CD Reviews 46


Cello Sonata, opus 40, arr. for flute and piano by Paul Lustig Dunkel

Piano Quintet, opus 57

24 Preludes and Fugues, opus 87

Lustig Dunkel; Quatre visions pour quatre flutistes

Matthews; Piano Quintet, opus 92*

Moreno; Episodes for Flute and Percussion

Muskal; Sof, Mechanofin

Shchedrin; The Left-Hander

Zaderatsky; 24 Preludes and Fugues

*World premiere recording /

Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues
24 Preludes and Fugues, opus 87
Craig Sheppard (piano)
Roméo Records 7315-6
TT: 141:35 (63:34 + 78:01)
Compiled from recordings of two concerts at the Meany Theatre Seattle, April 2015

About a dozen years have passed since the appearance of the last complete recording of Shostakovich’s op. 87. The present distinguished performance, by pianist Craig Sheppard, brings the total number of complete renderings of the work to 17, prompting me to briefly survey the available CDs and reevaluate the various recordings of this bountiful asterpiece. Brief discographic details appear in Figure 1.

For more than a dozen years Tatiana Nikolaeva’s 1962 premiere recording stood as the only complete cycle in the catalogue. This earliest version—the only one in monophonic sound—also stands as the most technically assured of her four recordings. The three digital versions that followed—in 1987, 1990, and 1992 (the latter on DVD)—feature a substantial rethinking of some of the individual numbers. In all four, we find the same bold, if generally blunt, air of authority that, along with their obvious historical importance, secures their place in the catalogue. The singular status of that 1962 version was not challenged until a few months before Shostakovich’s death in 1975, by Roger Woodward’s notoriously fast-paced account. It was speculated at the time, and since, that his unnaturally rushed tempos were an accommodation to having the cycle fit onto two LPs, and it thus remains something of a curiosity. The pathways to fresh possibilities did not open up until a full 16 years later, when Marios Papadopoulos took the music world by storm with his highly commended 1991 version. Boris Petrushansky further broadened the scope of possibilities with a robust, carefully thought-out interpretation in 1994. In 1999 Vladimir Ashkenazy’s landmark playing set a standard of dignity and nobility not before or since surpassed. Konstantin Scherbakov’s robustly architectural approach, with its many stirring moments, followed one year later.

Between 2007 and 2010 all of seven complete recordings appeared, yielding greatly varying interpretations. Kori Bond’s romanticised vision (2008) broke new ground, as did Caroline Weichert’s seductively atmospheric conception (2007). David Jalbert’s tactile finesse brought out as sensuous a surface of these pieces as we are likely to hear, while Muza Rubackytė’s version (2007) numbers among the most graceful. Alexander Melnikov (2010) takes the music on a grandly conceived inner journey, while the depth of experience Colin Stone (2010) brings to the work delivers a compelling moment-by-moment immediacy. There is so much imagination and flexibility embodied in this score that it is not possible for a single performer to lay bare all of its secrets or exhaust all of its possibilities.

Joining now this distinguished company is the American-born Craig Sheppard, whose five-decade career has been widely celebrated. Since 2014, Sheppard has been performing the complete op. 87 in concerts to international acclaim. He has clearly developed a personal relationship with the music, as one may infer from the descriptions provided in his comprehensive 16-page commentary which accompanies the CD, with revealing comparisons, personal observations, and salient technical details, including the following examples: “Fugue in F-sharp major (Adagio in 2/4 – 72 to the quarter): The only fugue in five voices, this could easily be a prayer, sung in a massive cathedral. One can distinguish the sound of an organ, a choir, even soloists. It is powerful, yet serene. In a way, this fugue continues where the last fugue left off.” “Prelude in B-flat minor (Andante in 3/4 – 152 to the quarter): A 19-bar Chaconne, the theme progresses in succeeding variations by means of quarter notes, eighths, triplets, and finally sixteenths. Its restlessness belies a certain loneliness. It is the only work in op. 87 that Shostakovich revised, and has affinities with the Russian song…‘I follow my own path.’”

The same attention to detail informs Sheppard’s interpretations, where we find the voices of the fugues meticulously rendered in clear independent lines. While his technical fastidiousness can at times draw a bit too much attention to itself, one can also find an extraordinary lyrical fluency in the playing, and a cantabile quality conferring overall a beguiling poetry to the performance. In his commentary, Sheppard often invokes comparison to vocal music in one form or another, as in the examples cited above, thus reflecting the strong lyrical emphasis of his interpretations.

Notably, the preludes and fugues are paired in a single track—a format that underscores their conception as a single entity. It’s a feature the pianist evidently seeks explicitly to convey. In many cases, Sheppard will allow the last sustained note of the prelude to lead directly into the first notes of the fugue. He will also underline structural parallels between each pair. The cantabile quality of his interpretations is already evident in the breathing-room fluidity he brings to the First Prelude and Fugue, and again to the Fourth, where he reaches the majestic summit of the fugue with passion and eloquence.

Sheppard’s slower than average tempos and his frequent use of rubato place the focus of his playing on the lyrical details. He captures the whimsical tone of the dance-steps in Prelude no. 8, carrying its Hebraic character into the following fugue, which he likens to a “Jewish lament” due to its recurring diminished-fifth interval. However meticulous his voicing in this case, he doesn’t quite come to grips with the fugue’s world-weary gloom found in other performances. Petrushansky’s slower paced version better succeeds in this effort, defining more precisely the piece’s hills and dales.

While Sheppard shows great respect for the score’s details, he at times prefers staccato-like phrasing in places where it is not indicated. Compare, for example, the abruptness of his arpeggiated chords in Prelude no. 5, the repeated notes of Prelude no. 3, the lively Fugue no. 6, the threevoice Fugue no. 7, and elsewhere. Sheppard’s terse attacks serve a dual role of complementarity—by lending distinction to individual lines, and by textural contrast, thus allowing the songful quality of the legato lines to stand out. Where extended staccato sections are marked, as in Preludes nos. 9, 15, and 19, and within the various fugues, these are diligently observed, creating a similar effect.

No pianist has yet been able to approach Fugue no. 6, with its sculptural treatment of monolithic ideas, and shape it with as much imagination as has Scherbakov. Sheppard, though, determinedly takes the piece through its contours as he pries apart its four stubbornly assertive voices.

In contrast to the much faster versions of Prelude and Fugue no. 9 by Jalbert, Petrushansky, and Scherbakov, where sheer gaiety defines the moment, Sheppard’s slower tempo renders the Prelude’s conversation between extreme registers beguilingly and gracefully. In the fugue, he places emphasis on the first note of each appearance of the returning idea—a dotted quarter followed by a flourish of semi-quavers—thus establishing lucid points of demarcation throughout. This is one of the many examples where Sheppard places more emphasis on the lyrical interior of the music than on driving home peak moments, a choice from which, once again, his interpretation derives its strengths. In the irregular rhythms of Fugue no. 12, for example, Sheppard is unique among the aforementioned interpreters in applying an ever so slight ritardando at the onset of each statement of the main idea, which lends an engaging depth to the piece. One finds more broadly swept, faster-paced treatments in the playing of Ashkenazy, Jalbert, and Scherbakov.

The notoriously thorny Fugue no. 15, in Sheppard’s hands, may lack the driving force found in other versions, notably those of Ashkenazy, Jalbert, Petrushansky, and Melnikov, and even in the merry abandon of Colin Stone. It gathers passion just the same, however, by way of his firm hold on the notes and the hard-edged intensity he brings to the piece. Sheppard also captures the New Year’s Eve merriment of the prelude that precedes it, matching and uniting force with force.

Figure 1

Pianist Recording(s)
Nikolaeva, Tatiana 1962; 1987 (reviewed DSCH 23); 1990, 1992 (DVD: reviewed DSCH 31)
Woodward, Roger (1975/2010) Celestial Harmonies 14302-2
Papadopoulos, Marios (1991) Kingdom KCLCD 2023
Petrushansky, Boris (1994) Dynamic CDS 117/1-3
Ashkenazy, Vladimir (1999) Decca 466 066-2DH2 (reviewed DSCH 11)
Scherbakov, Konstantin (2000) Naxos 8.55475-6 (reviewed DSCH 15)
Jarrett, Keith (2007) ECM New Series 1469-70
Weichert, Caroline (2007) Accord 20203-2
Rubackytė, Muza (2007) Brilliant Classics 8416
Jalbert, David (2008) Atma Classique ACD2 2555 (reviewed DSCH 30)
Lin, Jenny (2009) Hänssler Classics CD98.530.000
Melnikov, Alexander (2010) Harmonia Mundi HMC 902019.20 (reviewed DSCH 34)
Stone, Colin (2010) Big Ears 005 (reviewed DSCH 33)
Sheppard, Craig (2015) Roméo Records 7315-6

The heart-on-sleeve filigrees of Prelude and Fugue no. 16, so wellsuited to Caroline Weichert’s dreamy urbanity, are also hauntingly captured by Sheppard. The melismatic tranquility of the fugue is beautifully weighed and delivered. Sheppard makes each of the dancing phrases in Fugue no. 17 leap off the keyboard. He projects the peak statement in the lower voice with thrilling clarity. A slightly greater rhythmic propulsion is preferred by Melnikov, while Papadopoulos brings to bear a bubbling enthusiasm in the same piece. Prelude no. 19 features a stark alternation of moods and textures: a magisterial chorale theme is interspersed with equivocal staccato commentary. Sheppard plays up the cryptic contrast with all the irony Shostakovich no doubt intended. He then probes the worry-packed rhythms of the fugue with tenuto gestures that amplify the music’s sense of trepidation. Once again, he sacrifices some of the forward drive for the sake of the details. Listen to the restlessly propelled pace preferred by Ashkenazy in the fugue, Jenny Lin’s hard-edged conception, and by contrast, the gentler, somewhat less captivating approach of Melnikov.

Sheppard fuses the solemnity of Prelude no. 20—the monk’s dirge, as he describes it—with the ethereal beauty of the following fugue, whose prayerful lines he weaves into splendidly shaped crescendos. Compare the expressive depths Petrushansky finds in this fugue, as well as the crisp delivery of Jenny Lin. Sheppard joyfully connects the frenetic Prelude no. 21 to its high-spirited fugue, whose individual voices stand out in their well-contoured dynamics. David Jalbert offers a more consolidated rendering—a beautiful one, at that.

The fluid lines of Prelude and Fugue no. 22 provide an ideal showcase for Kori Bond’s lyrical insights. Colin Stone, at a slower pace, treats the gentle prayer-like passages of both parts with great sensitivity. Sheppard captures the ruminative wandering of the Prelude’s stream of eighth notes as he applies ritardandos at each utterance of the main theme, starting from the very first bar, and most poignantly, at the brief moment of dislocation that marks the final appearance of the theme. In a measured pace, he takes advantage of the fugue’s loosely defined countersubject, consisting of another stream of eighth notes, with flexible phrasing to match, thereby reinforcing the organic connection to the Prelude and leaving the dreamy spell unbroken. The fugue invites a wide variety of tempos, with Melnikov, Papadopoulos, and Jalbert preferring an unhurried pace to the significantly faster Ashkenazy and Scherbakov versions.

In Fugue no. 23, Sheppard again takes on wings of song as he builds a mighty fortress of lyrical expression. He maintains the valedictory tone throughout this penultimate prelude and fugue, and goes on to render a powerfully rousing performance of the finale of the set with all of its voluminous heroism and symphonic force.

It is only at the end of the entire work that we discern evidence of an audience being present during the recording, here with an explosion of well-deserved applause. The recording engineers have done a superb job of reproducing the full sound of the Steinway with brilliant clarity. Only a few times during the course of the recording do we hear the faintest trace of background noise, which the devotee of live performance will assimilate
as a happy confirmation of same.

Sheppard’s admirable performance, then, is a significant addition to the august company of recordings it now joins.

Louis Blois
Top /

Piano Quintets
David Matthews, Piano Quintet, opus 92*
Shostakovich, Piano Quintet, opus 57
Villiers String Quartet (James Dickenson and Tamaki Higashi, violins; Carmen Flores, viola; Nick Stringfellow, cello), Martin Cousin, piano
Somm Recordings ISOMMCD 0157
TT: 52:16
Recorded at the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, 20 and 21 January 2015
*World premiere recording

This singular coupling of the Piano Quintet by Englishman David Matthews (born 1943) and Shostakovich’s opus 57 is noteworthy less for its interpretative revelations than for the opportunity to hear a twenty-first-century work in this chamber form. That said, anyone expecting the 2004 Matthews piece to be overstocked with daring experimentalism or stark atonality should look elsewhere. As Matthews puts it, “I chose to adhere, more or less, to the traditional scheme: four movements, with a scherzo and a slow movement in the middle…The outer movements are essentially lyrical, while the middle movements are dance movements, with the chaconne third movement a blend of song and dance.”

And indeed this is a lyrical, dancing work that, notwithstanding its echoes of Ravel, radiates a quintessential Englishness that would seem to set the work in 1944 rather than The shadowy touches that Matthews brings to the erstwhile positive lyricism again would seem to allude to conflict and war; reflectiveness resides with anxiety. In short: very introspective in content and very accomplished in style. 

The second movement is a stirring tango—a form with which the composer has an affinity (he says that this is the fourth he has written)—and the succulence of the ensemble here certainly justifies the recurring exercise. The final two movements are more introspective: the third features clear (though unacknowledged?)

allusions to Shostakovich—including the Quintet—and other composers, while the fourth’s apparent brightness is constantly shaped by opposing themes and rhythms.

The Villiers Quartet’s rendition is well-rounded, with an ensemble that only very occasionally suffers moments of drift, and pianist Martin Cousin offers a fine performance of what is not an over-demanding piece, technically. This Quintet is a highly enjoyable piece, anchored in the twentieth century, and displays Matthews’ clear mastery of the form. The CD booklet notes that he was mainly self-taught, although he did spend time with Nicholas Maw and Peter Sculthorpe, and was fortunate enough to work as an assistant to Benjamin Britten in the late 1960s. His own significant oeuvre includes eight symphonies, five symphonic poems, six concertos, thirteen string quartets (currently being recorded by Toccata Classics), and many chamber and vocal works.

Shostakovich’s Quintet requires little in the way of introduction in these pages, and in spite of the work’s only occasional appearance in the new-releases catalogue, the competition is stiff, with such epics as the composer’s own 1955 performance with the Beethoven Quartet (released numerous times, with some reviewed in DSCH 9, 18, and 23), and Sviatoslav Richter with the Borodin Quartet (1983).

Alas, the Villiers’ string intonation is found lacking in the first movement, with disturbing inconsistencies in the cello and second violin, and although the performance finds its equilibrium by the second movement Adagio, much of the tension that underlies the first two movements has evaporated. The third movement Scherzo–Allegretto is replete with energy and vim, and the piano-strings dialogues work well. I liked Cousin’s attention to some of the less emphatic articulations that underpin the piano writing here, and this is by far the most successful movement of the recording. Come the fourth movement, and the first violin has some uncomfortable moments in the upper register—the Quintet is a splendid example of just how Shostakovich revelled in chamber music composition early in his fifteen-quartet cycle—no place to hide for any blemish, any waver, any doubt. The strings are immediately at ease with the onset of the fifth movement, and although I would have preferred a more angular, almost percussive tone from the piano, the piece rounds off without incident.

This CD warrants a listen, if only for the Matthews in combination with the Shostakovich, and the chance to hear the splendid Cousin perform. I was disappointed with the Villiers, who perhaps had neglected the well-established work to focus on the relative rarity? Certainly not a Shostakovich opus 57 that I should—or could—recommend.

Alan Mercer
Top /

Alive in the Studio
Shostakovich, Cello Sonata, opus 40, arr. for flute and piano by Paul Lustig Dunkel (a,b)
Paul Lustig Dunkel, Quatre visions pour quatre flutistes (a,c)
Tony Moreno, Episodes for Flute and Percussion (a,d)
Tamar Muskal, Sof; Mechanofin (a,b)
(a) Paul Lustig Dunkel (flute); (b) Peter Basquin (piano); (c) Laura Conwesser (alto flute), Rie Schmied (flute), Tanya Witek (flute and piccolo); (d) Tony Moreno (drums)

MSR Classics IMS1554
TT: 75:46
Recorded at Westchester Studios, New York, January and March 2015

This transcription of opus 40 follows a tradition of transcriptions of string music for
flute, the Khachaturian Violin Concerto and the Franck Violin Sonata being perhaps the two most famous. Inevitably, such projects bring up two questions: Does it work? And would the composer have approved? The latter is, of course, impossible to answer, other than to note that Shostakovich himself was not above producing the odd transcription and reorchestration. As for the former question, my answer would be “yes.” In particular, Dunkel’s choices of register—a critical issue when transferring from a cello to a flute—have been carefully calculated to maintain an optimal balance with the piano. The “compromise,” if one can call it that, is that Shostakovich’s register relationships between one phrase and the next are occasionally reversed. Four bars before Figure 2 in the first movement, for example, Shostakovich ends his phrase on B and descends to E-flat to start the new phrase. Dunkel’s transcription ascends to the E-flat an octave higher, thus changing the relationship between the new phrase and the previous one. Dunkel could have stayed true to Shostakovich’s line here, and still have remained within the range of the flute. But that would have created a balance problem in the crescendo a couple of bars later, where the piano would now overpower a low-laying flute.

In his booklet note, Dunkel writes, “the chasm between blown and bowed is vast,” and goes on to note his addition of “Prokofiev-isms,” mainly in the second and fourth movements “where techniques idiomatic to the flute—trills, flutters, and rapid tonguing—have been exploited.” Generally, these have been well applied. The flute cannot bite as hard as the cello, especially in fast staccato articulations, and Dunkel’s retouchings provide some compensatory drama. If there is a miscalculation, it is in the final stages of the fourth movement. Starting at Figure 66, Shostakovich reduces the texture down to his trademark melodic octaves in the piano, with the simplest of pizzicato accompaniments in the cello—a wonderful moment of simple transparency right before the sonata’s final throwaway flourish. Chez Dunkel, that touching simplicity is not to be, as the piano melody becomes obscured under a welter of flute fireworks.

The flute world should certainly welcome this new transcription into its repertoire. Heard on its own terms as a flute sonata, the work feels complete and satisfying. Inevitably, however, those terms are somewhat changed from the original conception. There are several examples that one could point to, but if I had to pick the most far-reaching, it would be that stunning moment in the recapitulation of the first movement, where everything comes to a halt, and the movement’s lyrical opening theme is now presented, Largo, in a disembodied, slow-motion transformation—a deliberately pale reflection of its former self. This particular type of transformation—the transformation of something flowing into something “broken,” or something strong into something weak—would be a defining trait of several Shostakovich recapitulations in the 1930s and 40s (e.g., the first movements of the Fourth, Seventh, and Eighth Symphonies). The new tempo and the dry, skeletal accompaniment in the piano, replacing the pleasantly rippling arpeggios that we heard in the exposition, can certainly be replicated in this transcription. What cannot be recreated is the strained, bleached sound of the cello. There is no register on the flute that will yield anything close to that kind of sound. With this essential ingredient gone, the emotional effect of this structural moment is attenuated. Dunkel chooses to play it in the flute’s lowest register. The effect, exacerbated by a fairly pronounced vibrato, is smoky and sensual—miles away from the threadbare sound that Shostakovich seemed to have in mind. (Had Dunkel chosen the octave higher, he might have avoided the sensuality and might even have been able to elicit some of the music’s “strain,” but in doing so, he would likely have created a new problem: as the line ascends, the flute would have simply become too loud.)

Treating this as a flute sonata on its own terms, however, the performance is for the most part enjoyable. Dunkel and the pianist, Peter Basquin, sound most at home in the soaring, lyrical sections of the first and third movements, the former played without its exposition repeat. The first movement’s second subject is gorgeously rendered all the way from its tentative beginnings to its full-throated climax. The opening of the third movement is also beautiful, though here Dunkel alters the dynamic profile slightly, replacing a few of Shostakovich’s diminuendos with crescendos. This makes for a fuller-sounding, more lyrically extrovert, less doleful performance than we usually hear. Inauthentic, maybe, but at the same time, this does seem like a viable reinterpretation—one perhaps designed to work better with the new instrument. The characterisation of the finale’s main theme, played at a relatively steady tempo, is another strong point of the performance. And whatever you think of the flute pyrotechnics at the end, there is no doubt that they are dispatched with panache.

Where the performance seems less at home is in the sonata’s more passionate and turbulent moments, which lack tension—the later stages of the exposition’s first subject, for example. A rather sharper characterisation of the scherzo, especially from Basquin, would have been welcome, as would a bit more dash in the finale’s mad toccata episode. The recording is decent, though the upper registers of the piano sometimes sound a little boxed in.

As for the rest of the disc, my own favourite was Dunkel’s composition Quatre visions pour quatre flutistes. Yes, it offers some wonderful “trainspotting” moments from the flute repertoire—birds from Beethoven’s to Prokofiev’s in the first movement, and the usual French suspects in the third and fourth. But these are not just isolated quotations; they form the basis of a rather ingenious work. Plenty of interest, too, in the pieces by Tony Moreno and Tamar Muskal, though I’m not yet convinced that the latter’s Mechanofin quite fills up its allotted seventeen-and-a-half minutes.

Michael Mishra
Top /

Rodion Shchedrin, The Left-Hander
Andrei Popov (tenor; The Left-Hander), Edward Tsanga (bass-baritone, Ataman Platov), Andrei Moroz (bass, Tsar Nikolai I and Tsar Aleksandr I), Kristina Alieva (soprano, The Flea), Maria Maksakov (contralto, Princess Charlotte), Andrei Spekhov (baritone, English Under-Skipper), Mariinsky Orchestra, Chorus, Valery Gergiev (conductor)
Mariinsky MAR0554
Two discs. TT: 119’27” (59’13” + 60’14”)
Recorded in Mariinsky II, St, Petersburg, 27–28 July 2013

While we enjoy multiple recordings of Lady Macbeth (in both iterations) and The Nose, and both are regularly staged, post-Shostakovich Russian opera has struggled internationally, with few works making it out of Russia, either in performance or on disc. Heading the Mariinsky, Gergiev has tried to make good on that by commissioning and, where possible, touring new operas alongside revivals of lesser-known older works.

One of the few composers to have achieved foreign success is Rodion Shchedrin. While his two Soviet efforts—Not Love Alone (1961, revised 1972) and Dead Souls (1976)—have not had many international stagings (the Bolshoi’s premiere of the first was cancelled after one performance), the Melodiya LPs have been released on CD. But his post-Soviet career includes five operas: Lolita (premiered in Stockholm, 1993); The Enchanted Wanderer—an “opera for the concert stage,” though it sometimes feels more like “illustrated scenes from…” (New York, 2002); the choral opera Boyarina Morozova (2006); The Left-Hander (2013); and the “opera-extravaganza” A Christmas Tale (2015).

Though Lorin Maazel premiered The Enchanted Wanderer, Gergiev took it into the studio (MAR 0504), and it is now in the Mariinsky’s repertoire, along with A Christmas Tale. In 2013, Gergiev inaugurated the Mariinsky II stage by commissioning The Left-Hander. Shchedrin offered it as a sixtieth birthday gift to Gergiev, weaving his monogram into the music. Following a concert presentation, it was staged (from which this recording is taken) and toured in concert, beginning in London in November 2014.

The Left-Hander is based on a story by Nikolai Leskov (1831–95), who is central to Shchedrin’s work. His 1873 story about Old Believers inspired The Sealed Angel (1988), and he is the source for two other operas: The Enchanted Wanderer and A Christmas Tale, which draws on his translation of the Czech writer Božena Nemtsova.

Leskov’s Story of Cross-Eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea (Skaz o Tulskom kosom Levshe i o stalnoy blokhe, 1881) is an immensely popular comic novel. It has been staged, and there have been a couple of film versions—a 1964 animated version scored by Aleksandr Aleksandrov, and a 1987 live action film with music by ethnomusicologist Igor Matsievsky.

The hero is an uneducated handyman, a bit like Voinovich’s Private Ivan Chonkin, Hašek’s Schweik, or even Pushkin’s Balda. There’s something holy fool-ish about him, and Shchedrin has gone as far as to compare him to Christ, as well as describing him as “a combination of the salient and typical aspects of the Russian national character: individualised talent, quick thinking, self-irony, an indifference to life, and a fatal passion for alcohol.”

When Aleksandr I visits London, he is given a miraculous microscopic steel flea, which dances and recites the alphabet. The Tsar wants to outdo the English, and back in Russia finds Lefty (we never learn his name)—a master gunsmith. He gives the tiny flea inscribed shoes and makes it speak Russian. In a piece of diplomatic one-upmanship, Lefty is sent to London with the “improved” flea. He is unsuccessfully wooed by various ladies of the court, and discovers a better way to clean muskets, but is desperately homesick. On the boat home, he and the under-skipper [polshkiper] get completely smashed in a drinking competition and, arriving in Petersburg, Lefty is taken to hospital to die. The under-skipper sobers up and comes to rescue him. Lefty repeats his advice for cleaning muskets and then dies. In the story, this is not passed onto the Tsar, leading—as Leskov notes—to various Russian military failures.

The inconsequential story is not so much a plot as an excuse to examine “Russian-ness” through what Shchedrin describes as a “skilful juxtaposition of two different worlds: British rationality with Russian irrationality.” While it seems charmingly indulgent, there may be some undertones—for instance, in England, Lefty is constantly accompanied by a Special Courier, perhaps a comment on Aleksandr’s increasingly repressive rule. Authority versus the people is, according to Shchedrin, an eternal Russian theme. Though dramaturgically obvious, Shchedrin might even be making his own point by doubling the two (interchangeable?) Tsars Nikolai I and Aleksandr I—Vladimir Moroz sings both.

The Left-Hander echoes The Nose in its mosaicking of its many small scenes: the two one-hour acts have, respectively, 19 and 13 scenes. It is also, like The Nose, cinematically constructed—a third of Act One is a flashback to Aleksandr’s London trip, which contains a cutaway to events in Tula. Using cinematic terms, the transition to a quasi-dream scene by the rushing River Tulitsa is marked as a “dissolve”: these scenes were placed high above the stage and separately lit, like a film superimposition.

Though it isn’t overtly “folk-ish,” there are reminders of the traditional music and forms in the Concertos for Orchestra and other works, such as the female mini-chorus that opens Dead Souls. The large orchestra presents a delicate range of colours, including balalaika, duduk, and bayan, though Shchedrin had to abandon the zhaleika—a folk clarinet. While the vocal lines are no traditionally melodic, they are idiomatic, very singable, and immensely lyrical. They also give telling portrayals of the characters. So, for instance, a ludicrous fanfare heralds the entrance of Nikolai, whose long-held notes on inappropriate syllables underline his stupidity. After the obsequious Count Kiselvrode shows him the flea, the first flash-back features the solicitous Princess Charlotte (Maria Maksakova), whose vast vibrato—more of a wobble—evokes the overbearing sixty-ish year-old Princess Royal. The flea itself is the almost effortless colouratura Kristina Alieva, and it is not just Shchedrin’s humorous portrayal of the mechanism winding down that makes one think she would be an excellent Olympia in The Tales of Hoffmann. As the titular Lefty, tenor Andrei Popov takes us superbly between bumpkin-ish, slyness, and tragic melancholy. The opera ends with the under-skipper touchingly bewailing his friend’s fate before Lefty struggles to pass on his gun-cleaning advice, the words running out just as in the first act the flea’s mechanism had run down. The flea sings a lullaby over his dead body and disappears as the choir prays for his soul. It’s a moment that achieves what Shchedrin wished—a Chaplin-esque mixture of laughter and tears.

The six interludes include some enchanting percussion-dominated “mechanical” music, richer and warmer than any of Shostakovich’s equivalents, and more in line with Shchedrin’s own Carmen Suite. Suiting the niceness of the work at hand, the forging music is about as un-Wagnerian as could be imagined. But there are also very effective pictures of Buckingham Palace and Lefty’s journey home. A selection of them would make an effective suite.

The recording is from the second and third performances in the premiere production. Though the music runs continuously, some virtuoso passages attract applause through which the performers continue. Act Two is followed by about five minutes of the enraptured audience.

The booklet maintains the Mariinsky label’s high standard, with notes and artists’ biographies in English, French, German, and Russian; Shchedrin’s Russian biography is slightly more detailed. The libretto is in English and Cyrillic—along with a guide to reading the script. There are also three photos of the premiere production, with a traditional Russian look that wouldn’t be out of place in an opera by Rimsky.

Indeed, The Left-Hander might be compared to Rimsky’s satirical folktale operas like Christmas Eve and The Golden Cockerel. Sadly, they too have struggled to hold a place on the international stage, but it would be good to have the opportunity to see The Left-Hander produced outside of Russia.

John Leman Riley
Top /

Zaderatsky’s 24 Preludes and Fugues
Jascha Nemtsov (piano)
Profil PH 15028
TT: 130:30 (65:42 + 64:48)
Recorded at Radio Berlin-Brandenburg
Kleiner Sendersaal, 6–10 July 2015

The questions that have become so tiresome in Shostakovich studies take on new immediacy when it comes to Vsevolod Zaderatsky (1891–1953). Is it possible to listen to Zaderatsky’s Preludes and Fugues without thinking of the circumstances under which they were composed? Can these short pieces—written in a Siberian prison camp in 1937–38 on spare telegraph forms—be thought of as anything other than messages from an oppressed artist to an audience he could only hope would one day exist?

One thing is certain: these works were not composed in comfortable circumstances, and do not make for comfortable listening. It is not that they’re overwhelmingly tragic or despairing—plenty of the pieces are lively, even playful. (Zaderatsky, as the sleeve notes tell us, entertained his fellow prisoners and guards by telling stories.) Nor do they sound wildly experimental to twenty-first-century ears, although they are written in the same modernist idiom as Shostakovich’s Aphorisms and his First Piano Sonata.

What makes the listener uneasy, rather, is that even in the most conventional-sounding pieces (such as Fugue no. 10 in C-sharp minor, which I could almost imagine being played on a harpsichord), it is rare for the music to reach a resolution. There is a constant feeling of searching for something that might or might not be found, or of trying to solve a problem whose dimensions keep shifting. There is plenty of beauty in this cycle, but it is often found in half-tunes that are never allowed to fully take hold.

Shostakovich is said to have wanted his entire cycle of Preludes and Fugues to be heard together (although some dispute this), but Zaderatsky’s respond well to being heard one pair at a time. This is partly because the prelude and fugue are often so closely linked, with material from the former appearing in the latter. (In the pairs in G minor and B minor, the fugue practically picks up where the prelude left off). Another reason is that Zaderatsky’s use of complex structures, and particularly the profusions of chords and octaves in the fugues, mean that anyone listening to the whole cycle in one go risks becoming numbed to the music’s subtleties. Even within single pieces, there can be moments when the listener feels bogged down, as if the musical train of thought were stalled—but this effect may very well be intentional.

Of course, there are no previous recordings of this cycle with which to compare Nemtsov’s. And we can never know just how closely his interpretation matches what Zaderatsky heard in his head during all of those stolen moments in the Gulag. Nonetheless, I’m impressed by the depth and character he has given these pieces. The mathematical precision of pieces like Prelude no. 1 in C major and Fugue no. 6 in B minor never sounds sterile in this recording. In Prelude no. 11 in B major, with its music-box-like tune, we can hear the machinery working away underneath; but the melody on top is alive.

Nemtsov’s playing in legato passages is lyrical but restrained. The sweetness of Prelude no. 2 in A minor is tempered by something darker; in Prelude no. 17 in A-flat major, the piano repeatedly seems to be on the verge of breaking into full song, but something keeps preventing it from doing so. His staccatos can be bright and playful (as in Fugue no. 15 in D-flat major), nervous (as in Prelude no. 5 in D major), or balanced ambiguously between the two (as in Prelude no. 7 in A major). In Prelude no. 20 in C minor, Nemtsov stoically stacks one chord on top of another, while in Fugue no. 9 in E major his notes hop impatiently, like a child demanding that a schoolyard game be played just so. There’s a distinct jazz flavour in some pieces, such as Prelude no. 23 in F major and Fugue no. 17 in A-flat major. How much of this Zaderatsky intended and how much is Nemtsov’s interpretation, I don’t know—but it sounds good.

The sleeve notes, by Nemtsov himself, are thoughtful and illuminating, even if they sometimes make what seem like very grand claims. Nemtsov says, for example, that Zaderatsky “should be granted priority” for the “revival of the Baroque genre in modern music.” While it’s true that Zaderatsky’s Preludes and Fugues pre-date Shostakovich’s own, as well as Hindemith’s Ludus tonalis (1942), Nemtsov’s claim prompts a chilling variation on the old philosophical problem: if a composer writes a ground-breaking piece and nobody is allowed to hear it, has it really broken new ground?

Another of Nemtsov’s statements cannot be disputed, though. Zaderatsky’s work “speaks of unprecedented courage and unique mental strength—a phenomenon that for various reasons should go down in the annals of twentieth-century music history.” The most important things we can do for Zaderatsky now are to play his music and listen to it. Thanks to this excellent recording, I’ll be listening for a long time to come.

Laura Del Col Brown