CD Reviews 39
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Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad), opus 60
Vasily Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
Recorded at Liverpool Hall, England, 01–03 June 2012
DDD, TT: 79:15
An embarrassment of riches aptly describes the two ongoing cycles of the Shostakovich symphonies by Valery Gergiev and Vasily Petrenko. In their simultaneous releases of the Leningrad Symphony, the riches are underscored, in as much as both Russian-born conductors were trained in the city of the symphony’s namesake, a fact that can explain their deep connection to the music and two powerful yet distinct interpretations. Gergiev’s weightier interpretation stands in contrast to Petrenko’s more rhythmically driven account. For Gergiev, the Leningrad is the fourth instalment of his second survey of the Shostakovich symphonies, this time with the Mariinsky Orchestra under that ensemble’s own label. The first survey appeared within the last decade on the Philips label with the combined Kirov and Rotterdam Orchestras. Following their individual releases, numbers 5–9 were released as a package (Philips 470 841-2, reviewed in DSCH 24). For Petrenko, it is the eighth entry in his continuing Naxos cycle with the Liverpool Philharmonic, which have been reviewed passim in the Journal.
Among the works in the Shostakovich catalogue, the Leningrad, has been subjected to the greatest shift in public perception. Before the tidal wave of revisionism came to engulf his music, its place in 20th century music had been established: as an indelible symbol of the war years, as an ear-witness to the 900-day siege of Leningrad, as a monument to those who perished in the Great Patriotic War. It was a work that secured the composer’s reputation as a central figure in Russian music and as a firmly entrenched ally of the Soviet state. Then, with the posthumous publication of Testimony, almost everything that was understood about Shostakovich in the West was turned on its head, including and most prominently, the views on the Seventh Symphony, as reflected in this oft-quoted passage (Testimony, p. 156), presumably in Shostakovich’s own words: “…it’s not about Leningrad under siege, it’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.”
The notion is further reinforced by the comments of Flora Litvinova in A Life Remembered (p. 159): “…[Shostakovich] told me straight out that the Seventh Symphony, and for that matter the Fifth Symphony as well, were not just about Fascism, but about our system, or any form of totalitarian regime.”
At once, the entire work, and the first movement in particular, with what had been interpreted to be a graphic portrayal of the Nazi assault on the city, took on the layered complexion that would become the trademark of Shostakovich’s music. Early opinions like that of Virgil Thomson’s, that the Leningrad was “written for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted”, no longer seemed applicable, as the work yielded to the renewed scrutiny of both musician and audience. It came to convey a much broader, more universal set of ideas than merely the victory of good over evil. The question is how, and even whether, performance practice has changed, if at all, of this and other Shostakovich works in the presence of this new understanding. Are these multiple layers of meaning capable of being embodied in performance? Or is that multiplicity merely notional, residing only in the ear of the listener?
At least one recent performance can plausibly be placed in the former category. In my review (DSCH 32) of Petrenko’s Naxos recording of the Fifth Symphony, I mentioned a number of features that pointed to perhaps the most politicised interpretation of that symphony’s final pages, a portion of the score that joins the opening movement of the Leningrad as the two highest profile enigmas in the Shostakovich catalogue. In that review I found the fading to inaudibility of the lyrical passage immediately preceding the coda, and the belligerently defiant tone and protracted tempo of the coda itself, to have strong resonances with the Testimony reading of ‘forced rejoicing’. It can be argued that in the current release, Petrenko’s interpretation once again takes on revisionist complexion.
Gergiev and Petrenko are no doubt intimately acquainted with the vintage performances of the Leningrad by Kondrashin, Mravinsky, and Svetlanov. The interpretations by the two younger conductors have their points of connection with those of their forebears, yet do not share their monolithically driven quality, a common characteristic of these Soviet era performances.
One of the significant differences between Gergiev’s and Petrenko’s interpretations is the manner in which the development section, i.e., the invasion sequence, of the first movement is handled. Gergiev markedly steps up the tempo and level of tension at the entry of the snare drum, underlining a sudden turn of mood at the onset of the invasion theme. In the Petrenko, the contrast in mood and events at this juncture is minimalized, not only by the continuity of tempo, but by the relaxed tone of the woodwind solos in the first utterances of the theme. This is not such an unusual feature. What does call attention to itself is how long into the movement Petrenko withholds an aggressive posture. It emerges only upon the entrance of the strings in the seventh repetition (12:06), exactly halfway through the invasion theme’s twelve repetitions. One may entertain thoughts of an extramusical agenda being carried out here. It is as if, consistent with the statement from Testimony, the destruction of Leningrad is being portrayed in two evenly divided parts: Stalin’s measured rise to power from within; and its being finished off by Hitler’s invasion from without. Listeners will make their own decisions.
Petrenko’s approach does not prevent him, in the course of the last six repetitions, from building to a rousing, mightily sustained crescendo. Still, what is most moving in his performance arrives after the snare drum’s tattoo has stopped its repetitions, in the passage that forms the crown of the invasion sequence. At this culminating moment Petrenko calls upon the full resources of the Liverpool band, applies a series of deeply moving ritardandi, and brings the music to a shattering climax, stunning in its cumulative power.
The lyrical warmth that Gergiev elicits in the outer sections of the same movement, from both strings and woodwinds, achieves the right balance of pastoral tranquillity and stoic dignity. In the stepped-up tempo of the invasion sequence, Gergiev presses forward with the steely determination of his Soviet predecessors. Compare the taut lines of his wind soloists, especially in the clarinet and oboe duet in the sixth repetition, to the more relaxed posture of Petrenko’s soloists, as well as the more volatile salvos of his percussion, prominent in the tenth repetition, leading to a stirring crescendo. In the movement’s final section the bassoon solo is notable in taking on the mournful quality that one finds throughout Gergiev’s reading.
Overall, Gergiev’s rendering possesses a weightier feel than that of Petrenko’s, whose nimble eloquence is, just the same, infused with considerable passion. If the outer sections of the second movement represent the prevailing mood of the city under siege, kind of a dark bluesy aura of guarded expectation tempered with an occasional flicker of hope, Petrenko captures it perfectly. The principal solos for oboe and bass clarinet convey a tone of resilience in their sinewy lines. The music moves along in complete accordance with the composer’s own description of the movement as a “lyric intermezzo”.
Both conductors plunge full-fisted into the agitated central section, with Petrenko steering the course with slightly snappier rhythms. Yet it is Gergiev whose emotional focus bears more riches. With a broader, more contemplative pace, he finds the pathos and the darker hues that Petrenko overlooks in the outer sections. Here, Gergiev articulates every phrase, every note, with reverent attention. Even the fluttering flute figures in the final bars vibrate with uncommon vitality. He elicits from his oboist and bass clarinettist an aura of deeply felt consolation, as if the dead are being mourned and the wounded nurtured.
Both conductors passionately embrace the third movement’s haunting nobility, and in doing so, find the expressive core of the symphony. The unison string theme of the opening bars glows majestically in the Petrenko, in contrast to the more austere character imparted by Gergiev. The agitated central section is brought to a stirring crescendo in each rendition and is punctuated by a memorably resonant cymbal crash in the Gergiev. While Petrenko maintains a low-key throughout the outer parts, Gergiev, as in the previous movement, teases out more emotional texture by way of greater contrast. In his rendition, the prominent flute duet casts a more hopeful light on the meditative proceedings, clears the palate, so to speak, with a renewed yearning for redemption. The wistful string theme that follows becomes all the more poignant.
In the finale both conductors summon, to rousing effect, the powerful driving force and titanic sense of struggle the music calls for in chasing after the coda’s hard-won victory. While Gergiev’s version again carries more gravitas, Petrenko propels the music with more accentuated rhythms, and gives the “snap” pizzicatos, which are almost buried in the Gergiev recording, crackling Bartókian whacks.
These are two strong performances with much to recommend them. Sonics are superb in each, with an especially sumptuous spatial clarity in the Naxos recording. Some listeners may find distracting, others inspiring, Gergiev’s occasionally audible grunts at the podium. Richard Whitehouse continues his series of excellent detail-rich liner notes for Naxos, which is followed by a brief interview with Petrenko by Jeremy Siepmann. Leonid Gakkel’s frames his very fine essay ‘My ‘Seventh’ Is With Me’ in the Mariinsky release with the perspectives of a number of Russian poets on the Leningrad.
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I recently ‘refreshed’ my copies of Rozhdestvensky’s orchestral recordings, including the symphonies and many other popular, and lesser-known pieces, thanks to a chunky Japanese import – and it was worth every Yen. In re-listening to Rozhdestvensky’s rendition of the Eighth Symphony with the predictably unpredictable USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra (CD re-releases of the original 1983 vinyl pressing) I was struck not only by the weight and intensity of this interpretation, but also by the manner in which the studio recording is endowed with a capaciousness – in terms of acoustics (probably partially, if not wholly electronically added) –and in terms of the crude, yet mind-blowing violent energy that targets the listener’s consciousness and, in my erstwhile young, impressionable mind, floods it with the most barbaric, most unbearably terrible musical language in the repertoire. Warts and all, this oh-so-Soviet recording will always be at hand – along with Kondrashin’s stupendous (but extremely different, more polished) rendering with the Moscow Philharmonic and Mravinsky – notably the last, colossal recording from 1982.
So, the opportunity to savour another Rozhdestvensky rendition of Shostakovich’s opus 65 is not to be squandered! The London Philharmonic/BBC recording is from 1983 and features radically different, Western forces in a markedly different environment compared to its Russian counterparts.
The opening bars’ weight and gravity have an English timbral ‘warmth’ that the USSR orchestra certainly does not, and the development of the opening section’s string statements and counter-statements lead to a sul tasto passage [at figure 1] whose tempo and expressiveness are considerably restrained in comparison to the above versions. Notwithstanding these differences, Rozhdestvensky builds the foundations for the 25-minute movement stealthily and skilfully, deploying an anxiety and ambiguity that fuse, forming a most convincing opening to the piece.
There are occasional blemishes of ensemble, for example, the opening unintentional half-beat and some slight fragility in the Poco piu mosso passage  but on the whole the manner in which the strings cry out and are heard, and the extraordinarily intensity of this work’s string-wind dialogue is sustained, through to the movement’s initial, inevitable climax , exemplifies the joy of this disc. Soon after this passage Rozhdestvensky’s restrained tempo may perhaps project a certain indecisiveness, but the brass and percussion soon bring a renewed drive, as the first of the symphonic abysses looms and growls until the screaming woodwind, now fff–ffff are guillotined into the fast-paced agitation of the Allegro non troppo . This passage’s sense of inevitability is well captured here, although the sheer frenzy obtained by Kondrashin and his troops is even more diabolic.
Sadly, the sound quality in the first movement does little for the BBC’s reputation: lumpy, at times brittle and ‘fluttery’ (a classic analogue tape defect) and bedevilled with gross saturation at the high-volume points – hear the horns around this section as they lead into the next tutti.
Rozhdestvensky’s tempo occasionally slackens, a good example being a sudden drop [just after 28]: his baton gestures must have been a sight for sore eyes as he quickly claws the full orchestra back to ensemble; there are no signs of second takes or inter-cuttings between studio sessions and so on. See below, however for some more welcome audio oddities …
The gargantuan tutti at  is carried off quite magnificently by the assembled forces, and although smoke was probably rising from the tape-based recording machines by this time, only the most obstinate of audiophiles would reject this edition’s sheer weight and excitement, notwithstanding its sinusoidal defects.
The cor anglais solo is, perversely, taken a mite too quickly, depriving it of any hinted-at fragility that would have done justice to a technically and interpretatively excellent player. This orchestra was, after all, brought up on a diet of Vaughan Williams – the Englishman’s Fourth, and to an extent Sixth symphonies being not so far a cry from this Russian’s Eighth.
Finally the first movement drifts to its haltering conclusion, a solo trumpet hinting, almost ethereally, at the anguish to come.
Rozhdestvensky’s tempo in the second movement Allegretto lacks the drive of his ‘Ministry’ recording, heavy tramping rather than forceful stomping , but the LPO’s superlative woodwind successfully underpin the entire central section of this relatively short movement and provide a platform from which to launch the anticipatory brass proclamations at  and the major-chord progression that follows, tutti, at . This, before the atmosphere turns through grey, to black and through to the massive fist-hammering moment at  leading to the militaristic side-drum versus upper strings versus brass ‘pre-battle’ sequence, magnificently played by the LPO, taut and ready to snap under Rozhdestvensky’s fierce direction. The sardonic nature of the closing bars of this, one of Shostakovich’s most blatant ‘bridging movements’ isn’t lost on the ensemble although Why? Oh Why? do so many conductors not respect the quaver pause before the final 3 timpani-led quavers?! A word again about the audio once more: there is a pretty horrible edit at 03’10” more, I suspect, to repair tape damage than to cut to a different take, and by the end of the movement a ‘tape weave effect’ lends an unpleasant swirling effect to the upper registers.
Happily, the rest of the symphony was clearly recorded on one of the BBC’s less threadbare tape machines: from the first note a ‘veil’ has been lifted and aural dynamics restored. And not before time, given the nature of the third, shrieking, jackbooting movement, brilliantly executed once more in a performance that bears a striking resemblance to the contemporaneous Mravinsky recording mentioned earlier in this review.
Rozhdestvensky is measured in the opening sections of the third movement, aided considerably by the highly impressive marcatissimo violas – massively exposed, doggedly scything through the tension as the lower strings, flutes, clarinets and trumpet join to punctuate the air. The conductor’s decision to temper the first 40 bars or so compared even to his own Soviet rendition is vindicated as the momentum and the tumult grows irrevocably, notably through the second marcatissimo at  (strings, woodwind, ff). The (in)famous trumpet solo here, so savagely rendered by Kondrashin’s soloist is quite stupendous in this London performance: shrill but rounded, harsh but passionate, blatant but anticipatory. Likewise the muted trombones at  the timpani at  and, finally, the sublimely-controlled build to the movement’s final sfff that segues into the fourth movement. So, so Russian – all this, a stone’s throw from the River Thames!
What makes Rozhdestvensky’s rendition so special is his ability to conceive, and then to control balance and dynamics: not only from bar to bar, but from section to section, movement to movement, in a way that is far less in evidence with his USSR orchestral forces. No passage demonstrates this better than the extended string elegy [10 bars before 114], where textures are pared down to the barest and where the second violins appear as some mournful being, wandering, subdued, abandoned. This movement can represent a challenge, such is its stark contrast with all that has gone before and faced with the sheer scale of Shostakovich’s mournful melodiousness.
Again the woodwind perform brilliantly in the final movement – to underestimate the key role they play in this monumental, and often ferocious work, is a grave affair. This movement typifies the contrasting textures with which Shostakovich fashions this symphony, appeasing the work’s underlying conflicts – war and peace, conflict and harmony, brutality and humanity.
The final proclamation of the Manfred statement, [3 bars after 160] leads into a finale and coda steeped in uncertain resolution, and although there are some slightly weary moments towards the end, both conductor and orchestra provide a fittingly convincing close to the piece.
Very little audience noise is heard through the performance and ‘decent’ pauses are left between movements that are meant to be separated. Despite the defects of a 30 year-old recording this discs value lies in the understanding and empathy that Rozhdestvensky brings to what must have been a memorable occasion ion London’s Royal Festival Hall.
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Fantasy and Farewell: Music for Viola and Orchestra
Michael McLean: Suite for Viola and Orchestra[a]; Schumann: Märchenbilder, opus 113 (arr. for viola and orchestra by Michael McLean)[a]; Shostakovich: Sonata for Viola and Piano, opus 147 (arr. for viola, strings and celesta by Vladimir Mendelssohn)
Michael Francis, London Symphony Orchestra, Roger Myers (viola).
Delos DE 3441. DDD. TT 66:53.
Recorded in Abbey Road Studios, London, 3–5 January 2012.
By my count, this new Delos release is already the fourth appearance on disc of Romanian violist/composer Vladimir Mendelssohn’s reimagining of Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata. The work invites translation to different tongues, with the original version for viola and piano itself being a chimera that incorporates grafts from earlier works by Shostakovich (most obviously The Gamblers, but also the Suite for Two Pianos and snippets from the symphonies, as detailed inDSCH 26, p 20) as well as other pens (prominently, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and the Russian OrthodoxKontakion).
I concur with the opinion expressed by Richard Pleak, in his review of a recording of Daniil Shafran’s arrangement of the Viola Sonata for cello and piano (Black Box BBM1032; DSCH 18), that the cello cannot do justice to the string role here, which Shostakovich skilfully scripted to capitalise on the unique range and timbre of the viola. Wiser for casting directors to keep the viola as the protagonist, as has Mendelssohn in his 1991 arrangement.
That said, Mendelssohn does more than simply transfer the piano’s voice to the string orchestra; he frequently hands them the viola’s line, and at times passes the piano’s narrative to the viola, fundamentally altering the dialogue of the work as a whole. The bleak expanse of the first movement feels no more hospitable in Mendelssohn’s expanded version, thanks to effective use of eerie divided strings. Even the occasional entries of the lower strings en masse add only weight, not warmth. Mendelssohn’s arrangement of the second movement is essentially blind to the instrumentation in The Gamblers, shriller, rendering its humour far more acerbic. Note how the celesta enhances the spectral quality of the movement’s closing statements. The third movement gains an orchestral gravitas that some may consider this music was never intended to support. While the communing strings certainly do shear away some of its sense of isolation, the harmonics shimmering off the multiple instruments heighten the movement’s otherworldly ambience.
Australian-American violist Roger Myers and his supporting team from the LSO under Michael Francis put in a worthy performance, overall more gentle than any of the three competing versions currently available: Yuri Bashmet with Gidon Kremer leading his Kremerata Baltica (Deutsche Grammophon 477 6196), Gilad Karni with Ariel Zuckermann directing the Zürcher Kammerorchester (Sony 8869-7894552), and, in the premiere recording, Mendelssohn himself with Lev Markiz conducting the Nieuw Sinfonietta of Amsterdam (Globe 5093). On paper one would expect the Bashmet–Kremer version to be unbeatable, and indeed it does boast the widest extremes of expression, especially violence. I don’t consider that this warrants an automatic preference for the Bashmet–Kremer account; this close to the grave, are such reserves of power realistic? Bashmet plays looser with rhythm than Myers, Karni or Mendelssohn, but again it’s debatable whether this benefits the performance as a whole.
In the Karni–Zuckermann account, the Zürcher Kammerorchester play with spectacular cohesion, but overall they sound too velvety for the material, an impression heightened by the excessively reverberant acoustics of Sony’s 2010 studio recording. Nevertheless, Karni’s contribution is technically as impressive as those of Bashmet and Mendelssohn, and he gets his notes out more effortlessly than Myers. Karni’s intentional frailty in the last movement is especially moving.
If I could choose only one version of this orchestrated Viola Sonata, though, I’d have to vote for Mendelssohn–Markiz. They and the Nieuw Sinfonietta are admirable for portraying the most world-weary first movement, which clocks in at 11:22, next to which Myers–Francis’ 10:50 is downright sprightly. Actually, the defeated mood is more a matter of intonation than dragging of heels – indeed, the Mendelssohn–Markiz first movement is actually swifter than either Bashmet–Kremer (11:41) or Karni–Zuckermann (11:46). Compared with the alternatives, Mendelssohn–Markiz also offer cheekier wit in the second movement, and transmit more complete exhaustion in the third despite traversing it much more quickly than the other teams.
Appearing on the present Delos disc in its first recording is Los Angeles-based composer Michael McLean’s Suite for Viola and Orchestra (technically, just strings, flute, and French horn), completed in 2008. Myers commissioned this original work in memory of his late mother, Leone Stredwick, an accomplished concert pianist with a successful solo career during the 1950s and ‘60s. In unguarded and genuinely moving booklet notes, Myers describes the inspiration for the piece and the importance it holds for him. The three-movement suite is memorable mainly for its virtuosity and its attractive textures; one can infer from McLean’s own contribution to Delos’ booklet that his primary concern was not the invention and development of assertive themes. Situated somewhere between Copland and Nyman without sounding derivative of any particular predecessor, the music is refreshingly honest and free of artifice, instantly accessible, flowing and unapologetically lyrical. The opening movement, styled Prelude, is as yearning as the Prelude of Vaughan Williams’ Suite for Viola and Orchestra, but less bucolic, with more forward flight. If thePassacaglia from Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto were dismantled then reassembled by Korngold it might come out close to the suite’s second movement. McLean describes his Passacaglia as “an ongoing dialogue between viola and orchestra, working through – in a symbolic way – the various challenges of life, love and loss.” Testament to a faith alien to Shostakovich, Myers’ commission resolves these challenges with optimism. The last movement deploys the chorale Befiehl du deine Wege (Entrust your way) from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (No. 44 in the New Bach Edition), music deeply meaningful to Myers and his mother. The 19-minute-long suite concludes radiantly. Unsurprisingly, the performance is fully committed, and I don’t see how it could be improved upon.
Also receiving its recording premiere here is McLean’s arrangement for viola and orchestra of Schumann’s Märchenbilder [Fairy Tale Pictures], originally for viola and piano. McLean’s lush orchestration is perfectly suited to the subject matter, with the winds used especially well to conjure up a fairy-tale atmosphere. This arrangement deserves to be performed widely and often.
The disc ends with Shostakovich, placing Märchenbilder in the middle, so the album title’s ‘Fantasy’ is framed by ‘Farewell’ – “two compositions that deal in entirely different ways with the theme of human mortality,” to quote the preface to the booklet notes. Great in theory, but if one listens straight through, the Shostakovich utterly overwhelms the preceding works. Far better to audition them separately.
All three competing releases offer couplings that fall more squarely within the comfort zone (I should say, discomfort zone) of the stereotypical Shostakovich aficionado. On Deutsche Grammophon, Kremer serves as violinist and director in the lacerating premiere recording of Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata arranged for violin, percussion and string orchestra by Michail Zinman and Andrei Pushkarev. If anything, this hallucinatory reworking of the original score is even more impressive than Mendelssohn’s Viola Sonata arrangement. The climax of the last movement is nothing short of aural napalm. This absolutely needs to be on the shelf of any serious Shostakovich collector.
Sony partners the Viola Sonata orchestration with Israeli composer Gideon Lewensohn’s ViolAlive for viola, percussion and 19 solo string players. The revised version was first performed by Gilad Karni in 2006. In this musical theatre project, the musicians are intended to be grouped at different locations on the stage and move around during play, the relationship between the musicians and their gestures within the musical space being significant. Obviously, this theatrical dimension of the work is lost on CD, but it still makes for a fascinating musical experience, Schnittke-esque in its polystylism but even pricklier than Schnittke’s most challenging contributions.
The coupling on the Globe disc is a solid account by Lev Markiz and the Nieuw Sinfonietta of Barshai’s ubiquitous chamber orchestration of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 3.
Returning to the release under consideration, Delos’ Abbey Road recording is rich and detailed, and though we do hear some inhalations and other extra-musical noises due to close miking, these are generally unobtrusive (note too that both works from Bashmet–Kremer are live concert recordings from 2005, with attendant hall noises, and the Mendelssohn–Markiz recording reports so many extraneous sounds that at times it’s like listening over a bowl of Rice Krispies). Overall, Fantasy and Farewell is a highly worthwhile production, which may stimulate an interest in Shostakovich among listeners initially attracted by the more approachable McLean pieces, not to mention introducing these heartfelt new works to Shostakovich’s core constituency.
W. Mark Roberts