CD Reviews 38
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Cello Concerto No. 1, opus 107[a]; Violin Concerto No. 1, opus 99 [sic] [b]
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy [a]; David Oistrakh (violin), Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, Evgeny Mravinsky [b]
Regis RRC 1385. ADD. TT: 64:13
[a] Recorded at Broadwood Hotel, Philadelphia, 8 November 1959
[b] Recorded 30 November 1956
The First Cello Concerto was premièred in Leningrad on 4 October 1959, performed by Rostropovich, Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra (the Moscow première followed five days later). The US première followed a mere month later on 6 November: same soloist, this time under Eugene Ormandy and his renowned Philadelphia Orchestra. It was this same combination of musical excellence that engineered the first recording, made on 8 November 1959 (first released the following year on a mono LP: Philips ABL 3315 and SABL 165).Many re-issues followed, many of which will be familiar to the record collector either thanks to their original iconic vinyl sleeve illustrations or through later reproductions on the jewel-cased CD repertoire.
As can be seen on the covers illustrated above, this Regis re-release’s coupling differs from that of those of the 50s and 60s, the latter featuring either Ormandy’s excellent Symphony No. 1 with the Philadelphia or the NYPO-Oistrakh version of the Violin Concerto No. 1 under Mitropoulos.
In terms of the interpretative value and stature of the Cello Concerto recording there is little or nothing to say; Rostropovich’s astonishingly forceful performance – that one might still argue as being definitive – is colossal, and is brilliantly accompanied by a remarkably Russian-sounding orchestra in the Philadelphia, especially the horns and the upper woodwind. Twenty-first-century string playing might find the portamenti employed in the second movement a mite too ‘Hollywood’ and the very minor blemishes give the performance a live recording “edge” to what was presumably a studio recording.
The audio – mono of course – is almost without analogue tape hiss, implying the use of electronic processing for transfer to the digital medium, but the overall result is very transparent, devoid of the nasty ‘artefacts’ that analogue to digital processing can sometimes provoke. The high registers are perhaps slightly dull, lacking the “bite” of true high fidelity, but this is a minor detail. Overall balance favours the soloist sometimes to the detriment of the strings, timpani and lower woodwind, and some of the spot microphones could have been more subtly placed and engineered. Less commendable – a rather unsubtle fade at end of the first movement for reasons that are unclear and which trim a second or so off the natural hall reverberation.
All in all an excellent re-release at what is a very low price (£3 in UK). What of the coupling?
A segue play from the end of the Cello Concerto to the beginning of the Violin Concerto is a curious affair – the sound is immediately harsher, the orchestra less “uniform” in sound and ensemble and the focus is very squarely on the string soloist, probably a mere metre or so away from the microphone.
As with opus 107, it’s worth recalling dates: the work’s premiere was given on 29 October 1955 in Leningrad, David Oistrakh performing under Mravinsky with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra. The US premiere was a mere two months after this date: Oistrakh again the soloist on 29 December 1955 at New York’s Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the legendary Dmitri Mitropoulos (a broadcast on 1 January 1956 has seen various releases). No surprise then that the ‘winning coupling’ – if nothing in terms of marketing – was the Columbia release (see central image, above) featuring the two world premiere recordings. Here we have Oistrakh again, but with the same forces with which he premiered the work in 1955. The CD mentions the first publication date as being 1959, but this is the much re-issued studio recording.
The performance is extremely refined, the tension is throughout a feature of both the soloist’s and the orchestra’s playing – particularly noticeable in the first movement’s final 30 bars or so – the sense of pent-up anticipation is immense. The audio is prone to saturation at high levels, meaning that the second-movement Scherzo suffers from unfortunate moments of distortion but again the historic value of the recording more than compensates for the passing discomfort. The opening passages of the Passacaglia perhaps lack space around which to build, and through which the coiled-up tension might dissipate: the opposite point of view is of a cadenza whose soul and body are drawn slowly through the darkest and grimmest ordeals imaginable, finally to reach the brightest, most dazzling of vistas at the outset of the finale’s Burlesque movement. This is a brilliant display of musicianship and notwithstanding the age of the recording is certainly a candidate for the best recorded performance of any movement from the Shostakovich catalogue.
Overall the audio restoration works well with the same slight reservations as in the Cello Concerto (no unnecessary fades of audio here, thankfully).
Highly recommended at a ridiculously low price.
As DSCH went to press, we learned that these two recordings, coupled to Bernstein’s pianist-conductor traversal of the Second Piano Concerto have been released on Praga (PRD DSD 350 059) though, as yet we have not had an opportunity to hear it.
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Cello Concerto No. 1, opus 107[a]; Cello Concerto No. 2, opus 126[b]
Chandos Super Audio CD CHSA 5093. Enrico Dindo (cello), Gianandrea Noseda, Danish National Symphony Orchestra.
Audio CD CHSA 5093. DDD. TT: 60:11.
Recorded at the Koncerthuset, DR Byen, Copenhagen: 9-10 April 2010[a]; 18–20 April 2011[b]. Total time: 60:11.
Cello Concerto No 1, opus 107.
Gavriel Lipkind (cello), Wojciech Rodek, Sinfonia Varsovia.
Lipkind Productions H02. DDD. TT: 32:14.
Recorded at the Witold Lutoslawski Concert Hall of the Polish Radio.
Rarely does one find a study in contrasts more vivid than in these two interpretations of the First Cello Concerto. The brisk, tightly wrapped account of conductor Gianandrea Noseda and soloist Enrico Dindo stands as the antithesis of the indulgent, one might say extravagant, approach found in the version by conductor Wojciech Rodek with soloist Gavriel Lipkind. And even so, each performance yields dividends.
Gianandrea Noseda has enjoyed a distinguished international career since 1994 and has served as principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic from 2002 to 2011. His recording of the Michelangelo Suite and other Shostakovich works in 2006 (CHAN 10358) was well received in The Guardian and elsewhere. Wojciech Rodek has also received acclaim for his work with a number of prominent Polish orchestras.
Cellists Enrico Dindo and Gavriel Lipkind are both competition prize recipients who likewise have been internationally active since the mid-1990s. Mr. Lipkind’s own label, Lipkind Productions, over the past few years has produced a number of single-work CDs with himself as soloist. The recording of the Shostakovich is the second of four releases so far in a series entitled Cello Heroics.
In the first concerto Dindo projects a first movement, coming in at 6:03, that is lean and relentlessly driven, more so than one finds in performances of similar tempo and timing, such as those of soloists Truls Mork (6:04, Virgin Classics VC5 45145-2) and Torleif Thedéen (6:02, BIS CD-626). For most interpreters, the roughly six-minute mark seems to have become the virtuosic standard to which to aspire. Dindo’s admirable precision and concentration are matched in every way by the razor-sharp playing of the Danish NSO. Whether by virtue of the recording engineer or the resolve of the Danish musicians, the winds in the lower register growl with astonishing ferocity, lending a measure of menace to an already exciting and finely taut opening movement.
By contrast, Lipkind’s pacing in the opening Allegretto, timing at 6:45, stands at the long end of the recording spectrum, roughly the upper limit that this movement will tolerate. He compares rather well to the celebrated Rostropovich/Ormandy version of similar length (6:30, Regis RRC1385 – see dvd-review), whose up-front microphone placement gives that historic performance an added edge. While Lipkind is not pressed as close to the listener as Rostropovich, he holds the line with engaging playing and likewise shows that the movement’s lyrical intensity and manic drive can be captured at his chosen pace. He also receives excellent support from the Sinfonia Varsovia, whose sectional work matches Lipkind’s fervour at every step of the way.
The defining moments of the two performances appear in the middle sections of the concerto. Throughout theModerato second movement, Dindo’s taut phrasing moves the music forward with steely precision, though much of the time it calls out for more breathing room. He receives sensitive orchestral accompaniment from the Danish ensemble, yet he tends to glide over the surface and never quite makes a convincing case for the music. Unfortunately, the cadenza that follows leaves a similar impression. Lipkind, on the other hand, with tempi that are pushed to extravagance, takes the music apart phrase by phrase in his darkly introspective account. There are times he brings the solo part to a barely audible whisper, as in the dialogue with the solo clarinet in the movement’s opening paragraph. At other times he is poignantly expressive where Dindo is disappointingly matter-of-fact. For example, in the gently rocking figure for winds and solo cello that leads to the central crisis (starting at bar 96); or the moving multiple-voiced passage in double stops that lies at the heart of the cadenza. Lipkind finds a special place for these crucial moments in his interpretation. By the time the second movement has ascended to the ethereal realms of cello harmonics and celesta, he has the listener in the palm of his hand.
Lipkind grapples, rather self-indulgently, with inner demons in the cadenza. The gestures at times lunge passionately; the pauses, especially in the pizzicato passages, are daringly broad. At 7:08, it is the longest cadenza on record. The risks he takes, however, pay off richly in this deeply engrossing and highly personal performance. In the last section that leads into the extroverted rhythms of the finale, one hears Lipkind wrestling his way outward from the brooding spell so created in the previous passages, places where Dindo again seems all too impatient.
In the finale Noseda takes a brisker pace than Rodek, yet both convey the movement’s high spirits with equal enthusiasm. Rodek builds to quite a majestic utterance of the four note motto theme in its augmented return in the horns.
With its more convoluted emotional terrain and, significantly, its monolithic floor plan, the Second Cello Concerto is a different animal all together. It is the only Shostakovich work, the Fourth Symphony notwithstanding, that progressively tightens the ratchet of tension across its movements, the accumulation of which is only released in a single explosive outburst in the final moments of the score, the bublichki theme turned on its head. It is a view of this gloriously tragic masterpiece that I have yet to see reflected in the literature, and whose recognition would seem crucial to its interpretation. In the current performance, soloist Dindo and conductor Noseda maintain a taut line throughout as they throw emphasis on forward motion and general outline, a decidedly architectural approach that, to its favour, underlines the work’s unified conception. Dindo’s tone is vigorous and assertive, reaching outward rather than inward for the reconciliation of the music’s thorny conflicts. By contrast there are some performances in which the dramatic framework is weakened due to an excessively scrutinising soloist, as the Rodin/Krimets version (Arte Nova 49688-2) sleepily demonstrates. The richly expressive Maisky/Tilson Thomas account (DG 445 821-2GH), however, shows that a thoroughly examined appraisal is not incompatible with achieving well-proportioned results. For its near-perfect balance of expressive power and overall concept, the Rostropovich/Ozawa team (DG 439 481-2GCL) remains unparalleled.
In Dindo’s hands, then, the quality that deprives the First Cello Concerto of its interior life helps the Second Concerto’s variously contradictory and cryptic elements beneficially coalesce. He navigates the brooding passages of the first movement with elegance and efficiency, and steers the latter two movements along a no-nonsense path toward the final moment of truth. The orchestra shows its strength in escalating the tension of the Scherzo toward its frustrated climax and in capturing the twisted complexion of the horn fanfares into which it collapses. Dindo engages the tormented solo passages with exceptional vigour, as in the agonised exchange between soloist and bass drum in the opening movement; and in the extended anguished exhortation that leads to the final climax.
Still, Dindo’s phrasing bears an element of glossiness. There are times when one wishes his steely tone were tempered with a little more sensuousness. I would have expected a tad more lustiness in the first appearances of thebublichki theme and the glissandi figure with which it cavorts. When in the rondo finale he comes upon the pastoral phrase that turns on a trill, Dindo barely observes the ritardando and espressivo markings in the score. Here the moment passes glancingly where other cellists find a sumptuous moment of repose. He does keep the rhythmic elements moving at an effectively tight pace, however, a quality that underscores the finale’s dark inevitability. The orchestra, as in the First Concerto, provides a taut and vitally expressive accompaniment.
Both the Lipkind and the Chandos recordings claim admirable acoustic clarity, though the latter is somewhat lacking in warmth despite its Super Audio status. Liner notes by David Fanning in the Chandos release offer, as to be expected, original and well-informed insights.
The recording was apparently first released as a ‘private’ CD-R through the website of ‘Orchestral Concert CDs’ on 30 June 2010. It has subsequently appeared as a properly pressed CD, distributed in the UK by Discovery Records.
Václav Smetáček was a Czech conductor, chorus master, composer, oboist, musicologist and teacher. He was born 5 days after Shostakovich, on September 30 1906 in Brno. He died on February 18, 1986 in Prague. He was founder and member of the Prague Wind Quintet in 1928 and remained with the ensemble until 1955. He was a soloist with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra from 1930 to 1933 after which he worked for Czech Radio as conductor and editor and was conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra from the 1930s until 1972. The Prague Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1934 by the conductor Rudolf Pekárek, together with a group of young graduates from the Prague Conservatoire. Still active, the orchestra is also known by the acronym FOK (Film–Opera-Koncert) – an indicator of its “activities in the early years of its existence”.
The booklet makes some rather odd claims about the recording techniques used; hence the engineer’s assertion that: “As with all Orchestral Concert CDs issues, this recording was made using just two microphones: it is a fundamental principle of OCCDs that the musicians should be responsible for the sound of the performance, not the recording engineer.” Quite clearly this is not the case – ‘spot’ microphones are in place for solos and strings sections are balanced and placed in the stereo image. I mention this partly as the audio throughout this CD poses problems. Aside the rather muffled trebles (due probably to the ageing analogue tape used for the transfer) and a tolerable level of analogue hiss, some strange things happen between movements, such as dismembered chunks of audience noise and tape hiss.
A blind test would immediately identify this as being a ‘live recording’, with a strong likelihood of a mid-Winter event recorded well to the East of the Iron Curtain, especially given the bronchitis-ridden audience splutterings that punctuate the proceedings! London in March it is however: obviously some epidemic had struck the British capital…
So to the performance. The opening ‘prologue’ is surprisingly strident in its phrasing and dynamics; little hint of the 1953 atmosphere of doubt and trepidation that permeates Mravinsky’s premiere recording (Saga Classics SCD 9017). The string balance is good, the phrasing almost translucent in the lead-up to the clarinet solo at Figure 5. This passage is typical of Smetáček’s apparent wish not to imbue any solo instrument with the weight and emotion that Shostakovich’s score implies (and to which Mravinsky’s recording, amongst many others, is testimony). The insistent tempo is doubtless a factor – Smetáček shaves several minutes off the first movement compared to, say, Svetlanov’s recording also in London and also from 1968. The woodwind section as a whole appears to lack the ability or the insight to express the work’s inherent tension – plenty of sincerity here but passion and commitment are elusive qualities. All the same, the tutti at Figure 37 is powerfully driven by the excellent horn section, likewise trumpets at Figure 39 – unmistakably East-European brass at their most gnashing and spitting. The timpani statements are however far too weakly captured at Figure 43, after which the horns suffer several setbacks – notwithstanding the live performance setting. Figure 57’s clarinet dual suffers from some tonal instability (the principal clarinet displays a few of these moments, sadly) – the exposed nature of Shostakovich’s symphonic scoring really offers nowhere to hide. The movement then strides to its conclusion, but I so miss the hanging piccolo effect in Karajan (DG Galleria 429 716-2GGA) or Rattle (HMV CDC7 47350-2).
The second movement opening is hesitant – dare I say too relaxed a tempo? By Figure 74 the strings have thankfully found their momentum and Smetáček their ensemble and the movement takes off, driven by percussion and brass, built on a foundation of string excellence and excitement. Again the woodwind lack accuracy and ensemble but the sheer power unleashed by Shostakovich’s orchestra builds and breaks into a thrilling climax. The chopped reverberation at the end of the movement is little short of criminal – and inexplicable.
After the energy and motion of the second movement, we move back into Shostakovich’s more contemplative world; that of the third movement Allegretto: ELMIRA, DSCH et al. The opening lower string quaver is clipped by an blundering razor blade: again a lack of care and attention in this remastered CD. The tempo remains on the quick side of average, which helps to emphasise the dance motifs that surround the first incantation of the DSCH theme (piccolo, flute, oboe), taken up by the strings and picked up again by the flute in its lower register and the clarinet. A very odd and disconcerting unstopped string ‘pluck’ can be heard 3 bars after Figure 109 – during a passage where no string is scored; subjectively 10 times louder than the perennial smoker’s cough… Elmira’s theme is fairly lovingly rendered by the dry-sounding soloist before what sounds like certain string players anticipating their entry by several bars or audio print through from another recording: inaudible at normal listening levels this ‘interference’ is unfortunately typical of the CD’s lack of attention to audio detail – whatever the sleeve note’s claims may be. A horrible unmarked slide in the cellos shortly after Figure 115 followed by a premature entry from the flute (6 bars after Figure 117) rounds off a mediocre central section in this movement, the remainder of the section passing off well enough, with some admirable playing by the orchestra’s brass section. Needless to say that the end of the movement is lost to more audio vandalism..
And then to the final movement, where at last the tension is allowed to pour into the long, undulating woodwind and string passages – by far the most effective sections so far in this performance, right through to the big DSCH proclamation where a second and inexplicable cymbal strike tarnishes the punctuation effect of this key moment. But that’s a relative quibble in what is a markedly more successful movement than the three previous.
The attraction of the disc? With so many varied and wonderful recordings to choose from in the current catalogue, even recorded performances having significant historical or artistic value will have limited appeal. Aside the potential “circumstantial” value of this release, i.e. a lesser-known but respected Czechoslovak orchestra playing in the West in ’68: the nature and the number of different issues that abound mean that I am unable to recommend this release to the general or even to the specific collector of recordings of Shostakovich’s Tenth.
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The booklet notes claims this recording comes from two years after Mravinsky conducted the symphony’s Leningrad premiere, and it is presumably taken from a live concert given the occasional background noise and the even more occasional orchestral inconsistency. Hulme lists two contemporary recordings of the Eleventh by Mravinsky; (i) the Leningrad premiere in the Philharmonic Hall in Leningrad – the concert of 3 November 1957; (ii) in the studios of Moscow Radio on 2 February 1959. Presumably that is the one referred to in the booklet, but that doesn’t explain at least one cough on the current recording!
This ageing analogue recording does not appear to have benefited from any ‘sweetening’ (as the audio industry refers to noise reduction, enhanced dynamics and balance) – it is perhaps a foolhardy listener who samples this disc using headphones… As mentioned above, Mravinsky ‘Elevenths’ are a relative rarity – this from a conductor whose regular, high-profile appearances in the recorded repertoire in many key symphonic works by Shostakovich need little introduction for the DSCH Journal readership.
The highly-charged, highly-atmospheric extended opening episode of the symphony, sadly partly concealed behind the 1950s tape noise, is an unusually restrained affair, especially for this conductor-orchestra combination (rarely reticent or restrained without reason) and despite the spiked anticipation that Shostakovich fashions in the first two dozen bars. The Winter Palace snows are in place but the gathered masses plod gingerly rather than treading stealthily, this as a result of Mravinsky’s rather stilted phrasing, even as early as bars 8–12. Did Mravinsky have the opportunity to discuss interpretation with Shostakovich prior to his first performance – it was premiered not by him but by Nathan Rakhlin with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra on 30 October 1957 in Moscow. Mravinsky’s interpretation is certainly atypical – or is it a reflection of Mravinsky’s view of overtly “programme music”, prior to the programmatic Twelfth which he did premiere in October 1961?
As might be expected, the Leningrad brass adds a great deal to the interpretative mix, with typically searing trumpets and at times pulverising trombones and tubas. The tremulous horn solo at Figure 5 illustrates Mravinsky’s broadly technical, rather than emotional approach: very predictably Tchaikovsky-like in its tone, restrained in its dramaturgical qualities. The woodwind, in their more subtle passages at least, are slightly lost in the mists of the intervening years and the slightly faded recording. The percussion section is however often far too receded in the (monophonic) audio picture, with only a few exceptions.
We are treated to an aberration at the end of the first movement – an idiotic and clearly erroneous break between tracks – and therefore between movements, of several seconds; the utter lack of care and attention is dumbfounding.
Mravinsky’s ability to shift the music’s colour and energy – from the anticipatory first movement to the stirred declarations at the start of the second – mainly through the emboldened brass and woodwind passages, but also a particular fast tempo (dotted crotchet = 155 rather than the scored 125) is typically impressive (shades of his imperial Eighths from 1947 and 1982). Likewise the string section suddenly finds life – in particular the grim and grinding lower strings from Figure 27 onwards. Problems of balance within the percussion already alluded to are to plague this recording and a first serious example is the almost inaudible timpani at Figure 43; this is a missing ‘layer’ upon which a great deal of the tension is built in later passages. There are some tempo shifts that may result from the editing of different takes or concerts, such as the strings’ entry at Figure 51 – alternatively this is typical Mravinsky – his ability suddenly to inject colossal and sudden passion and energy into a performance from one bar to the next is, as they say, legend.
If the anticipatory passage from Figure 63 seems a little lax, in terms of phrasing and dramatic edge, the entry of the upper woodwind at Figure 69 is uneven and disappointing, as is the inter-woodwind balance (the piccolos clearly win the shrieking game) with the result that dramatic energy is somewhat dissipated.
At the point of the outburst of the infamous rifle fire, depicted by the f blasts on snare drum (written f, but far closer to ff in this recording – the third triplet of which stumbles, lending another argument to the ‘live recording’ theory), a new episode opens up, and this hitherto relatively lame performance explodes into life. The audio remains harsh and compressed, the balance remains mediocre but the sheer intensity and ferocity with which the Leningraders imbibe this passage is impressive. Mravinsky’s rather staccato approach to phrasing – distracting in the first movement, here pays off and comparing this recording to more contemporary versions such as Ashkenazy with the St Petersburg Phil (DECCA 475 8748) and Gergiev with the Mariinsky Orchestra (MAR0507) emphasises this fact. I would take issue with the slightly jerky woodwind entry 5 bars after Figure entry 77 – another indifferent edit or Mravinsky’s idea of a sudden gear change? The highlight of the movement – a quite astounding, pounding, entry of the full orchestra at Figure 85 – it’s a powerful moment in anyone’s hands but here the intensity is savage and steeped with anguish. Mravinsky’s strings respect the triplet phrasing throughout this section in a way that few conductors do – punctuating each crotchet with absolute starkness.
Following Figure 91, the aftermath of the brutal attack by troops on the assembled, unarmed masses, Mravinsky creates quite unique effect through the flattened trills that Shostakovich scores in the upper strings – almost “Theremin-effect”: dated technique or innovative dare? The muffled timpani at the end of the second movement are again a disappointment – as is the gaping hole between this and the third movement, whose initial tempo in pizzicato-led lower strings is unusually slow in the lead into the ever-moving You Fell as Victims refrain, exquisitely enunciated by viola section – the Leningrad orchestra’s best asset in this movement. The tender re-entry of the strings 2 bars before Figure 108 with the subsequent Tchaik-4 like swelling and build, again through the strings, is painfully splendid. The brass entry at Figure 112 and subsequent interplay with the percussion is spoiled only by the dullness of the latter but Mravinsky is able to maintain the tension through to well before Figure 117.
The final bars of the third movement border on the inaudible due to the poor audio and the level of analogue ‘hiss’ and once again the movement is faded out, rather than being allowed to run into the final movement.
The pointed interplay between the electrified strings and the extreme violence of the brass and side drum combination culminates in a brilliant tutti at Figure 134 that allows the music considerable momentum, including a splendidly spiky violin at Figure 140 – this section itself leading to the similarly angular approach to the quotations from Figure 143 onwards and the climax from Figure 151 onwards. Again, audiophiles may already have long since departed, but as a purely music experience this is the most powerful and impressive passage of this performance.
Sadly the explosion of anger and angst 4 bars before Figure 162 is partly lost in the inadequacies of the 1950s recording although the subsequent transition and the famous cor anglais soliloquy at Figure 163 is highly effective. The solo instrument’s timbre resembles that of a tenor oboe, slightly lacking the steel-edged sound, perhaps, of that of the Eighth Symphony with the same forces in 1947 or the Moscow Phil’s equivalent under Kondrashin in 1961. The plaintive tones produced in the upper register from Figure 165 may not please everyone – but this is as authentic as it comes.
The thumping punctuation at Figure 167 that introduces the final section has an extraordinary quality here – an aural battering ram coming to break down the symphony’s final resistance – or indeed, the doors of the Palace or even the barricades of the Hungarian protesters… The work’s tumultuous finale concludes in this recording in a huge spike of orchestral noise, the bells thankfully being heard within the mix.
Thanks must go to Regis for the reissue of a relative rarity – less so for the bodged movement transitions and total lack of audio enhancement (I guess in this respect you get what you pay for – and this is a budget disc). If you are allergic to the ‘historical recording’ then this CD probably isn’t for you but if you are a Mravinsky or an Eleventh Symphony devotee, this is a recommended release.
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Disc 1: String Quartets No. 1, opus 49; No. 2, opus 68; No. 4, opus 83
Disc 2: String Quartet No. 3, opus 73; Piano Quintet, opus 57[a]; Prelude and Fugue, opus 87/20[b][c]
Disc 3: String Quartets No. 5, opus 92; No. 6, opus 101; No. 7, opus 108; Prelude and Fugue, opus 87/15[b][c]
Disc 4: String Quartets No. 8, opus 110; No. 9, opus 117; No. 11, opus 122; Unfinished String Quartet No. 9, opus 117a (Hulme)[c]
Disc 5: String Quartets No. 10, opus 118; No. 12 , opus 133; No. 13, opus 138
Disc 6: String Quartets No. 14, opus 142; No. 15, opus 144; Preludes and Fugues, opus 87/17 and 87/1[b][c]
[b]Arranged for string quartet by Zakarias Grafilo.
The Alexander String Quartet: Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz (violins), Paul Yarbrough (viola), Sandy Wilson (cello), Roger Woodward (piano)[a].
Foghorn Classics CD1988[Vol. 1], CD1991[Vol. 2]. DDD. TT 3:42:41[Vol. 1] + 3:32:53[Vol. 2].
Recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 9–11 April, 25–27 September, 23–25 October and 11–13 November 2005.
Before turning to matters musical, a warning: Foghorn Classics grace the end of each disc with (wait for it) a recorded foghorn! More accurately, foghorns, plural; different recordings across the six discs. Call me a curmudgeon, but I find it self-indulgent of the label to short-leash their sonic mascot to nip at the heels of chamber masterpieces. It helps little that the foghorns are given their own tracks. Why should music lovers be required to either programme their CD players to omit the final non-musical track for every disc, or else break the mood by leaping for the remote to press Stop before the first foghorn blast? Foghorns may be all well and good for the tweeting classes, but Shostakovich’s audience wants to sit immobile in rapt contemplation after such serious music.
Well, whatever one’s views on the merits of foghorns in the 20th century quartet repertoire, everyone can rest assured that multiple Grammy award winning producer and engineer Judith Sherman has cast the featured musicians in a wonderfully immediate, clear and engaging sound field. These are truly among the best-recorded chamber performances I’ve come across, and not only in comparison with other Shostakovich quartet releases. Also of high quality are Eric Bromberger’s well-written booklet notes, which run to 13–14 pages per volume (not counting musician bios) and supply an interesting mix of historical context and nontechnical musical descriptions of the works.
Chief among the premieres commanding attention here is the Alexander String Quartet’s recording of Russian composer Roman Ledenyov’s completion of an unfinished first movement to what would have become Shostakovich’s Ninth Quartet. Shostakovich wrote this movement between the end of August 1961 and the third or fourth week of June 1962. He abandoned the quartet for unknown reasons; this was a period of poor health and repeated hospitalisation, during which Symphony No. 13 was the only major opus that seemed to instil him with genuine enthusiasm. Not until nearly 2 years later did he return to the genre and create what we now know as his Ninth Quartet, a different species from the unfinished attempt. The discarded movement lay undiscovered until 2003, when it was found in the Shostakovich Archives. Two original manuscripts were unearthed, one an incomplete but worked-out score of 225 bars of the first movement, and the other a rough draft of the complete movement.
The recently published completion occupies around 7½ minutes in this American ensemble’s premiere recording. It’s not difficult to see why Shostakovich chose to proceed no farther down this avenue, as although the score is by no means unworthy of being heard, it is thin on inspiration. The abandoned movement opens with a characteristic interaction between a dunderheaded bass line and a shrill treble, at first taking turns talking at cross purposes, then melding into a rather noodly dialogue. Little wit manages to shine through, and even the unexpected arrival of the traditional tune we know as London Bridge is Falling Down fails to add much sparkle. The main reason the movement feels rather too generic is its heavy reliance on Shostakovich’s trademark monotone three-note cells, recalling their prominent role in his Fourth Symphony, which (perhaps not coincidentally) received its premiere at the end of 1961. Cousins of these cells have far greater motive force in, say, the fourth movement of the Third Quartet, first movement of the completed Ninth Quartet and the Elegy of the Eleventh.
No doubt many theories will emerge for Shostakovich’s deployment here of London Bridge. The reason may be as simple as citing a popular children’s nursery rhyme in a work that may be the one Shostakovich referred to in a 1962 interview when he reported (tongue in cheek?) that he was writing “a children’s piece, about toys and going out to play.” Overall, however, the movement leaves a decidedly bitter taste in the mouth; no childlike innocence here, especially with the note runs that cut like barbed wire through the central iteration of London Bridge.
Intriguingly, the title of Foghorn Classics’ set, Fragments, refers to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the concluding stanza of Part V of which includes not only the quote that prefaces the booklet notes, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” – an apt motto for a Shostakovich quartet cycle – but also the verse, “London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down.” As far as I know, Shostakovich didn’t read his Eliot, so it’s probably best to avoid drawing too many connections, though I note that Eliot’s own annotation of The Waste Land identifies “the present decay of eastern Europe” to be a major theme of Part V (specifically, the Russian Revolution), and according to Michael Tratner, Eliot references London Bridge to represent the anger of the revolutionary masses and the destruction that “will occur if the lower classes deny the value of all high culture: nursery rhymes will be all that will be left.”
Other discs in the set also conclude with premiere recordings, but rather than being original quartet discoveries these are the Alexanders’ first violinist Zakarias Grafilo’s translations from piano to quartet of some of the Preludes and Fugues. Previous arrangers have grafted bleeding chunks of opus 87 onto various host instruments, not always convincingly, but Grafilo’s versions are generally successful. The four he has selected do not appear in numerical order: No. 1 wraps up the final CD, thus ending an oftentimes harrowing journey on a forgiving C major. There is a lightness to this performance of the No. 1 Prelude that I greatly prefer to the Lafayette Quartet’s treacly rendition of Rostislav Dubinsky’s arrangement (Dorian DOR-90163, coupled with Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet and Tchaikovsky’s First). Though in the Fugue the latter’s weightier approach starts out well enough, I find it rather overstays its welcome, unlike the Alexander Quartet’s more gentle manner.
The rocking motifs in the No. 15 Prelude are quite delicious in Grafilo’s string arrangement, though an extra notch of intensity in the Alexanders’ playing would not be amiss. The No. 15 Fugue is spry, overflowing with nervous energy. Dubinsky also set No. 15 for string quartet, but his conception is oranges to Grafilo’s apples, being transposed from Db to Eb, and subjected to a more mercurial allocation of voices to the four instruments. The Lafayettes’ rendition of this on their Dorian release is impressively muscular and rich-toned.
Grafilo’s straightforward conversion of No. 17 to strings imbues it with something of an accordion quality (in fact, an accordion arrangement of No. 17 by Guy Klucevsek appears on his The Heart of the Andes album, but reviewing this in DSCH 18, JD Drury found it missed the mark). One barely recognises the original piano version of No. 20 in string quartet plumage, the Prelude and Fugue both acquiring a greater sense of (humane) religiosity than in the piano original. The hymn-like lyricism we hear in this performance sounds quite unrelated to the recitatives in Shostakovich’s original quartet oeuvre; through his arrangement, Grafilo has contributed an interesting and valid new dimension.
Turning to the quartets proper, on the whole the Alexanders are viable contenders in a quite crowded field. Quartet No. 1 is a particularly strong entry in this set, and establishes the traits that permeate throughout: a tendency to discrete, staccato enunciation, including at times when we expect a smidgen more legato, plus a respectable disdain for exaggerating the dynamic markings in the score. The last movement is especially fine, all four musicians unimpeachable in their handling of the lightning-fast note runs, while letting in an erythematous dose of sunshine.
No. 2 is also technically assured in that demanding first movement, and though some listeners may wish for a more unvarying pedal from second violin, viola and cello in the Recitative sections (proper) in the second movement, no complaints adhere to the clear-voiced portrayal of the protagonist throughout this movement. The Waltz is less deranged than some may prefer, in which case the Shostakovich Quartet would be the place to turn (Alto ALC5002). I find the Alexanders’ last movement occasionally feels rather matter-of-fact, wanting for more expressiveness early on; for example, why downplay the score’s request for the first violin to hush from p to ppp from Fig. 91+3 through Fig. 92 (0:55–1:16)? Then again, pacing throughout is well judged, and the alacrity of the Allegro non troppo section after Fig. 116 (7:02) is an interesting distinguishing feature.
The Alexanders sound right at home in String Quartet No. 3, which enjoys an athletic workout. Throughout Foghorn Classics’ superb recording cleanly delineates each player, but the unison hammer blows that open the third movement almost sound to come from a single instrument, so precise is the ensemble. If pressed to quibble I could say that several other teams have generated a more mysterious atmosphere leading us from the fourth to fifth movements, but no such criticism adheres to the Alexanders’ reading of the closing page, and overall I’d place them in the front rank of modern recordings of this opus.
Sheepishly, I prefer more of a hurdy-gurdy drone in the opening gestures of the Fourth Quartet, as we hear from the Emerson Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon 0289 475 7407 1; reviewed in DSCH 13), though I readily concede that the score backs up the Alexanders’ handling too. Greater transparency of tone via a lighter touch would suit the second movement (listen to the Quatuor Danel in their complete cycle on Fuga Libera 512; reviewed in DSCH 24), but there is commendable propulsive energy in the third, with snappy articulation of its William Tell-ish passages. The Alexanders give full expression to the Jewish character of the last movement, and Grafilo’s tremolos at Fig. 84 (5:34) evoke goose bumps.
The Alexanders also do right by No. 5, with marvellously gravelly bite to their bowing in the first movement. It’s probably not humanly possible for a first violinist to render the near-ultrasonic whine that haunts our path into the second movement as perfectly unvarying as scored (the Sorrel Quartet’s Gina McCormack comes close; Chandos CHAN 10248; reviewed in DSCH 22), but I give credit to Grafilo for a markedly steadier volume than either Andrei Shishlov of the Shostakovich Quartet or Marc Danel of the Quatuor Danel, and for purging all vibrato, unlike the Emersons’ Philip Setzer. The Alexanders’ second movement boasts eerie chills punctuated by warm gusts, while the third is downright thrilling (and at times ear-splitting in its vehemence).
Here too is a creditable No. 6, the first movement of which benefits from an especially jaunty gait. The second movement is carefree and again so well played that the sole spot a retake might come in handy is at Fig. 45+6 (2:28), where the first violin’s quavers are ever so slightly smeared. A far more significant issue is that the third movement is rather rushed through; there is a vein of sadness to be mined here, but it needs more than the 4:51 the Alexanders allot to dig it out; the Sorrels’ succeed better at 6:32 (Chandos CHAN 9741; reviewed in DSCH 13) while the Emersons sidestep it entirely at 3:57. However, as we move through the last movement the Alexanders do depict both wistfulness and a carefree demeanour so rare in Shostakovich and therefore so important to exploit wherever one can find it.
I never cease to be amazed at the remarkable amalgam of eventfulness and economy that is String Quartet No. 7. Its brief lifespan is no impediment to a diversity of interpretations, and the Alexanders present one of the more unorthodox versions on disc. Surprisingly, while their Largo middle movement is faster than most, they take considerably longer over the third movement than any alternatives that I’m familiar with other than the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin (Thorofon CTH 2238; reviewed in DSCH 10). Barring a few instances of slight hesitation in the first movement, I find their viewpoint convincing.
Regrettably, I am less enamoured of the Alexanders’ Eighth Quartet, which is technically very fine indeed (one slipped note at Fig 68+4 [1:08] barely registers, and the recording is possibly the best I’ve heard for opus 110 … and that’s a loooong list!), but nevertheless ends up feeling almost prosaic. Honestly, I can’t put my finger on what exactly I’m missing: it’s not a question of any want of energy, and tempos feel appropriate start to finish. But there is an ineffable something that keeps this performance from moving me as much as I know the work can. The Eighth is sui generis, and responses to it are highly personal, so readers should give this a fair hearing for themselves.
Travelling towards the bleak landscapes of the late quartets, No. 9 is granted a warmer cabin than it sat in during its voyages with the Emersons or the Shostakovich Quartet. The viola and cello both have pivotal solo passages in this work, and both Paul Yarbrough and Sandy Wilson favour a fairly plush sound. While fewer shivers result, especially in the fourth movement, the opus also has many passages that must be powered through, and here the Alexanders’ robust handling pays off.
Quartet No. 10 is a throwback to more conventional (I would even say symphonic) modes of expression for the composer. The walls of sound the Alexanders belt out are appropriate for this construction, and I imagine this to be one of the Shostakovich quartets that sits most naturally with them. It’s not a question of masculine energy, however, as the all-female Sorrel Quartet demonstrate on an aforementioned Chandos disc (CHAN 9741). One infelicitous aspect to Foghorn Classics’ recording is that the third movement comes attacca after the rest that pads the final measure of the second movement; however, this is not what (at least my version of) the score prescribes, and other releases of No. 10 generally give a decent breathing space between these very different movements.
The Alexanders don’t lower their own temperatures for No. 11, so really shouldn’t survive, this close to the cold vacuum of space. But their interpretation is surprisingly effective, with all the quartet’s otherworldly noises sounding every bit as alien as one might expect – props for each and every glissando! Strong rhythms fix our attention on the narrative at all times.
I don’t know a more emotive twelve-tone row than the one that sets String Quartet No. 12 in motion, and the first movement is laced with poignancy. Happily, the Alexanders allow this to manifest itself, granting the movement a finely nuanced performance; it’s never truly drained, but certainly not in rude health. Admirable playing too in the sprawling second movement, notably the crisp articulation of the obsessive five-note motif that runs through it, the first violin’s expressive pizzicato solo in the first Moderato section, and the hushed reprise of the first movement’s main melody in the second Moderato.
By the time we reach No. 13, our narrator is so debilitated that it takes a major effort to move more than a semitone each step. My preference would be for a threadier tone than the Alexanders’, but there’s no denying they convey the searing waves of pain, the incoherent half-conscious ramblings, the hopelessness, and finally the passage into oblivion as well as any of their predecessors.
No major surprises await in No. 14; again the Alexanders have technical proficiency to spare, and, despite a warmer disposition than should work in this opus, they manage to wind up ample tension. Moreover, rarely have we experienced such complete solace at the very end.
I do miss a hollower sound in the first movement of Quartet No. 15, as we hear from the Sorrels (CHAN 10248) and even more so the Danels. Uncharacteristically, the Alexanders also admit a jarring technical flub, specifically in the viola’s shriek at Fig. 26-1 (0:18) in the Serenade. Yes, it’s a small glitch, but this critical passage is the worst possible place for it. To their credit, the Alexanders are downright spooky in the Nocturne, and quite unearthly in the Epilogue. Overall, however, this performance isn’t the best of show.
Rounding out the set, Australian pianist Roger Woodward joins the Alexanders in the Piano Quintet. Woodward has a long pedigree in Shostakovich, having recorded the Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues in 1975 (Celestial Harmonies 14302-2) and the Quintet and Second Piano Trio with the Edinburgh Quartet in 1978 (released in 1980: RCA Red Seal LP RL 25224; deleted). The current performance of the Piano Quintet is especially welcome since that recording has not been reissued on CD. Not that this new recording would be my first recommendation for opus 57, as I find it to be rather a mixed bag, bested by the more emotionally engrossing version from the Sorrel Quartet with pianist Martin Roscoe (Chandos CHAN 10329; reviewed in DSCH 24) and the much darker interpretation by the Talich Quartet and Yakov Kasman (Calliope CAL 9320; reviewed in DSCH 18). The first movement fails to gel, with Woodward sometimes hesitant (I think not by design) and the Alexanders prone to questionable tempo shifts and over-emphatic phrasing. Most damaging, the final note of the movement is showily held nearly twice as long as requested in the score. The second movement fares better, plaintively expressive, but it’s the third movement where the five musicians really click, delivering a high-octane ride with taut suspension. Thereafter we are in good hands, through a fourth movement that wears its heart squarely on its sleeve, to a finale where butter-yellow tones predominate (though so does a little too much rubato for my liking).
Considered as a whole, both volumes of Fragments are a highly desirable acquisition, and the Alexanders deserve high praise for their initiative in securing the premiere recording of the Unfinished Ninth, as well as the attention they have clearly invested throughout this massive undertaking.
W. Mark Roberts