CD Reviews 37
§ = World Première Recording
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Piano Concerto No. 1, opus 35[a]; Violin Sonata, opus 134[b]; Piano Concerto No. 2, opus 102[c].
Alexander Melnikov, piano[a,b,c]. Isabella Faust, violin[b]. Jeroen Berwaets, trumpet[a], Teodor Currentzis, Mahler Chamber Orchestra[a,c].
Harmonia mundi HMC 902104. DDD. TT: 74:11
Recorded at Rathaus-Prunksaal, Landshut, Germany[a, b], Teldex Studios[c] November – December 2010.
Herewith, a programme to which the term odd bedfellows applies: one of Shostakovich’s darkest chamber works, the Violin Sonata, sandwiched between his most light-hearted concerti. Pianist Alexander Melnikov provides the common thread. His versatility in the Shostakovich repertoire is extraordinary. Melnikov’s widely acclaimed recording of the 24 Preludes and Fugues (HMC 90219, reviewed in DSCH 34) propelled him to the top of the list of Shostakovich interpreters. Conductor Teodor Currentzis’s recent recording of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 14 (Alpha 159) has also drawn positive reviews and has enhanced his reputation in this arena.
Conductor, pianist and solo trumpeter exhibit exemplary ensemble work in a performance that accentuates the First Concerto’s extremes of raucousness and serenity. Melnikov’s keyboard charisma Sis evident throughout, as is his sense of scathing Shostakovichian irony in bringing out the abrupt shifts in mood and tempo. Conductor Currentzis also lets his cheerful demons loose as he leads the orchestra with matching agility and wit. What will catch listeners off-guard is the exquisite delicacy with which the slow movement is played. Melnikov holds back no emotion in taking these pages to the heights. The relaxed tempo gives trumpeter Jeroen Berwaets a berth as wide as he needs to deliver the solo passage as beautifully tender as one will hear. Berwaets also comes through with beer-hall bravado in his riotous ‘du lieber Augustin’ solo in the finale. The ear-splitting piano punctuation in the midst of this taunting trumpet solo sets the stage for the ensemble’s boisterous run to the finish.
The Second Concerto radiates the same high spirits. Melnikov’s staccato-like touch and detailed phrasing parlays well with the orchestra’s spring-loaded ebullience. Together they deliver sheer merriment with breathtaking momentum in the outer movements. The syncopated Hanon five-finger exercises in the finale spill forth with jubilant precision. Currentzis again leads a keenly reactive orchestra. It’s notable, though, that in the first movement’s broad climactic passage, he does not take the ritardando favoured by other conductors, thus robbing the movement of some of its grandeur. The highlight of the performance remains Melnikov’s highly romanticised version of the slow movement. With a doting, slow pace, he turns out each note of this Andante with a caressing touch, and the movement becomes a moonlit love poem. Rarely has there been so moving an interpretation. The sound engineering in both concerti boasts clarity, balance, and excellent spotlighting. Listeners will not be disappointed in the crackling rendition of either concerto.
The Violin Sonata is another animal all together. Embedded with dark revelations and exposed raw nerves, to some Shostakovich devotees it is considered his greatest chamber work. Performers not prepared to surrender their musical souls to this disquieting autumnal masterpiece might find themselves in waters deeper than they expected. David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter premiered the work in May 1969 (recorded live and first released in 1970 with various LP and CD incarnations), and set dauntingly high standards. Outstanding versions have followed in its wake but have been few and far between. Recommendations among this rarefied company include a particularly strong version with Vesko Eschkenazy and Ludmil Angelov (Gega New CD 269, reviewed in DSCH 20); a robust one with Levon Ambartsumian and Anatoly Sheludyakov (PHCD 155, 2003, reviewed in DSCH 21); and the sturdy but almost forgotten Jaimie Laredo/ Joseph Kalichstein version from the mid 1990s, re-released on Koch KIC-CD-7720 in 2007.
In the current version Melnikov again exhibits his resourcefulness as a Shostakovich interpreter with his total engagement in the score’s tormented pages. I wish I could say the same for violinist Isabella Faust. Her performance is technically assured yet somewhat aloof, an impression enhanced by the microphone’s slight preference for the piano. We thus hear Melnikov doing more of the heavy lifting, building strong crescendi in the first movement, consolidating the angry rhythms in the Scherzo, and working up a lather to be reckoned with in the paroxysmal solo passage in the finale. Whereas the performance is serviceable, it is devoutly to be wished that we have not heard the last of Melnikov’s artistic partnerships in this landmark opus.
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Symphony No. 2 “To October”, opus 14[a]; Symphony No. 15, opus 141[b].
Vasily Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
Naxos 8.572708. DDD. TT: 67:03.
Recorded at Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool on14 June 2011[a]; 26–27 October 2010 [b].
This performance of the Fifteenth Symphony marks not only a high point in Vasily Petrenko’s acclaimed cycle in progress, it ranks among the finest on record. It’s an example of the vitality, richness of detail, and consummate architecture that Petrenko has brought to the series. Every note of this thorny score, with its cryptic musical quotations and myriad contradictions, is magically played and suffused with interpretive insight.
Petrenko’s fondness for accentuating contrasts is expressed in this performance, and that includes the overall pacing of the work. Tempi are brisk in the fast movements, stretched to rapturous limits in the slow movements. Case in point is the opening Allegretto in which one finds no shortage of ‘toyshop’ merriment. The Liverpudlians bring off the sudden shifts in mood and the sectional exchanges with an exhilarating sweep. Petrenko takes every opportunity to expose both sides of the emotional mask in this Janus-like movement. With the razor-sharp phrasing he elicits from his players, the balance just as quickly shifts to the menacing layers that lurk just beneath the playful surface, and then back to the playful surface again. The two extremes wreak havoc with one another. Petrenko is especially keen on highlighting the contradictions – as when the airy opening theme reappears in the form of unnerving brass pageantry; or when a terror-laden crescendo is stopped dead in its tracks by the nonchalant return of the William Tell quote; or when the strings drop to near inaudibility during the eerie fugal sections, moments that expose the music’s forbidding underside all the more poignantly for being so softly whispered. One also finds nuances among the lighter moments as well, notably the sudden ritardando that is applied at each of the two solo passages for violin, spotlighting the mysterious Cheshire Cat smile sent from composer to listener.
One of the extraordinary passages of this interpretation is the pathos with which the solo cellist, who regrettably remains unidentified, delivers the series of soul-searching recitatives in the following Adagio. The dark emotional core of the movement, and one might even say the entire symphony, fairly well rests in the hands of this remarkable musician. The movement, timing at 17:25, has the distinction of being the longest on record in a survey more than three dozen other recordings – Rudolf Barshai’s reading (Brilliant Classics 6275, the complete cycle is reviewed in DSCH 20) is the shortest at 11:43. Even with his expanded tempi, Petrenko manages to coalesce the music’s disparate parts into a spellbinding narrative, from the lugubrious trombone solos and sombre brass chorales to the central volcanic eruption, to the otherworldly post-climactic reflections.
In the Scherzo Petrenko elicits the same brisk tempi, sharp accents and forceful phrasing as in the first movement, yet now with a touch of menace and more than a hint of the macabre. As such, it makes a scathing anticlimactic lead-in to the finale.
With a timing of 19:13, the duration of the luxuriously expanded finale is only exceeded on recording by Kurt Sanderling’s versions with the Berlin Philharmoniker (19:41, BPH 0611) and the Cleveland Orchestra (20:21, Erato 2292 45815-2]), and still longer than Oleg Caetani’s live commercial version (timing at 18:12, Arts 47706-8). While both Sanderling versions and the Caetani bring gravitas to the music, they tend to be a bit ponderous at times. Petrenko avoids this pitfall with a reading that is far more attentive to detail. At the onset of the cantilena melody, Petrenko holds the first two notes almost interminably, as if on the threshold of a revelation. He then takes up, with much sensitivity and breathing room to spare, the tune that provides the symphony’s first moments of unfiltered sentimentality. In so romanticising this section Petrenko opens a truly remarkable expressive space. From an architectural point of view it lays a foundation of utter vulnerability that is soon betrayed by the devastating passacaglia that follows. As interpretive strategies go, it is Petrenko at his most brilliant. The passacaglia enters with a whisper and slowly builds, with every one of the inner voices given complete attention. Characteristically, Petrenko reserves dynamics until the onset of the climactic section, elevating the summit to monumental heights. He is one conductor who regards the crash chord and the snare drum shot that precedes it as important structural junctures. The moments are stirring. The climactic aftermath, with its return of the sentimental tune and the stabbing intrusion of the interruption chords, is handled just as incisively, down to the last percussive gestures of the ethereal coda.
In the single-movement Second Symphony, one of the two experimental outliers in the Shostakovich canon, Petrenko is again as preoccupied with detail as with cumulative effect. The eighteen-and-a-half minute work is set down in three tracks of approximately equal length corresponding to the structural points of demarcation. The lurking strings of the first part yield spasmodically to the vigorous activity of the second. Here the music winds its way through moody detours and chaotic peaks. With sharp accents and assertive phrasing, Petrenko succeeds not only in prying apart the individual melodic lines in this contrapuntally busy score but in giving each one strong definition, even in the densest passages. He also manages to hold the line through the volatile course of events. The choral finale, sung in Anglo-Saxonized Russian, is brought off in a manner a little too straightforward, compared to the genuine excitement Petrenko builds in the previous sections. Still, this is a version of the Shostakovich Second that shines with crisp new insights.
Liner notes by Richard Whitehouse are insightful and information rich. A Petrenko release not to be missed.
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Symphony No. 15, opus 141
Bernard Haitink, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
RCO Live 11003. DDD hybrid DSD 5.0-surround sound/stereo SACD/stereo CD. TT 47:14.
Recorded live at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 17–19 and 21 March 2010.
From the vantage point of 2012, with approaching four dozen different interpretations of the Fifteenth Symphony committed to vinyl and silver disc, it is easy for us to forget what a pioneer Bernard Haitink was when he set down his 1978 recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (reissued in 2006 in an 11-CD boxed set; Decca 475 7413). After just six years in the concert hall and still being digested by audiences, No. 15 made a brave choice for the second instalment in Haitink’s complete Shostakovich cycle, after the popular masterpiece of No. 10, taped the previous year.
At the time, LP collectors in the West had a grand total of two alternative recordings: Maxim Shostakovich’s 1972 recording with the Moscow Radio (aka All-Union Radio and Television) Symphony Orchestra (HMV Melodiya LP ASD2857; deleted), and Eugene Ormandy’s reading with the Philadelphia Orchestra from the same year (currently on RCA Red Seal 09026-63587-2). However, both of these posed stiff competition to Haitink’s contender. Maxim’s historic premiere recording had a white-hot intensity … the ongoing lack of a CD reissue is a crime that should be referred to The Hague. No less penetrating, Ormandy’s dissection of the score showcased his orchestra on top form, gloves off. Indeed, this remains a viable top recommendation for No. 15, RCA’s superb digital remastering conceding little to the latest high-resolution media like the new hybrid SACD under consideration here – apropos, RCA’s original recording was quadraphonic, so is it too much to hope to hear Ormandy and the Philadelphians reprocessed to surround-sound SACD some day?
But Haitink’s 1978 account was no poor cousin, garnering instant acclaim and persisting as one of the most highly regarded entries in his intégrale. This despite it being born too soon for digital recording unlike all but two of his readings of the other symphonies (viz, Nos. 4 and 10), and also being performed by the LPO rather than the other band contributing to his cycle, the Concertgebouw, who generally did a more impressive job as can readily be heard by comparing Nos. 7 and 8, respectively.
In past reviews I have been critical of the 1978 Decca recording for the flat cymbal clashes in the fourth movement, to which I could add that the thwacks on the bass drum between Figs. 24 and 25 (3:47–4:02) in the first movement sound oddly ‘twangy’; I can’t decide whether to blame the percussion or the engineer, though I note that the soundstage is otherwise exemplary. Re-engaging with that edition for the current review reminds me just how little such quibbles matter in the context of an overall performance so expertly conceived and executed. It is a lean, muscular Fifteenth, any innocence that might be imagined in the first movement torn to shreds with snarling teeth; disturbing portents condensing into an acid bath in the second; tormented bedlam in the third; and the solace promised early in the fourth scorched away by an apocalypse of appalling brutality, though a trace of human warmth survives in the aftermath. Deadly serious business, this, and the LPO see it all through without blinking.
So, what has changed three decades later? For a start, Haitink has chosen the Concertgebouw over other partners for his second recording of the Fifteenth, which appears on the Amsterdam orchestra’s own label – on their website, the orchestra proclaim their pride at reuniting with their honorary conductor to add opus 141 to their discography. This version was compiled from four live concerts in the Concertgebouw during the same week in March 2010, though the audience must have been spray-coated with Vicks for nary a cough or sniffle is to be heard, and no acoustic changes reveal splices across different days.
Just going by movement timings would suggest a continuity of Haitink’s approach across the years, as these are similar. Note that comparing track timings as opposed to actual playing time here would be misleading due to differing periods of silence at the end of tracks (e.g., 14 seconds of silence at the end of the fourth movement in the new release vs. 6 seconds in the previous version), and also because the third track on the Decca CD was cued three bars before the actual start of the third movement, whereas RCO Live’s third track matches the score. However, nobody familiar only with the 1978 recording would likely identify Haitink as the conductor of this new report in a blindfolded test. The conceptions are night and day, on top of which the two orchestras possess quite different voices.
Although the first movement unfolds in roughly the same duration (8:07 and 8:01 for the new and old recordings, respectively), the later version is paced with less urgency, and the Concertgebouw players purvey a less sarcastic brand of humour. Indeed, the movement now comes off as rather anonymous; everything is in place and played very well, but there are really no distinctive features to latch onto.
The second movement is also only marginally longer here than in the 1978 recording (16:46 vs. 16:34, respectively), but Haitink’s pacing is now more sectional, with greater emphasis on moments of stasis. The opening cello solo is expressive and mesmerising, but the trombone’s oration starting at Fig. 64/6:51 feels less mysterious compared with the previous version, perhaps too hale and hearty. The central climax is more monumental than before, yet less terrifying, despite lacerating whips from the slapstick. The subsequent passage for muted strings from Fig. 75/12:17 is among the iciest I’ve heard, but overall the movement is less chilling and more existentially ruminative in comparison with the previous version.
The duration of the third movement is again comparable between the two versions (4:13 vs. 4:01). The Dutch players deploy some memorable effects, such as the hollow-sounding whole notes from the double basses following Fig. 83/0:19, but the violin solo that carries the narrative for much of the movement sounds more impish here, not so manic as in the 1978 interpretation. Overall, the Concertgebouw team delivers a more sarcastic, less hellish view of this movement than their LPO predecessors.
The biggest difference securely attributable to Haitink’s direction – as distinct from his performers’ musical personalities – comes in the pacing of the fourth movement, here extended to 17:35 from the earlier recording’s 16:50. It’s only an extra 4%, but it helps the conductor paint a genuinely relaxed scene in the early passage recalling the pastoral opening of the Leningrad Symphony, and allows for a gradual, near-imperceptible ramping up of tension. I don’t begin to feel apprehensive on this trip until the brass restate Wagner’s fate motif at Fig. 124/4:55 and the violas commence their ominous groaning. The wide dynamic range of the recording does justice to a climax that matches without eclipsing the previous version for vehemence. After this crisis, the mortal frailty of the snare drum’s arrhythmic heartbeat is echoed by Haitink’s freer use of rubato to suggest the strings’ faltering recollection of more carefree days. There is no mistaking that we are on an inexorable slide to the grave. With no emotion other than resignation, we drift into oblivion on strings unearthly in the uniform perfection with which they hold their drone unbroken over more than a minute and a half. There is no audience applause at the end.
At the risk of sounding facile, I can’t help but feel that Haitink’s 1978 traversal is a middle-aged man’s Fifteenth, railing against fate, whereas his remake, filtered through the wisdom of his 81 years, is more contemplative, with a greater acceptance of the inevitable.
If surround sound is a priority, then Haitink’s new Fifteenth is preferable to Gergiev’s recent SACD (Mariinsky MAR0502; reviewed in DSCH 34), not a particularly memorable interpretation, further dragged down by surprisingly unimpressive solo work and uncharacteristically sloppy ensemble from his Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra. Mikhail Pletnev’s SACD is similarly disappointing, impaired by uninspiring soloists plus Pletnev’s incessant and tuneless humming (Pentatone PTC 5185 331; reviewed in DSCH 32). Even less recommendable is Oleg Caetani’s effort, plagued by wobbly execution by the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, who sound tentative and under-rehearsed, as well as by a surfeit of distracting rustling and creaking from stage and audience (Arts Music SACD 47706-8).
If you plan to listen only in stereo, though, be aware that any differences between the SACD and CD layers on any of these hybrid discs are virtually imperceptible. Haitink’s and Ormandy’s classic accounts from the seventies continue to be no less sonically impressive than anything that’s come since, with barely a hint of analogue hiss thanks to expert remastering of what were very fine recordings to begin with. Indeed, with kudos to Decca, I find myself preferring the bright and crisp acoustics of Haitink’s 1978 recording over RCO Live’s velvety sound, all the better to appreciate the chamber-music sonorities of opus 141.
RCO Live’s booklet notes by Onno Schoonderwoerd supply musical examples of some of the usual quotations, though their numbering is mismatched with the explanatory text. Schoonderwoerd discounts the possibility that Shostakovich may have recycled the theme from Rossini’s William Tell in order to obliquely reference its anti-tyrannical plot, on the basis of Tell’s nemesis Gesler being an Austrian-appointed governor, ‘while Stalin, although of Georgian descent, cannot be considered as a ruler having been appointed by a foreign power.’ Um, okay then. Of course there need not be only one reason for this selection; elsewhere in his notes Schoonderwoerd points out that Rossini’s opera was one of Shostakovich’s earliest musical memories, and as noted by John Grimshaw in DSCHNewsletter No. 11, the appearance of the William Tell quotation could also plausibly be accounted for by the fact that Shostakovich was labelled ‘The Soviet Rossini’ in his youth.
Symphony No. 15 is not a work I ever choose to precede or follow with another in a single listening session, so I do not object to the lack of any coupling here. Other potential buyers may not be as forgiving of the half-hour of empty space on the RCO Live disc.
Extra-musical considerations aside, Haitink’s two tours through Symphony No. 15 are so dissimilar that they complement rather than compete with each other. Forced to choose, I’d stick with the greater visceral engagement of his earlier voyage.
W. Mark Roberts
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Polyphonic Dialogues: Piano music by Dmitri Shostakovich and Rodion Shchedrin.
Shostakovich: Prelude & Fugues, opus 87 Nos. 2, 4, 5, 7, 12 and 15 interleaved with Shchedrin: Preludes & Fugues Nos. 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 10, 14, 19; Basso Ostinato; Toccatina-Collage.
Joachim Kwetzinsky, piano
2L-063-SACD. DDD. TT: 63:51
Recorded at Sofienberg Church, Oslo, 14-17 April 2009
The programme could not be more fitting: extracts from the two most celebrated sets of 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano to emerge from post-war Russia – one by Dmitri Shostakovich, the other by Rodion Shchedrin – are brought together in this colourful recital entitled Polyphonic Dialogues. The surprise is how well it works.
The album comprises a feast of polyphonic pairs: two preludes & fugues by Shchedrin (eight of them in all) followed by two by Shostakovich (six of them), alternating in kind, fourteen preludes & fugues in all. The fingerprint of each composer’s style is found everywhere in this music, indeed, as is a wealth of musical imagination and inventiveness.
Shostakovich’s Preludes & Fugues, written 1950–51, of course, have found a secure place in the repertoire. More than a dozen versions of the complete cycle are currently available. Less known is the Shchedrin cycle, whose only two complete recordings, one by Murray McLachlan (OCD-438 A+B, 1994) and the other by the composer himself (Melodiya CD 74321 36906 2, 1996), are long out of print. The reappearance of the work, if only in part, is itself cause for celebration. (Listeners may want to pursue another notable set of post-Shostakovian 24 Preludes and Fugues by Sergei Slonimsky, composed in 1994 and recorded on Altarus AIR-CD-9085/9086 in 2000.).
Shchedrin, who turns 80 this year, continues to fulfil commissions for new work coming from every part of the globe, adding to a long illustrious catalogue. His piano music, an essential part of this output, includes two piano sonatas, aPolyphonic Notebook, and numerous character pieces. He readily admits that the inspiration for his Preludes and Fugues was hearing Shostakovich’s landmark set. Shchedrin’s collection was composed in two instalments, the first twelve in 1964, the remaining twelve in 1970. Like Shostakovich, his set is organised around the cycle of fifths, in contrast to Bach’s chromatic ordering of keys.
Polyphonic Dialogues (the album’s title) offers listeners the opportunity of comparing and contrasting the two composers’ approach to the form. Shchedrin shows up as the master colourist and long-established eclectic, more preoccupied with textural and rhythmic contrasts, as opposed to Shostakovich’s greater contrapuntal density and formal solidity.
The hide-and-seek interplay of voices in Shchedrin’s first two P&Fs establishes a fanciful tone that leads to the more sober waters of the rather conventionally composed Fugue No. 2. These early entries share a certain textural simplicity with the first entries in the Shostakovich cycle with which they are juxtaposed. More musical parallels emerge as the recital continues. Following the jazzy moto perpetuo of Shchedrin’s Prelude No. 7, the repeating note theme of the accompanying fugue bears similarity to the echo-like repetition of notes in Shostakovich’s Fugue No. 5, which it follows in the programme. The double-dotted rhythm that dominates Shchedrin’s circumspect Fugue No. 8 serves as a counterpart to the baroque call-and-answer character of Shostakovich’s Fugue No. 7. At times the textures in the Shchedrin – such as the ghostly harmonies in Prelude No. 10 and the dense clusters in the harrowing pages of Fugue No. 14 – bring Prokofiev’s pianistic palette to mind. The last selections from the Shchedrin set, P&F Nos. 14 and 19, present the greatest virtuosic displays, and are placed back to back with one of the thorniest of the Shostakovich set, the formidable P&F No. 15 in D-flat.
The programme is capped on both ends with Shchedrin encores pieces – the ruggedly kinetic Basso Ostinato (1961) and the Bach-inspired Toccatina-Collage (1958).
Pianist Joachim Kwetzinsky approaches the works with complete confidence and with admirable sensitivity to the music’s wide range of moods. At times one may find his interpretations, especially in the Shostakovich, somewhat wanting in nuance. Yet his firm grip on the keys and his emphasis on clarity lend coherence to these irresistibly engaging pieces. The close microphone placement and crisp recorded sound further enhance the album.
The liner notes by Mr. Kwetzinsky himself provide a standard outline of the careers of the two composers, though it would have been helpful if more attention were given to the specific pieces on the programme and the polyphonic repartee created by the album ordering. But the listener will find more than enough to discover in the music itself.
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Piano Trio No. 1, opus 8[a]; Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok, opus 127[b]; Piano Trio No. 2, opus 67[c].
Florestan Trio: Anthony Marwood (violin), Richard Lester (cello), Susan Tomes (piano); Susan Gritton (soprano)[b].
Hyperion CDA67834. DDD. TT 61:51.
Recorded in Henry Wood Hall, London, 30 October[a] and 11–13 January[b,c] 2010.
This is the final release from London’s Florestan Trio, who gave their farewell concert in January 2012, the members having decided to pursue separate musical careers after more than sixteen years of distinguished partnership. The programme here is popular in the Shostakovich catalogue, but makes an unexpected final selection for the Florestans, none of whose previous recordings with Hyperion (their exclusive label) ventured beyond Classical and Romantic repertoire. No doubt the players were attracted by the satisfying blend of diversity and consistency to be had from a concert comprising these well-proportioned works for trio, among the finest representatives of Shostakovich’s adolescent, middle and late periods.
The identical programme is currently available from multiple teams: the ArteMiss Trio (Arco Diva UP 0069-2), Bartos Trio (Hungaroton HCD 31780; reviewed in DSCH 14), Beaux Arts Trio (Warner Classics 2564 62514-2; reviewed in DSCH 25), Gryphon Trio (plus Silvestrov’s Postlude D-S-C-H; Analekta AN 2 9854), LOM Piano Trio (Columna Música 1CM0180), Münchner Klaviertrio (Orfeo C 465 991 A), Yakov Kasman, Petr Macecek and Petr Prause (Calliope CAL9370), Stockholm Arts Trio (Naxos 8.553297), Trio di Parma (Stradivarius STR 33706), and Zürcher Klaviertrio (Claves 7619931260525), with an additional recording from the Moscow Trio not long out of print (Saison Russe RUS 7288088; reviewed in DSCH 14). This crowded market notwithstanding, the Florestans’ uniformly superb performances and Hyperion’s demonstration-quality recording earn their new disc a solid recommendation.
As Shostakovich’s first chamber work employing strings, the proficient pianist’s Trio No. 1 features more technically challenging writing for his own instrument than for violin or cello. Whereas multiple stopping is called for frequently in Trio No. 2, instances in No. 1 can be counted on one hand. Nevertheless, opus 8 offers rich expressive potential to both string players, and a democratic interchange among all three instruments.
The Florestans traverse Piano Trio No. 1 relatively swiftly (11:31) – their only same-programme competitors to take less time are the Moscow Trio (10:40) and Kasman, Macecek and Prause (11:07), the former paying a cost in accuracy, and both ensembles short-changing the work’s passages of reverie. Next closest in duration but still over a minute longer than the Florestans, the Bartos Trio (12:41) and ArteMiss Trio (12:48) successfully capture a wide range of moods. The LOM Trio clock in at a similar 12:47 but are more single-minded, notably supplying a rather coarse opening Andante. Much slower a pace runs the risk of rendering this letter from the lovesick teenaged composer too morose, as in the Beaux Arts Trio’s earthbound performance (13:32), although the Gryphon Trio (13:34) and Zürcher Klaviertrio (13:49) demonstrate it is possible to linger yet still convey anticipation and forward drive.
I haven’t heard a more lyrical or technically assured performance of opus 8 than the Florestans’, even expanding the field to encompass recordings with different programmes. All three musicians treat the work’s gentle themes with surpassing delicacy. As one example among many, take the precision of the hand-off from the strings’ perfect morendo preceding the Andante at Fig. 7 (3:49–4:00) to Susan Tomes’ sweetly innocent handling of the piano’s rocking motif. The ArteMiss Trio share a similar focus on the Impressionistic colouration inherent in this piece, and approach the Florestans in finesse, but frustratingly they elect to hold the final note half again as long as scored, a contrivance that I found more damaging to the performance as a whole than one might predict for such a subtle tweak.
Some listeners may object that the Florestans smooth over the spikier themes in Trio No. 1, and this is undeniably true in comparison with the abrasive approach of, say, the Münchner Klaviertrio or Kasman, Macecek and Prause. In context of their overall performance, though, I found the Florestans plenty sharp enough, and I can’t say I wished for a more serrated edge from them. For an enhanced appreciation of this nugget of Shostakovich’s youth, compare and contrast their approach with the Zürcher Klaviertrio’s sprawling and more expressively diverse alternative, an interesting complement to the Florestans once you pardon Claves’ recording for being too closely miked.
Next on the Florestans’ playlist is opus 127. In a first for this work, Hyperion’s booklet reproduces as cover art Viktor Vasnetsov’s 1897 depiction of Gamayun, the prophetic bird-maiden of Old Russian pagan myth. The painting was the direct inspiration for Alexander Blok’s poem, set as the second song in Shostakovich’s suite, though the pinched expression of Vasnetsov’s feathery yet winsome damsel barely hints at the venomous predictions Blok attributes to her (printed here in transliterated Russian and an English translation from Andrew Huth that differs minimally from his version accompanying the Beaux Arts Trio’s release, which was recycled from Decca).
So too might one complain that the Florestans’ soprano partner Susan Gritton tames the harpy’s screech we have come to think of as idiomatic in Shostakovich’s Gamayun, in large part on the authority of dedicatee Galina Vishnevskaya’s premiere recital (BMG/Melodiya CD 74321 53237-2; deleted) and her subsequent EMI recording, less shrill yet still terrifying (EMI 7243 5 62829 2 6 or Angel 7243 5 62830 2 2; reviewed in DSCH 21). With some notable exceptions, such as Natalia Gerassimova with the Moscow Trio, and Gun-Brit Barkmin with the Zürcher Klaviertrio, many modern accounts sound either too tame, like Alzbeta Pocklakova with the ArteMiss Trio and Alla Ablaberdyeva with the Münchner Klaviertrio, or else split the ear without chewing the cud of true terror, like Anita Soldh with the Stockholm Trio. But as with Joan Rodgers’ commendable entry with the Beaux Arts Trio, anything Susan Gritton’sGamayun may lack in vehemence is compensated for by an implacable fatalism. Aline Kutan with the Gryphon Trio also manages to convey menace despite her lighter vocal weight.
As one might predict, Gritton and her supportive team-mates truly shine in the more reflective Blok Romances.Ophelia’s Song shimmers, its sense of loss palpable. We can practically hear Gritton’s pulse quicken even as she suppresses the passionate remembrances of We Were Together, and her transcendent purity of tone in The City Sleeps and Mysterious Signs acquires an almost religious dimension. But no less compelling is Gritton and the Florestans’ violent The Storm, driven by an unerring rhythmic pulse.
Incidentally, none of the non-Russian sopranos among the present company has the least difficulty spitting out convincingly Slavic rolled r’s or pleghmy kh’s to keep up with native-Russian speakers like Julia Korpacheva on the Trio di Parma’s release. Indeed, Korean Young-Hee Kim’s often hair-raising performance with the LOM Trio is likely to strike many listeners as among the most ‘authentic’ of these different recitals (though the tracklist is jumbled from the order in which the songs appear in the score).
As with the other two works on the programme, this is the Florestan’s lone release of Piano Trio No. 2, not to be confused with a now-deleted 1993 recording of the opus from the US-based Florestan Trio, which shares no personnel with the more illustrious UK ensemble (Gagliano GR 303-CD).
It takes fortitude to assess another new release of Piano Trio No. 2 – the last edition of the Hulme Catalogue listed nine pages of recordings, twice as many as for the Leningrad Symphony! And still they come. To make matters more difficult, most are quite decent. Among the same-programme alternatives I’ve considered thus far, the only performances of opus 67 that are decisively outclassed for precision of ensemble and for individual accuracy are those from the LOM and Stockholm Trios. The Münchner Klaviertrio and Trio di Parma have fewer moments of crisis, while the Zürcher Klaviertrio’s muscular account is barely hindered by some questionable sounds emanating from the violin in the second movement. Kasman, Macecek and Prause tear through with an idiosyncratic desperation that warrants an audition, though they may wear out their welcome with repeated acquaintance. The ArteMiss, Bartos, Gryphon, and Moscow Trios all deliver committed performances worthy of firm recommendation. The Gryphons and Aline Kutan also supply Valentin Silvestrov’s Postlude D-S-C-H. This is a light and sugary confection – a musical meringue – most decidedly not in the spirit of Shostakovich as Analekta’s annotator, Robert Rival, maintains, but it makes an interesting addition nonetheless.
Oddly, high-profile ensembles do not have a strong record in opus 67. I wouldn’t rank as a top pick any of the three recordings from pianist Menahem Pressler’s celebrated Beaux Arts Trio in its different incarnations: the already mentioned 2005 Warner Classics release with current violinist Daniel Hope and cellist Antonio Meneses, the 1989 Philips CD with Isidore Cohen and Peter Wiley (432 079-2; deleted), or the 1975 Philips recording with Cohen and Bernard Greenhouse, reissued in Decca’s Shostakovich Piano Music and Chamber Works boxed set (0289 475 7425 5). Despite its persistence in the catalogue, the 1987 recording from Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax is one of the least accurate or insightful versions out there (CBS Masterworks MK 44664). No more successful is the 1998 recording from Gidon Kremer, Mischa Maisky and Martha Argerich (Deutsche Grammophon 289 459 326-2; reviewed in DSCH 13).
It’s a different story with the Florestan Trio, however. Their top-tier musicianship yields one of the more satisfying performances of Piano Trio No. 2 to come my way in the past decade. This performance is marked by a seamless integration of all three voices, delicious nuances of phrasing virtually on a bar-by-bar basis, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of high-octane fuel. From the opening bars there is a powerful sense of momentum, and the Florestans’ rhythmic beat is so strong in the second movement that I find it quite difficult to sit still through it. Even though they drive faster than many competitors, you will search in vain for any hint that they might be close to skidding. This is as technically flawless a performance of Piano Trio No. 2 as anyone could reasonably request.
Certainly, other teams have depicted more harrowing emotions in the first and third movements, and the Florestans play the Jewish motifs in the last movement without suggesting as heightened a state of panic as say the Vienna Piano Trio (Nimbus NI 5572; reviewed in DSCH 11) or Trio Bamberg (Thorofon CTH 2397; reviewed in DSCH 13). Nevertheless, the Florestans’ overall conception is highly engaging and convincing. The arrangement of works on the disc is also my preferred order, forming a highly satisfying programme for a single listening session.
The only pity is that with the dissolution of the Florestan Trio, we may not have future opportunities to experience their Shostakovich live in concert. All the more reason, then, to add this excellent Hyperion disc to your shopping list.
W. Mark Roberts
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String Quartet No. 3, opus 73; String Quartet No. 5, opus 92; Polka from The Age of Gold, opus 22
Acies Quartett (Benjamin Ziervogel and Raphael Kasprian (violins), Manfred Plessl (viola), Thomas Wielsflecker (cello)
Gramola 98923. DDD. TT: 64:41
Recorded at Barocksaal, Stift Vorau, Styria, Austria 24–27 January 2011
Apart from a bewildering number of intégrales, there’s an ever-increasing number of one-off recordings of Shostakovich string quartets. Such are the permutations that there are rarely direct comparators and in this case, just one: the easily-dismissed Eder Quartet (Naxos 8.550974) and even that doesn’t have the Acies’ brief filler, the Polka from The Age of Gold.
So it might seem that all a reviewer need do is say that if the coupling suits – go ahead. But readers of DSCH may feel that was an abdication of duty! So, on to the detail.
Shostakovich considered the Third Quartet one of his finest works and, apart from a difficult first movement and giving the viola and first violin an almost literally rest-less third movement, thought it comfortably written. In a letter to Edison Denisovich said the first movement should be played ‘not too speedily, but gently’ (some sources translate this as ‘forcefully but with tenderness’ or, as in the Acies’ notes, ‘with affection and not anger’).
At 6:49 the Acies sit in the middle, lengthwise (some ‘quicker’ performances are simply omitting the repeat, knocking just over a minute off the movement). Hence they are comparable to some benchmark performances including the Dubinsky-led Borodins from 1967 (CHAN 10064(4)) and the Fitzwilliams (455 776-2). In fact that holds true through much of the CD: there are few tempi to frighten the horses. While this makes it in many ways recommendable, sometimes there’s something to be said for a little equine inquietude.
The Acies don’t have the first Borodin’s forward, even slightly wiry sound and this may contribute to the most successful parts being the quartet’s darkest moments. The fourth movement is particularly good and the desolation at the end is very powerful. The final three morendo pizzicatos are beautifully judged – clear punctuations without being intrusive, so that the music, as Lev Danilevich put it, disappears into space. Against that, some of the denser counterpoint struggles a bit, for example, the first movement’s double fugue doesn’t really get the balance between clarity and turbulence.
Six years later, in 1952, Shostakovich completed the Fifth Quartet though it would have to wait until after Stalin’s death to be premiered, again by its dedicatees the Beethovens.
While the Third is structurally comparable to other wartime works including the eighth and ninth symphonies, the Fifth Quartet stands far more alone with its three large linked movements (around 9 to 11 minutes each).
Another ‘symphonic’ quartet with a disarmingly insouciant opening that soon turns more serious, even more than the Third it depends on lightning fast changes of mood and subtle emphasis of the turbulent harmony to underline its emotional volatility. That ‘walk in the country’ opening melody actually has a darker harmony underneath it and the Acies underplay that so that the sudden hacking is an even greater shock. Perhaps the brilliantly disciplined development of the opening material suits this ensemble particularly well, but this movement and the section that goes from punch-drunk dazzlement to nostalgic heartache is one of the disc’s highlight.
After the heft of the quartets, the Acies finish up with The Age of Gold’s Polka in a performance that takes a while to shake off its salon-ish politeness.
Christian Heindl’s notes (in German and English) give a decent introduction to the music and historical context, though the implications about the Thaw are slightly rosier than reality and, perhaps, people’s perceptions even at the time.
In both of the bigger works the Acies have a good sense of architecture and line and there are interesting details along the way, but this isn’t a compellingly new vision – even in these relatively lesser known pieces. Of course, things shouldn’t be new just for the sake of being new and in that sense the Acies are perfectly recommendable so that, paradoxically, I’m thrown back to my opening comment: if the coupling suits – go ahead!
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Quartet No. 7, opus 108 and Quartet No. 8, opus 110; Beethoven, String Quartet, opus 59, no. 1.
Valentin Berlinsky Quartet (Bartek Niziol and Wang Xiaoming, violins; David Greenlees, viola; Alexander Neustroev, cello).
Avie AV2253. DDD. TT: 73:58.
Recorded at Reformed Church, Seon, Switzerland, December 2010.
This new recording presents an exciting new chamber ensemble, formed just two years ago and based in Zurich, Switzerland. Its members are an international group of competition winners (violinists from Poland and China, violist from Great Britain, cellist from Russia) who teach, and hold principle positions in ensembles throughout the world. The ensemble has taken the name of Valentin Berlinsky (1925–2008), the legendary cellist who played for over sixty years with the Borodin Quartet and was the great troubadour for Shostakovich’s string quartets. More than any other single person, Berlinsky was responsible for the popularity of Shostakovich’s chamber music and the performance traditions that have grown up around these works. By using Berlinsky’s name, the new ensemble has set its sights high, and endeared itself to Shostakovich quartet enthusiasts.
In the tradition of great Russian ensembles like the Beethoven and Borodin Quartets, the new ensemble is beginning with the Beethoven and Shostakovich quartet cycles as the spine of its repertoire; this CD is the first of a series of recordings featuring the two composers. It is rare for even the finest quartets to present distinguished interpretations of both cycles, and rarer still for such interpretations to appear on a debut CD, as they do here. This is an ensemble to keep your eye on.
In view of their name, it seems only appropriate to compare the new Berlinsky group’s Shostakovich quartet performances with the Borodins’ classic recordings from the Chandos box set of the first thirteen recorded in 1967–72 by Rostislav Dubinsky and Yaroslav Alexandrov (violins), Dmitri Shebalin (viola), and Valentin Berlinsky (cello) (Chandos Historical compact disc CHAN 10064(4)).
Louis Blois, in his review (DSCH 19), aptly described this Borodin set as having “achieved almost mythical status.” The Borodins – especially Dubinsky and Berlinsky – played with a beautiful, warm sounds and full vibrato, but they were also unafraid to examine the strangeness and complexity of Shostakovich’s music. The audacious Borodins seemed determined sometimes to bring out controversial musical inflections – like the Jewish inflections in the Fourth Quartet – that the older and more conservative Beethoven Quartet, who were in their prime during the Stalin era, seemed unwilling to explore. The interpretations of the Beethovens and the Borodins seem shaped in many ways by their Soviet context, and by their personal acquaintance with Shostakovich. We cherish these interpretations not only for their humanity and warmth, but also because these musicians revealed the quartets to us (and to countless performing ensembles), and their interpretations derive special authority from their historical connections.
But time marches on, and a new generation of Shostakovich interpreters hears aspects of these works that are perhaps not always so obviously shaped by their Soviet context. Like the Borodins, the Berlinsky ensemble plays with warmth, assurance and humanity. In the Seventh’s first movement, however, they are not especially folksy or even Russian-sounding, and are instead lighter and fleeter than the Borodins. Their second movement is wonderfully eerie and strange, its frigid landscape made even icier as melodies of violinist Bartek Niziol and cellist Alexander Neustroev float almost without vibrato over the running sixteenth notes of the second violin and viola. The explosive fugue is taken at cracking fast tempo, every note audible, creating the kind of rhythmic excitement that is present in the best performances of Shostakovich’s most violent episodes; here their timing is almost exactly the same as the Borodins’. The waltzy return of the first movement’s theme, however, is fast and soft, somehow more fragile and vulnerable than in the Borodins’ interpretation. Overall, it seems more difficult to attach this interpretation to the Soviet world; it seems as if the Seventh has been ‘set free’ of its beginnings in some interesting way.
The Berlinskys’ interpretation of the Eighth may not be everyone’s cup of tea. I didn’t like it at first, but after several hearings I began to find it audacious. The Eighth is a heavily charged work, the context of its composition including tales of the composer’s near suicidal confrontation with his own cowardice as he faced official pressure to join the Communist Party. Performers must find a way to communicate the work’s darkness and grief without being maudlin. The Borodins’ interpretation is restrained, compassionate and profoundly moving – and it is filled with the rich vibrato that is characteristic of their playing. The Berlinskys seem to take a more dramatic and risky approach, often with less vibrato and more variety of tone colours. The sound of cello’s opening D-S-C-H is covered and quiet, almost vibrato-less. As the music moves through the First Symphony quotation in measure 16, it seems to be struggling to articulate every note, as if it can barely move forward under the weight of its emotional load. As I describe it, the performance sounds overdone, but, strangely, it did not strike me that way, perhaps because it is not throbbing with vibrato. On the other hand, this numb, straight-tone playing can be flat and static with lesser performers (it is difficult to do convincingly), but the Berlinskys kept it alive and moving forward.
The Berlinskys’ second movement is quite a bit slower than the Borodins and at times seems to lose its forward momentum. The third movement’s tempo is just right, though, and the playing is light and incisive, with stinging pizzicatos from violinist Wang Xiaoming. The fourth and fifth-movement Largos, the very heart of this Quartet, include wonderful moments. The fourth movement’s first songful theme, played in octaves by the three lower instruments, is here punctuated by harsh accents in the first violin, expressive of a kind of hacking grief. Near the middle of the movement, a subito pianissimo emphasises the turning point of the quartet, where, as David Fanning has helpfully described it, the music moves from its dark, flatter-than-minor mode to a bright sharper-than-major mode in preparation for the quotation of Katerina’s aria from Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. In the hands of cellist Alexander Neustroev, the aria floats in the instrument’s high register, tender and ethereal. Its fragile hope carries the music forward as it seems hesitantly to begin again in the final Largo’s fugue.
Many readers of this Journal may consider the inclusion of Beethoven’s opus 59 Quartet to be a kind of after-thought to the Shostakovich works, but in fact, it is inspired programming, and I found the Berlinskys’ interpretation revelatory. If your view of Beethoven is filled with concepts like “struggle,” “pain,” “deafness” and “heroism,” or even “pompous” and “bombastic,” then listen to the Berlinskys play Beethoven’s first Razumovsky Quartet, opus 59, no. 1! The Berlinskys sound as if they have been playing this Quartet for decades, and their assured and mature interpretation is filled with joy, guaranteed to make your heart sing and wash away the grief of the Shostakovich works. This is fine Beethoven and fine playing altogether, with more Shostakovich and Beethoven CDs to come, hopefully soon!
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Seven Preludes from opus 34 (arr. Yevgeny Strakhov); Viola Sonata, opus 147; Five Pieces from The Gadfly, opus 97 (arr Vadim Borisovsky)
Lawrence Power (viola); Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano)
Hyperion CDA 67865. TT: 57.05
Recorded in the Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, 24-26 October 2010
Good arrangements rarely get the recognition they deserve. When a hand other than the composer’s sets about changing the instrumentation of a piece, the usual assumption is that the musical value can only diminish. That must be an eternal frustration to viola soloists, whose repertoire relies so heavily on borrowings from their better-endowed colleagues. But Lawrence Power demonstrates that the viola does have something interesting and new to add to Shostakovich’s opus 34 Piano Preludes and The Gadfly, which together with the Viola Sonata, here add up to a worthwhile and excellently performed programme.
One effect the viola can achieve better than most instruments is of artificial distance, and Power exploits this in all three works. He often plays with a reduced tone and in a manner drained of expression. The result is a feeling of detachment, of spatial distance or perhaps even historical distance. This ‘antique’ effect is ideal in The Gadfly, where it brings a sense of history to the various pastiche styles. It is also a great benefit in the Viola Sonata, making Beethoven’s voice sound as if it truly comes from beyond the grave.
The opus 34 arrangements are a little more straightforward. Yevgeny Strakhov, a viola player with the Moscow Philharmonic and later the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, faithfully transcribes seven of the 24 preludes (nos. 10, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 and 24), giving each of his new versions a (fairly redundant) French title. In almost every case, the viola is given the melody, while the piano plays a slightly expanded version of the left hand from the original. The Waltz based on Prelude No.15 would seem to be the exception, with the viola taking the accompaniment and the piano the melody, but in fact the melody is played in the left hand in the original anyway. The piano is not permitted the same dynamic range as it would enjoy as a soloist in this music, but Power and Crawford-Phillips ensure that the music is afforded as much rubato as it would get from any piano soloist.
The move from these short vignettes to the more substantial Viola Sonata is surprisingly smooth. Despite its length and its many invitations to greater emotional involvement, Power and Crawford-Phillips bring a welcome lightness to the Sonata. The pizzicato opening is daringly quiet and has a sense of mystery that you could scarcely imagine from certain heavy-handed Russian performances. This light touch also helps the finale to cohere, with the Moonlight Sonata integrating into similarly flowing and undemonstrative surrounding textures. Comparison with the Bashmet/Richter recording (reviewed in DSCH 20) shows just how much the significance of the Beethoven quotation is affected by performance. Where Richter launches into those rising arpeggios as if he is about to play the entire movement of the Moonlight, Crawford-Phillips instead holds back, allowing Power to interpret the melody line, such as it is, with greater subtlety, maintaining the quotation’s bizarre ambiguity.
Shostakovich’s music for The Gadfly is well-known in many arrangements. This one, by Vadim Borisovsky, makes a surprisingly virtuoso showpiece for the viola out of what otherwise seems straightforward music. Borisovsky was the founding violist of the Beethoven Quartet, and Yevgeny Strakhov was his pupil, so personal connections here with the composer are strong. Power’s light tone gives each of these short movements a real lift, and the song-like lyricism of his phrasing illustrates perfectly that this music can work just as well on other instruments. This viola version has previously been recorded by Lars Anders Tomter and Håvard Gimse (reviewed in DSCH 21), but neither they, nor Power and Crawford-Phillips perform all nine movements. The Barrel-Organ Waltz (Sharmanka) is the only movement to appear here that wasn’t on the previous recording, but given that the entire programme runs to less than an hour, there must have been some good reason for omitting the other numbers.
The short duration is the only downside to a recording that is otherwise highly recommendable. Hyperion lavish their usual high production standards on the project. The sound quality is excellent throughout and the balance between the instruments is finely judged. Add to that some elegant packaging and an informative liner note from no less an authority than David Fanning and the disc makes ‘Shostakovich for Viola’ an attractive proposition indeed.
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Sergey Lemeshev: Concert from the Columned Hall of the House of Unions
Glinka: How Sweet It Is to Be With You; The Fire of Longing Burns in My Blood; Mary Verstovsky: Toropka’s Song (from Askold’s Grave)
Balakirev: The Dream; O Night, Now Show Me In; Spanish Song
Dyubyuk: A Little Bird
Wagner: In fernem Land (from Lohengrin)
Schubert: An die Musik; Der Leiermann
Meyerbeer: O Paradiso (from L’Africaine)
Liszt: Der Fischerknabe; O quand je dors
Schubert: Ständchen Bizet: Nadir’s Romance (from The Pearl Fishers)
Czech trad: I Cannot Pray to God
Shostakovich: Poem of the Motherland, opus 74[a]. Song of the World [sic – actually Song of Peace] from Meeting on the Elbe, opus 80[b]
Konstantin Ivanov, Bolshoi Theatre Chorus and Orchestra, Mariya Maksakova (soprano), Sergei Lemeshev (tenor), Andrei Ivanov and David Gamrekeli (baritones), Maxim Mikhailov (bass)[a]; Viktor Knushevitsky, All-Union Radio Variety Orchestra[b] Songs with pianist Abram Makarov.
Aquarius AQVR 346-2. ADD. TT: 71:54
Recorded in the Columned Hall of the House of Unions, Moscow, 29 November 1948
[a]Recorded c.1950. World Premiere Recording
[b]Recorded 1950, previously unreleased.
The Soviet tenor Sergey Lemeshev is little known in the West, but he was a huge star in the Soviet Union, and one of the most distinguished singers at the Bolshoi. This CD presents a live concert given by him, with the pianist Abram Makarov, in 1948 at the Moscow Columned Hall of the House of Unions. In this popular song recital, Glinka, Balakirev, Schubert and Liszt share the programme with a handful of popular songs and operatic arias. Lemeshev’s celebrated voice is impressive enough on its own terms, but the knowledge that he is singing with the use of only one lung at this time makes his expressive range even more impressive. It is fascinating to hear this vivid snippet of Soviet concert life; my only grumble would be about the fading-out, or often complete elimination, of the applause and cheers which would have made this live recording much more thrilling. It would be so good to hear which works went down best – if any prompted only desultory applause, and if any were encored.
Having said that, this CD would perhaps be little more than a historical curiosity were it not for its prize item: Shostakovich’s long-obscure Poem of the Motherland, written after the end of the Second World War but before the vicious censure that befell him and his fellow composers in 1948. It was written for the 1947 anniversary celebrations but was not, in the end, performed until 1956. However, a record was made – the only one ever released commercially – in c.1950, according to Derek Hulme’s catalogue. Released on 78s, it is (or was) an exceedingly rare collectors’ item in the West, and though the score is easily accessible in Britain (though not included in the old Soviet Collected Works and not yet published in the New Collected Works), I had not heard a recording until the arrival of this CD. Since Hulme was not able to identify the precise date of the original record’s release in his catalogue, it may well be, in fact, that this CD recording is the very same recording that Hulme estimated was released in c. 1950. Certainly, the performers listed are the same in both Hulme’s catalogue and the CD liner note.
Historically, the piece is fascinating, because without it we are left with a very tidy chronology of Shostakovich’s politically ‘committed’ works. In contrast to Prokofiev, it appears that following the Second Symphony, Shostakovich never wrote a note of overt propaganda until the post-war attacks on composers (the so-called Zhdanovshchina of 1948) forced his hand. Thus the two oratorios that followed, The Song of the Forests and The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland, can be seen as the fruit of direct coercion and of the necessity for rehabilitation and financial, not to mention mortal, security in the terrible period after 1948, when his works languished unperformed and he faced serious financial hardship after losing his Conservatoire posts. But before any of this happened, Shostakovich’s career was in fact at a peak. Post-war, he had been awarded three Stalin Prizes, given the Order of Lenin, made a professor at the Leningrad Conservatoire, elected head of the Leningrad branch of the Composers’ Union and elected to a major civic role in the same city. Politically and creatively, he was Soviet Russia’s leading composer and his position had never been stronger. Shostakovich was not commissioned to write the Poem of the Motherland, but he felt obliged to produce something for the thirtieth anniversary of the October Revolution. The Poem wasn’t selected for the anniversary celebrations, however, and a passing sarcastic comment in the 1948 Composers’ Plenum hints at why: it sounded too trivial, too popular and as though Shostakovich hadn’t invested a great deal of effort into its composition.
That may have been true, though Shostakovich himself would have been horrified by the suggestion that he expended much energy on his Stalin Prize-winning cantata The Song of the Forests. Certainly, the cheery, populistPoem of the Motherland bears no resemblance to his more pompous, Stalinist post-1948 cantatas. He selected seven popular Soviet-period and Civil War songs, including his own jolly Song of the Counterplan, and knitted them together in a sympathetic orchestral fabric, beautifully orchestrated and recognisably Shostakovichian at every turn. The Poem sounds, at least to me, far more like Shostakovich than does his weaker The Sun Shines Over our Motherland, which could almost be by any reasonably talented Soviet composer. If we take the Poem, The Song of the Forests and The Sun Shines Over our Motherland as a group of three patriotic cantatas, The Song of the Forestsmay be the most carefully crafted, but the Poem is certainly the most enjoyable to listen to and the most palatable proposition for a 21st-century revival, if any conductor cared to take up its cause.
This historic performance captures all the energy and spirit of those well-known songs: the playing is disciplined and clear, the soloists high-quality. The CD is rounded off by Lemeshev’s spirited rendition of Shostakovich’s Song of Peace, to a text by Dolmatovsky, recorded in 1950 (this time with two lungs in full working order).
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Prologue from Orango (orch. Gerard McBurney) (sans opus)[a]; Symphony No. 4, opus 43.
Esa-Pekka Salonen, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale[a]. Ryan McKinney (The Entertainer – Master of Ceremonies)[a]; Jordan Bisch (Voice from the Crowd/Bass)[a]; Michael Fabiano (Zoologist)[a]; Eugene Brancoveanu (Orango)[a]; Yulia Van Doren (Suzanna, a foreigner)[a]; Timur Bekbosunov (Paul Mâche, journalist)[a]; Abdiel González (Armand Fleury, embryologist)[a]; Adriana Manfredi (Renée, Fleury’s daughter)[a];Daniel Chaney (First foreigner)[a]; Todd Strange (Second foreigner)[a]
Deutsche Gramophon 479 0249. DDD TT: 31:58 + 64:32
Recorded live at Walt Disney Hall, [2-4?] December 2011
[a]World Premiere Recording
Since the discovery of the operatic fragment Orango several years ago, its progress has been astonishing: closely researched, published, prepared for performance, premiered in Los Angeles, further performances planned (including one in London) and now a recording. And in the course of that, the work has gone from being starkly unknown to one of the best documented of Shostakovich’s works. Olga Digonskaya, its discoverer, charted its birth in a huge two-part article in DSCH 34 and 35, versions of which also graced the published piano score and Pauline Fairclough’s Shostakovich Studies 2 (CUP, 2010, reviewed in DSCH 35). Richard Pleak reviewed the premiere in DSCH 36, while Gerard McBurney, the work’s midwife, has written a long article for a forthcoming collection edited by Pauline Fairclough: 20th Century Music and Politics: Essays in Memory of Neil Edmunds (Ashgate).
But quite why Shostakovich took Orango on is still a bit of a mystery after the trouble over The Bedbug and the banning of Bulgakov’s The Heart of a Dog – both of which have more than a tangential bearing on the opera. And he was in the middle of Lady Macbeth so was embarking on writing two operas simultaneously! Perhaps he was simply so transported by the idea that he forgot the practicalities, something that may also have happened with The Gamblers. In the end it was abandoned as a largely unorchestrated torso. Gerard McBurney arranged the pieces in appropriate style and identified and integrated the borrowings.
Orango is a cross-bred humanoid ape whose enormous success in the West culminates in a career as a press baron before he is betrayed and sold to a Soviet circus for exhibition in Moscow. As grotesque as it sounds it has some basis in reality but also taps into the early 20th century’s ambivalence towards science as a route to Utopianism and a terrifyingly uncontrollable process. The librettist Alexei Tolstoy was one of the Soviet Union’s pre-eminent sci-fi writers so presumably would have known pieces such as Kafka’s A Report to the Academy and Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau which, if not sources per se at least shine an interesting light on the story. Odd also, that King Kong – Ernest Schoedsack’s second primate-drama – was released the following year: clearly something was in the air.
But what of Shostakovich’s music? Rather like its Frankensteinian ‘hero’ it’s a mad concatenation of original music, recyclings, quotations, allusions and stylistic echoes: in other words, absolutely typical of Shostakovich’s incidental music of the time. So, Orango brushes by (or rudely bumps into) works including The Bolt, Lady Macbeth, The Golden Mountains, Hypothetically Murdered, Hamlet and The Big Lightning (Opp 27, 29, 30, 31, 32 and Sans Op D(iv) – unsurprisingly as many of those works already interpenetrate each other. Apart from that there are clear nods to Musorgsky, Tchaikovsky, and various national anthems. What is astonishing is how, despite these diverse sources and the madcap plotting, abrupt changes of tone and general absurdism Orango actually feels very coherent. Bizarrely one of the planks upon which is rests is the little ditty Chizhik-Pyzhik (which also turns up in Hypothetically Murdered and, much later, The Tale of the Silly Little Mouse and Satires).
Of course this implies dozens of intertextual questions: what, if anything did Shostakovich mean by including some of those quotes? While clearly there are some extraordinarily pointed moments, critics, as they always do, will also strain to find a reason, where for the composer it may have been a convenient time-saver or there was some association to convoluted that we will never understand it.
It might sound like some latter-day pasticcio, but those who dismiss it as such have, to be frank, missed the point as completely as only a critic can.
In fact, it is absolutely typical Shostakovich in the way that it yokes together tragedy and satire, and looks warily at the crowd and their tendency to attack any marginalised individual. Moreover the East-West friction was a common theme in the art of the time: Shostakovich used it in The Age of Gold and The Big Lightning and it always gave him a chance to write a big ‘decadent’ tune.
Despite this being a ‘new’ work, there are clearly a couple of reference points and the new disc always proves worthy. So, the brilliant opener, a version of the Overture from The Bolt is more of a headlong dash than Rozhdestvensky’s uncharacteristically cautious traversal in his recording of the complete ballet (CHAN 9343/4). The fragments of Hypothetically Murdered are every bit the equal of Mark Elder’s CBSO recording (United 88001) and for those of an archaeological frame of mind there’s Rustem Hayroudinoff’s recording of some piano originals (CHAN 9907).
Unsurprisingly McBurney’s orchestration, drawing on and varying his previous completions, is completely idiomatic and it is hard, if not impossible to tell where Shostakovich stops and he starts.
With Orango lasting just 32 minutes the decision was made to couple it both in concert and on disc to the Fourth Symphony and, given the overall brevity of the two discs – 98 minutes or so – the price is a tad more than a single disc. Of course one could wish for another resurrected discovery – a theatre or film score, perhaps – but the work involved would have set the project back by years. Had we but world enough and time … but why wish for the moon when we have the stars?
Salonen’s Fourth Symphony has an imperious opening and an impressively ferocious march. That implies that he’s ‘going big’ on the symphony’s terrifying aspect, but the big climax around figure 47 rather than as so often having the feeling of an approaching tsunami, is super romantic, while the following weird pairs of notes and baleful brass solo, is daringly slow. But that only serves to highlight the scurrying woodwind that follow. And that’s what sets the tone for this performance: intense contrast. The multiple conflagrations are excoriating, the percussion a relentless battering, and the solos veer between frantic screaming, dazed confusion and violent sarcasm. It doesn’t have the breathless rush of Kondrashin – the timings are middle range, though there are some astonishing changes of tempi – once or twice I momentarily thought the CD had skipped! Later in the finale the big waltz tune has a genial swing and occasionally Salonen clearly looked encouragingly at the brass – some of the lower lines are more prominent than usual. The final climax slows and it seems like at the end a truck crashed through the walls of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Perhaps the coda has an unaccustomed warmth, robbing it of some of the sense of desolation but that is all of a piece with much of the rest of his interpretation.
There are some slight audience noises in both – obviously more in Orango as they react to Sellars’ staging, but in the symphony you’d barely notice.
The programme notes are equally divided between McBurney and Peter Sellars, who staged the premiere: personally I’d have preferred more of the former and less of the latter.
Orango is far more than a fascinating byway of early 1930s Shostakovich: it shows him experimenting with dramatic form, trying to discover new ways to find unity in diversity. In some ways it’s the other side of the coin to Lady Macbeth: where the completed opera is a tragedy-satire, Orango is a satire-tragedy.