CD Reviews 33
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Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 2, opus 129[a], Symphony No. 15, opus 141[b]
Kyril Kondrashin, Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, David
Alto ALC1062. ADD. TT: 70:21
Recorded in the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory, 21 November 1967[a]; Moscow Radio Concert Hall 17 May 1974[b].
Firstly the transfer of both works to CD is fine. The sound is fully present and louder than the discs I compared it to. The first movement begins well, in a purposeful moderato very close to the composer’s markings and Oistrakh’s playing is assured in the opening stanza and very present in the mix. Having said that, it wasn’t until I checked against Mordkovitch and Järvi (Chandos CHAN 8820) that Shostakovich’s dynamics were drawn to my attention. As I mentioned in reviewing Hilary Hahn’s rendition of the First Concerto (DSCH 19), the composer there routinely marks the soloist one dynamic grade higher than the orchestra; where he doesn’t, either the soloist’s tessitura or the texture guarantees its ability to speak or, where they are equal, the intention seems to be (as at the opening of the First) for the soloist to, ghostlike, emerge from its orchestral bedding. The opening stanza of the Second Concerto (up to figure 3) predominantly pits piano soloist against piano strings, and figure 10 to figure 15+5 marks another large expanse of piano against piano, the delicate imitation between solo winds and violin soloist. Other passages clearly reverse the usual dominance of the soloist: figure 17 pitting forte piccolo against piano soloist and, in the second movement, at figure 49 mezzo forte flute in a medium-high register against the soloist’s piano in its lowest. Both the second concertos for violin and cello might almost be considered anti-concertos insofar as their soloists do not so much soar above their backgrounds, as their predecessors do, but rather hide within them for long periods and seem to speak with great reluctance. That the First Violin Concerto was written “for the drawer” and the second wasn’t does not disguise the fact that ultimately the former is a public work, the latter a private one. Both Oistrakh and Vengerov (Teldec 0630-13150-2) take a somewhat more traditional view of what a concerto should be. It might be a matter of taste what approach one prefers, wanting to hear the soloist clearly or allowing the score to speak as it is written. Mordkovitch/Järvi’s approach in the opening movement and, to a degree, the second, is to let the soloist take a more subdued role and this pays off both at a localised level – the soloist’s eruption at figure 6, for example, has a greater shock value against the relative torpor and timidity from which it has finally emerged – but also at the deeper structural level (whereby the finale performs a similar function in the large to a more telling effect). That these second concertos are played less frequently might be down to their refusal to adhere to the conventional dynamic between soloist and orchestra but, be that as it may, I don’t necessarily think a conventional approach to performance in any way enhances them. While this might seem a lengthy digression, it explains my view that Oistrakh’s (and by compassion Vengerov’s) performances are masterly and faithfully captured, but Mordkovitch’s is a more compelling reading, revelatory in fact, as if I was hearing the work for the first time.
After Oistrakh’s solid opening, there is perhaps a little unsteadiness leading up to figure 6, where the soloist tugs against the orchestra, as if urging it to go quicker. I didn’t particularly mind this, but if the reader’s taste is for strict control this is one passage that perhaps fell a little short. From figure 6 onward the first movement is very strong. The second theme complex at figure 120 is a little slow but features some wonderful playing. The quadruple stops at figure 16 protest magnificently (if again, the sense of apologetically withdrawing at figure 17, that the score seems to call for, doesn’t really happen). The two-part invention cadenza is as close to flawless as one could get.
The second movement is excellent with some terrific playing in the mini-cadenza, though again the dynamics are less strictly adhered to in places. The finale gallops along at a good pace, the playing excellent, again no more so than in the cadenza. The final pages are scintillating to be sure, played as well as one could imagine, though it gives the impression that, as a work, it doesn’t quite match up to the First Concerto. With Mordkovitch/Järvi I felt the work vindicated itself on its own terms.
The symphony begins at a genuine allegro rather than the allegretto stated in the score. The brisker-than-usual tempo adds a demonic savagery that the movement usually doesn’t attain. There is something lost in the crispness of the articulation (the wind and brass repeated staccato notes struggle to be heard in places) but the syncopations (such as the strings shortly after figure 13) punch magnificently. Similarly the simple/compound fugues at figures 27 (strings) and 47 (winds), have an acerbic bite I hadn’t experienced before (though Maxim Shostakovich comes close in the world premiere recording (Melodiya LP ASD2857, yet to appear on CD). The first violinist is in top form at figure 35, nailing the constantly changing articulation, even at this brisk tempo, to telling effect. The more traditional in nature might prefer Haitink (Decca 000289 425 0692 3) or Maxim Shostakovich but anyone in the market for a slightly more thrilling reading will be glad to have purchased this disc.
If there is a downside to the brisker first movement it is perhaps that the Adagio sounds disproportionately long (all three conductors cited here take it slightly slower than the score’s tempo). Having said that, there is more than enough interest to mean that it doesn’t often drag. The first cellist is excellent in the solo passages (a minor blemish just after figure 57 aside), the low brass, tuba in particular, are sumptuous and at figure 75 the divided strings’ version of the main chorale theme with the woodblock tolling across its entrance is wonderful. The recording is close enough to hear the occasional snatched breath of the brass players, but in passages like this I felt almost inside the music.
The third movement is lively and sardonic. Each soloist speaks with clarity, crisp articulation and excellent character. The finale begins with some unsteady intonation (righted almost immediately, to be fair) but is most assured once it gets under way. The main theme is lilting with a judicious use of rubato, the abrupt dynamic changes for brass and later strings are excellently controlled, and the central passacaglia (figure 125) has a tremendous urgency that leads inexorably to the movement’s climax. The percussion coda has the requisite mechanical aspect to it. This passage, which so touchingly intermingles the first movement main theme, the passacaglia theme from this movement’s climax and tone row material, utterly transforming each against the static string’s A diad, is one of the great Shostakovich moments and Kondrashin does not disappoint (nor does Maxim Shostakovich returning to it after a long absence). By comparison I felt Haitink tries to make too much of it, the resultant sluggish tempo stymied the motoric impulse that this passage needs.
So in conclusion, this is a CD I will return to. As far as the concerto is concerned, no collection would be complete without the dedicatee’s rendition. Kondrashin’s reading of the symphony is compelling and with a point of difference in the first movement that only marginally detracts from the whole.
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Symphony No. 14, opus 135
Vladimir Jurowski, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Tatiana Monogarova (soprano), Sergei Leiferkus (bass)
LPO-0028; DDD. TT: 48:16
Recorded live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 18 February 2007
The Fourteenth Symphony has enjoyed its fair share of recordings over the last decade, and this live performance offers an intense and searching reading which, in several ways, encourages one to consider the work afresh. The sound is clear and resonant and, with the exception of the over-amplification of the soloist over the strings in Deprofundis the balance is also very successful. Most striking, perhaps, is the extremely vivid and razor-sharp articulation of the percussion parts, both wooden and metallic, which adds greatly to one’s appreciation of its primary role in the work, both as a means of dramatic punctuation (as in Lorelei) as well as its more symbolic use, as in the bizarre duet between xylophone and tom-tom in On Watch and the shockingly decisive ff blows which conclude the Epilogue. It is also particularly pleasing to be able to hear the vibraphone part so clearly projected, even when pp. The quality of string playing throughout the performance is also superb, not least the alternating pizzicato/arco writing and rhythmic accelerandi in Malagueña and the screaming string cluster between figures 61 and 62 in The Suicide; and it is also a pleasure to hear the double bass glissandi which are one of the many striking features of this score so clearly articulated. The col legno/pizzicato section (figures 93 to 96) in In the Santé Jailsimilarly comes across afresh and highlights the strikingly unusual sonority of this writing in its depiction of a living death.
Jurowski pays scrupulous attention to phrasing and dynamics and his approach is always intelligent and thought-provoking, particularly with regard to the underlying pace of the work as a whole. His tempi are generally on the brisk side, certainly compared to the recordings of Britten (BBC: B8013-2; 1970) and Rostropovich (Melodiya: SUCD10-00241; 1973); and in this regard, his interpretation is more similar to that of Haitink (Decca: 425074-2; 1980). In Delvig this approach is notably successful, the tempo as projecting the movement an art song rather than operatic aria, while retaining the detail and lilt of the string writing. On the other hand, Lorelei is perhaps too brisk, the frenetic dialogue between the sorceress and bishop losing something in pathos; and The Death of the Poet also seems a little lacking in this regard, notwithstanding its beautiful phrasing. In contrast, Jurowski’s Epilogue, in which he adopts a slower tempo than these earlier recordings, is highly successful in emphasising the bleak finality of the work’s conclusion, something Shostakovich surely intended. One is certainly left with the impression that in contrast to Britten and Shostakovich, who seem to view Delvig and The Death of the Poet as the core of the work – each movement possesses equal emotional weight and, in fact, forms part of a continuous whole.
The recording benefits from two first-rate Russian soloists. Sergei Leiferkus is particularly impressive, not only in his exemplary diction and clarity of tone, but also in his ability to vary his characterisation throughout the work, from the priest-like dirge of De profundis to the more operatic style required in In the Santé Jail; the final bars of the latter (from figure 105) are moving indeed. Tatiana Monogarova is also highly expressive throughout – particularly so in The Suicide – though occasionally one misses the range of characterisation of Galina Vishnevskaya under Rostropovich and the luminous clarity of tone of Julia Varady under Haitink.
The disc is well presented and its accompanying booklet includes transliterations and translations of the poems and an eloquent if somewhat brief note. My only complaint about the latter is that it nowhere refers to the work’s dedication to Britten; and it also accepts at face value Shostakovich’s attestation in Pravda that he hoped audiences would leave a performance with the thought that “Life is beautiful”. Sir Duncan Wilson, the British Ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1968-71, eloquently described the first two Moscow performances for Britten, and it is clear from his letters (preserved in the Britten-Pears Library and referred to in his daughter Elizabeth’s book Shostakovich Remembered) that this was decidedly not the case.
NB This recording is only available as part of the fourdisc box set London Philharmonic Orchestra 75th Anniversary, volume 3: 1983-2007. As well as the Fourteenth Symphony it contains Shostakovich’s First and Fifth Symphonies, conducted by Kurt Masur (reviewed below), Beethoven (conducted by Klaus Tennstedt), and Strauss, Mozart, Schubert and Bruckner conducted by Franz Welser-Möst.
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In reviewing a new recording with many rivals, there are two possible ways in which the new performance might make a good impression and merit a recommendation. One is that it should fulfil the reviewer’s expectations of the piece, ideally exceeding them by being more moving, exciting, and perhaps re-emphasising the features that the reviewer already likes best about the work. Alternatively, it may surprise the listener with something completely new, in a manner that delights and offers new insights. Sadly, this new disc offers one performance that doesn’t quite meet expectations for this reviewer, and a second that offers a big surprise that is an interesting experiment, but one which, for me, ultimately fails to delight.
This new recording is taken from live performances in London’s Royal Festival Hall but is marred by many extraneous noises – thumpings, grunts and expressive moans, possibly made by the conductor. It may seem nit-picking to comment on this; Masur is not the only conductor to sing along tunelessly – Barbirolli was another – but in this case I find it rather distracting, and wonder if it could have been masked by more judicious microphone placement. In addition, the recording is not particularly clear, and while the RFH has been noted for exceptionally good acoustics, the sound here often lacks clarity and crispness and, while clear during sparse chamber-like passages, it loses definition in loud complex ones.
The first and second movements of the First Symphony capture well the cartoonish quirkiness of the music, but again, the lighter textures are marred on occasion with noises and bumps, and the loud passages lack clarity of sound. This can be noted by comparing the loud tutti passage in the second movement, before the mysterious coda. In Barshai’s recording with the WDR Symphony Orchestra, the characteristically shrill typically Shostakovichian woodwind stand out as a feature; in Masur’s their influence seems lost, mixed in with the rest. However, the disappointment for me in this performance is the third movement, where there is a change of mood from what might be seen as the precocious talent of the first two movements to something much deeper than one might reasonably expect from what went before. Here, right from the start, the opening oboe solo seems to lack conviction, the phrasing seems uncertain, lacking in flow, and failing to bring out the emotion in the music. The final movement fares rather better, but other performances bring out the dramatic mood swings between frenetic excitement and grief and desolation in the movement rather better. This is a work that should leave the listener stunned that a 19 year-old could have written it; this performance, though reasonable, doesn’t quite meet those expectations.
The Fifth Symphony is of course even better-known than the First, perhaps the best known of all Shostakovich’s symphonies, and one with a huge number of recordings available (190 of them on Amazon). If you already own one or more recordings, then there has to be something truly unique about a new performance to merit purchasing yet another. In this respect Masur’s performance may offer something. For the most part, however, nothing particularly stands out for me. There are some nice touches; the playing of the child-like violin solo in the second subject of the second movement is delightful, but yet again, in the re-iteration of the tune for the flute that follows, I find the phrasing seems to lack flow – as if there was an attempt to over-finesse the performance instead of allowing it to breathe naturally.
However, the “stand-out” feature of this recording is the exceptionally slow rendition of the coda to the final movement, and this may be a unique selling point for some. It seems that since the publication of Testimony with its famous comment about “Forced rejoicing”, it has become fashionable to favour a slow rendition of the coda, in particular the immensely long series of 248 quaver A octaves that follow figure 131. Famously, there is also a controversy over the metronome marking at that point; the Boosey and Hawkes score gives a blisteringly fast crotchet=188, but later stories emerged that this was a misprint, and that it should be played at half the speed; quaver=188 instead. In my opinion, it might be instructive to separate out the two issues (a) Should it be seen to be “forced rejoicing” as opposed to simple rejoicing, and (b) Should it be played slow or fast?
As an experiment, I timed the sequence of A’s on three recordings:
Bernstein (NYPO, 1959): Crotchet = 212 (35 seconds)
Barshai (WDR Symphony Orchestra): Crotchet = 97 (1 min 16)
Masur (LPO – this recording): Crotchet = 65 (1 min 54)
This shows that the famous 1959 Bernstein recording exceeds even the outrageous metronome marking by a considerable margin (and must be even faster at the start as the pace slows markedly towards the end). Barshai is the closest to ‘revised’ metronome marking, and sounds much in line with many modern recordings. However, Masur is the opposite extreme from the Bernstein, at around two-thirds the speed of the Barshai.
Which one sounds most like “forced rejoicing”? To my ears the hyper-fast Bernstein rendition does – it seems so fast that indeed one gets the impression of being beaten with a stick, the coda being rushed through could be seen as robbing it of the majesty of triumph. It is well known that Shostakovich himself approved of Bernstein’s interpretation, despite the tendency to play it slower nowadays.
Does the new Masur recording sound like “forced rejoicing”? Not to me; the build-up to figure 131 seems to drag interminably, like old creaky machinery being wound up, and the plodding sequence of A’s that follows seems to be wading through treacle. It is loud, grinding, and a veritable din. It certainly doesn’t sound like rejoicing, forced or otherwise. Does it work musically? That is always going to be a matter of subjective opinion. The ovation we hear on the disc shows that it went down well with the audience. I’m afraid that, without the atmosphere of being there, it didn’t go down well with me; Barshai’s middle tempo seems the right one.
So, all in all, a rather disappointing release; marred by sound lacking in clarity, extraneous noises, and some eccentric choices of tempo. However, the hyper-slow ending to the work in this performance is definitely its distinguishing feature and might be of interest to some.
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Symphony No. 11 in G minor, opus 103, The Year 1905
Mark Wigglesworth, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
BIS-SACD-1583. DDD hybrid Direct Stream Digital 5.0- surround sound/stereo SACD/stereo CD. TT 63:41
Recorded at the Music Centre for Dutch Radio & Television, Studio MCO5, Hilversum, the Netherlands, March 2006
Thirteen years have elapsed since Wigglesworth began his Shostakovich symphony cycle on BIS with the Leningrad, reviewed in DSCH 10, and we are still missing the bookends, Nos. 1 to 3, and 15. This fine Eleventh took four years to travel from studio to store shelves. Rather than bemoan the slow pace of these releases, be grateful that the results conform to the ecological principle that species with very long gestation periods devote considerable care to each of their offspring. In turn, they are typically long-lived and these performances are sure to remain in the catalogue and in the affections of listeners.
As in previous releases in this cycle, Wigglesworth pens his own booklet notes. Aside from identifying the revolutionary songs in each movement (providing lyrics to Tremble, Tyrants! and Whirlwinds of Danger! is a nice touch), he offers little musicological analysis. Instead, the conductor focuses on the historical context of the work, including a discussion of whether Shostakovich targeted his cross-hairs on the 1905 massacre or instead the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Wigglesworth’s concluding words are simple and direct:
“Ultimately, the debate about whether Shostakovich is portraying the heroism of Russians in 1905 or Hungarians in 1956 is irrelevant. It does not matter whether he is attacking the violence of Cossack troops or the aggression of Red Army tanks. What is clear is his obvious empathy with all who try to rise up against tyranny and his passionate antipathy towards all who oppress them. The symphony may on the surface be a costume drama, but it is one that still resonates today. In the end, Shostakovich writes about emotions and states of mind, rather than specific dates, and even if he does use facts as his focus, they are invariably symbols for universal sentiments. That is why his music remains both timeless and topical.”
Accordingly, Wigglesworth serves up a symphonically coherent, emotionally engaging Eleventh that paints scenes without ever resorting to extremes of tempo or prosthetic surgery on the score. Taking 16:27 to survey The Palace Square, the BIS team is more patient than either Bychkov with the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln (14:29; Avie AV 2062; reviewed in DSCH 27) or Petrenko with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (13:46; Naxos 8.572082; reviewed in DSCH 31), though not nearly so static as Rostropovich with the London Symphony Orchestra (20:10; LSO Live LSO0030; reviewed in DSCH 18). This first movement avoids sounding relaxed, despite Wigglesworth’s middle-of-the-road tempo, thanks to the nervous expectation conveyed by an ominously heavyhanded harp; brass and woodwinds that sound penned-in, even during their rare ff utterances; and strings shivering in the frosty region where Fahrenheit and Centigrade converge.
The stage now set, the listener experiences The Ninth of January as a participant rather than an observer. A novel tweak at figure 58-3 (7:22) catches the trumpets’ breath unexpectedly. Listen to how mechanical and metallic the snare drum sounds when it starts firing at figure 71 (8:26). The swelling panic of the crowd is palpable. The BIS engineer reports the horror of the ensuing massacre as unflinchingly as a news cameraman, delivering crushing bass impact while holding each instrument in clear focus. All players seem to be in a state of shocked disbelief as they survey the aftermath.
The sentiments in Wigglesworth’s In memoriam are reverential rather than maudlin; those seeking heart-on-sleeve mourning may be disappointed. However, none should fault the central climax, which erupts from its measured surroundings like a prophecy of righteous retribution.
Such is what The Tocsin metes out. This final movement is propelled inexorably onwards by Wigglesworth’s steady direction and the orchestra’s resolute, thrusting attack. The pivotal English horn soliloquy may strike some listeners as too clear-eyed, but it is consistent with the emotional tone of the preceding movement. At the end you won’t find a tam-tam reverberation (“I’m not dead yet!”) à la Petrenko, Rostropovich, or DePreist with the Oregon Symphony (Delos DE 3329; reviewed in DSCH 21). Instead, the symphony winds up as Shostakovich wrote it: with a decisive, foundation-shaking wallop.
On that topic, note that as with previous releases in this series, BIS provide a wide dynamic range – crank up your volume dial to hear anything marked quieter in the score than a single p, then prepare your apologies to your neighbours for the symphony’s closing bars. To sum up, we have here a reference-quality Eleventh and one of the strongest entries in Wigglesworth’s already distinguished cycle. Here’s hoping the conductor, orchestra, and record label bestow the same patient attention upon the rest of the cycle.
W. Mark Roberts
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Piano Trio No. 2, opus 67; Piano Trio No 1, opus 8; Alfred Schnittke, Piano Trio (arr. composer from String Trio)
Kempf Trio (Freddy Kempf, piano; Pierre Bensaid, violin; Alexander Chaushian, cello)
BIS Records, BIS-SACD-1482, SACD. TT: 69:33
Recorded at Nybrokajen 11 (the former Academy of Music),
Stockholm, Sweden, April 2004
The Kempf Trio – a British pianist, French violinist and Armenian cellist – has now disbanded, but two out of three of its recordings focused on Russian piano trios. This SACD disc, with both Shostakovich Piano Trios and the Schnittke Piano Trio, shows off the group’s precision and clarity of performance with a full, rich sound. A comparison of the Kempf ensemble’s performance of the two Shostakovich works with the Trio Wanderer (Harmonia Mundi CD HMC 901925, reviewed in DSCH 22) finds them providing a more restrained, but nonetheless technically fine performance.
Although Shostakovich’s First Piano Trio is an early work, both groups take it entirely seriously. It was composed in 1923, when Shostakovich was still a teenager, and in love for the first time. The one-movement work is in a sonata-form-like structure, with two themes preceded by an introduction that gradually ‘constructs’ the work’s main theme. Rich and romantic, innocent and tender, it is full of the kind of melodies and clear tonalities that are challenged and vulnerable in the composer’s later works, but here they seem free and untrammelled. Both the Trio Wanderer and the Kempf ensemble turn in fine, thoughtful performances of this work, with the Kempfs being slightly lusher, and the Wanderers being lighter and more Mendelssohnian.
Although dozens of recordings have appeared of the composer’s Second Trio, most ensembles have difficulty braving its darkness. To my taste, although the Kempfs provide crystalclear precision, they shy away from the bleakness of this work and lack the Trio Wanderer’s imagination. The Kempfs begin the first movement with appropriate sombreness, and we feel the pain of each de-voiced harmonic in the cello. Their transition into the movement’s faster tempo is gradual and sensitive. But the poco più mosso section of this movement and – even more – all of the second movement seem too controlled, lacking the Wanderers’ energy and passion. Especially in the second movement, I looked for a little mania – a willingness to let go of control – that I didn’t hear in the Kempfs’ restrained performance. In the Largo passacaglia, violinist Pierre Bensaid’s entry lacks intensity, in contrast to the fine, plaintive playing of cellist Alexander Chaushian. The finale also seems to lack intensity and imagination. Missing is the grotesque ‘twanginess’ of the Wanderers’ pizzicatos. I wanted pianist Freddy Kempf’s playing to be a bit more spooky and percussive. But the Kempf Trio reaches a satisfying culmination and the piano’s arpeggiated chords from the passacaglia are crystal clear. Listeners who feel that the Wanderers’ recording is over-emotional – or just a little too strange – might well enjoy the Kempf Trio’s more restrained rendition.
The gem of this disc is the Schnittke Piano Trio, arranged by the composer from his 1985 String Trio and dedicated to the doctor who had saved his life in previous years. One would think that an ensemble that shies away from the grotesque aspects of Shostakovich’s Second Trio would not look twice at Schnittke’s mutant music, which reaches in vain for normalcy within a bleak, post-apocalyptic landscape. Over and over in this two-movement work, we see fleeting glimpses – memories, perhaps – of music we’ve loved: imitative Renaissance polyphony, classically ornamented cadential gestures, fugatos, hymns, simple folk-like melodies, and – most prominently – Viennese waltzes. Some of these mementos of normalcy come under attack; others seem harmonically to rot from within, but all of them go desperately wrong in one way or another. I expected to want a bleak, still, vibrato-less world, which the Kempfs do not provide (and which is perhaps more difficult to provide in the Piano Trio than in the String Trio). And yet, the Kempfs’ performance is not only technically superb, but exploratory and unafraid; it is certainly the most passionately engaged of the three works on this disc.
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String Quartet No. 3, opus 73[a]; String Quartet No.7, opus 108[b]; Cello Sonata, opus 40[c]; Piano Trio No.1, opus 8[d]; Piano Trio No.2, opus 67[e]; Piano Quintet, opus 57[f]
Jerusalem Quartet [a]; Atrium String Quartet [b]; Heinrich Schiff(cello) and Aci Bertoncelj (piano) [c]; Chung Trio [d]; Eroica Trio [e];Members of the Nash Ensemble [f]
EMI CLASSICS 6 87667 2 DDD. Two discs. Total time:
71:30 and 72:34
Recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk, 24-27 November 2000[a]; Potton Hall, Suffolk, 11-14 April 2003[b]; Evangelische Kirche, Eckenhagen, 17-18 November 1983[c]; Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, 12-17 December 1988[d]; St Stephen’s Church, Tiburo, California, 5-9 March 1988[e]; Henry Wood Hall, London, November 1990[f]
EMI have riffled through their back catalogue for this reissue and have come up with an impressive if slightly random selection. It is quite a mix, covering works composed over almost forty years, in recordings spanning twenty years and made in three different countries. With the exception of the Nash Ensemble, all the players are relatively young, or at least where when the recordings were made, yet all perform with maturity and insight.
The Jerusalem Quartet still look a youthful bunch today, so they must have been very young indeed when they recorded the Third Quartet alongside Tchaikovsky’s First in 2000. It is a fairly classical reading: precise and cleanly articulated, but with plenty of bounce. Shostakovich’s dynamic markings are observed to the letter, so many passages are very quiet indeed. They play with commendable precision, although some listeners may interpret that as undue restraint. But there is plenty of ebb and flow, and a few moments of real intensity in the last movement. However, those hoping for a full-blooded, impassioned reading should probably look elsewhere.
Like the Jerusalem Quartet, the Atrium Quartet is captured here at the very start of its international career – the original release, in EMI’s ‘debut’ strand, coupled Shostakovich to Mozart’s K.421 and Tchaikovsky’s Third. Their Seventh Quartet is similar in many ways to the Jerusalem’s Third, skilfully combining precision and energy. But the Atrium Quartet has a different sound, softer and rounder. That is fine for most of the work, but occasionally risks compromising the glassy brittleness of Shostakovich’s quieter textures, such as at the opening of the second movement.
Heinrich Schiff’s reading of the Cello Sonata with Aci Bertoncelj rounds off the first CD. This is the earliest recording on the compilation, dating from 1983 and, after waiting five years for its debut on an EMI Electrola LP, allegedly appeared on a hard-to-find EMI CD CDM 769514 2. The sound quality is good, although not as crisp as we might expect today, and the performance itself more than justifies the re-release. Schiff does not adopt the studied precision of either of the string quartets, opting instead for a more heart-on-sleeve approach. If you are put off by the exaggerated portamento in the second movement, you will probably be appeased by the finale, which is much more carefully articulated. The passionate Largo movement in between is the heart of the work, and Schiff’s emotive reading is the highlight of the performance.
The second disc offers the two trios and the quintet. The youthful First Piano Trio seems a very slight work by comparison with the mature masterpieces that make up the rest of the programme – and indeed its original coupling, Tchaikovsky’s Trio. Nevertheless, the Chungs give the work its due with an elegant, no-nonsense performance. The key feature of the sound profile here is the round, luminous tone of the piano, bestowing energy and coherence to the tutti textures.
The Second Piano Trio is entrusted to the Eroica Trio. Their 1998 recording received high praise on its initial release (coupled to Dvorak’s Dumky Trio) not least from W. Mark Roberts, who enthused reviewed about it in DSCH 11. I would agree with him about the richness of the Eroica Trio’s sound, but would add that the sheer variety of timbres, textures and moods is what makes this performance special. It is yet another impressively accurate reading, but the Eroicas have the edge over the preceding ensembles in the immediacy of their interpretation. Each movement is imbued with a specific atmosphere, which is rigorously maintained throughout. It is an approach that really draws the listener in, and without resorting to histrionics. The only place where the approach feels dispassionate is in the second movement, and I would have appreciated a little more drama here, even at the expense of the ever-present clarity.
The Nash Ensemble takes a different approach to the Piano Quintet (previously available on Virgin, coupled to opus 67 and Atovmyan’s four waltz arrangements, Sans opus P ii). They field more players, of course, but in general this is chamber music performed as if it were orchestral, painted in broad, sweeping strokes. It is a good performance, but it sits uneasily in this compilation. In some ways, it acts as an antidote to the almost obsessive clarity and precision of the other recordings. There are one or two intonation issues, which are very slight really, but which seem all the more glaring after the near perfection of the Chung and Eroica contributions.
Sound quality varies from work to work, but rather than distinguishing the newer recordings from the older, it separates the clearer American recordings (the piano trios) from the ‘rounder’ European ones. The latter may have more atmosphere, but it is the American ones I’ll be returning to soonest, especially the Second Trio, where the Eroica players really perform to the strengths of the recording technology. That and the Jerusalem’s Third Quartet easily justify the modest price tag.
New versions of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues continue to appear like manna from heaven, refreshing the catalogue with what has deservedly become one of the staples of contemporary piano literature. The number of complete traversals has now well surpassed the dozen mark, five of them appearing within the last two years alone. Jenny Lin’s account (Hänssler Classics CD98.530.000) for some reason almost fell beneath the radar in 2009, and was preceded in 2008 by three equally distinguished versions: those of David Jalbert (ATMA Classique ACD22555) and Kori Bond (Centaur CRC 2896/2897), both reviewed in DSCH 30; and the DVD of Tatiana Nikolaeva’s final recorded version dating from 1992 (Medici Arts DVD 3085248, reviewed in DSCH 31). Each of these pianists offers a set of judicious performances guaranteed to engage the discerning ear. Jalbert’s crisp rhythms contrast well with Bond’s rubato-inflected Romanticism and Lin’s boldly assertive grip. No less significant is Nikolaeva’s filmed studio account that, as one might expect, achieved iconic status as it rolled off the presses. While some reviewers expressed impatience, if not outright exasperation, with Nikolaeva’s generally slow tempi and less-than-perfect technical skills in the later recordings, her distinct heavyweight approach nonetheless consistently carries the aura of authority and authenticity.
Colin Stone’s distinguished concert career spans three decades and covers a broad range of repertoire, a specialty being 20th-century Russian music. His discography notably includes the complete pianos sonatas of Prokofiev, Scriabin, and Shostakovich. With Rustem Hayroudinoff, he took the music world by storm in 2005 with a dazzling two-piano rendering of Shostakovich’s mighty Fourth Symphony (Chandos CHAN 10296, reviewed in DSCH 23).
Here Stone serves up one of the most elegantly conceived sets of opus 87 since Vladimir Ashkenazy’s acclaimed cycle of more than a decade ago. This is not to say that the two versions are in any way identical. Stone’s interpretation stands apart from the drama and the moody evocations of Ashkenazy’s with a more reserved tonal palette. A comparison of Ashkenazy’s bold projection of Fugue No. 17 with Stone’s gentler coaxing of the same material is sufficient to underscore the difference. With a patent avoidance of extremes, conceits, and capricious surges, Stone not only pursues a more contemplative vision of the work, but one marked by a more studied objectivity. Case in point: the innocent manner in which he sidesteps the tearful temptations of Prelude No. 4. The playing is scrubbed clean of the melancholic strains often found in other renditions. The accompanying fugue blossoms from a similarly undampened slate. Likewise in the strumming arpeggios in Prelude No. 5, the pianist opts for brisk clarity in contrast to the more dreamy expeditions of Jalbert and Bond, among others. As in the remaining preludes and fugues, Stone finds a poetry of tactile grace and interpretive purity that reveal the music’s treasures in an appropriately lucid, pristine manner.
In light of this self-effacing approach, Wanda Landowska’s well-known quip about interpreting Bach’s music may be resuscitated, “You play it your way, my dear, and I’ll play it HIS way.” In fact, Stone’s interpretations do not match up very strongly, at least in style, with the commercially available recordings of the composer’s often technically imperfect performances. Just the same, every note in Stone’s well-tempered interpretation seems to have been examined and rendered to perfection. One may admire the evenness of his touch in the smoothly spinning runs of Preludes Nos. 2 and 21, and in the velvety tones he elicits from Prelude and Fugue No. 17. At times some of Shostakovich’s whimsical japing, as found in Prelude No. 8, can sound a little regulated, as do the contradictory taunts in Prelude No. 15. Yet it’s in the architecture of the work that Stone shines. The four animated voices of Fugue No. 12 never compete for prominence but are rather cast into pellucid relief as the music steers to its peak. His Fugue No. 24 is exquisitely realised, its accelerando played with gradually escalating lines of tension that build with consummate symphonic majesty and breadth. In another monumental entry, Fugue No 8, Stone keeps power in reserve as he lays bare the world-weariness of its doggedly insistent theme. Stone’s one indulgence, if one may call it that, it is the very broad tempo he takes in Fugue No. 1 (timing at 4:53), apparently taking after David Jalbert’s even more extended traversal (at 5:10).
One of the strong points of Stone’s reading is his ability to underline the individual voices of the fugues with the utmost transparency. He brings out the gentle phrases of the five-voiced Fugue No. 13 with consummate grace, and likewise teases apart the four tenacious voices of Fugue No. 6 with peerless clarity. The two minutes of chromatic fury raised in the four-voiced Fugue No. 15 merit particular notice. What a difference eight or nine seconds make in the interpretation of this twistiest, most denselypacked of the set. Some will find Jenny Lin’s (2:09) steel-girdered version cautious to a fault. Kori Bond (2:00) starts off well but then flails helplessly amid the choppy waters; while David Jalbert’s hurtling cyclone of notes (1:42) leaves the listener dazzled, if somewhat gasping for breath. In his version Stone (1:50) seems to have found just the right balance between speed, spontaneity, and clear articulation. His is as triumphant a performance of the fugue as we’ve heard since Ashkenazy’s astonishingly brisk version (1:46).
Some may prefer a more idiosyncratic approach to the Preludes and Fugues. In wiping the slate clean of pre-established notions, Stone enables the listener to hear the work anew and unsullied – meticulously wrought by a musical intelligence that is by no means devoid of spontaneity and passion. Stone offers his listeners an exquisitely sculpted, beautifully controlled rendition that finds a distinguished place in the recording canon. The intimate acoustic of the recording is well matched to the subtle focus of the interpretation. Stone’s perceptive liner notes are also well matched to his musical insights.
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Piano Sonata No. 2, opus 61; 24 Preludes for Piano, opus 34; Three Fantastic Dances, opus 5
Lilia Boyadjieva, piano
Artek AR-0048-2. DDD. TT: 66:19
Recorded at the Athens Conservatory. 25–26 October 2008
“Shostakovich and Comrades”, Volume 1
Kabalevsky: Piano Sonata No. 3; Myaskovsky: Song and Rhapsody, opus 58; Shostakovich, Piano Sonata No, 1, opus 12; Stevenson: Recitative and Air (DSCH); Shostakovich, Piano Sonata No. 2, opus 61; Shchedrin: Tschastuschki, concerto for piano solo, ‘Naughty Limericks’
Murray McLachlan, piano
Divine Art dda25080. DDD. TT: 79:44
Recorded at the Sixth Chetham’s International Summer School and Arts Festival for Pianists, at Whiteley Hall, Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester, England, 19 August 2006, with retakes in the same venue, 26 and 27 August 2006
A bounty of piano treats awaits the musical Russophile on this handsome pair of discs featuring Soviet-era works for the solo instrument. Murray McLachlan’s programme offers a colourful cross-section of composition by the household names of the era while Lilia Boyadjieva’s traversal of Shostakovich essentials introduces a shining new presence to the gallery of the composer’s interpreters.
McLachlan, a well-known name to readers of the Journal, has amassed a distinguished discography dedicated to the lesser-known repertoire of the 20th century. He has devoted entire discs to the piano music of, in turn, Sir Arthur Sullivan, Charles Camilieri, and John R. Williamson, among others, as well as a host of notable Scottish figures. His highly acclaimed interpretations of the complete piano sonatas of Weinberg, Myaskovsky, Alexander Tcherepnin, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich have placed him at the forefront of Western interpreters of the Soviet/Russian repertoire.
McLachlan’s idiomatic connection to the works on the programme is clearly evident as he brings off each with complete authority. Dmitri Kabalevsky’s Third Sonata of 1945, the one famously recorded by Vladimir Horowitz, stakes a claim as a worthy if lesser- known brethren to Prokofiev’s ‘War Sonatas’. Nikolai Myaskovsky’s Song and Rhapsody is a true character piece that captures that composer’s propensity for spinning out long-limbed tunes that yearn for the days of onion domes and samovars. Ronald Stevenson’s Recitative and Air (DSCH) finds no escape from its weary procession of inward turns until a snapping point leads to a final desolate utterance of the DSCH motto. McLachlan concludes his programme with Tschastuschki: Concerto for piano solo, Rodion Shchedrin’s 1999 solo piano rendition of his brilliant orchestral tour-de-force, Concerto for Orchestra No. 1, Naughty Limericks. Much of the effect of the original orchestral version rests upon the combination and rapid interplay of various instrumental sections, details that are not only compromised, but rather muddied in this very busy piano reduction. Those who already know the work in its orchestral garb will still take delight in hearing how the dazzling melodic overlays are realized and projected in McLachlan’s thrilling one-of-a-kind rendition.
Sometimes I wonder whether Shostakovich, in his youthful defiance, set out to write music’s most difficult piano sonata. For its melting pot of widely disparate styles and treacherously dense textures, the First Piano Sonata makes an excellent candidate for the honour. The performer is faced with the nearly impossible challenge of making sense of the score’s lethal terrain of rapidly changing episodes. One imagines Shostakovich would have taken vicarious delight in the triumphs and failures of the attempts.
For the most part, McLachlan’s aggressive approach yields good results. The disparate elements of the work gel thanks to the driving momentum and vigorous brilliance of his playing. At the same time, in the first and lengthiest section, the themes tend to get a bit muddied as a result of his pushing the tempi a little too strenuously. By way of concluding these breakneck passages, he sustains the fermata-marked chord in its final bars for a daring 42 seconds – an interval of recovery that will no doubt leave listeners drop-jawed, for better or worse. Martin Jones (AVMCD 1003, late 1980s – the recording is undated), without sacrificing similar measures of speed or exuberance, manages to sort out the individual ideas in this section with greater clarity. Both versions may be compared to the beautifully conceived one by Melvin Chen (Bridge 9238, 2007), who sees past the work’s expressionistic surface with a vibrant high romantic view, one whose daring rubati and frequent spotlighting provide the most colourful delineations of the work’s knobbly themes. Konstantin Scherbakov (NAXOS, 8555781, 2003), on the other hand, provides a lurid how-not-to guide as he thrashes about with erratic tempi so as to render meaningless the sonata’s points of structural and emotional demarcation.
In the central slow section, McLachlan seems more preoccupied with maintaining the music’s forward pulse than with conjuring its dusky phantoms. He thus forfeits the subtle enchantment found in Chen’s more textured reading of the section. McLachlan’s tightly wrapped interpretation of the Sonata, though somewhat wanting in expressive detail, still consolidates and impresses with its iron will.
McLachlan fares better in his rendition of the Second Piano Sonata, discussed below in comparison with Lilia Boyadjieva’s recording.
The sheer beauty of tone that Boyadjieva brings to the keyboard is of a calibre not often found in Shostakovich’s piano music. With its satin finish and pearl-like clarity, she casts a beguiling spell over her instrument as well as over the music on this programme. It makes listening to the CD a true joy. In addition Boyadjieva brings genuine depth to her playing, a thoughtful penetration into the music that, in its interpretation, never loses its resolute focus or expressive intent. With a finesse that is closer to French rather than to Russian sensibilities, she brings off one of the most seductively Gallic interpretations of the 24 Preludes and Three Fantastic Dances.
Boyadjieva embraces the playful dimensions of the Three Fantastic Dances with sophisticated lighthearted elegance. With her lavish tempi and rubatorich phrasing she also imbues these fragments with the aromatic cologne of Ravel’s piano music. Her tone is sensual and well-controlled; what she can do with a fermata or a quarter rest is no less seductive. The crescendo in the second dance, a beguiling waltz, is made all the more poignant by the extravagant pause that follows before the music moves on; and the rests that separate the disjunct phrases in the final dance become sumptuous lulls that reach beyond the music’s now playful, now harlequinesque surface.
Boyadjieva brings the same exquisite perfume to the 24 Preludes. Her stylized vision of the work is as impressive for its poetic depth as it is for its consistency. From the opening bars, as the ruminating strains of the first of the set fall languorously into her hands, she makes these Preludes her very own. She again indulges the senses with her rubati in Prelude No. 2 where the high notes sparkle with the utmost delicacy. She probes the fugal argument in Prelude No. 4 with the same air of refinement, an air that she exhales so lavishly in the extended rest that follows the peak moment. In her rendition the playful turns in Prelude No. 8 become flirtatious winks; and the funereal tones of Prelude No. 14 rise to a flush of passion. She elicits a splendour most serene from the florid musings of Prelude No. 17. One of the finest moments on the disc is heard in Prelude No. 10 where, in the trills and tender reveries in the highest registers of the piano, she performs with a most polished tactile grace.
Murray McLachlan and Lilia Boyadjieva each offer a sturdy performance of Shostakovich’s wartime Sonata No. 2. Both pianists evince no shortage of power or imagination in negotiating its challenging unconventional pages, though it is McLachlan who commands a firmer grasp of the work’s architecture. Boyadjieva’s more flexible tempi in the brittle rhythms of the opening Allegretto allow her to explore a wider range of mood than McLachlan’s. He, on the other hand, carries a more taut line and with it, a more steely spirit of determination. In the Largo, each pianist sidesteps the detached numbness one sometimes finds in other interpretations. Boyadjieva discovers uncanny beauty in the music’s achingly hesitant tones by underlining the music’s lyrical continuity, here with inspiring fluidity. McLachlan introduces more of an edge to the music, and thus, more definition. He plays the movement with a palpable sense of distress that rises to peak emotional moments.
Boyadjieva delivers a well-polished final movement as she embraces the various moods of the mighty variations in all manner of detail. McLachlan’s version, however, makes the stronger impression. Not only does he engage with the music more vigorously, he achieves a more unified vision, in part, by approaching each variation as a direct emotional consequence of the one preceding it. He builds the tension across Variations II and III so that the sharply punctuated chords in Variation IV and the rising tenor of Variation V become captivating plateaus of arrival. While Boyadjieva gives very probing readings of these sections, she dwells more on their subtleties than on their cumulative effect. Only in McLachlan’s reading does the urgent prodding of Variation VI recall the panting two-note exchanges of the Allegro non troppo movement of Symphony No. 8, written the same year. The heightened tension allows McLachlan to plunge directly into the smoky sonorities that follow in Variation VII – an eerie reappearance of the ghosts from the sonata’s slow movement. The music’s emotional roller coaster takes yet another sharp turn as McLachlan evinces, with bold iambic strokes, the proud defiance of Variation VIII. Both pianists capture the utter despondency of Variation IX with its whispering tones and concluding grief-bearing ritardando, leading to the valedictory flourish of the last variation. However it is McLachlan in these final sections who leaves listeners with the sense of having more ardently weathered the journey.