStepan Razin to disc: Kondrashin, Kegel, Jurowski, Polyansky, Slovak, and Andreev. It is not hard to understand why the work has attracted relatively little attention. When a performance fails, as the Andreev version drearily demonstrates (Koch 3-7017-2 H1), it fails miserably. Effectively performed, however, the music is as electrifying as anything Shostakovich wrote.
Half an hour in length, Stepan Razin unfolds in one continuous movement as a series of high-strung episodes that place extreme demands on the energy and concentration of its interpreters. The bass soloist bears the anger, outrage, and irony of the legendary protagonist, who, having led a grass roots revolt against the czar, is captured, hauled into Moscow’s Red Square, humiliated, and beheaded. The text is loaded with autobiographical reverberations; the musical setting is explosive.
One complaint I have about the current version is that soloist Charles Robert Austin lacks the menacing edge and dark tones of other performers of the work. His being a bass-baritone only partly accounts for this. In the Polyansky version (Chandos CHAN 9813; reviewed in DSCH 17), baritone Anatoly Lochak breaks rank with his predecessors and with the indication in the score as the first non-bass to take up the part. What Lochak lacks in vocal weight, though, he makes up in visceral drama as he portrays a forceful, impassioned Razin. Austin projects enough masculine strength and lyrical sensitivity to get by, but misses the fire-in-the-belly quality that we find in the best portrayals.
Still, Schwarz’s version impresses by the merits of the performance turned in by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and chorus. In contrast to the Polyansky version with its pulling and pushing of tempi and its impulsive dynamic shifts, Schwarz’s is driven with self-assured stability and grounded emotional power. Impressive weight and solidity of orchestral sound are achieved in this recording. The result is a performance of overwhelming magnitude with excellent ensemble work that gains access to the music’s deepest currents. The Seattle Symphony Chorale, even with their un-Slavic phonetic Russian, give a stirring, first-class performance. This is as purposeful and communicative a Stepan Razin as one will find.
The October tone poem has had the steadfast, acoustically ambient rendition of Järvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon 459 415-2) and the rousing, operatic version by Ashkenazy and the Royal Philharmonic (Decca 289 475 7431), among others. Now enter Gerard Schwarz, whose October rolls out on sonic boulders in a concert hall eager to capture every detail. The weight and expressive equilibrium elicited from the Seattle musicians render the bone and muscle of this musical behemoth exceedingly well. The strong sectional playing and beautifully balanced sound bring each orchestral group into vivid focus. This is an October with a big, earthy resonance; one that will handsomely repay repeated hearings.
Likewise, clarity and strength are brought to the twisty conversations that take place between solo instruments in the rarely performed Five Fragments, dating from Shostakovich’s pre-Lady Macbeth years.
Schwarz and his Seattle colleagues offer here an album whose wonders never cease. Unhesitatingly recommended.
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Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, opus 67; Weinberg: Trio for Piano, Violin and Violoncello, opus 24; Alexander Weprik: Three Folk Dances, opus 13b.
Dmitry Sitkovetsky (violin), David Geringas (cello), Jascha Nemtsov (piano).
Hänssler Classic CD 98.481. DDD. TT 60.27.
Recorded in Bavaria Musikstudios, Munich, 16-18 December 2004.
Piano Trio No. 1 in C minor, opus 8; Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, opus 67; Seven Romances on Verses by Alexander Blok, opus 127[a].
Beaux Arts Trio: Daniel Hope (violin), Antonio Meneses (cello), Menahem Pressler (piano); Joan Rodgers (soprano)[a].
Warner Classics 2564 62514-2. DDD. TT 66:05.
Recorded at Auer Hall, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, 8-12 July 2005.
The Russian tradition of elegiac piano trios, exemplified by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, made that genre especially appropriate as the country mourned the losses of war in the mid-1940s; it is not then surprising that those years saw a spate of outstanding trios. Those by Weinberg (1945) and Shostakovich (1944) shared an overall rhetorical shape and many stylistic features, including the prominent use of Jewish musical inflections. In the case of these two composers, however, it has never been easy to pin down who influenced whom: did Weinberg’s Jewish Songs, opus 13 and 17 (1943-44), inspire Shostakovich’s use of Jewish music in the Second Piano Trio, opus 67 and Second Quartet, opus 68? Or did Shostakovich’s work inspire Weinberg to write a Piano Trio featuring Jewish music? Or was the process of influence complex, mutual and ongoing, as it often is between two talented individuals who enjoy each other’s work?
In any event, Weinberg’s Piano Trio is a masterpiece, a fine and subtle work. Jewish inflections give its melodies a lovely, improvisatory poignancy, as in the violin’s wandering little arioso in the first-movement Präludium and the piano recitative that opens the third-movement Poem. The frantic second-movement Toccata is arguably more interesting than similar movements in Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony and Eighth String Quartet and here I would have liked to hear violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky a little less concerned with beauty of sound and more willing to match his colleagues’ violence. The Trio’s finale, like many Shostakovich finales of this same period, struggles — and fails — to re-gain a sense of normalcy after trauma, and its subdued ending, complete with harmonics and pizzicato chords, is in clear homage to the ending of Shostakovich’s 1944 Trio.
In the spirit of this disc’s focus on Judaism and Jewishness, the performers have included Three Folk Dances by Alexander Weprik (1899-1958). Weprik, a participant in the Society for Jewish Music in the 1920s, sought also to modernise the teaching of composition and enhance Soviet contacts with contemporary music from Western Europe. Although initially favourably regarded by the Soviet regime, he was arrested in the final Stalinist years, spending four years in a labour camp. These three charming Jewish dances from the 1920s are exquisitely performed by Sitkovetsky, Geringas and Nemtsov with all the teasing nuance of klezmer music.
The group’s rendition of Shostakovich’s Second Trio, while sensitive, lacks the edginess, tension and black humour that is present in the most imaginative performances of the work, such as that of the Trio Wanderer (Harmonia Mundi HMC 901825; reviewed in DSCH 22). Nemtsov’s liner notes are also marred by an unqualified quotation from Volkov’s Testimony, presented as Shostakovich’s own words. No matter. The performers’ accomplished performance of two unfamiliar works — the Weinberg Trio and the Weprik Dances — provides reason enough for purchase of this disc.
A second new recording of opus 67 is provided by the Beaux Arts Trio, with pianist Menahem Pressler (b. 1923) beginning his second half-century at the helm. The Beaux Arts, the dean of American piano trios for decades, has recently gone through a series of personnel changes. As in the coupling of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 1, Pressler’s uninspired playing in No. 2 lacks colour and variety, taking the shine off the entire performance and seeming at odds with violinist Daniel Hope, who shows moments of energy and vision. Although these are competent recordings of the Trios, neither is outstanding.
This disc’s redeeming feature may be the 1967 Blok Romances, with soprano Joan Rodgers. Rodgers, a trained Russian speaker, has recorded the songs before with Elvira, Alfia and Eleonora Bekova (Chandos CD CHAN 9526; deleted); her diction is lovely and her singing warm and expressive. Those who find Galina Vishnevskaya’s live premiere recording with Mstislav Rostropovich, David Oistrakh and Mieczyslaw Weinberg shrill and marred by pitch problems (BMG/Melodiya 74321 53237-2; deleted) may well prefer this recording. On the other hand, compare the grittiness of Oistrakh’s sul ponticello sound in The Storm, the plaintiveness of Rostropovich’s playing in Ophelia’s Song, the baldness of Weinberg’s colouring throughout, and most of all, the unvarnished bleakness of Vishnevskaya’s often un-lovely voice. Listeners who admire the composer’s ability to look unflinchingly at extreme emotions and terrifying questions, may find that the Russian performers — technical problems and all — engage at an emotional level that makes Rodgers and the Beaux Arts players seem tame in comparison.
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Piano Sonata No. 2 in B minor, opus 61[a]; Stravinsky: Serenade in A[b]; Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 7 in Bb major, opus 83[c]; Scriabin: Sonata No. 9, opus 68[d].
Alexei Lubimov (piano).
ECM New Series 1679 465 1372. DDD. TT 65:56.
Recorded in Radio Studio DRS, Zurich, May 1998[a,b,d], December 2000[c].
Among contemporary Russian pianists, Alexei Lubimov is one of the most versatile and original. Now a well-known artist at home and abroad, he is a former student of Anna Artobolevskaya, Heinrich Neuhaus and Lev Naumov. Although Maria Yudina was not Lubimov’s official teacher, she also had an immense influence on his development as a musician. With a repertoire embracing three centuries of keyboard music, Lubimov often performs 18th-century works on the harpsichord and organ. Yet, first and foremost, he is a fabulous pianist and a remarkable interpreter of 20th-century music.
Stravinsky’s neoclassical Serenade in A is the first (and my favourite) piece on this disc. The opening movement, Hymn, is played boldly and clearly. The non-legato sixteenths in the left hand’s long accompanying passage enhance the music’s flavour of antiquity. The Romanza demonstrates the pianist’s amazingly varied articulation, including his warm legato in the melodic line. The Rondoletto is technically impeccable, and its humorous side tastefully reflected. The Cadenza Finala is expressively intonated, and the commas separating the asymmetrical phrases are agogically outlined and made meaningful. In all movements the silently depressed keys produce the intended effect. The entireSerenade is an example of elegance and true pianistic finesse.
After Stravinsky’s Serenade, the beginning of Shostakovich’s Second Sonata sounds as if played by a different pianist. The rhythmic precision and uncompromising musical logic, however, betray a familiar touch. In the second movement, unlike in Gilels’ slow, Romantic version (RCA 9026-63469-2), Lubimov is faithful to the indicated tempo, which contributes to the music’s structural proportions but detracts somewhat from its ghostly and enchanting aura. The Finale’s variations are masterfully interpreted with dramatic élan and fresh highlights in the counterpoint.
Lubimov begins the first movement of Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata in a slower tempo than that of Richter’s famous recording (Philips 456946; deleted), but he establishes the required Allegro inquito right away. His playing is rhythmically charged, toccata-like, and extremely controlled. Under his fingertips, the grand piano sounds like a full orchestra with each layer of the texture given a certain colourful “instrumentation”. Remarkably, in the second theme Lubimov does not allow a trace of Romantic softness; it is sober and organized. In the slow movement the polyphonic lines are well defined, the phrases beautifully shaped and eloquent. The finale, unfortunately, is not as impressive, lacking spontaneity, with its precipitato almost lost in the sluggish tempo.
Scriabin’s Ninth Sonata, called Messe Noire by a critic because of its dark, apocalyptic content, is the last composition on the disc. If you are fond of Sofronitsky’s interpretation (Arlecchino ARL 62; deleted), it will be hard to accept Lubimov’s concept of this work. However, if you are a Horowitz fan and admire his revolutionary version (Sony SK90445), you might appreciate and enjoy Lubimov’s performance. Lubimov’s approach seems very modern; his dynamics and articulation reflect the score indications to the minutest detail. Using comparatively little pedal, he achieves great lucidity in the texture, rendering intelligible Scriabin’s rich counterpoint. This is a strong, intellectual performance.
Overall, this is a fantastic disc, not to be missed.
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Chamber Symphony, arrangement of String Quartet No. 8 in C minor by Rudolf Barshai, opus 110a; Georgy Sviridov: Chamber Symphony, opus 14[a]; Weinberg [listed as Vainberg]: Chamber Symphony No. 1 for String Orchestra, opus 145.
Yuri Bashmet, Moscow Soloists.
Onyx Classics ONYX 4007. DDD. TT 73:31.
Recorded at the Schloss Neuhardenberg, Berlin, Germany, 22-25 June 2005.
[a]World premiere recording.
Shostakovich’s Circle/Autour de Chostakovitch
Symphony for Strings and Woodwind, arrangement of String Quartet No. 3 in F major by Rudolf Barshai, opus 73a; Herman Galynin: Piano Concerto No. 1[a]; Galina Ustvolskaya: Piano Concerto[b].
Yuli Turovsky, I Musici de Montreal, Serhiy Salov (piano)[a,b].
Analekta AN 2 9898. DDD. TT 76:55.
Recorded at Église de la Nativité de la Saint-Verge, La Prairie, Québec, 26 and 27 June 2005.
The flowering of creativity in Russia’s post-Shostakovich generation has scarcely been explored in the West. By coincidence or collusion, we have two independently released CDs that address this oversight with non-overlapping yet parallel programming: a chamber arrangement of a Shostakovich quartet coupled with a selection of works by his students.
On the Onyx disc, Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists take on the ever-popular Barshai arrangement of Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet with an interpretation that offers polish as well as depth of feeling. One senses a genuine end-of-the-world despair in the dirge-like tempi and impassioned solos of the outer movements, where tears seem to accompany each utterance of the DSCH motif. The Allegro molto explodes forcefully without resorting to exaggerated contrasts of tempo often found in other versions. In the Allegretto, atmosphere and thematic character become paramount. Trills rise sinuously from a nearly imperceptible whisper as they engulf the feverish repetitions of the DSCH waltz. Secondary themes sway with a world-weary gait. If Bashmet underplays the element of humour found in other renditions — the jaunty march theme from the Cello Concerto provides this recording’s only lighter moments — he achieves distinction with a performance that highlights the work’s passion and dignity.
This release merits further notice for offering the world premiere of the Chamber Symphony by Georgy Sviridov, Soviet Russia’s master of vocal and choral music. Sviridov’s chamber music, though less prolific and less well represented on disc, culminates with a genuine masterpiece, Music for Chamber Orchestra, of 1964. The Chamber Symphony dates from 1940, during the time of his composition studies with Shostakovich at the Leningrad Conservatory. The four-movement work, scored for strings, finds the 25-year-old Sviridov still mastering the art of abstract composition. Textural and colouristic effects abound and boast much imagination and skill. However, the material by and large falls short of its developmental potential. The opening Moderato assai consists of a simple alternation of themes; the fantastic Vivace vanishes just as it gets going; and a patchwork finale follows a sensitively handled slow movement. The work’s strength lies not in its formal details but rather in the richness and variety of its themes. While one inevitably hears idiomatic similarities handed down from teacher to student, the material of each movement is replete with Sviridov’s fingerprints already evident in his earlier song cycles — extravagant gestures, bold rhythm, Slavic demeanour. The music is beautifully realised by Bashmet and company.
The most recent work on these two discs is the first of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s four chamber symphonies, this one scored for strings and dating from 1986. Weinberg, then 55, had completed the 18th and 19th of his mammoth canon of 26 symphonies that same year. These expansive, single-movement works contrast sharply with the bucolic, neoclassical tone of the four-movement Chamber Symphony No. 1. Here one finds Weinberg’s trademark lyricism flowing with as much Mozartian grace as can be afforded a 20th century composer. The outer movements are at times reminiscent of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony with a few treacherous turns thrown in for good measure. The second movement forms the expressive nucleus as it journeys to ruminative and rewarding pastures before returning to its delicate starting point. The shorter final two movements round out the work by a wistful, then a witty turn. The previous recording of the work by Thord Svedlund and the Umea SO (Olympia OCD 651; deleted) remains a worthy competitor, drawing out more nuance by its restraint. Svedlund exhibits more confidence than Bashmet in the rapturously wandering slow movement; and achieves remarkable poignancy in the Allegretto that follows. Bashmet applies more Dionysian vigour to his performance, which is anchored more to peak moments than to details, though it is not without its own tender inflections. Onyx’s robustly engineered sound, abetted by a tinier hall space, gives Bashmet the advantage of greater sonic weight and clarity. The booklet notes by Manashir Yakubov are informative.
The Analekta CD assembles three works written in 1946. Prominent among them is the Shostakovich Third String Quartet, here represented in the Barshai arrangement for strings, winds, and harp. Apologies to Maestro Barshai: despite his careful craftsmanship, his clarinets and bassoons have always seemed like unwanted intruders among the original party of four, as have the expanded strings. The added colour doesn’t compensate for the tolls taken in intimacy and thematic interaction. Barshai makes a decent case for his arrangement with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Deutsche Grammophon 00289 477 5442; reviewed in DSCH 23), the spacious, homogeneous acoustic making the effort seem all the more expansive. Lev Markiz and the Nieuw Sinfonietta of Amsterdam (Globe GLO 5093; deleted), with their tight grip, sharp reflexes, and flexible tempi, offer an exceptionally lively account that resolutely refuses to concede to the inherent limitations of the arrangement. Turovsky also takes a firm hold in a performance where clarity and balance take priority. Lines are crisply delineated, as can be heard in the thrusting gestures of the fourth movement’s passacaglia theme and in the overlapping voices of the first movement’s climactic fugue. The timbres of the wind chorales and solos are spotlighted more than in other recordings and stake their claim quite convincingly. Turovsky also gives careful attention to the shifting moods of the last movement in an appealing interpretation that stays on top of every detail.
Had Herman (or German) Galynin (1922-1966), another Shostakovich student, not died so young in a psychiatric institution, greater things might have come. Among his small but significant legacy, the First Piano Concerto of 1946 remains one of the little jewels of Soviet music. The exuberant wit of the outer movements and the dreamily romantic Andante take after the examples by Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Yet the work boasts its own charm and personality. Two earlier recordings (there is at least a third, overlooked in the otherwise fine liner notes by Robert Markow) reveal a darker dimension that barely surfaces in the current version. With fingers of steel, pianist Evgeni Malinin, along with Vladimir Fedoseyev leading the USSR SO (Melodiya LP C10 20419 003; deleted), pursues the manic edges of the opening movement’s mirth and captures the anguish that lies at the core of the central Andante. Likewise, Dmitri Bashkirov with the USSR SO under Svetlanov (Melodiya LP C 0527-8; deleted) underlines theAndante’s pained moments with stinging intensity. We hear none of this edginess in Serhiy Salov’s performance, where, with a lighter touch, the Andante is treated in a more subdued fashion and where the outer movements’ high spirits are sprung with exhilarating velocity. Nonetheless it makes a fine introduction to the work.
The single-movement piano concerto of Galina Ustvolskaya (b. 1919) dates from her student days at the Leningrad Conservatory where she studied composition under Shostakovich. Echoes of her mentor’s First Piano Concerto turn up by way of certain turns of phrase and in the work’s nearly identical instrumentation for piano and strings. Beyond that, the similarity ends. The stern material in Ustvolskaya’s concerto looks ahead to the grim, ritualistic features that would increasingly dominate her music. The premiere recording by pianist Pavel Serebryakov (BMG/Melodyia Musica Non Grata 74321 49956 2; deleted) offers a one-of-a-kind affair that is both maddening and inspiring in its relentlessness. A more recent recording features Ingrid Jacoby, whose opulent tones offer a less pressured account that brings out the bravura elements of the work (Dutton CDSA 4804; reviewed in DSCH 20). In the current recording Serhiy Salov offers yet another point of view as he sensitively explores the humanity that lies beneath the concerto’s restless surface. Phrases are thoughtfully probed and pried apart, with especially fine results in the central slow section. At the same time Salov maintains a tenacious hold on the music’s pulse as he builds toward the finale’s apocalyptic protestations.
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Karel Ancerl Gold Edition, Volume 42
Cello Concerto No. 1 in Eb major, opus 107[a]; Liszt: Les Preludes[b]; Lubor Bárta: Concerto for Viola and Orchestra[c].
Karel Ancerl, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Milos Sádlo (cello)[a],Jaroslav Karlovsky (viola)[c].
Supraphon SU 3702-2 011. ADD. TT 69:05.
Recorded in the Dvorák Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague, 6-8 June 1968[a], 17-18 December 1964[b], 19-20 June 1961[c].
Karel Ancerl did not take much Shostakovich into the studio, only Symphonies Nos. 1, 5, 7, 9 and 10, the First Cello Concerto and theFestive Overture. Even the available off-air recordings merely duplicate the studio tapings of the middle three symphonies. However, his recordings are regularly and rightly hailed as among the most recommendable. This disc somewhat strangely couples the Cello Concerto to a romantic tone poem and a modern Czech piece — Ancerl was a great advocate of his contemporary countrymen, and several discs in the Gold Edition include valuable recordings of such rare repertoire.
Though he captured Brahms’ autumnal works beautifully, Ancerl is not so well remembered for Romantic music, and Liszt was at the edge of his concerns. Les Preludes is the best known of Liszt’s tone poems, though as the apparent programme post-dated the composition, it is debatable whether the term is correct. The work is possibly less popular now than when (under Karajan) it was used to demonstrate hi-fi. Ancerl avoids the pitfall of making it a brash orchestral showpiece. What is most remarkable is his sensitivity to the subtlety of the score’s colours, which here seem eminently suited to the Czech musicians’ warm and round tones: especially welcome is the brass’ refusal to blow to the point of rasping.
Next up in the programme is the lithe and sinewy Viola Concerto from 1957 by Lubor Bartá, who was short-lived (1928-72) but produced a large body of work. It shortly predates Bartá’s move into a more avant-garde style, and is reminiscent of Prokofiev and Bartók. In contrast to the Shostakovich, the soloist is not so much of a combatant as a first amongst equals and, echoing this, several moments hint at neoclassicism. This might not be the most distinctive concerto ever written, but its enjoyable 23 minutes spark interest in hearing more of Bartá’s work.
Ancerl and Sádlo recorded Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto in June 1968, just before the Russian invasion of Prague, in response to which the conductor took the painful decision to leave his homeland. The performance begins slightly heavily, with a deliberate tempo; the recording, warm to the point of slight boxiness, increases the feeling. Of course, one of the joys of hearing the Czech Phil either on disc or live is their wonderfully woody tone. Though here they seem unable to put a sharper edge on their playing, this is in keeping with Sádlo, who doesn’t see the first movement as very anguished. His (sadly uncredited) horn counterpart reinforces the impression by skipping along quite lightly.
While the second movement is certainly introspective it never moves into the time-stopping self-absorption that Rostropovich can achieve. The contrasts between the slow melodic sections and the more percussive intrusions tend to be downplayed, in a way that is indicative of the whole performance.
One of the most fascinating and successful things about this concerto is the way that the soloist has to fight for quiet, personal space, making the slow passages of the ruminative, inward-looking cadenza the heart of the work. But Sádlo is again more outward looking and demonstrative than self-communing, and in the intense up and down arpeggios at the end of the cadenza he seems intent on ensuring that every note is heard, losing the manic edge that leaves the soloist with nowhere to go and demands the orchestra’s re-entry.
By now it will be unsurprising to learn that the finale is not played to extremes, but rather has a steady tempo and a relatively restrained view of the solo part, so that the final bars, though exciting (have they ever failed to be?), don’t have the intense sense of release that some recordings achieve.
In short then, not a central performance but an interesting and always enjoyable one to pick for a less intense view of the Cello Concerto. It was previously available on Supraphon SU 1950-2 011 coupled to Ancerl and André Navarra’s traversal of Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto. I wouldn’t pick that as the definitive version of the Prokofiev, but it made a more appropriate programme than this Gold Edition re-release. On the other hand, I was certainly glad to get to know Bárta’s Concerto and am happy to have both discs on my shelf.
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Symphony No. 2 in B major, To October — a Symphonic Dedication, opus 14[a]; Symphony No. 12 in D minor, The Year 1917, opus 112[b].
Mariss Jansons, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks[a].
EMI Classics 0946 3 35994 2 0. DDD. TT 58:19.
Recorded at Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich, 29-30 June 2004 and 10 January 2005[a], 26-28 June 2004[b].
This CD brings together the two Shostakovich symphonies dedicated to the Bolshevik Revolution. It is interesting to hear, back-to-back, the solo clarinet descending lines in No. 2 repeated in No. 12, which supposedly represent Shostakovich’s sorrow at witnessing the death of a child in the revolution. This release has appropriately propagandistic cover art and brief but insightful notes by David Fanning.
I stress these positives, as there is otherwise little reason to purchase this release. I am disappointed by this CD, from which I had expected great things. I highly respect Jansons, and have heard him lead awesome live performances of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies; however, these were with other orchestras, notably the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Here, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (or perhaps more so the recording) often sound indistinct, despite some excellent solo playing.
Jansons takes the beginning of Symphony No. 2 without much distinction or elucidation, favouring muddy waters reminiscent of the drowning scene in Berg’s Wozzeck. Yet there is so much more to this when played clearly, as a recent live performance under Gergiev shows. The remainder gets underway brightly but lacks enthusiasm. The 13-instrument collage section misses its relationship to the First Symphony, again evident with Gergiev. What makes me most reluctant to recommend this version is the factory whistle (Fanning reports this is “used here for the first time in the symphony’s recorded history,” which is inaccurate). Gergiev used a hand-cranked siren with a long decay that sounded great; here the effect is an unpleasant, unpitched electric humming (and no, we do not want a Philip Glass effect for this work). The chorus sound decent enough but less than excited about their banal lyrics. Alternative recordings of merit are those by Ashkenazy (Decca 436 762-2; deleted) and Järvi (Deutsche Grammophon 469 525-2; deleted). I am eagerly awaiting Gergiev’s recording of Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3, sure to be released in the coming fall or winter.
In Symphony No. 12, Jansons’ approach is again rather anaemic, lacking real drive and spark, and the sound is too diffuse. Contrast this with the plodding beginning of Cox’s rendition with the London Shostakovich Orchestra (Dunelm Records DRD0234; reviewed in DSCH 24), which quickly leads to excitement and real drama until the hammered conclusion, or the vigorous approach of Järvi with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon 459 415-2). The best part of Jansons’ recording is the slow, thoughtful, Khachaturian-like Razliv, played with brooding dignity and respect. At the end of the work, Jansons doesn’t hammer the repetitions to get across the point of deliberate heavy-handedness Shostakovich may have sardonically intended. Without this stress, the ending has insufficient meaning or emotion to carry off the rest of this often misunderstood and unloved symphony. Mravinsky (recently returned to the catalogue on the resurrected Melodiya label; MELCD1000770), Rostropovich (Teldec 0630-17046-2), Cox, and Järvi are good alternatives.
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Symphony No. 7 in C major, Leningrad, opus 60.
Vakhtang Jordania, Russian Federal Orchestra.
Angelok1 CD-9915. DDD. TT 71:12.
Recorded in the Bolshoi Hall, Tchaikovsky Conservatory, Moscow, January 2003.
The opening string theme of Jordania’sLeningrad bursts out energetically enough but acoustically is a little unfocused when compared to more crisp and muscular accounts from Vladimir Ashkenazy with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (Decca 448 814-2) and Yevgeny Svetlanov with the USSR Symphony Orchestra (Scribendum SC 025). Thereafter the poco piu mosso is well controlled and the flute and piccolo soar majestically. The march theme sets out at an appropriate tempo and works through the first two variations nicely. The third variation, the call and response for oboe and bassoon (Fig. 25), is omitted! Whether or not a conductor (or the manufacturer, if they were responsible for the edit after the fact) considers it tautological, the composer had a reason for it in his grand scheme: the stretto of variation 5 (Fig. 31) represents an intensification of a compositional tactic already explored. If you take issue with conductors or nameless others wielding the knife, this is not a disc for you.
The string version of the theme in parallel major chords (Fig. 33) leaps out dramatically in volume, creating the effect of terraced dynamics (though Jordania keeps more than sufficient resources in reserve) rather than the more graduated course of Ashkenazy, Svetlanov or Rostropovich with the National Symphony Orchestra (Apex 0927414092). Jordania’s approach is an effective ploy in that the garish harmony is thrust to the fore, the theme’s course of malignant mutation vividly underscored. In this variation Rostropovich pays close attention to the composer’s articulation of the repeated notes at the end of each phrase of the tune—they should not be rendered uniformly staccato as they are by Jordania, Ashkenazy and Svetlanov.
Towards the climax, the fff horns prior to Figure 41 are not quite strong enough in tone, and in the ensuing variation the balance of the chromatic thirds is not allowed to monster the main tune to my liking. Not so Ashkenazy and Svetlanov, whose four horns in unison are magnificent, whilst the parallel thirds in the ensuing variation enshroud the tune like a filthy blanket.
Jordania’s frullato brass at the climax fails to bare its teeth. Thereafter, the snare part comes unstuck from the rest of the ensemble as the music accelerates to Figure 52. The moderato that follows maintains a rather brisk tempo and lacks the grim pathos of Ashkenazy and Svetlanov. Jordania’s bassoon eulogy is expressive nonetheless, as is the remainder of the movement.
Overall, this is a fluent reading of the first movement, though momentary infelicities at the ensemble level make this juggernaut (the march in particular) less clinical than Ashkenazy’s or Svetlanov’s. The difference is slight, but the grand arch from the innocuous, to frenzied hysteria, to a sense of collapse is not quite compelling enough to rank alongside present company.
The second movement certainly holds its own, wan and emotionless to begin with, stoutly protesting in the middle. The solo bass clarinet passage with harp and flutter-tongue flute and piccolo is beautifully rendered, ice cool and apprehensive.
The third movement is a little on the slow side for my liking, coming in at 17:52 as opposed to Ashkenazy’s 15:41. My reviews seem to go on like a stuck record on the subject of overly slow tempi in Shostakovich’s slow movements, but I think this movement benefits from keeping relatively close to Shostakovich’s markings, as Ashkenazy does. The movement contains passages of comparatively simple (yet direct) invention that are rendered overly morose by a sluggish tempo; Rostropovich’s performance also suffers a little in this regard.
The finale makes for compelling listening, especially in terms of energy early on, though once again some of the climactic moments don’t quite make a big enough impression. The four horns at Figure 202 lack force, and the trombone’s intonation between Figures 205 and 206 goes a little awry (Ashkenazy’s players are totally assured here). Earlier the pizzicato punctuations in the 7/4 section (Fig. 177) lack the authority and bite of Ashkenazy’s performance. Elsewhere, the period where the movement draws breath (Figs. 179-198) before the final assault gets a little bogged down and turgid. Rostropovich does an excellent job of maintaining intensity through this section.
In conclusion, although this is a creditable and at times enjoyable reading, I would rate the comparison discs slightly higher for their consistency and controlled intensity, especially in the first movement. Jordania’s recording possesses many fine moments but occasionally gives the impression that members or sections of the orchestra are pushing against the conductor’s authority. Its acoustics favour the quieter moments but lack intensity in some of the crucial climaxes.
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Symphony No. 9 in Eb major, opus 70; Two Choruses after A. Davidenko, opus 124, for chorus and orchestra[a]; Concerto No. 1 for piano, trumpet and string orchestra in C minor, opus 35[b]; The Adventures of Korzinkina, opus 59, Suite from music to the film[c].
Valeri Polyansky, Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Russian State Symphonic Cappella[a,c], Tatiana Polyanskaya (piano)[b,c], Vladimir Goncharov (trumpet)[b], Elena Adamovich (piano)[c].
Chandos CHAN 10378. DDD. TT 66:28.
Recorded at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, June 2003.
This Chandos release contains a varied selection of works, linked by elements of circus music (with the exception of opus 124) and interconnected instrumental forces: the pianist from the concerto (the conductor’s daughter) reappears—with a friend—in The Chase from opus 59; Polyansky’s first-rate choir feature in both opus 59 and opus 124.
Polyansky’s account of Symphony No. 9 is marred by the second movement, which is much slower than the speed desired by Shostakovich (crotchet = 208) and—at 7:57—is on a par with Oleg Caetani’s recording (Arts Music 47675-2; reviewed in DSCH 22). Unfortunately the solo clarinet lingers unnecessarily between phrases, ignoring the fact that Shostakovich changed the time signature from 3/4 to 4/4 at each phrase end to allow a one-beat rest. Even worse, the reverberant acoustic blurs the rich tones of the clarinet, particularly when the line is chromatic. W. Mark Roberts made a similar complaint about the Chandos/Polyansky recording of Symphony No. 10 (CHAN 9522, reviewed in DSCH 15).
Davidenko’s two unaccompanied choruses formed part of The Path to October (1927), a collaborative cantata written for the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. Shostakovich’s orchestration, made in the early 1960s, has been recorded only once before, by Rozhdestvensky with the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Choir, for which Polyansky was chorus master (Melodiya LP C10 31619 002). The first chorus, At ten versts from the capital, is a mostly homophonic Eb minor lament for the mass execution and burial of revolutionaries. In contrast, The street in turmoil is a more polyphonic and jubilant call to overthrow the Tsar, using the bright, joy-affirming key of C major. Polyansky’s recording is the first on CD for this rare revolutionary curio, sung with superb diction and intonation by the Russian State Symphonic Cappella.
Both soloists and orchestra give a very spirited performance in the concerto. Goncharov deserves a special mention for his spooky muted trumpet in the second movement, radically different from any other recording I have heard. There are extra col legno percussive effects in the final movement at figure 74, which are neither in the old Collected Works score (Volume 12) nor all recordings, though they appear in Jerzy Maksymiuk’s recording with Dmitri Alexeev, piano, and Philip Jones, trumpet; (Classics for Pleasure 382 2342). Their presence definitely adds bite to the freneticPresto.
The music from the comedy film The Adventures of Korzinkina has only been recorded twice before, by Rozhdestvensky (BMG/Melodiya 74321 59058 2; reviewed in DSCH 11; deleted) and Mnatsakanov (Citadel CTD 88129; reviewed in DSCH 11; deleted). Polyansky’s recording is definitely superior, with the most impressive pianissimoending — well done to the Chandos sound engineers for capturing this. In comparison, Rozhdestvensky’s recording is hampered by poor recording conditions; Mnatsakanov’s suffers from bad intonation in the opening movements and a pedestrian Restaurant Music. Eric Roseberry’s liner notes need clarification: the “concertina tune borrowed from the Leningrad Circus” heard in Finale was used by Musin, a popular clown and star of the film; Shostakovich’s orchestration of Musorgsky’s Song of the Flea was used in the film (see John Riley, Dmitri Shostakovich: A Life In Film; reviewed in DSCH 22). Though identified by Roseberry as the suite assembled by Rozhdestvensky, both Polyansky and Mnatsakanov actually perform the five movements as published in Volume 41 of the old Collected Works series: the brief Intermezzo (No. 5 in Rozhdestvensky’s suite) is missing and the ending of the Finale is different. For example, in Rozhdestvensky’s version there is a G minor chord one bar before the final interjections of “Yanya” (the diminutive form of Korzinkina) and a shift to G major as the tenors enter; in Volume 41 this bar has a G major chord.
This CD may well be attractive to collectors chiefly because of opus 124, but I would also recommend it for the concerto and Korzinkina. Roseberry’s notes, with a thought provoking description of Symphony No. 9, are available in German and French translations, together with the texts for opus 124 and opus 59 (Finale) in English, German, French and Cyrillic Russian.
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Symphony No. 15 in A major, opus 141; Suite from The Age of Gold, opus 22a.
Vakhtang Jordania, Russian Federal Orchestra.
Angelok1 CD-9914. DDD. TT 64:02.
Recorded in the Bolshoi Hall, Tchaikovsky Conservatory, Moscow, 18 & 19 January 2003.
Symphony No. 15 in A major, opus 141[a]; Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, opus 102[b]; Overture, Romance and Galop from The Gadfly, Suite arranged by Lev Atovmyan, opus 97a[c].
Vassily Sinaisky, BBC Philharmonic, Martin Roscoe (piano)[b].
BBC Music Magazine BBC MM263. DDD. TT 77:45.
Recorded at Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 30 June and 1 July 2005[a,b], 8-9 April 2003[c].
Cover CD to BBC Music Magazine, Vol. 14, No. 6, February 2006.
It is difficult to assess any new recording of the Fifteenth Symphony in the wake of Mravinsky’s searing 1976 account with the Leningrad Philharmonic (MELCD1000770), or Kondrashin’s equally white-hot 1974 reading with the Moscow Philharmonic (reviewed in DSCH 10 on Icone ICN-9408-2; deleted; reissued on Aulos AMC2-043-1-10). Both performances, individually arresting, leave me little choice but to recommend them as essential listening. Comparing any of the recordings released in their footsteps gives plenty of reasons why they have yet to be surpassed. What sets Mravinsky’s and Kondrashin’s versions apart is the absence of the “toy-shop” syndrome that afflicts many modern interpreters. Both veterans attack this final symphony with as much anger and vengeance as they would the Fourth or Eighth Symphonies, for example, and this is the secret ingredient to their success.
Thus, the current entries have very high standards to live up to. The more special of the two is Vakhtang Jordania’s exciting outing, on a modestly packaged disc that scores many points. The conductor’s tragic recent passing has left only a handful of discs as testimony to his great insight. This is a Fifteenth with a deep feeling for Shostakovich’s symphonic world and a passionate sympathy for what the symphony is about, steeped in the Russian sound with its requisite grittiness and a certain degree of ugliness.
Jordania takes us to a world that is dark and horrifying. The composer smiles as he walks to his gallows, his inexorable march towards death playing out with as little dignity as life itself had afforded him. With this irony in mind, he pens his own death scene not as a glorious apotheosis but as a curious whirring of percussion tick-tocks, a mechanical device winding down to a stop. Encompassing these complex emotions, Jordania provides a powerful reading that is not without flaws but that deserves a hearing.
The highly persuasive Russian Federal Orchestra play far more impressively than their credentials would lead one to expect. There must be something in the Russian blood. The trumpets have the same wry tone that inhabits Mravinsky’s Leningraders, although neither of the present teams (nor anyone else since) manages to negotiate the infamous William Tell quotes with as much finesse and character as Mravinsky’s or Kondrashin’s. Jordania and others quite often sound out of place or contrived here. Elsewhere, Jordania’s violins are not as incisive as the great masters’ in drilling out the accented offbeat rhythms, and his percussion do not deliver the precision needed in the key solos (the glockenspiel fails to play its crucial counterpoint to the xylophone at 2.33 into the first movement). Despite their shaky coordination in these sections, the players deserve applause for continuing with audacity and gusto, ensuring that the spirit of the music is uninterrupted.
The recording has plenty of atmosphere, its dark richness revealing much detail even in the soft, solo string sections. And look out for the huge climax, which is appropriately apocalyptic — remember to warn your neighbours in advance!
Vassily Sinaisky and the BBC Philharmonic are beautifully recorded, with a little more fidelity and clarity, but their performance does not quite achieve Jordania’s spirit of defiance and undercurrent of terror. Afflicted perhaps by the aforementioned toy-shop syndrome, the first movement chugs along amiably, without a trace of the sinister or the mischief that drenches the Mravinsky and Kondrashin versions.
The BBC Philharmonic are a technically fine orchestra, their execution spirited and skilful, yet they fail to offer significant insights in most places. The first movement should be a roller coaster of emotions that run from manic to obsessive, tension building towards the finish, but the BBC Philharmonic seem happy to have a sunny day at the fair. This is not a joyride, after all; it should not sound like one.
The third movement benefits from some menacing playing from the woodwind and the string soloists, and is the most convincing of the four. The Finale, however, sounds lost. With no clue what has happened to the toy shop, the orchestra unwind aimlessly and the percussion play dutifully but without much expression, not realising that this wind-up toy is none other than the composer. Compare, for example, the violin solos at 5:48 of the first movement — although the Russian plays with less finesse than his British counterpart, his teetering anxiety is so much more engaging than the latter’s flawlessly rendered display.
In conclusion, of the two new recordings I recommend Jordania’s far more highly, if only to experience the art of this late conductor (it is heartbreaking to read the CD notes which refer to him in the present tense) and his very fine Russian band. The coupling is a boisterous performance of the four-movement Age Of Gold Suite, which supplies a delicious clarinet solo in the second movement and a cheeky Polka.
Sinaisky’s disc offers a lovely, bright reading of the Second Piano Concerto with Martin Roscoe at the keyboard. As if that isn’t confection enough, BBC Music Magazine throw in three of the breeziest extracts from The Gadfly, which do nothing to lend perspective to a decently executed but not very engaging Fifteenth.
[Recording Editor’s note: BBC Music Magazine were unable to supply a review copy of their February 2006 issue with Sinaisky’s recording, having run out of stock. I am grateful to reader Chris Logan from Australia for obtaining a copy from a retail outlet and forwarding it to our reviewer.]