CD Reviews 42

Piano Concerto no 1, opus 35, Jurowski, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Helmchen 

Piano Quintet, opus 57, Helmchen, Schoeman, Gellev & Zemtsov

Piano Concerto no. 2, opus 102, Jurowski, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Helmchen, Beniston

Symphony No 13, Babi Yar, opus 113, Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

042_petrenko /

Symphony No 13, opus 113, Babi Yar
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko (conductor); Alexander Vinogradov, bass; Men’s Voices of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and the Huddersfield Choral Society.
DDD. TT: 59:39
Recorded in Liverpool Philharmonic
Hall, 27-29 September 2013
Naxos 8.573218 / TT: 59:39

This glowing performance of Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony provides a fitting capstone to Vasily Petrenko’s critically acclaimed account of the complete cycle. In this, the eleventh and final release of the Naxos series, the conductor’s vision, individuality, and musical insight, which have characterised the best of the recordings, are powerfully expressed. The “Babi Yar” symphony, completed in 1962 and setting texts by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, raises a defiant fist against Soviet anti-Semitism and other worldly evils, in a musical language as raw and relentless as ever emerged from the composer’s imagination. The emotional engagement of all of the forces involved in this performance—
orchestra, bass soloist, and male chorus—is fierce, unwavering, and worthy of the score.

Bass soloist Alexander Vinogradov is a rare find. Not only is he blessed with the deep resonant tones and commanding authority the part calls for, he also captures its wide range of emotions: the defiance and confrontation of the opening “Babi Yar” setting; the caustic joviality of “Humour”; the compassionate strains of “At the Store.” The Huddersfield Choral Society more than compensates for its Anglo-Saxon inflected Russian with a performance that is crisp, passionate, and fervently attuned to every nuance in the music. Petrenko’s attention to the minutest details of the score is matched by his unified concept of the work. He also brings a freshness and daring to this unforgettable interpretation.

Petrenko’s preference for strong contrasts lends itself to one of the standout features of this recording, and one that is unique to it: the pronounced upshift in tempo in the opening “Babi Yar” movement upon the “oom-pah” choral entry of the second subject, “Blood flows, running over the floors.” The surge injects a sneering contempt to the proceedings, and in doing so, elevates the level of tension in the entire movement. The impact of the surrounding slow sections is thus increased, their grandeur and dignity uncompromised. Petrenko achieves the same effect on a larger scale with a much brisker than usual pace in the second movement, “Humour,” the intense undercurrent of which permeates the two slow movements that follow. The crescendos in those two movements release multiple layers of tension.

As in previous instalments, Petrenko establishes polar opposites in the delivery of climactic episodes. In the opening movement, note the achingly fragile tones with which Vinogradov renders the Anna Frank section, turning this passage (“to embrace tenderly in a dark room”) into a heartbreaking lead-in to the explosive orchestral climax that follows. The effect is devastating. The expressions of horror and barbarity in Yevtushenko’s verses are summarised in a monumental crescendo, only to be revisited and consummated in the movement’s final passages.

The teamwork among soloist, chorus, and orchestra shines in the dizzying pace of “Humour.” The ideas burst forth with near-raucous frenzy: the quote from the song “MacPherson’s Farewell” from the wartime setting of English poets; the volatile orchestral exclamations at the words “he would go to his execution”; the stormy brass march that
follows. If Petrenko sought to capture the release of pent up resentments on Shostakovich’s part, he certainly succeeded. The accents throughout are sharp and forceful, yet the tempi remain malleable and reactive to the text. The music comes to a stunning pause at the exchange of the words “i yurok” between bass and chorus, one of Vinogradov’s many personal touches. The trombonist’s derisive slides conspicuously lend themselves to the sneering of the score.

Petrenko elicits a prayer-like reverence in “At the Store”—similar to the kind he has invoked in other cantilena sections throughout the cycle. Here, the choral passages resemble Russian liturgical chant and summon a mood of deeply affecting solemnity. Vinogradov makes a compassionate case for the women of Russia in his ardently
delivered arioso. He achieves particular poignancy with the words “They have endured everything; They will endure everything,” where the haunting sighs of string glissandi meld seamlessly with the soloist in a passage of spellbinding delicacy. Once again, the employment of polar opposites gives rise to another memorable climax.

Petrenko’s attention to atmosphere and instrumental detail comes to the fore in “Fears.” Here the long wandering tuba solo leads to a chilling invocation produced by soft strokes on the tam-tam, hairpin crescendos on the bass drum, and ghostly trills in the strings. In the ambiance so created, Vinogradov, singing his extended arioso, holds the line admirably.

In the final movement, “A Career,” with its irony and ideological conviction, Vinogradov again demonstrates his versatility with a mixture of Falstaffian gusto and righteous assertion. The peerless playing delivered by the Liverpool musicians, particularly by the soloists, is again evidenced by their robust interpretation of the fugue in the final movement.

Petrenko thus concludes his fiveyear survey of the Shostakovich cycle with a brilliant rendition. Naxos’s superb sound engineering provides an intimate ambiance with close, judiciously placed microphones and satisfying overall balance. The original version of the texts, as used in the performance, appear in English and phonetic Russian, but unfortunately without indication as to how the verses are divided between soloist and chorus. The typically well-informed and informative liner notes by Richard Whitehouse elaborate on the bureaucratic intrigues surrounding the premiere of “Babi Yar,” as well as on the musical and political ramifications of each movement.

Louis Blois

042_jurowski /

Piano Concerto no 1, opus 35[a]; Piano Concerto no. 2, opus 102[b]; Piano
Quintet, opus 57[c]
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, conductor [a,b]; Martin Helmchen, piano [a,b,c]; Paul Beniston, trumpet [b]; Pieter Schoeman & Vesselin Gellev, violins[c]; Alexander Zemtsov (viola)[c]; Kristina Blaumane, cello[c].
Recorded at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 23 April 2008 (live) [a]; 25 April 2009 (live)[b]; Henry Wood Hall, London, 24–25 June 2010
LPO 0053 / TT: 75:49

Coupling Shostakovich’s two piano concertos is pretty much a no-brainer, but while their forty or so minutes might have satisfied in LP days, CDs need a “filler”—though with around half an hour spare, that hardly seems the right word. Among the most successful of the many solutions is the Rachmaninovian mini-concerto, “The Assault on the Red Hill,” from the film The Unforgettable Year 1919, as on Dmitri Alexeyev’s multiply re-issued recording. Some bring other composers’ concertos, e.g., Shchedrin’s Fifth from Mark-Andre Hamelin on Hyperion, or Shostakovich’s non-concerto works, e.g., the Violin Sonata from Isabella Faust and Alexander Melnikov (reviewed in DSCH 37). Various reissues of the composer’s own recording come with permutations of solo pieces or chamber music, though, as far as I can see, not the Piano Quintet with the Beethovens. Nevertheless, this isn’t the first time for this coupling: pianist Yefim Bronfman and trumpeter Thomas Stevens were accompanied by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen on a 1999 Sony disc (SK 60677).

The more I listen to the First Piano Concerto, the more I think it a key Shostakovich work, and the more I admire anyone who takes it on. Whatever its technical challenges, it is a fiendish work interpretatively: finding the fine balance between comedy and horror, fear and farce has defeated more than a few. And to make things worse, the perception of it as a “light” work has helped propel it into the composer’s “hit parade.” Anyone essaying the work sees spread before them a vast field of earlier rivals.

Nobody wants a reputation as a sourpuss or to be thought to have missed the joke, and so there is a temptation to overplay things: “See—I’m really witty: I get the joke!” But Shostakovich has already pitched the gag right on the edge of something far darker. As he said of The Nose, “Although the action is comic, the music is not…[Gogol] does not ‘crack jokes’ and the music also tries to avoid ‘jokes.’” So with the concerto, “playing the jokes” pushes it over the edge into over-statement and self-parody. Alas, too many performers do just that (perhaps they also want to differentiate themselves from other performers). Their recordings, on a first listen, are at least adequate, but increasingly seem forced: a series of hit-the-gas/slam-on-the-brakes/handbrake-turn moments distort the flow and make the humour wearyingly one-dimensional.

Sadly, pianist Martin Helmchen isn’t immune from this approach: the opening “sighing” motif is over-emoted until Jurowski and the orchestra bring things back into perspective. But the pattern has been set: whenever the soloist gets a chance, he eagerly shows off his sensitivity by pulling and pushing the music out of shape. That’s not to say that the accompaniment is rigid or inexpressive; the ritardando into the coda is lovely, but Helmchen takes this as a cue to keep his foot on the brake, risking paralysis. With the orchestra opening the lento, things move along nicely (even perhaps a little too cursorily?) until…well, you get the idea. Trumpeter Paul Benston (unfairly, credited only in the booklet) steps up for his solo with a very strong mute to produce a beautifully controlled, almost cornet-like, sound. With outstanding moments such as this, the performance as a whole becomes frustrating, no more than in the finale where Helmchen’s grotesqueries seem to have infected everyone and only the hurly-burly sections survive intact.

The two concertos were recorded live, almost exactly a year apart and, whatever happened in between times, the second is infinitely preferable: even when Helmchen is left to his own devices, he is far less wayward and jerky, and with the orchestra as strong as they had been in the first, this is a recommendable performance.

Chronologically misplaced, the “filler” is the Piano Quintet, with Helmchen accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s section leaders. Though not a regular quartet, their familiarity with each other pays off handsomely, and the balance is lovely. Helmchen also slips obligingly into the ensemble, and there’s a reassuring feeling that nothing untoward is going to happen. It is a very “classical” reading, avoiding some of the darkness that could be brought to bear, though the fugue opens with an impressive hollowness and rises to a scary wiriness. Similarly the scherzo isn’t overly violent.

The Quintet was recorded in the studio, on the same day as the Second Concerto, and Schoeman would take his place as the orchestra’s leader that evening. But just as the Concerto does not suffer from tiredness, so there is no particular sense of the performers holding back in the Quintet.

The concertos are recorded live, though you’d hardly know it (only a faint stray cough from high up in the gods reminded me, and there’s some over-enthusiastic pedal-thumping in the final of op. 102).

So, an uneven disc, but unless the First Concerto is your only concern, it’s certainly worth considering.

John Riley