CD Reviews 27
§ The Tale of the Priest and his Worker Balda, opus 36, Sanderling, Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, Moscow State Chamber Choir, Beloselsky, Suchkov, Bakanov, Stepanovich, Balashov, Sorokina, Yukavsky, Ulyanov, Narskaya
§ = World Première Recording
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
World Poetry in Russian Music
Suite to words by Michelangelo Buonarotti, opus 145; Kabalevsky: Four Shakespeare Sonnets, Nos. 2, 4, 5 and 7 from Ten Shakespeare Sonnets, opus 52; Valery Gavrilin: Four Heine Songs, Nos. 1, 4, Interlude, 8 and 11 from German Book II[a].
Frieder Anders (baritone), Stella Goldberg (piano).
Coviello Classics COV 50605. DDD. TT 66:32.
Recorded in Festeburgkirche, Frankfurt am Main, January 2006.
The Suite on Verses of Michelangelo has had a difficult time attracting microphones in its original scoring for bass and piano – the present entry is only the fifth complete recording in over three decades since its premiere, and then only if one counts Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s Italian-language recital with Aribert Riemann (Teldec 243 714-2; deleted). This relative neglect is lamentable, given the unique insight the cycle affords into the composer’s psychological schema. In 1974, Shostakovich chose eleven Michelangelo poems from dozens in a collection of Russian translations published ten years earlier. His selection, as he stood on the cusp of his final year of life, is revealing. In his last letter to his friend Isaak Glikman, Shostakovich wrote, ‘By the essence of these sonnets, I had in mind: Wisdom, Love, Creativity, Death, Immortality.’ This list would surely appear as the credo of most composers, or indeed intellectuals of any species, but with only two exceptions (No. 8, Creativity and No. 11, Immortality) the texts themselves sift these subjects through just two filters: the relationship between the artist and an unappreciative or downright hostile state, and the angst of love thwarted or at least unconsummated. This was Shostakovich’s last opus to include a narrative of these two core themes that weave throughout his oeuvre.
Though dissatisfied with Abram Efros’ ‘inadequate’ translation, Shostakovich considered that Michelangelo’s immense creative power shone through in these texts. Belying the composer’s failing health, the verses are vigorous. Virile love retains comparable prominence to artistic creation; take the second poem, Morning, with its lusty concluding line, ‘Oh, how much there is to do here for my hands!’ Even the poem Shostakovich entitled Death is not a contemplation on the coming void, but rather a robust protest against rottenness in political society. ‘The soul wishes for death’ not due to any diminishment of the body’s yearning for sensual pleasures, but rather because:
‘The world is blind, shame rules
and evil triumphs over honesty.
There is no hope; gloom covers everything;
And falsehood reigns, truth hides its eye.
… oppression weighs down the soul’
Morbidity and mortality assert themselves forcefully in the scoring, however, particularly in the skeletal piano writing. In the third sonnet, Love, for example, an impotent warbling motif alienates the piano from the singer’s hot-rushing heartbeat. Much of the suite is obstinately unlyrical and discordant, often making for challenging listening and no doubt accounting for the paucity of recordings. Thus, this work makes a brave choice for the first foray into the Shostakovich catalogue for Frieder Anders and his musical collaborator of ten years, Stella Goldberg. These Frankfurters comfortably hold their own against either of the currently available alternatives: a 2003 recording from bass Fyodor Kuznetsov with Yuri Serov on piano (Delos DE 3317; reviewed in DSCH 23), and the recently reissued 1977 recital by baritone John Shirley-Quirk and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy (in Decca’s 5-CD vocal works set, 475 7441).
Anders has a warm, open voice, and adopts a reverent tone for much of the Michelangelo Suite. In general, the huskier Kuznetsov takes a slightly more heart-on-sleeve, dramatic approach, while Shirley-Quirk is often cooler. InMorning, for example, Anders conveys Michelangelo’s almost religious awe at the womanliness lying beside him; in contrast, Kuznetsov expresses youthful anticipation, whereas Shirley-Quirk’s expansive treatment lacks urgency. In the heartbreaking madrigal Separation, Anders is the most imploring of the three, and is unique is his worshipful accent on the word ‘Madonna’. Though he misses the scorn with which Kuznetsov and Shirley-Quirk spit out ‘Ungrateful!’ in No. 6, To the exile, Anders’ righteous passion emerges as he takes the side of Dante in the preceding, eponymous movement.
Goldberg, a former student of Lev Oborin, presents an existentially stark counterpoint to Anders’ reverence. Her contributions differ the most from the other two pianists’ in the first sonnet, Truth. This blistering reproach to unjust authority takes 4:41 to deliver on Coviello Classics, with Goldberg emphasising the agogic discomfort of the piano accompaniment. Serov’s pacing is far more fluid in his half-minute shorter performance on Delos, and Ashkenazy’s gait is also more regular despite the remarkably drawn-out tempo of Decca’s 6-minute version. In the opening ofCreativity, Goldberg aptly depicts the randomness of the sculptor’s hammer strokes. My one quibble with her performance is that she is a shade too reticent in the fifth piece, Anger, where Serov is furious and Ashkenazy almost incoherent with rage, channelled through his shaky rhythms. Some listeners may also miss the eerie stasis Ashkenazy portrays in Night, where he and Shirley-Quirk linger an emotionally significant 17 seconds beyond Goldberg and Anders’ 4:29 (Ashkenazy and Shirley-Quirk traverse the same terrain in an almost dismissive 3:55). That said, Goldberg provides a viable alternative by bringing a warmer tone than either rival, turning this movement into the suite’s welcome moment of repose. In the final piece, Immortality, she communicates a childlike insouciance in the main theme, which Shostakovich resurrected from his unpublished juvenile opera The Gypsies. In her concluding bars, Goldberg captures the sense of rebirth more successfully than either Serov or Ashkenazy in their swifter performances.
Though not announced as such, as far as I can determine this is the premiere recording of any of the eleven Heinrich Heine love-songs from the second part of Valery Gavrilin’s trilogy, German Song Book. Composed just three years before Shostakovich’s Michelangelo Suite, Gavrilin’s songs are in a far more conventional style, and possess greater thematic unity. Despite their melodic simplicity, there is a unique musical voice at play in these brief but memorable movements. An Interludium for solo piano, consisting of variations on the opening theme, separates the four songs selected for this disc. This movement ends on a quiet pulse reminiscent of the close of the Michelangelo Suite, imparting a feeling of continuity to the album as a whole.
Coviello Classics’ recording is warmly reverberant without sacrificing clarity. English and German translations are supplied for all texts, but unfortunately not the Russian originals, which are provided in transliterated form for theMichelangelo Suite by both Delos and Decca. Both Coviello Classics and Decca use the identical English translation by Sarah and Eric Walter White, which is in every way superior to Sergey Suslov’s unidiomatic effort on Delos. Anders himself penned his album’s excellent booklet notes, which show a wide-ranging scholarship. For each of the Michelangelo poems, Anders includes a short explanatory note of its original context, a bonus not offered by either Decca or Delos, and one that adds value to an already handsome production.
W. Mark Roberts
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
Symphony No. 15 in A major, opus 141, reduction for two pianos by the composer[a]; Concertino for two pianos, opus 94.
Philippe Entremont, Laura Mikkola (pianists).
Cascavelle VEL 3102. DDD. TT 48:05.
Recorded at the Eglise St. Marcel, Paris, 16–19 January 2006.
What is more surprising than Philippe Entremont’s venture into the music of Shostakovich, a composer with whom he is not even remotely associated, is his choice of repertoire: a work as imposing and offbeat as the two-piano reduction of the Fifteenth Symphony. After hearing his and Finnish virtuoso Laura Mikkola’s beautifully realised rendition of this arrangement, transcribed by the composer himself, one can only surmise that both were driven by sheer love of the music. The performers impress not only for capturing Shostakovich’s knotty idiom so faithfully, but, for the most part, their remarkable penetration into the work itself. Mr. Entremont, who wears two hats, as pianist and conductor, brings both talents to bear in an interpretation whose merits are both pianistic and symphonic.
This is not the first time that Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony has been recorded in an alternate form. A performance of a composer-sanctioned version arranged for piano trio and percussion, released by Deutsche Grammophon in 1997 and reissued in 2005, received wide acclaim (DG 00289 477 5442; reviewed in DSCH 7 and 23). That recording no doubt paved the way for the current, even more bare-boned edition.
Shostakovich’s preoccupation with death and mortality in his later years took shape in a number of works, most explicitly his vocal Fourteenth Symphony of 1969 and his setting of the Michelangelo Sonnets of 1974. Many find the subject being taken up in a more abstract, purely instrumental fashion in his final, Fifteenth Symphony of 1971, completed four years before his death. More than in his previous symphonies, the Fifteenth confronts the listener with riddles that doggedly resist decipherment. Well-known musical quotes from composers such as Rossini, Bartók, Wagner and Glinka are brought together in a chessboard of cryptic revelation. What is Shostakovich saying in these quotes? Is this his way of aligning himself with classical music’s great figures? Or is there a deeper, universal message to which the quotes point?
The many beguiling questions that the work provokes have made it one of Shostakovich’s most colourful and frequently performed symphonies. The first movement, which quotes the theme from the William Tell overture, gives a deceptive impression of light-heartedness. It is confronted by a second group of themes whose level of anxiety escalates to – but always stops short of – an exploding point. From the public forum of this opening movement we are plunged into the dark confessional chamber of the second and the danse macabre of the third. The final movement, by way of the unrelenting advance of a mighty passacaglia, seems to surrender to the inexorable forces of fate, leading to a complete and final disintegration of its musical ideas. The symphony comes to rest without closure. It appears to dissipate, not into the hands of God, but rather, with its clocklike percussiveness and hollow sonorities, into an unsettling, eerily dispassionate nothingness. Cosmic in its range of expression and provocative in its autobiographical and philosophical implications, the work remains one of the great enigmas of classical music.
Entremont and Mikkola appear to have given much thought not only to the concept of the work itself, but also to how they would handle the unavoidable compromises in texture and sonority inherent in a piano reduction. While the most problematic of these issues arises in the final movement, most of the score, with its transparent instrumentation, lends itself quite well to the scaled-down forces.
The pianists show great respect for both the spirit and letter of the score, as evidenced by the meticulous detail they bring to the rapid-fire events of the opening Allegretto. Their split-second timing and sharpened wits highlight the twisty proceedings, not least in the mocking twitter of surprise they elicit following the first William Tell quote; or when the music rises to an anti-climactic frenzy as they drop to a poker-faced return of the Rossini quote. To an obsessive pulse, they navigate through the movement’s prismatically-shifting moods with self-assurance. The all-important punctuation points are handled with precision. The duo also manage to get their hands on the element of terror that lurks between the score’s ostensibly carefree pages. When the hair-raising fugal lines begin to pile on top of one another, the individual melodic layers stand out clearly, often at contrasting dynamic levels. The duo brings these widely contrasting episodes together seamlessly into a solidly realised symphonic conception.
The major surprise of the performance is how effectively Entremont and Mikkola bring off the slow movement, whose textures run treacherously thin even in the original score. One might have expected the extended soliloquies for the cello and trombone to sound pale in piano reduction. Not the case here. Alternating with chorale-like passages, the solo lines are assigned to spare single keys, but are played with such concentration that as we listen we are taken deeper and deeper into the movement’s canyon of despair. The duo’s heartfelt connection to this movement is extraordinary. The explosive climax comes off as less gigantic, less hysterical than in the original. And yet the music is intense enough to create the required impact. In the final bars, Entremont and Mikkola show themselves to be sensitive to the work’s many different complexions. Here they expressively evoke the chilling vibraphone solo and eerie, hymn-like return of the chorale theme.
The tongue-in-cheek Dance of Death elements of the Scherzo are well captured. Long-spun chromatic runs rise and fall with derisive glee as the listener is kept on edge as to which way the music will turn next. Where the ‘DSCH’ quote appears, buried within a progression of four meaty chords on a silver platter, the duo frames the moment with a sagacious rubato.
After the breathtaking virtuosity of the first three movements, I was somewhat disapp-ointed by the performance of the finale. In this movement, a sentimental Glinka romance, by way of the Tristan und Isolde fate motif, frames a hefty, climax-directed passacaglia. Here the duo instinctively take the tempo on the fast side, evidently as compensation for the lean chamber-like textures. The pace works well. I only found the music wanting for breathing room in the moody sections that follow the climax. The pianists capture the wafts of melancholic air rustling through the Glinka romance. They also keep the passacaglia and its multiple strands flowing along, highlighting the solo voices that float in and out of the foreground. It is in the paragraph leading up to and including the climax where the interpretation runs into trouble. The tension in these passages could have been ratcheted up a notch had more emphasis been placed on the contours of crescendi and decrescendi. Here they lack a degree of intensity. An even greater problem lies with the climactic moment itself.
A word about transcriptions: it takes effort, if not alchemy, to get a piano to sound like non-pitched percussion. In some places in this arrangement the cues for these instruments are effectively simulated, as, for example, the two strikes on the triangle at the top of the score; or the snare drum crescendo, represented by an octave tremolo in the piano’s lower register, that instigates the slow movement’s climax. In other cases the percussion entries are left out altogether and without consequence, as in the whip cracks in the opening movement. Or they are merely suggested, as we find throughout the bustling Scherzo. In the final movement, however, a few omissions in the percussion have a more significant impact. I miss, for example, the preparatory rim shot just before the moment when the entirepassacaglia comes crashing down on that single climactic chord. It’s a small cue, but a pivotal one.
I was more disappointed that the crash chord itself, the crux of the movement if not the entire symphony, is not struck forcefully enough. Nor is it sustained or followed through in order to provide an adequate emotional and structural anchor to the movement. In the original score the near-tutti crash chord is indicated with no less than asffff dynamic marking and is reinforced with a ff gong crash. It is clearly a pivotal moment. While I cannot vouch for the actual indication in the piano score, the chord is heard in this performance at ff at best, with barely a trace of post-climactic reactivity. It rather underwhelms. I wish the duo had, Henry Cowell style, slammed their forearms across the keyboard and held the sonority long enough to capture the magnitude, if not the Gestalt, of this devastating denouement. I respect the pianists seeking to remain as faithful as possible to Shostak- ovich’s arrangement, but in this one case a liberty might have been taken.
The duo are also weak in the manner in which they handle the interruption chords that choke off the return of the sentimental Glinka theme in the final section. Each of these interruption chords represents a pivot point that heralds a significant shift in expressive direction. Each is an echo of the climactic crash chord with similar if not identical sonority, and each bears a similar sfp dynamic marking. Regretfully, in this performance these chords appear only atpiano level without an echt-sforzando, and as a result sound understated, losing an important dimension of the movement. Otherwise, the duo bring the symphony to a compelling close with clocklike chattering in the background, and reverberations of the passacaglia theme poetically fading into the distance.
Those who might believe placing so much emphasis on individual chords constitutes nitpicking should consider that Shostakovich is a climax-oriented composer whose movements often hinge upon single moments or episodes of enormous cathartic release. More so than for most composers, then, the success of a performance comes down to the manner in which these climactic moments are managed in all manner of detail: preparation, execution, follow-through. The Fifteenth Symphony clearly illustrates this point. I’d humbly suggest the subject of climax management in Shostakovich’s music as a potentially fertile area of performance, if not academic study.
My overall impression is of a beautiful and at times deeply revealing performance of a unique Shostakovich offering. Devotees of Entremont, Mikkola, or Shostakovich, presumably three non-intersecting populations, will not want to be without this landmark release. As a bonus, the disc also features a charismatic performance of Shostakovich’s high-spirited Concertino.
One quibble: the unsigned liner notes, presumably penned by Mr. Entremont, are poorly edited and in places, ambiguously informative. For example, one may ask upon reading, ‘Although he [Shostakovich] did not write many works for the piano – just 11 out of his total of 147 opuses [sic],’ does this mean works for solo piano, any work that includes a piano, or otherwise? The notes also state, ‘A light and peaceful coda … conclude [sic] this symphony with a sense of pacified memories’ and ‘a sensation of calm.’ Valid comments they are, but ones that overlook other layers of interpretation that have become attached to the work.
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
Sonata for Violin and Piano, opus 134; Mieczysław Weinberg: Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3; Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 4.
Kolja Blacher (violin), Jascha Nemtsov (piano).
Hänssler Classic CD 93.190. DDD. TT 65:42
Recorded at Kammermusikstudio, SWR Stuttgart, 20–21 February 2006.
Sonata for Cello and Piano, opus 40[a]; Sonata for Violin and Piano, opus 134[b]; Romance and Nocturne from The Gadfly (trans. for Cello and Orchestra by Dmitry Yablonksy)[c].
Dmitry Yablonksy (cello[a,c] and conductor[c]), Maxim Fedotov (violin)[b], Ekaterina Saranceva (piano)[a], Galina Petrova (piano)[b], Russian Philharmonic Orchestra[c].
Naxos 8.557722. DDD. TT 67:03.
Recorded at Studio 5, Russian TV and Radio Broadcasting Company, ‘Kultura’, Moscow, 15–30 November 2004.
Premiere recordings of arrangements[c].
Sonata for Violin and Piano, opus 134[a]; Sonata for Viola and Piano, opus 147[b].
Tino Fjeldli (violin)[a], Erik Ring (viola)[b], Francisca Skoogh (piano).
Intim Musik IMCD 102. DDD. TT 58:47.
Recorded at Isidor Studio, Huaröd, Sweden, 13–14 and 26–27 October 2005.
Sonata for Violin and Piano, opus 134; Sonata for Viola and Piano, opus 147.
Isabelle van Keulen (violin and viola), Ronald Brautigam (piano).
Challenge Classics CC72071. DDD. TT 55:43.
Recorded in Maria Minor Church, Utrecht, 23–24 March 1992.
These four recordings all feature Shostakovich’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, the composer’s gift to David Oistrakh for his sixtieth birthday. The outer movements of the three-movement work cover a broad spectrum of expressive temperaments that can provide both challenges and opportunities to performers. The middle movement is an unrelenting Scherzo, at full throttle at all times.
Isabelle Van Keulen and Ronald Brautigam’s performance of the work is subtle, thoughtful and enchanting. The duo take full advantage of the range of colours and styles found in the first movement. Van Keulen’s tone is dark and haunting throughout, and the balance between the instruments is perfect. Especially noteworthy moments include thetranquillo sections where Brautigam’s pianissimo and dark colour serve to enhance van Keulen’s spectral, otherworldly sound, and the masterful change in tone in the final measures of the movement.
The second movement does not allow as much room for subtle changes, as the music rarely drops below fortissimoand never slows. Yet, the few times the music does bend, the performers take full advantage. The finale, Shostakovich’s last fully-fledged passacaglia movement, manages to expand on the range of the first movement with its pizzicatos, counterpoint, and beautiful melodic lines, all of which build to intense virtuosic climaxes for each instrument. Again, van Keulen and Brautigam are in perfect form with a rich, warm tone, meticulous intonation, perfect balance and attentive expressive changes.
This dark and sensitive presentation differs greatly from the on-the-edge quality found in the unique recording by Shostakovich and Oistrakh (Eclectra ECCD-2046, reviewed in DSCH 14), but makes an excellent complement to the performance by the composer and dedicatee.
Coupled with the Violin Sonata on this disc is the Viola Sonata, in another fine performance. The duo’s tempos for this work are on the brisk side, especially the Adagio, which clocks in under 12 minutes. Van Keulen begins the work with a flat, almost emotionless feel, allowing her to slowly bring the work to life over the course of the three movements.
Overall, van Keulen and Brautigam’s interpretations are of the highest quality, and this release is highly recommendable. Challenge Classics’ liner notes present only minimal information regarding the composer and the works, giving most of the space to performer biographies.
On Naxos, Maxim Fedotov and Galina Petrova give a forceful rendition of the Violin Sonata, presenting an interesting contrast to the subtlety and delicacy found in van Keulen and Brautigam’s recording. In general, Fedotov’s style is abrasive and mechanistic, which, combined with Petrova’s dry, percussive sound, creates a severe, intense performance.
Fedotov and Petrova take the first movement almost a full minute slower than van Keulen and Brautigam (and Oistrakh and Shostakovich); while the intent may have been to create a sense of weight, this results in a plodding quality to the music. In the liner notes to the recording, Richard Whitehouse describes the second movement as ‘among Shostakovich’s most abrasive and dissonant scherzos,’ and Fedotov and Petrova live up to this billing with a convincingly brutal performance. The passacaglia fares similarly to the first movement, as again a laboured tempo (almost three minutes slower than either van Keulen/Brautigam or Oistrakh/ Shostakovich) somewhat mars the proceedings. Nonetheless, overall the duo present a compelling interpretation of the work.
Accompanying the Viola Sonata on this CD: the Cello Sonata performed by cellist Dmitri Yablonsky and pianist Ekaterina Saranceva, and Yablonsky’s transcriptions for cello and orchestra of the Romance and Nocturne from The Gadfly, with Yablonsky serving both as cellist and as conductor of the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra. Yablonsky and Saranceva present a light-hearted, witty take on the Cello Sonata. While both The Gadfly excerpts and the Cello Sonata share romantic melodic lines, the film excerpts are a curious addition to the disc and, placed immediately after the Violin Sonata, present an incongruous change in tone. As encores, however, these two works are charming morsels, and Yablonsky obviously relishes their long lines.
The Intim Musik CD presents a second coupling of the Violin and Viola Sonatas, with Francisca Skoogh on piano, Tino Fjeldli on violin and Erik Ring on viola. For the Violin Sonata, Skoogh brings a percussive and passionate quality to the piano part. While Fjeldli has a beautifully rich tone, he cannot keep up with Skoogh when the work becomes difficult. For example, following Skoogh’s fiery piano solo in the third movement, Fjeldli significantly slows the tempo for his solo, squandering the dramatic momentum.
Erik Ring joins Skoogh for a very fine rendition of the Viola Sonata. Ring’s full tone is evident throughout the viola’s range, nicely balancing Skoogh’s performance. In the final movement, Ring and Skoogh adeptly portray the beautiful pathos that imbues the concluding minutes. The liner notes, by Staffan Storm, present a brief discussion of the works and Shostakovich’s use of twelve-tone techniques, along with short biographies of the performers. Intim Musik recently released a second disc with Skoogh performing Shostakovich’s chamber music, featuring the Cello Sonata and the Piano Quintet (IMCD 103); this is scheduled for review in the next issue of DSCH Journal.
In their Hänssler Classic recording, Kolja Blacher and Jascha Nemtsov present a competent performance of the Violin Sonata, although in the higher ranges Blacher’s tone becomes tenuously thin and intonation problems appear. Blacher and Nemtsov’s performance of the second movement is noteworthy, as both play with precision, resulting in a meticulously clean rendition that highlights the mechanistic brutality of the Scherzo. While their Shostakovich is capable, a more compelling reason to purchase this CD is for Weinberg’s Sonatas Nos. 3 and 4 for Violin and Piano (both from 1947), as these are the only recordings of these works currently available.
Shostakovich and his works often overshadow Weinberg and his compositions. With violin sonatas by both composers on the same disc, we have a straightforward means of comparison, allowing the unique aspects of Weinberg’s compositional voice to be heard. Weinberg’s Sonata No. 3 is in three movements, the first of which is full of lush melodies. The second movement Andantino opens with piano introduction. Here Nemtsov creates a vast, austere landscape, into which the violin enters. Both instruments travel to a gritty climax before the music withdraws to the asceticism of the opening. The third movement, similar to the first, begins with long melodic lines, but soon a brisk, demanding march takes over. Bringing back motives from the opening, the music builds in complexity to a violin cadenza, which provides a guarded catharsis for the entire work, allowing the movement to end with a restrained sense of resolution.
Sonata No. 4 consists of two movements, where the return of the opening movement’s material at the end of the second causes the piece to function as a single-movement work in slow-fast-slow form. The opening piano section of the Adagio first movement creates a dark, haunted world into which melodic lines of the upper registers descend. The violin enters with long, beautiful themes that, on occasion, establish a sense of peace and serenity. But the peaceful sound never remains for long, as a constant sense of unease simmers beneath, and at times forcefully breaks onto the surface. Turmoil takes over in the second movement’s perpetual motion, where the two instruments trade off frantic linear passages and trumpet calls. The music builds to a frenzy that leads to a passionate cadenza, which Blacher performs with emotional conviction. The reminiscence of the haunted music of the opening movement provides a sense of resolution and brings the work to a poignant conclusion.
In general, these are skilled, dedicated performances of works that deserve to be recorded. Unfortunately, at times the same problems with Blacher’s tone and intonation in the Shostakovich performance mar the Weinberg sonatas, affecting the dramatic highpoints of the works. Nevertheless, such imperfections are minor compared to the service Blacher and Nemtsov have provided by recording these works, and this disc is worth owning. The informative liner notes by Nemtsov discuss Weinberg and Shostakovich’s friendship, briefly detail Weinberg’s life, and provide short discussions of the works on the CD.
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
New Babylon, opus 18[a]; Suite from A Year is Like a Lifetime, opus 120a[b].
Frank Strobel, SWR Rundfunkorchester Kaiserlauten, Kai Adomeit (piano)[a].
Hänssler Classic CD93.188. DDD. 2-CD set TT 135:19.
Recorded 8, 9–13, 17 June 2006[a], 28–30 June 2006[b].
Premiere recording of revised version[a].
Premiere issue on CD[b].
More and more it seems that New Babylon is one of the key works in understanding Shostakovich, but even before we start to ask questions of meaning, there are problems with the text. At the last minute the film was cut by around 25%, necessitating correspondingly massive changes to the score. Shostakovich had to play piano for long sections of some screenings simply to save the evening.
Frank Strobel says his ‘… is the version that should be used in the future because it most accurately reflects the intentions of Dmitry Shostakovich.’ A careful reading reveals that this simply doesn’t add up. He claims that, as theNew Collected Works edition contains all the changes that Shostakovich had to make to match the re-cut film, it ‘thus represents the only authentic source of the composer’s original conception’ (my emphasis). However, given that these changes were forced on the makers, it was emphatically not their original conception but their second one, created under duress. Shostakovich conceived his score to a film that was far longer, and the struggle to re-edit his music while following dramatic as well as musical logic was immense. To claim definitiveness on the basis of using definitive sources (i.e., NCW) when in fact that source has been altered seems perverse.
Moreover, for all these claims of authenticity, it transpires that Strobel has not actually followed the NCW edition, but has re-edited it to make the music and film fit to his satisfaction. For instance, in the first act he cuts Figures 12 to 14, ignores the repeat at 34, and cuts Figures 49 and 50 and thirteen bars around Figure 60. The structure of Act Two is heavily dependent on repeats, but Strobel omits them and does something very strange around Figure 54. So it goes on.
Strobel has conducted many live performances to accompany screenings of New Bablylon. His decisions about which version of the film to use and what speed to run it at impact on the musical performance: hence the cuts. This isn’t necessarily unacceptable; I have yet to witness a performance that doesn’t change the score for any of a number of reasons. In his live performances, Mark Fitz-Gerald came to some different conclusions about the synchronisation than has Strobel. Both differ from the version promoted by the British Film Institute in the 1980s. Strobel’s is simply another version that can be taken or left or adapted by others.
Not all versions, of course, have equal validity – for example, when Vladimir Jurowski conducted it in London he ripped out a section of Act One and put it over the opening credits to avoid the silence that the score very clearly calls for, destroying the coup de théâtre of the opening intertitle War! being accompanied by the explosive first chord. As long as they don’t do violence to the overall conception or momentary effectiveness, new versions of New Babylonmay help as we grope our way towards an understanding of this crucial work. However, none have ended the debate.
Some of Strobel’s cuts do seem arbitrary, paradoxically making the score seem stranger than it is, and more disjointed. The tempi sometimes err on the cautious; the frantic sale/war fever of the first act is quite sedate, but against that the slower moments of Act Three work better. Looking at the rivals, the only complete recording is James Judd’s (Capriccio 10 341/2). He uses the Sikorski edition (adding some mistakes) but has a mite more spirit. If only Rozhdestvensky could be persuaded to conduct it: his suite is easily the liveliest.
Although this is an audio recording, Strobel has stuck to the tempi that he set to accompany the film. As such, it is sad that the synchronisation wasn’t released as a DVD; we wouldn’t have to follow annotator Detlef Gojowy’s suggestion that listeners ‘invent images of their own’ – after all, Andrei Moskvin was one of cinema’s great cinematographers. Moreover, Strobel’s cuts and some of the sudden accelerandi and stamping on the brakes make more sense when you see how he has set the music to the images.
After all that, it’s almost a relief to turn to A Year is Worth a Lifetime, a biopic of Marx, even though it is one of the duller films on which Shostakovich worked. Fortunately, its epic 147 minutes are quite talky, saving the composer’s pen for much of the time. Nevertheless, thanks to the lengthy central movement, Atovmyan’s seven-movement suite drawn from the film score runs to around 45 minutes.
The sturdy Overture seems like standard issue, though a little concentration would identify the composer. But suddenly it breaks into the Marseillaise. Here the film and the suite diverge in the film a choir sings Ça Ira (ironically the two songs were also butted up to each other in New Babylon) but Atovmyan’s decision to dispense with the choir means that in the suite we hear only the orchestra. Then it is Shostakovich’s turn to surprise us with a dance filled with Bernsteinian sprung rhythms. Wartime Shostak-ovich is echoed in The Barricades and Intermezzo, particularly the latter’s moto perpetuo, reminiscent of the Eighth Symphony. The effect of one after the other is a bit too much of a good thing, although the Intermezzo is wonderfully atmospheric, with its pastoral woodwind and night-time bells.Farewell (Monologue), the longest movement, begins with Mahlerian horn calls, then moves through regretful strings, featuring some lovely solos and occasional shades of the Eleventh Symphony. The Scene (Little Waltz) is delightfully quirky, and the following semi-passacaglia, The Battle, is an effective contrast. The adagio Finale builds powerfully and, unlike many such movements, avoids turning trashy at the end.
There is very little other usable music in the film, but it is a sad that the schnell-polka Morning is omitted, especially since in the film it is very brief and largely covered by dialogue.
Certainly the score has its moments of bombast, but there are powerful and even touching pages and the waltz is a real charmer (though Detlef Gojowy wastes no time in dismissing the whole exercise). Maxim Shostakovich’s traversal (the only previous recording) almost halved the suite to fit onto one LP side: the cuts included slashingFarewell by two thirds and completely omitting The Little Waltz. Oddly, Morning was also omitted from the original Melodiya release, but did appear on the US and the (very abbreviated) German LP reissues. Hopefully any subsequent CD release will include everything. In the meantime, and even were Maxim’s version to reappear, Strobel’s recording of the complete suite is to be welcomed.
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
The original scenario for The Golden Age was a prize-winning entry for a competition requiring modern ballet subjects to be in line with socialist realism and the craze for sport and acrobatics in Soviet choreography. It related the visit of a Soviet football team to an unspecified Western city during an industrial exhibition, the Soviet heroes remaining triumphant in the face of a hostile reception, seductive bourgeois women and corrupt police. The ballet received its premiere in Leningrad during October 1930, but was not successful, having fewer than twenty performances before disappearing altogether in 1931. Shostakovich blamed the choreographers; the discrepancies between the flamboyant titles for the staging and those in Shostakovich’s score are indicative of their artistic disagreements.
The problems inherent in the original scenario have been insurmountable for those wishing to restage the ballet in more recent years, giving rise to two radical solutions. On the suggestion of Shostakovich’s widow, Yuri Grigorovich choreographed a revival for the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, in 1982. This production was released in 1989 on video (Castle Vision CVI 2046; deleted). The scenario kept the 1920s setting but avoided football altogether, portraying the chance encounter and attraction between Boris (a fisherman) and Rita, whom he later discovers is a cabaret artiste in ‘The Golden Age’ nightclub. Complications arise thanks to the lecherous nightclub owner (actually the ringleader of a gang of hoodlums) and his jealous ‘moll’, but true love wins through in the end.
More recently, a new production of the ballet was created for the Mariinsky Theatre in Shostakovich’s centenary year under the musical direction of Valery Gergiev, with choreography by Noah Gelber. Only the football theme and contrast between wholesome Soviets and decadent capitalists survived in a new scenario concerning the reunion of an elderly couple who had first met and fallen in love at a sporting event in 1930 – Alexander (Russian) and Sophie (western European). Photographs and film footage aided the shifts between the ‘present’ reunion in the framing story and the ‘past’ events in the central ballet. Not only the scenario was overhauled in these productions: both used scores that were radically different from the original 1930 version in terms of cuts and re-ordering. Grigorovich even used music from other Shostakovich works (full details are available in Hulme’s Catalogue).
Although there have been numerous recordings of the four-movement suite from the ballet (opus 22a) and individual movements from the suite (particularly the infamous Polka, No. 30), this Naxos release is only the second recording of the complete ballet (37 numbers). The premier recording was by Rozhdestvensky and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra in June 1993 (Chandos 9251/2; 2-CD set). At first glance, the track lists on the two releases appear to bear no relation to each other. Whereas the Chandos release uses the composer’s score titles, Naxos opted for the staging titles from the original 1930 Leningrad premiere listing, as reproduced in Yefim Sadovnikov’s 1965 Catalogue (which is not the same as the scenario listed in Hulme’s Catalogue, particularly with regard to Act 3). However, the contents of the two releases are broadly in the same order and are similarly split across two CDs, the first CD in each case culminating mid-way in Act 2 with No. 22, Football Match. The main exception is the order of Nos. 28 and 29 (Tap Dance and Tango), which is transposed on the Chandos recording. According to the liner notes by Richard Whitehouse, the Naxos release’s unique selling point is that it is ‘the first to represent the work complete with all repeats observed,’ based on Manashir Yakubov’s edited piano score (DSCH: Moscow, 1995), supposedly Shostak-ovich’s final version. Although the majority of Serebrier’s tempi are marginally slower than Rozhdestvensky’s, these extra repeats – for example in tracks 9, 13, 20 and 29 – largely account for the 10-minute difference in performance time.
Whitehouse’s liner notes are comprehensive, encompassing within three paragraphs the fate of The Golden Age, the relationship of the ballet suite to the full score, plus an overview of the original scenario and the two modern productions by Grigorovich and Gelber. After that there is a synopsis, which merely reiterates the scenario titles in chronological order, loosely linked by the briefest of descriptions, without any real added value. Whitehouse claims to have used elements from both the score titles and the scenario titles in his synopsis; I found this misleading and unhelpful, given the lack of score titles in the liner booklet for comparison, and only found one reference to a score title (Eccentric Dance for No. 31).
David Nice’s essay in the Chandos booklet is much more thought provoking. He places The Golden Age within the context of three other works with which it has much in common: The Nose, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Symphony No. 4. I would add to this list Shostakovich’s film score for The New Babylon, opus 18 (Frank Strobel’s new recording is reviewed above by John Riley). Nice’s prose account of The Golden Age, highlighting a few interesting elements (such as the movements that have more unusual instrumentation), is ultimately more satisfying than Whitehouse’s chronological approach. Overall, the Chandos booklet is more user-friendly, numbering the 37 items of the ballet independently from the CD track numbering.
For their cover image, Chandos opted for the highly appropriate image of Victory over the Sun – The Soviet Sportsmen by the influential Russian avant-garde artist El Lissitzky (1890–1941).
Surprisingly – given the desire to present the original scenario – the cover image on the Naxos release is a reproduction of a poster by Oleg Savostiuk for the 1982 Grigorovich production, depicting superimposed silhouettes of the red Soviet worker (Boris) behind the fat, black-suited capitalist (nightclub owner) and the pure white Soviet woman (Rita).
This poster also appeared on the CD cover for the 1982 recording of the compiled score from the Grigorovich revival (Yuri Simonov and the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra; Russian Disc RDCD 10 009; 2-CD set; deleted).
The complete score requires an orchestra augmented by additional brass and various novelty instruments redolent of the jazz age, such as saxophones, banjo, harmonium and the ultra-modern flexatone with its eerie tremolos. There is much to enjoy in Serebrier’s recording. His waltzes (e.g., No. 2, Procession of the Guests of Honour) have a satisfying mechanical brilliance reminiscent of a giant fairground organ. I particularly liked the ‘squeezebox’ accompaniment provided by the harmonium and strings in No. 11, Soviet Dance, and the exhilarating tutti numbers, such as No. 33, Can-can. My one complaint concerns an unattractive reverberation, which has a tendency to blur the sound and can be detrimental to the balance of the orchestra, especially during slower numbers or when the orchestration is more exposed. For example, in the adagio No. 9, Dance of Diva (second movement of the suite), Serebrier’s slower tempo gives the sustained string accompaniment undue prominence beneath the solo saxophone, whereas in Rozhdestvensky’s version this is much more subtle. Conversely, fine orchestral details easily audible with Rozhdestvensky are submerged in the reverberant acoustic of the Naxos recording: the banjo melody part-way through No. 14, Dance of the Black Man and Two Soviet Football Players is barely audible, for example, and the blurred ‘wrong-note’ trumpets in the following number, The Supposed Terrorist, sometimes do sound wrong.
If you like Shostakovich’s more humorous style of music, replete with wrong notes and salacious trombone slides, then this score is a must for your collection and the budget price Naxos release would be an inexpensive introduction. Rozhdestvensky’s Chandos recording is still available for those preferring greater clarity of orchestral detail.
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
The Tale of the Priest and his Worker Balda, opus 36 (complete score, edited by Vadim Bibergan)[a]; Symphonic Suite from Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1932), opus 29a[b].
Thomas Sanderling, Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, Moscow State Chamber Choir[a], Chorus Master and preparation of the children: Alexander Solovyov[a].
Cast in [a]: Balda – Dmitri Beloselsky (bass); Narrator – Andrei Suchkov; Imp (spoken role) – Fyodor Bakanov; Priest – Dmitri Stepanovich (bass); Priest – Sergei Balashov (tenor); Popovna, the Priest’s daughter – Evgeniya Sorokina (soprano); Priest’s Wife – Herman Yukavsky (bass); Devils – Dmitri Ulyanov (bass) and Irina Narskaya (mezzo).
Deutsche Grammophon 00289 477 6112. DDD. TT 61:34.
Recorded in Studio 5, Russian State TV and Radio Company, ‘Kultura’, Moscow, May 2005[b], May and June 2005[a].
It is ironic that, of all of Shostakovich’s cinema scores, one of the few to have attracted recent attention is for a film that wasn’t completed: Mikhail Tsekhanovsky’s animated version of Pushkin’s The Tale of the Priest and his Worker Balda. For more on the background of this troubled production, see the review of the new DSCH Edition score (page 100), which is the basis of this recording.
It is amazing that such a witty and inventive score has had to wait so long to be properly resurrected. Rozhdestvensky’s 1979 six-movement suite (BMG/Melodiya 74321 59058 2; reviewed in DSCH 11; deleted) and Khentova’s 1980 operatic version (Boheme Music CDBMR 012192, reviewed in DSCH 18) gave a flavour, but in 1999 Vadim Bibergan completed Shostakovich’s sometimes very fragmentary manuscripts for a ballet. Bibergan was a pupil of Shostakovich and has considerable experience as a dramatic composer, having written many film scores; he is the regular composer for filmmaker Gleb Panfilov.
What Bibergan revealed is the range of the work as conceived by Shostakovich. Rozhdestvensky concentrated on the grotesquerie using the most complete items, and Khentova propelled the story by adding voices to some of the orchestral pieces. She also plumped it up with non-Balda pieces, where Tsekhanovsky and Shostakovich let images and music do the work.
Of course, Shostakovich hints at lots of other music: Balda’s First Job segues from Tchaikovskianism into Offenbachishness, there are parodies of Orthodox chant, and the First Dialogue of Balda and the Imp ruffs on the folk song In a Field Stood a Birch Tree. Shostakovich also echoes and pre-echoes or even reuses his own work: Declared Dead, Lady Macbeth (The Dialogue of Balda and the Old Devil is a clear relative of Boris Timofeyevich’s music), and the Hamlet theatre music. Other highlights include the knockabout accelerando of The Bell-Ringer’s Dance and the comically lachrymose balalaika-accompanied Balda’s Song (‘Do not grieve, poor people, that your neighbour is richer than you!’). But there are also darker moments, including a fantastic lullaby that is like a try-out for From Jewish Folk Poetry. Shostakovich cheekily has Balda sing this with the Priest’s wife and daughter! Casting the Priest’s wife as a bass is probably a nod to Pushkin’s The House at Kolomna, which was the basis of Stravinsky’s riotous comedy,Mavra, and while this isn’t a particular influence, Balda definitely has some moments of Stravinskian wit.
Finishing off the disc is another world premiere recording: the three-movement Symphonic Suite from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which Shostakovich compiled in 1932. These are his first thoughts on the interludes between Scenes 2 and 3, 7 and 8, and 6 and 7. During the first productions Shostakovich tinkered constantly with the score, often reducing the moments of voice-obscuring thickness. Nowadays, conductors of the first version often make the same sorts of changes but here it doesn’t matter as much since there are no voices, so the orchestra can be given its head.
Drawing on his preface to the New Collected Works edition, Manashir Yakubov fills in the background in a fascinating note (though Tsekhanovsky’s film version of Honegger’s Pacific 231 is not an animated film as claimed, but rather an avant-garde live-action interpretation). There is also a transliteration of the full text of Balda alongside translations in English, French and German.
The whole disc is performed with infectious gusto, the only slight blemish being the very up-front placement of the boy narrator, a throwback to Soviet spotlighting. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine this disc not finding a place on the shelves of any fans of Shostakovich or musical comedy. The highlight is Balda, which is hugely enjoyable; for those who want to dig deeper, there is its fascinating relationship to other works and the insight it provides into Shostakovich’s dramatic instinct. Rozhdestvensky’s suite and Khentova’s opera are enjoyable and will always have their place, but the new disc takes precedence as the fullest and most accurate. Meanwhile, the Lady Macbethfragments give a valuable view of Shostakovich’s ‘original’ suite.
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, opus 43[a]; Suite from the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, opus 29a[b].
Andrey Boreyko, Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR.
Hänssler classic CD 93.193. DDD. TT 72:34.
Recorded in Liederhalle, Stuttgart, 27–28 April 2006[a] and 8–10 June 2005[b].
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, opus 43.
Semyon Bychkov, WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln.
Avie 2114. DDD hybrid 5.1-surround sound SACD/stereo SACD/stereo CD. TT 64:21.
Recorded at the Philharmonie, Köln, 19–23 September 2005.
Perhaps the most frightening thing about the Fourth Symphony is the sheer whimsy of its brutality. Moments of stark terror appear without warning and dissolve inexplicably into cheerful waltzes or galops. Lyrical melodies, unable to find solid metric or tonal grounding, are gradually undone by frightening undercurrents. To enhance the picture of a world gone grotesquely wrong, Shostakovich’s orchestrations are often bizarre, even ugly: his waltz appears in the tuba instead of the strings; he doubles his harsh brass interjections with sharply percussive pizzicatos; his fortissimo piccolos screech above the orchestra. It takes courage and imagination to tangle with the frightening absurdity of this work.
Two new versions of the Fourth by Russian-born conductors bring different aspects of the work into focus. Both feature fine orchestral playing, providing a crisp detail and transparency that can be missing from historic Russian recordings.
Andrey Boreyko, a Leningrad-born graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, currently serves as chief conductor of symphony orchestras in Bern and Hamburg; he is also principal guest conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra of SWR, featured here.
Boreyko’s is the more conservative of these two new interpretations of the Fourth, clear and precise, its transparency bringing out all of the composer’s disturbing harmonies and many other subtleties. The side-drum riff that periodically interrupts the wandering lyrical theme beginning at Rehearsal 7 is subtle, just audible. Clearly fluttering frullandi in the winds and brass disturb the quiet moments at Rehearsal 88 and elsewhere.
Missing from this recording, however, at least in comparison to classic Russian recordings and the other disc reviewed here, is an overall sense of pacing and a willingness to convey the out-of-control absurdity that can make the Fourth so frightening. In several spots, including the long stretches in the middle of the finale and even the apotheosis at the end of the work, the orchestra lose focus and intensity, and the music becomes plodding. Boreyko’s brass players are rarely crude or blatty-sounding, and the pizzicatos that should sharpen the brasses’ interjections are not always percussive enough for my taste. Some of the grotesquerie, menace and energy of this work have been lost.
Listeners may want this disc, however, for its coupling, which announces itself as the world premiere recording of Shostakovich’s own Suite from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, opus 29a, recently published for the first time in DSCH Publishers’ New Collected Works, volume 69. In fact, Deutsche Grammophon narrowly beat Hänssler to this honour, with Thomas Sanderling’s May 2005 recording (00289 477 6112; reviewed above). The Suite was arranged shortly after the opera was completed in 1932, and includes music from the entr’actes preceding scenes 3, 8 and 7 (in that order) of the opera. It is a little startling to have the first raucous entr’acte of the Suite begin immediately after the chilling ending of the Symphony, but it is nonetheless good to have a recording of this newly published work.
Bychkov’s hybrid-SACD recording of the Fourth with the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne is, in contrast to Boreyko’s, more risk-taking and imaginative. It begins shrilly, its main theme full of energy and crude exuberance. The abrupt out-of-nowhere climax at Rehearsal 30 is just as strange as it should be, and the silence that follows is long and profound. Then we hear Stuttgart’s fine bassoon player, trying in vain to be lyrical, but haunted by eerie harp chords and unable to find a stable metrical or tonal footing. The brassy duple-note interruptions at Rehearsal 48 are sharply accented and vicious.
The high point of this disc is the first movement’s breathtaking central climax. The preceding ‘fugue from hell’ at Rehearsal 63 is taken at a breakneck speed (although still not at the composer’s unbelievable crotchet = 168) and is astonishingly crisp and clear. This builds convincingly to a climax liable to make one’s heart pound along with the timpani. The waltz that follows is interrupted repeatedly by derisive squawks from the brass, and is full of energy and inexplicable accents, ending with those eerie fluttering flutes. The conductor then cranks up the tempo even further at Rehearsal 75 as he approaches the recapitulation, sweeping up the listener in a tide of excitement. The fine cor anglais player leaves us shaken and uncertain at the close of this movement.
After a wistful, almost classical Scherzo, the finale opens with warmth and intensity, courtesy of some superb principal wind players. The Stuttgart’s bassoonist, featured at so many critical points in the Fourth, is a star, and here inflects the funeral march with grief, nuance and a special rhythmic urgency.
The finale is perhaps not quite as superbly paced as the first movement; there are occasional moments where it loses focus and direction.
But the circus-like tableaux in the central section of the movement are filled with bizarre colours, beginning with the rollicking bassoon polka and continuing with a magnificently slapstick trombone player. There are great moments of suspense before the movement’s coda, which is rude and frightening. In its wake, Bychkov leaves us looking out over the rubble as we hear all the alien whimsicality of this work personified in the chilly tinkling of the celesta. This disc is highly recommended.
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
Symphony No. 11 in G minor, The Year 1905, opus 103
Semyon Bychkov, WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln
Avie AV 2062. DDD hybrid 5.1-surround sound SACD/stereo SACD/stereo CD. TT 59:11
Recorded in the Kölner Philharmonie, 19–23 November 2001
Mikhail Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra
PentaTone classics PTC 5186 076. DDD hybrid 5.1-surround sound SACD/stereo SACD/stereo CD. TT 62:07
Recorded live at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 14 February 2005
In my review in DSCH 24 of the Eleventh Symphony performance by Oleg Caetani and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi (Arts Music 47676-8SACD), I compared running times of each movement with versions by Paavo Berglund with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (EMI 7243 5 73839 2 9; deleted) and Mstislav Rostropovich with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live LSO 0030; reviewed in DSCH 18). Durations for these comparison discs and the two currently being reviewed are shown in the following table:
In the first movement, Pletnev’s timing falls somewhere in the middle of this company. While not as distorting as Rostropovich’s behemoth reading, his version suffers some of the same malaise as Berglund’s, strangling the optimistic and spirited pole that I believe the composer intended. Anticipation is everything, but at this tempo the movement begins to sound torpid. The conductor, engineers or both have favoured a warm, fat sound for the lower brass in particular, and while in itself this is no cause for objection, it contributes to a somewhat bloated reading.
Bychkov’s first movement is the shortest, the closest to what the composer intended (if we are to give his metronome markings any credence), and the best of the bunch in my opinion, shading even the favourably reviewed Caetani. The opening is sufficiently monolithic and cold given the relatively brisk tempo, but crucially, when the timpani and trumpet enter, the music has an unnerving alertness about it. It helps that the snare rolls are executed with an icy military precision. Between them these players underscore exactly what this music represents, dormant political and military power (not some sleepy garrison). When the flute’s version of Listen enters with a confident swagger, the timpani’s ur-motive counterpoints it superbly. The sense of immutable opposition between naïve utopianism and unfeeling totalitarianism is palpable. It engenders a sense of ‘something is going to happen’ in a way that the comparison recordings (Caetani aside) do not. The transition to the second movement is superb – it happens because the carefully wrought tensions determine it must.
Both Pletnev and Bychkov’s second movements are shorter than in the comparison performances, and it is fair to say that neither lacks for urgency; they could be charged with sounding a little panicky. For the bulk of the movement’s compound-time opening gambit both readings are more than competitive, but Bychkov holds the tighter reign on his ensemble, and edges past Pletnev. Bychkov’s fugue is clearly voiced and aggressive, and maintains its intensity, whilst Pletnev’s is a little brisker and heavier sounding; both readings are viable. At Figure 40, the rich tone in Pletnev’s lower brass previously alluded to produces glissandi of an admirably gruesome quality (he shades Bychkov here). Bychkov quickens slightly at Figure 84, which the score does not call for. I am usually dead set against such liberties but in this case am merely dubious. This has the effect of heightening the drama, as if the attackers are keen to finish their business. Nevertheless, I prefer Pletnev’s more measured approach.
The third movement is excellent in both readings. Again, both are shorter than the comparison recordings but possess a balancing urgency, almost a sense of resolve in counterpoint to the grieving. Pletnev, the quickest, loses little intensity of feeling despite the tempo. The main theme speaks with nobility in equal measure to sadness. Listeners might prefer it to take its time a little more, but I’d rather it be slightly too quick than too slow (this marred Caetani’s version). Bychkov’s reading likewise gets the emotional balance about right in his main theme. Both central sections set up a sufficiently protesting foil that sonically delivers. Bychkov’s engineers have captured a tight timpani sound, one that sounds a little wooden and shallow when exposed (as it is immediately prior to Figure 114), but that cuts through magnificently in the more martial passages.
Pletnev selects a slow tempo and generous pause for the finale’s opening wind and brass theme before the strings continue at something approaching allegro non troppo, slowing again at Figure 123 – an ingenious solution had the composer chosen to employ it, but the fact of the matter is, he didn’t. Bychkov’s opening observes the score to the letter, and he handles the gear change from allegro ma non troppo to allegro superbly. His ability to maintain intensity throughout the long climactic section beginning at Figure 151 all the way to the reprise of the Palace Square theme at 162 is likewise impressive. This section can descend into tub-thumping banality if the intensity lags at any point. Pletnev too is admirable through this section, the Red Romanticism of Figure 155 given full freedom to express itself.
Thankfully, Pletnev’s reprised Palace Square theme does not suffer from a sluggish tempo, as it did in the first movement. By way of analogy, the cor anglais’ soliloquy is that of a survivor or witness whose purpose is no longer to grieve the dead but to read the charges against those responsible (and indeed this is doubtless why the tempo is 100 bpm here as opposed to 66 bpm in movements 1 and 2). Both conductors capture this change of tone magnificently, a clear-eyed sobriety after the shock and grief of the second and third movements respectively. Crucially, the movement does not get bogged down through this section in either version but presses on to the business of the symphony’s climax.
The final pages of both versions engage, though I particulary like Bychkov’s engineers’ positioning of the bells; they speak with clarity through the impressive din around them, which is important for the obvious motivic reasons at the very end. Pletnev’s bells get a little submerged, but the power of the ensemble as a whole is no less impressive.
The day I began to write this review, I had intended to sit down and alternate each movement head to head, after having listened to both recordings thoroughly a month or so previously. I started with Pletnev’s first movement, then switched to Bychkov’s. By its close, rather than resume with Pletnev’s second movement, I had became too engrossed in the unfolding drama and had to let Bychkov’s entire performance play through to the end. That is the compelling difference, the way he sets up the drama such that the rest of the Symphony naturally unfolds in its wake. There are some fine passages in Pletnev’s rendition – movements 2 through 4 are most competitive – but as a whole it is ultimately hampered by the slow start. As it happens, I’ll be lecturing on this work soon to university students, most of whom will be confronting this work for the first time. I’ll be entrusting Bychkov to win them over.
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
Oleg Caetani, Coro e Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, Pavel Kudinov (bass).
Arts Music 47708-8. DDD hybrid 5.1-surround sound SACD/stereo SACD/stereo CD. TT 55:48.
Also available in complete symphonies 10-SACD boxed set, Arts Music 47850-8.
Recorded live at the Auditorium di Milano, May 2006.
Mariss Jansons, Symphonieorchester und Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Sergei Aleksashkin (bass).
EMI 7243 5 57902 2. DDD. TT 60:14.
Also available in complete symphonies 10-CD boxed set, EMI 0946 3 56830 2 8.
Recorded at the Herkulessaal der Residenz, München, 12–15 January 2005.
Gerard Schwarz, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, Gidon Saks (bass).
Avie AV 2096. DDD. TT 62:53.
Recorded at Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 17, 20 and 22 March 2003.
Yuri Temirkanov, St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, St. Petersburg Television and Radio Chorus, Sergei Aleksashkin (bass).
RCA Red Seal 88697021632. DDD. TT 57:48.
Recorded at the Big Hall, St. Petersburg Philharmonic, St. Petersburg, 16–17 May, 1996.
Mark Wigglesworth, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, Jan-Hendrik Rootering (bass).
BIS SACD-1543. DDD hybrid 5.1-surround sound SACD/stereo SACD/stereo CD. TT 62:22.
Recorded at the Music Centre for Dutch Radio and Television, studio MCO5, Hilversum, April 2005.
If there is one score that establishes Shostakovich as a musical conscience of the twentieth century, it is the Thirteenth Symphony. Written in 1962 as a setting of texts by then-rebel poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the work casts a righteous and powerful light on one of the worst mass executions in modern history. Within a two-day period in September 1941, the invading German army executed nearly 34,000 Jews at the Ukrainian ravine known as Babi Yar. By the end of World War II, the number of victims at the ravine approached 100,000. Shostakovich’s musical setting of Yevtushenko’s poem Babi Yar broke a long-standing, officially sanctioned silence on this tragedy.
The Thirteenth Symphony’s remaining four movements take up other issues of consequence: artistic freedom, concern for women, abuses of power, integrity. Nikita Khrushchev, presiding over the more liberal attitudes of the ‘cultural thaw’, could never have anticipated a work of such wilful dissent – certainly not from the country’s most loyal and celebrated artist. And certainly not from a composer who, just one year before, had written a Lenin-praising Twelfth Symphony, and who two years before had officially sworn his allegiance to the Communist Party. The moral courage of both Shostakovich and Yevtushenko for taking such a bold stand cannot be overestimated, in particular for Shostakovich, whose scars of oppression ran decades deep.
The symphony begins with the heavily weighted Babi Yar setting, whose verse points to institutional anti-Semitism for the (then) absence of an official monument at the site of the massacre. The splayed four-note figure that solemnly opens the work, part of the first group of themes in this tightly-knit sonata form, returns at the climax as an immense orchestral exclamation of horror. The remaining four movements are likewise climactically driven and follow the basic floor plan of the classical symphony. While the verses address universal themes, they harbour obvious autobiographical resonances. In Humour, the symphony’s implicit Scherzo, symbols of authority are skewered in a derisive fashion for their inability to suppress one of Shostakovich’s favourite expressive devices. The thematic material in these first two movements is rugged and poster-like. The music advances with blunt force, in every way matching the unvarnished directness of Yevtushenko’s verses. At the Store and Fears are more transparently scored and rely to a greater degree on atmospheric values. At the Store provides the emotional nucleus of the work, in effect a slow movement. Its haunting arioso sympathizes with the plight of Russian women seeking basic supplies. Sinister notes of caution are raised in the Fears setting: fears of the recent past and those newly arising. Finally, the multivalent rondo sections of A Career hold Galileo, Shakespeare, Pasteur, and others in esteem for keeping true to their own noble visions.
Shostakovich evidently sought to forge these dissident messages in as virile a manner as possible and thus scored his Thirteenth Symphony for full orchestra and all male voices: a bass soloist and a choir that sings in unison throughout. As such, the work stands apart from Shostakovich’s other works in the form in representing an unusual fusion of genres, part symphony, part cantata, part song cycle, part opera. It is in many ways a companion piece to his other composition based on Yevtushenko’s verses, the cantata The Execution of Stepan Razin. It similarly represents one of the works of Shostakovich’s later years where his latent operatic impulses surface prominently.
Unlike the symphonies of Mahler, Nielsen, and Vaughan Williams that incorporate a vocal component, Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony centres on a single soloist, a protagonist who embodies the work’s defining role. Its various topics are mediated through him, or rather, his dramatis persona. He is, in a way, a John Bunyan figure with a political edge. By way of impassioned ariosi and a libretto cast in five scenes, he confronts issues of both a global and personal nature, stirs our moral conscience, and then emerges, in the final pages, heroic and, if only tentatively, triumphant. It is, one might say, symphony as opera, or conversely, opera as symphony.
As any opera lover knows, the success of a performance depends vitally on the quality of the lead singer. The hybrid character of the Thirteenth Symphony opens the door to a variety of interpretive possibilities, as the five examples under review amply demonstrate. Nowhere does an operatic impression of the solo part come across more vividly than with bass Sergei Aleksashkin. The two performances under review here are separated by nearly a decade; Yuri Temirkanov’s recorded in 1996, and Mariss Jansons’ in 2005. Aleksashkin also recorded the work with Sir Georg Solti in 1995 (Decca CD 444 791-2; deleted) and Rudolf Barshai in 2000 (Regis RRC1102 or complete symphonies boxed set Brilliant Classics 6275; reviewed in DSCH 20). The term ‘operatic’, incidentally, when applied to a piece of instrumental music, is usually derogatory and implies that attention is lavished on individual sections at the expense of how those sections fit into the work. I rather use the word in a positive sense to refer to a colourfully detailed performance style that, in the case of Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony, enhances its intrinsic connection to the genre. The Jansons and Temirkanov renditions exhibit their greatest strengths when they are at their most operatic – with soloist Aleksashkin’s remarkable display of passion in the first half of Jansons’ and with the gestural freedom from the podium found in the last half of Temirkanov’s.
Sergei Aleksashkin is an ideal bass for this work. His rich, charismatic vocal tones convey the angry spirit of protest in Yevtushenko’s politically loaded verses, and at the same time are sensitive enough to embrace the broad humanitarianism of the gentler passages. The complex character of his voice also adapts well to the inherent volatility of Shostakovich’s music.
In Jansons’ recording I was struck by Aleksashkin’s blistering emotional force in the opening movements, where every syllable of text rings out like a life-or-death proposition. With a combination of Russian heartiness and Italian effusiveness, Aleksashkin plunges the listener headlong into Babi Yar‘s emotional terrain. He takes risks everywhere. Throughout, he seems physically impaled by the verses, with rolling ‘r’s, surges of volume, end-of-phrase hooks, and even the occasional growl in the Humour setting. He even seizes up breathlessly with the words that propel Babi Yar‘s central climax, ‘No – It is the ice breaking.’ A more thorough realization of the pain and outrage embodied in these verses is difficult to imagine.
Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra provide a sturdy if only respectful foil for Aleksashkin. Without resorting to extremes, Jansons carries the gravitas of Babi Yar with aplomb. The chorus’s tender strains in the recapitulation round out the movement with grace and dignity. Humour is paced grandly and pompously, again allowing Aleksashkin all the room he needs to make the role his own. Aleksashkin here adopts a tone that lies somewhere between mock self-importance and wrenching irony, as he gives a thoroughly rousing performance replete with individual touches.
Aleksashkin is nowhere as intense in the first two movements under Temirkanov. In the Babi Yar movement, where a greater measure of stability on the part of chorus and orchestra is called for, Temirkanov’s impromptu tempo shifts and over-indulgent percussion vie with Aleksashkin’s personal style, if not with the musical fabric itself. In the frenzied pace of Humour, one of the fastest versions around, Aleksashkin articulates effortlessly, but once again, the best is not drawn out of him.
If Temirkanov’s impulsive, shall we say operatic, gestures are less suited to the solid muscle mass of the first two movements, they pay off handsomely in the episodic pages of the final two. He also leads a fine version of At the Store. While Aleksashkin gives a very moving rendition of At the Store under both conductors, he is surrounded by more sonically spacious environs in Temirkanov’s recording. The dusky aura so created enhances Aleksashkin’s yearning tones more than in Jansons’ tightly-miked version. In Fears, where Jansons’ restraint keeps the movement rather earthbound, Temirkanov’s comparatively reckless abandon better elicits the ominous mood cast by the sinewy tuba solo and the muted brass’ hostile fanfares, again eliciting a better performance from Aleksashkin. Temirkanov also charts the complex emotional terrain of A Career with one of the most beautifully sculpted renditions of this movement. Each of its rondo sections is endowed with rich character: winds chirp with barely contained glee, tutti passages accelerate to the point of hysteria, then dissolve by way of sneering brass into dolefully sauntering string figures; the recurring bassoon motif declares its individuality with waggishly drawn out rubati. Aleksashkin manoeuvres through these contrasting passages with just the right blend of poignancy and cynicism. While neither Jansons’ nor Temirkanov’s performance is perfect, each contains sterling elements.
In DSCH 26, I surveyed all of Gerard Schwarz’s somewhat sporadic contributions to the Shostakovich discography. While he has not produced a consistent set of interpretations, when he does pull it together – as in the Second Cello Concerto, the Execution of Stepan Razin, and the October tone poem – the interpretations are outstanding. The latter two performances achieve success through stable, rock-solid pacing that one might hope to hear more of in Schwarz’s Shostakovich. At least in the first two movements of the Thirteenth Symphony, however, his tempi vary with mixed results.
Schwarz offers one of the most inspired openings to the work. The chorus enters hushed and hallowed, and ever so slowly rise to a sumptuously dark peak as if setting the scene for an epic Greek tragedy. One cannot help but lean forward with expectation. At 16:34 this is the longest first movement of these five versions. Compared to earlier performances, the first movement falls just short of Previn’s powerful survey at 16:52 (EMI Classics 73368 26; deleted) but well behind Haitink’s brooding account at 17:11 (Decca Ovation 425 073-2 or complete symphonies boxed set Decca 475 7413). Schwarz approaches the first movement with a well-grounded strategy as he alternates, somewhat in checkerboard fashion, between two basic tempi: moderately fast and expansively slow. The tempo shifts emerge along the structural boundaries, and thus cast the various sonata sections into sharp relief. Supported by the vigorous performances of chorus and bass soloist, the interpretation confers a sense of panoramic breadth and architectural solidity.
Schwarz’s boisterously rapid clip in Humour is less well judged. He evidently feels that the movement fits into the work’s larger scheme in the manner of the Tenth Symphony’s Scherzo, as a sort of clear-the-palate bridge between the darker movements. If so, the reasoning is sadly misplaced. In any event, at this nerve-wracking speed, many expressive details in Humour are glossed over. The thumpy surges in the recurring timpani figure quickly become distracting, and in general the music is not accorded the dignity it deserves. Understandably, bass soloist Gidon Saks at times seems more stressed over keeping up the dizzying pace than by the words about the tyranny of kings.
Saks’ steely voice carries a taut line throughout this performance. He is especially well suited to the proudly defiant passages in the Babi Yar and Career settings. At other times his vocal control seems a little too tightly maintained. He does offer a genuinely moving rendition of At the Store, whose melancholic depths are well captured by the choral and orchestral accompaniment. A little less formality and a softer edge, however, would have allowed Saks to delve further into the pathos of these verses.
In the Fears setting, Schwarz resorts to a stable, measured pace, which yields good atmospheric points but lacks the menace and anxiety that others have drawn from it. Schwarz’s interpretation may not quite live up to the promise of its first few minutes, but it does contain enough strong points to merit a qualified recommendation.
Mark Wigglesworth has produced some of the most provocative interpretations of the Shostakovich symphonies. Admirers of his daringly slow tempi and wide dynamic range will have much to applaud in this sumptuous version of the Thirteenth. His specialty of generating nuances of texture and phrasing is well supported by strong ensemble work on the part of the chorus and orchestra. When the chorus leap to their feet at the start of the second thematic group, the sombre atmosphere is suddenly charged with intense passion. Exceeding all expectations is the sheer monumentality brought to each of the movement’s climactic sections. If the marching staccato notes that lead to the first movement climax trawl under the elongated tempi, the breadth and depth of the movement as a whole simply overwhelms. The climactic sections of the third and fourth movements are likewise drawn from quiet beginnings and stretched to daring proportions, and are profoundly moving.
Bass soloist Jan-Hendrik Rootering sings with utter sincerity. In the Babi Yar lines that identify the poet with the denounced and persecuted Jews throughout history, Rootering conveys a heartfelt sense of humanity and deep personal injury. His voice also possesses a curiously turbulent quality that keeps the line fluid and engaging. At the same time there are moments in the first two movements where the weight and intensity of chorus and orchestra are at odds with his mellow bass tones. His voice is more a vessel of vulnerability and volatility, and as such lacks the outward projection needed to capture the anger and outrage in Yevtushenko’s charged verses. Some of the irony of the Humour movement, already somewhat diluted by the elongated tempi, seems to be lost on him.
Rootering is better suited to the settings of the latter half of the symphony, particularly with At The Store, which calls for expressions of compassion rather than moral indignation. He embraces these verses about women enduring daily hardships with exquisite sensitivity. He achieves rare poignancy in the tender passage with falling glissandi that leads to the powerful choral and orchestral climax. The broadly-paced percussive strokes on the part of the orchestra in the climactic aftermath provide a stunning affirmation. A finer rendition of this movement would be hard to find. In the subsequent Fears movement, Rootering’s wide vibrato set against the eerily trilling strings creates a most effective atmosphere of foreboding. Nowhere else but in the Wigglesworth version will we find the chorus’ gradualcrescendo in the Soviet-style military march spanning such a wide dynamic range and reaching such a stirring peak. Rootering may not meet everyone’s expectations in the first half of the symphony, but Wigglesworth realizes his unique vision of the work superbly.
We have an altogether different approach with Oleg Caetani. On a number of accounts, his performance will remind listeners of Kyrill Kondrashin’s live broadcast recording that took the West by storm and that still remains a vital account of the work (Russian Disc RDCD 11 191; deleted). Caetani’s is likewise recorded in front of a live audience, and carries all the in-the-moment excitement and imperfections that one finds in such a context. However, it is the driven pace of Caetani’s performance that is most reminiscent of Kondrashin’s. His take-no-prisoners rendition is even faster, at least in the first three movements, than Kondrashin’s later studio recording on Melodiya (MELCD1001065), which outpaces even the broadcast version.
Soloist Pavel Kudinov is ideally suited to this interpretation, which would have been compromised with a voice either too high-strung, too stiff or too mellow. Kudinov is a pleasure to listen to. His handsome vocal tones possess the timbre, flexibility and quick reflexes needed to do justice to Caetani’s turbo-charged interpretation. The sound quality is for the most part superb in this Super Audio CD, though the balance between soloist and the remaining forces is a bit skewed toward the latter. The matter becomes distracting only in the Humour movement, where Kudinov is occasionally overpowered.
Caetani, like Temirkanov, conducts more from the heart than the head. His performance may at first seem all about speed, visceral immediacy, and in-the-moment passions. It is indeed all that, but as one listens, it becomes much more. Yes, the solemn tones of the work’s opening paragraph are coiled perhaps a bit too anxiously, as the chorus, here and elsewhere, sing in a kind of bouncing staccato style. There are also a few moments, such as the aftermath of the towering Babi Yar climax, when the music picks up and moves on without even taking a moment to exhale. Yet throughout, one never gets the sense that the music is being tossed off superficially. One may keep in mind while listening that Shostakovich, himself, preferred his music to have a high metabolic rate and as such there is a certain authenticity to this interpretation. Within his chosen tempo, Caetani gives careful and at times graceful attention to almost every nuance of phrasing, and shows enormous respect for the score.
One of the principal strengths of this performance is how well conductor, soloist and chorus work together in realizing a unified vision of the work. Babi Yar is brought off with dignity and visceral strength, even if its pace sacrifices some of the weight found in other performances. Humour is also taken briskly and vigorously, to rousing effect. Its thrust is nowhere as frantically stepped-up as in the Temirkanov or Schwarz versions. The brief antiphonal exchanges between soloist and chorus near the end of movement (‘He’s eternal’/‘Eternal!’; ‘He’s artful’/‘Artful!’) exemplify the razor-sharp reactivity and superb ensemble work one finds throughout. The movement gains in raunchy sarcasm with its lusty trombone glissandi and fiery expressionistic outbursts.
At the Store is also pressed forward, Kondrashin style, though in a manner that supports the all-important atmospheric elements surprisingly well. Caetani does this by treating the instrumentation in an especially delicate manner – hushed chorus, gently evocative tappings of the castanets, resonating harp notes. Kudinov gives a wonderfully sensitive reading, leading to a rousing climax. The result is an unexpectedly moving, albeit compact version of At the Store. In the post-climactic stamping chords, Caetani slows down the pace to a marked degree, capping the movement with nobility and grandeur as well as providing a nicely scaled segue to Fears, which takes on a life of its own. The subterranean rumblings, the distant gong strokes, the haunting tuba solo, all prowl menacingly and leopard-like, ready to pounce. Here subdued intensity and chiselled detail combine to produce a malevolent invocation of muted brass and eerily trilling strings. A lively, well-detailed rendition of A Career brings this impressive performance to a close.
Each of five recordings, I might add, uses the original, unaltered version of the texts, a practice that has become fairly standard these days. The collection of well-informed liner notes on these five albums reflects an impressive level of Shostakovich scholarship. In her eloquent summary for Mariss Jansons, Pauline Fairclough manages to cover a wealth of detail. David Fanning, in his essay for the Schwarz disc, offers insights into the music and the controversies surrounding it. On the Caetani album, Luca Chierici concentrates on the troubled circumstances surrounding the premiere of the work. The most extensive notes are penned by Mark Wigglesworth himself, who reports on everything from the horrifying statistics of the Babi Yar massacre to Shostakovich’s own reflections on the verses. But the Pravda award goes to RCA Red Seal, whose informative notes by Tobias Niederschlag decry the blatant absence of the printed text at the 1962 Moscow premiere – this in a booklet that singularly commits the same omission, politburo style!
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
Symphony No. 3 in Eb major, The First of May, opus 20[a]; Symphony No. 14, opus 135[b].
Oleg Caetani, Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, Coro Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi[a], Marina Poplavskaya (soprano)[b], Mikhail Davidov (baritone)[b].
Arts Music 47723-8. DDD hybrid 5.1-surround sound SACD/stereo SACD/stereo CD. TT 74:45.
Also available in complete symphonies 10-SACD boxed set, Arts Music 47850-8.
Recorded live at the Auditorium di Milano, April–June 2006.
Symphony No. 3 in Eb major, The First of May, opus 20[a]; Symphony No. 14, opus 135[b].
Mariss Jansons, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischer Rundfunk, Chor des Bayerischer Rundfunk[a], Larissa Gogolewskaja (soprano)[b], Sergei Aleksashkin (bass)[b].
EMI 0946 3 56830 2 8. DDD. TT 79:21.
Also available in complete symphonies 10-CD boxed set, EMI 0946 3 56830 2 8.
Recorded at the Herkulessaal der Residenz, München, 10–12 January 2005[a], 7–8 October and 11–12 November 2005[b].
Symphony No. 1 in F# minor, opus 10[a]; Symphony No. 14, opus 135[b].
Simon Rattle, Berliner Philharmoniker, Karita Mattila (soprano)[b], Thomas Quasthoff (bass)[b].
EMI 0946 3 58077 2 1. DDD. 2-CD set TT 53:59+32:09.
Recorded live at the Philharmonie, Berlin, 15–17 June 2005[a], 16–19 September 2005[b].
By most accepted standards, the Berlin Philharmonic is one of the best orchestras in the world. The same cannot be said for the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, or even for the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, despite the high quality of their playing. In addition to producing famously flawless playing, the Berlin Philharmonic has Simon Rattle as its Principal Conductor, and he hardly needs to prove his credentials as a Shostakovich interpreter.
It is therefore not surprising that, at the level of sheer virtuosity, Oleg Caetani’s orchestra does not achieve the technical perfection of Rattle’s players. The Milan strings let Caetani down at crucial moments of the Fourteenth Symphony, most notably in the furious Malagueña, though the soprano’s entries in The Suicide also suffer from lack of intensity in the preceding string passages. The contributions of Caetani’s soloists, Marina Poplavskaya and Mikhail Davidov, are also mixed: Poplavskaya is unaccountably lightweight in Malagueña, but is spellbinding in The Suicide; Davidov is compelling in O Delvig; and their final duet is tautly controlled and balanced. Despite some roughness and moments of weakness, Caetani’s account of this bleak but beautiful symphony is well worth deeper acquaintance.
Rattle prefers a rich, warm sound to the hard edge of Jansons. His opening movement is textured with a luscious vibrato that Jansons eschews in favour of a cold glassiness, and his On Watch is sleekly taut where Jansons’ is cruel and obsessive. In The Zaporozhian Cossacks, Rattle adopts a deliberately sneering, almost mechanistic sound, where Jansons is all violence and fury. Rattle’s Malagueña, too, adopts a more relaxed tone than does Jansons’, with menacing undertones of violence. His barely there, pianissimo opening of The Poet’s Death is instantly compelling, and in the first movement too, the Berlin Philharmonic is the most eerie and brooding.
There are plenty of times when criticising an orchestra for sounding too perfect is nothing more than mean-spirited carping. But the criticism that could more fairly be laid at Rattle’s door is not technical over-perfection but expressive limpness – a sense that all that’s there is a beautiful sound. Any listener who didn’t know the symphony would find no cause for complaint. But those who follow the texts – poems by Rilke, Kuchelbecker, Lorca and Apollinaire – might well find Thomas Quasthoff’s gorgeously lyrical bass slightly at odds with the at times unbearable anguish of the words. And a comparison with Sergei Aleksashkin (the bass in Jansons’ recording) or Davidov further underscores the problem. Quasthoff’s singing of At the Sante Jail and O Delvig has a shapely beauty, but a brief comparison with the other basses in these two movements reveals his expressive weakness.
The anguish and intensity they bring to Apollinaire’s and Kuchelbecker’s poems simply aren’t there in Rattle’s recording, no matter how much the Berlin strings outclass Milan’s.
Jansons’ recording has the winning combination of superb orchestral playing and outstanding soloists. Neither Poplavskaya nor Karita Mattila (Rattle’s soprano) come close to Larissa Gogolewskaja, who ranges from the brittle intensity of Madame, Look! to the haunting insanity of The Suicide. Though Poplavskaya’s performance of this movement is also brilliantly hypnotic, Gogolewskaja’s voice is simply stronger and richer. Mattila is movingly vulnerable in Loreley, but that tenderness of expression comes at the expense of the passionate drive of Gogolewskaja’s delivery. Jansons’ bass, Aleksashkin, is far and away the strongest of the three: both anguished and tender in O Delvig, menacing in Loreley.
There is no question that Rattle is master of this interpretation, and some listeners will accept less exciting soloists as the price to pay for a strong original interpretation. But Jansons’ soloists are without question the most powerful and expressive of the three recordings; and when their performance is matched by both interpretation and technique of such authoritative musicianship, the result is compelling. Caetani, despite some superb singing and playing, is not really a contender in this company; to choose Rattle means settling for less with the soloists despite interpretative insights, whereas singers, conductor and orchestra are ideally matched in Jansons’ recording.
Rattle couples the Fourteenth Symphony with the First, while Jansons and Caetani have opted for the more unusual pairing of the Third. Both interpretations of the Third Symphony are convincing, although Caetani’s live performance has a frisson of excitement that some listeners might find lacking in Jansons’ more secure, though still powerful recording. Caetani’s tempi are considerably faster than Jansons’ in places, which certainly aids the sense of adventure, and the Milanese players are more secure here than in the Fourteenth Symphony. Both are fine recordings in very different ways: the Milan choir are rather untidy in the closing chorus, perhaps struggling to cope with Caetani’s whirlwind tempi, but on the whole their performance is just as gripping as Jansons’, even if not for quite the same reasons. There is, however, always the possibility that what may be compelling in live performance may pall with continued acquaintance, and Caetani’s recording certainly carries this risk.
Turning finally to Rattle’s performance of the First Symphony, as might be expected from the Berlin Philharmonic, it is technically and expressively flawless; it does everything it is supposed to. But it doesn’t do any more than that, and cannot compensate for the rather lacklustre Fourteenth. Rattle has produced some stunning Shostakovich recordings, but despite some ravishing moments in the Fourteenth Symphony, this CD isn’t one of his best.