CD Reviews 48
*World Premiere Recording
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No. 1, opus 10 [a]; no. 2, opus 14, “To October” [b,k]; no. 3, opus 20, “The First of May” [b,k]; no. 4, opus 43 [b]; no. 5, opus 47 [c]; no. 6, opus 54 [d]; no. 7, opus 60, “Leningrad” [e]; no. 8, opus 65 [d]; no. 9, opus 70 [a]; no. 10, opus 93 [f]; no. 11, opus 103, “The Year 1905” [g]; no. 12, opus 112, “The Year 1917” [b]; no. 13, opus 113, “Babi Yar” [b,j,k]; no. 14, opus 135 [h]; no. 15, opus 141 [i],
[a] USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra/Gennady Rozhdestvensky
[b] Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin
[c] USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
[d] Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Yevgeny Mravinsky
[e] USSR State Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
[f] Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov
[g] USSR State Symphony Orchestra/Konstantin Ivanov
[h] Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano), Mark Reshetin (bass), Moscow Chamber Orchestra/Rudolf Barshai
[i] Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra/Maxim Shostakovich
[j] Arthur Eisen (bass)
[k] Russian State Choral Chapel/Alexander Yurlov (choirmaster)
Melodiya MEL CD 10 02431. ADD. 10-CD set
Recorded in 1984 [opus10], 1972 [opus 14, 20, 54, 112, 141], 1966 [opus 43], 1977 [opus 47], 1968 [opus 60], 1961 [opus 65], 1983 [opus 70], 1973 [opus 93], 1965 [opus 103], 1967 [opus 113], 1969 [opus 135]
This treasure trove gives us the 15 Shostakovich symphonies distributed across eight Russian conductors, all recorded in the pre-Glasnost USSR. The boxed set arranges them by opus number, but I must leap straight to the last disc, because a CD issue of this has occupied the very top of my personal wish list since the inception of the medium: namely, the premiere recording of Symphony no. 15 with Maxim Shostakovich directing the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, set down shortly after the premiere concert on 8 January 1972, and only ever released on LP until now.
A product of intensive rehearsals under the watchful eye of the composer, Maxim’s Fifteenth plays in a league of one. That’s not to say that other conductors have failed to penetrate—Eugene Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra (RCA Red Seal 09026-63587-2), Kondrashin with the Moscow Philharmonic (Alto ALC1062; reviewed in DSCH 33), and Ashkenazy with the Royal Philharmonic (Decca 12-CD set 0289 475 8748 4) all generate equivalent intensity from their similarly lithe accounts. What makes Maxim’s version so different is hard to pin down, but could be described as an operatic quality, with each segment of the symphony accorded the prominence of an aria, the musicians taking star turns in highly individualised solo work. Maxim’s direction ensures dramatic immediacy and forward thrust by consistently flowing without pause from one stanza to the next.
That sense of operatic spectacle also owes much to the recording itself—a shamelessly artificial construction in which it seems almost as if the instruments have been recorded individually then deployed by the engineer around the listener in a highly reverberant chamber. At key moments, the soundstage acquires a spooky echo, for instance transporting the strings’ chromatic swirling at Fig. 27 (4:12 in the first movement) to another dimension. These acoustic effects, which were present on LP, and which register with greater clarity on this superb digital remaster, heighten the surreal atmosphere of this work. No, the Fifteenth Symphony could never sound like this in a real concert; this isn’t so much a performance of op. 141 as an immersive experience of its Aristotelian essence.
Denied that experience in the absence of a prior CD release of the premiere recording, hopeful ears have turned to Maxims later recordings of Symphony no. 15, only to be disappointed. The score is completely defanged in his 1991 version with the London Symphony Orchestra, the musicians phoning in a performance as bland as it is efficient (Collins Classics 12062; deleted). It doesn’t help that Maxim expands the second movement to 16:53, a minute longer than his premiere recording. Although there are a few cases where an even more expansive interpretation manages to transfix the listener—Petrenko succeeds at 17:21 (Naxos 8.572708; reviewed in DSCH 37)—this attempt yields only tedium.
Maxim takes the opposite approach in his 2006 recording with the Prague Symphony, contracting the second movement to just 14:33 (Supraphon 10-CD set SU 3890-2). Unfortunately, any potential gain in focus is undone by the orchestra’s abysmal execution. This and the three other movements are littered with outright errors, amateurish intonation, and sloppy ensemble. I can’t overstate the awfulness of that live concert—it may be the worst performance of Symphony no. 15 ever inflicted on the buying public!
Thus, the reappearance of Maxim’s first take on Symphony no. 15 would easily justify the purchase of this boxed set even if it contained nothing else of interest. Happily, there is much more to recommend it. Also new to CD—or indeed any home listening format—is a concert recording of Symphony no. 11, which Melodiya ascribe to Konstantin Ivanov, the principal conductor of the USSR State Symphony Orchestra from 1946 to 1965. The notes date this performance to the last year of his tenure; one wonders why it took a half-century for such a distinctive interpretation (about which, more anon) from a prominent partnership to find its way to the public.
Wariness is warranted because Ivanov is the Nessie of the Shostakovich symphony discography: all prior sightings have been debunked. The “Leningrad” Symphony performance purportedly from Ivanov and the USSR State Symphony Orchestra that is currently available on the Alto label (individually on ALC1241 and as part of the 6-disc set Shostakovich: The Great Symphonies, ALC 6004) is actually Kondrashin’s 1975 account with the Moscow Philharmonic, the most recent legitimate reissue of which appeared in Melodiya’s 2012 boxed set of Kondrashin’s complete Shostakovich symphony cycle (MEL CD 10 01065; deleted). As reported in DSCH 27, the Czech label Levne Knihy previously misattributed that same Kondrashin “Leningrad” recording to Ivanov leading the Moscow Philharmonic (LK 0091; deleted). A release advertising Ivanov leading the Moscow Philharmonic in Symphony no. 15 and Cello Concerto no. 1 was briefly marketed by Regis (RRC 1181), but, as explained in DSCH 23, the label withdrew this after learning they had been sold mislabelled Chandos recordings of Valery Polyansky and the Russian State Symphony Orchestra (CHAN 9550; reviewed in DSCH 9; deleted).
However, I am inclined to accept that this Symphony no. 11 is genuinely Ivanov’s first appearance on disc in a Shostakovich symphony. Whereas all faux-Ivanovs to date have been set down in studio, this Eleventh was performed in front of a live audience (albeit tenuously so, judging by their incessant bronchial paroxysms). These are more plausible recording conditions for a conductor who expressed disdain for the “manufactured” side of the gramophone industry, contending, “It’s the public that electrifies a conductor and an orchestra.”
Moreover, this Eleventh cannot be derived from any previous commercial release by different performers for the simple reason that no other conductor on record has ever attempted such turbocharged tempi. Ivanov wraps up the entire work in just 47:31, chopping nearly 6V2 minutes off Kondrashin’s already breathless sprint. Speed is the defining feature of each movement, heightening the sense of panic in fast episodes and thawing the expected iciness of slow passages.
While this extremist stance would not do as an introduction to opus 103, it offers a provocative new perspective for the initiated. One might expect to disagree with the acceleration of sections where we are accustomed to stasis, yet I find that Ivanov makes a persuasive argument, depicting a “Palace Square” quivering with nervous expectation, and the mourners of “In Memoriam” glancing anxiously over their shoulders.
It’s a credit to the musicians that, with remarkably few exceptions, they manage to maintain accuracy of tone and clear enunciation even in the most frenetic passages of “Ninth of January” and “The Tocsin.” Only the final climax of the second movement threatens to unravel, and here the intrinsic excitement of the score is amplified not only by the blistering pace but also by the listener’s apprehension for the woodwind and brass players as they strain to spit out their hail of staccato notes.
The only previous release with Ivanov conducting any Shostakovich work was not one of the symphonies but rather his Poem of the Motherland, op. 74, the CD incarnation of which was reviewed by Pauline Fairclough in DSCH 37 (Aquarius AQVR 346-2; deleted). I hope that the arrival of this Eleventh represents only the first of many future examples of Ivanov’s exploration of Shostakovich’s symphonic canon, as on the present evidence he had a distinctive voice that modern collectors should have the opportunity to hear.
All the other recordings in this boxed set have appeared previously. Symphony no. 1 is the studio recording from Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra, which appeared on a BMG/Melodiya twofer as part of Rozhdestvensky’s complete Shostakovich symphony cycle (7432149611 2; deleted; reviewed in DSCH 11). Overall this is one of the more brash and sprightly interpretations of op. 10; Richard Pleak reviewed its properties in detail in DSCH 23 in the context of its reissue on Moscow Studio Archives (MOS 19061; deleted).
The versions of Symphonies nos. 2, 3, 4, 12, and 13 are the same as appear in the complete Kondrashin cycle. Don’t skip past the two early choral symphonies, as Kondrashin highlights their bold experimentalism, the Moscow Philharmonic appear to relish the demands they impose, and the members of the Russian State Choral Chapel make as enthusiastic a go of their verses as one could reasonably demand.
Kondrashin’s conception of Symphony no. 4 is indispensable—he was, after all, the conductor who premiered the long-buried masterpiece on 30 December 1961. It wasn’t until 2015 that a tape of that premiere was commercially released (Moscow Conservatory Records SMC CD 0162-0163; coupled with the concert premiere of Symphony no. 13). Brisk tempi were a Kondrashin trademark, but this performance is extreme even for him, and the Moscow Philharmonic strings are barely able to maintain ensemble in the tornado of semiquavers at the heart of the first movement. Equally white-hot is the German premiere of 23 February 1963 with Kondrashin at the helm of the Staatskapelle Dresden, who miss even fewer beats than did their Muscovite predecessors (ProfilPH06023). Both concerts are in mono, but whereas the Russian recording distorts in tutti, the fine tape from DDR Rundfunk bears up across its astonishingly wide dynamic range.
The present box gives us Kondrashin’s studio recording, almost as swift as the aforementioned concerts. Among recent interpreters, only Petrenko with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic approaches these speeds, and then only intermittently, taking roughly five minutes longer overall (Naxos 8.573188; reviewed in DSCH 40). Like Petrenko’s, Kondrashin’s interpretation admits highly varied moods, demonstrating convincingly how refraining from investing every passage with menace only heightens the subsequent brutality. His musicians fully inhabit each of the schizophrenic personae—frenzied, sarcastic, sweetly innocent, vicious, catatonic.
This remastering is in stereo, as it was in Melodiya’s 2012 Kondrashin set, not mono as on the earlier BMG/Melodiya release (74321 198402; deleted). BMG/Melodiya and previous issuers said this was recorded in 1962, but Melodiya now claim 1966, which rather conflicts with Hulme’s note that the first Soviet LP release was in 1962. Either way, it’s long in the tooth, but modern ears should still find it more than serviceable. True, the climax of the finale lacks the window-rattling punch we’ve come to expect—in fact, Profil’s mono Dresden recording has superior bass presence—but solos and other fine details are captured admirably. You won’t find a more hair-raising coda in even the latest SACD.
Leaving aside Kondrashin’s opus 112 and opus 113 until their numbers come up, let’s turn next to Symphony no. 5, recounted in a grim report from Evgeny Svetlanov and the USSR State Symphony Orchestra. Melodiya now date this to 1977, though their previous LP releases and the CD premiere on ZYX Russian Art (CLA 10011-2; deleted) stated 1978. The same studio recording reappeared nearly ten years ago alongside Symphonies nos. 1 and 7 on Volume 38 in the Svetlanov Official Edition from Warner Classics and Jazz (WCJ 2564 69442-8; deleted), who misidentified it as a 1970 live concert performance. Melodiya’s current remastering greatly reduces analogue hiss compared with the Warner transfer.
Svetlanov’s 1977/8 Fifth feels like a survivor’s reluctant commemoration of unspeakable events. Although the playing isn’t perfect—the trumpets are sometimes pawky, the pianist hesitant—the musicians successfully condense a cloud of loss and isolation that hangs over both slow movements; listen especially for the spine-tingling spectral quality to the Moderato section closing the first movement, and the almost unbearably bereft hymn from muted strings at Fig. 93 (12:00 in the third). Even the Allegretto maintains a grey countenance as it snaps to attention, and there is no hint of triumph in the finale.
For Symphony no. 6, Melodiya supply Mravinsky’s live Moscow concert of 27 January 1972, which also remains available on a single disc, Vol. 9 in their Mravinsky 100th Anniversary Edition (with Symphony no. 10; MEL CD 1000774). Regular DSCH readers doubtless already own one or other of its many previous releases, such as the identically coupled Vol. 9 in BMG/Melodiya’s Mravinsky Edition from the mid-1990s (74321 25198 2; deleted). In the current catalogue, this also pops up in no fewer than three all-Mravinsky compilations from Scribendum (3-CD set SC034,7-CD set SC503, and 2-SACD set SC603). Even such a venerable account has not been spared the ignominies meted out to other vintage Shostakovich recordings: as I reported in DSCH 15, the Praga label twice misidentified this as a 1962 Prague concert broadcast (PR 256017 and PR 7254017; deleted).
I’ll wager I’m not alone in playing that self-sufficient first movement of the Sixth far more frequently than I listen to the entire work. Mravinsky is sui generis here; under his baton, the Largo is a hermetic ice prison, solitary confinement for a disembodied soul. At 16:00, the first movement runs nearly a minute longer in 1972 than in his 1965 concert (reviewed in DSCH 21 on Scribendum SC031; deleted but reissued on SC503 and SC603), acquiring a weightier, more introspective atmosphere at the expense of only a slight dulling of the anguish in shrill passages. The Leningrad Philharmonic are on finer form in the 1972 concert, and the later recording has marginally better acoustics, though solo instruments are unnaturally spotlit.
In both the 1965 and 1972 outings, Mravinsky’s pacing builds and releases tension in cascading waves that keep the listener in a state of emotional disequilibrium. The same notes resolve into steps on which one can take firmer footing in slower interpretations, the most successful recent example of which comes from Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, who clock in at 19:44 (Naxos 8.572658). I fully concur with Louis Blois’ assessment in DSCH 36 of the merits of Petrenko’s more reverential approach. However, for those times when one finds courage enough to bear the crises of the Largo firsthand rather than retrospectively, there is no substitute for one of Mravinsky’s versions—dim the lights and avoid company for at least an hour afterwards.
For those occasions when one feels inclined to let the Sixth play on, the Leningrad Philharmonic whip out a bright-eyed, athletic Allegro and a deliciously crisp Presto, only slightly less jaunty in this 1972 concert than in Mravinsky’s 1965 version.
An important caution: the Moscow audience are unrestrainedly coughstricken in both of Mravinsky’s live Sixths, significantly impairing the listening experience in a work that demands such intense concentration. It is a very great pity that Mravinsky never again took this opus into the studio after his 1946 recording, which was in mono, unrepresentative of his later conception, and only ever released on CD in Japan (BMG Japan BVCX-4016; deleted).
One of the most desirable entries here is Svetlanov’s 1968 studio recording of the
“Leningrad” Symphony, which is also currently available in Scribendum’s 20-CD set The Art of Evgeny Svetlanov (SC 501; their previous standalone disc, SC 025, has been deleted). As authentic a Seventh as they come, this features the USSR State Symphony Orchestra on top form, with their Soviet-era braying brass, massed strings with seemingly limitless reserves of power, and richly characterised solo work from all concerned. The musicians manage to convey heart-on-sleeve emotion without tipping over to maudlin; the innocence of the flute solo in the third movement at Fig. 112+2 (4:19) is a good example. Across the 75-minute duration, the players’ impassioned commitment to every note is palpable, keeping the narrative line taut and in clear view even where Svetlanov is at his most expansive, most notably in the monumentally extended closing pages.
Svetlanov’s interpre tation is epic in scope throughout. The first movement’s march couldn’t be more threatening, thanks in no small part to a clockwork-constant tempo that portrays a mechanised foe impervious to any efforts of flesh and blood, refraining from accelerating its onslaught until the final ramp up to the explosion at Fig. 52 (16:18). The impact is chilling. Also provoking a fightor-flight response is the ritardando applied progressively from Fig. 120+9 (7:57) in the third movement to the serpentine violins, coiling before the strike.
This 1968 “Leningrad” is superior in all respects to the same team’s 1978 live recording on the previously mentioned Warner 2-CD release, which also turns up in Scribendum’s Svetlanov compendium (from SC 027). Svetlanov’s pacing is more bombastic in the latter, most egregiously in the symphony’s final peroration, where tempo statistics reveal a 14 percent bloat compared with his 1968 version, which was already 11 percent more deliberate than even the long-winded Petrenko (Naxos 8.573057; reviewed in DSCH 39), not to mention a full 30 percent slower than Kondrashin and 38 percent more protracted than Mravinsky (BMG/Melodiya 74321 29405 2; deleted). In contrast to their commendable contributions in 1968, Svetlanov’s woodwinds take turns committing grating errors in his later concert. Even the acoustics are more vivid in the 1968 reading than in the more recent concert, which is also plagued by audience noises. Indeed, unless DDD sound is required, I would shortlist Svetlanov’s 1968 essay as a benchmark “Leningrad.”
Not so, Melodiya’s selection for Symphony no. 8, a Leningrad concert from Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic on 25 February 1961. On the positive side, the interpretation is in the same hard-driven, martial vein as the team’s 23 September 1960 London concert (BBC Legends BBCL 4002-2; reviewed in DSCH 11), and although the woodwinds stumble here and there, the playing is generally up to usual standards. However, the symphony’s critical opening note is entirely cut off in this transfer! Thereafter the fizzy mono recording makes for trying listening. Stir in a raucous audience, and this is a dish mainly for diehard completists.
Those committed to hearing Mravinsky’s thoughts on op. 65 that same month may prefer a recent Praga Digitals hybrid SACD presenting a Moscow concert from the same team on 12 February 1961 (PRD/DSD 350 120). There’s a minor editing hiccup at 5:12 in the second movement, and one still has to contend with mono sound, but there is far less high-frequency glare than in the 25 February recording, and the audience is barely noticeable.
The wider public would get more mileage from Mravinsky’s 1982 concert Eighth, currently available from Alto (individually in ALC 1150 and bundled in their Great Symphonies set). As I detailed in DSCH 11, that recording was transferred a semitone sharp on previous Philips and leone releases, but Alto consulted with me to get the pitch correct on their remastering.
Symphony no. 9 in the Melodiya box is the ebullient 1983 studio recording from Rozhdestvensky and the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra, previously issued on the same BMG/Melodiya twofer as their Symphony no. 1. In his review of the complete Rozhdestvensky cycle in DSCH 11, John Riley suggested, “if you like a deliberately and ironically crass Ninth, this may be one for you.” Guilty as charged: I’m delighted to have this blatantly flippant romp back in the catalogue!
No. 10 arrives courtesy of Yuri Temirkanov and the Leningrad Philharmonic in a live performance from 26 January 1973, previously issued only by Russian Disc (RD CD 11 195; deleted). It would be unfair to point out that Mravinsky distilled a stronger brew from the same orchestra in his 1976 concert on the aforementioned Vol. 9 of Melodiya’s Mravinsky Edition. Taken on its own terms, Temirkanov’s unimpeachably middle-of-the-road traversal serves as a worthy introduction to op. 93, with patient exploration of the expanses of the first and fourth movements, and a surgical commando assault in the second. Though attention may wander in a rather prosaic third movement that betrays few hidden currents, even this is worth a listen for spectacularly drawn-out and prominent statements of the “Elmira” motif.
Having already discussed Ivanov’s Symphony no. 11 above, next up is the obligatory no. 12. Could the low esteem in which this is generally held explain why it is the only symphony in the set that Melodiya split across two discs, ignoring the fact that the score is played without pause? The first two movements follow Symphony no. 11 (which could in turn account for the choice of Ivanov there, as almost any alternative would have left insufficient space on a Red Book CD) and the last two precede no. 13. Although at
no point could Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic be accused of underselling the blockbuster potential of opus 112, they evince not a drop of enthusiasm for it in this run-through.
Conversely, if there’s a more committed version of Symphony no. 13 than Kondrashin’s studio performance with the Moscow Philharmonic, the bass group of the Russian Choral Chapel, and bass Artur Eisen, I haven’t heard it. Porting this over from Kondrashin’s Shostakovich cycle, Melodiya date it to 1967, whereas Hulme says 20-26 September 1965. Whenever it was recorded, this manifesto exceeds in visceral impact even Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic’s own premiere concerts of 18 and 20 December 1962.
Of course, those 1962 documents retain unique historical value, not least for their inclusion of the original text of Babi Yar, before the imposition of edits to water down the Jewish specificity of its victims. A tape of the 18 December concert surfaced in the early 2000s, but didn’t receive a commercial release until 2015, as the second disc in the same Moscow Conservatory Records album that presents the premiere of the Fourth Symphony. The spontaneous applause that erupted after the first movement has been edited out.
The virtually identical 20 December concert wasn’t released until 1993 (Russian Disc RD CD 11191; deleted), and re-emerged 3 years ago on a Praga Digitals hybrid SACD (PRD/DSD 350 089). Praga transferred this marginally faster than did Russian Disc, but any resulting pitch difference eludes my ears. There is a dramatic difference in acoustics, however, with Praga applying aggressive but largely successful noise reduction, including excision of coughs. Hulme reports that the ostensibly stereo recording is in fact electronically reprocessed from a mono source.
Before the arrival of the 1962 concerts, the earliest recording of opus 113 available was of a Moscow concert on 20 September 1965 by Kondrashin, the Moscow Philharmonic, and Gromadsky, using the revised Babi Yar text. Originally issued in the mid-1960s on an Everest LP (in electronically reprocessed stereo; SDBR 3181; deleted), a swishy transfer from vinyl is currently marketed on various online platforms by Essential Media Group, who confusingly reproduce Everest’s “Premiere Recording” headline along with the rest of the original cover art. Marketing materials repeat an erroneous recording month given by Everest in the course of the following startling revelation: “This recording is historically significant due to the fact that this was the last live performance of Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony. Recorded in Moscow on 20 November 1965, there have been no further performances whatsoever.” Ahem.
The true stereo and studio silence in the present Melodiya reissue make it more amenable to repeated listening than the 1962 or 1965 concerts. The 1967 performance uses the revised text of Babi Yar, but the vehemence of Eisen’s protest against anti-Semitism remains blistering. His gravelly tone conveys cockier defiance in “Humour” than did Gromadsky in his earlier concerts, or John Shirley-Quirk in Kondrashin’s 1980 live recording with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Male Chorus (Philips LP 6514 120; deleted), reissued by Tower Records Japan in November (hybrid SACD PROC-2017). The 1967 chronicle is unrelenting in the remaining three movements, which Kondrashin drives faster than virtually all competitors. Most distinctively, these women queueing “In the Store” bear no trace of the pious patience heard in other versions, instead only barely contained frustration.
Symphony no. 14 is represented by the bracing Moscow public premiere of 6 October 1969 with Rudolf Barshai conducting the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, previously issued by Russian Disc (RD CD 11 192; deleted). With stunningly crisp instrumental work and impassioned vocal contributions from Galina Vishnevskaya and Mark Reshetin, this reading conjures up terrors not glimpsed in the UK premiere by the same singers with the English Chamber Orchestra led by the work’s dedicatee, Benjamin Britten (BBC Music BBCB 8013-2; reviewed in DSCH 13; deleted), or in Barshai’s studio remake with Alla Simoni, Vladimir Vaneev, and the WDR Sinfonieorchester (Brilliant Classics 6275 and 6324; reviewed in DSCH 20).
Overall, then, Shostakovich: All Symphonies scores vastly more hits than misses. The remasterings allow us to hear these vintage recordings as well as we’re ever likely to. Melodiya have also granted them a most handsome and protective package: the CDs are individually hub-mounted on slim plastic jewel-case trays affixed inside thick cardboard folders, all encased in a sturdy box that slides open sideways to reveal the folder spines—a far more convenient and secure arrangement than the traditional box. A thick booklet provides brief notes and full lyrics in Cyrillic and English, along with relevant photos. The English translations aren’t quite fluent, and a few of the printed track timings suffer from dyslexia, but there’s nothing substantive to gripe about. Melodiya’s modern releases have the longevity of mayflies, so snap this up while you can.
W. Mark Roberts
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Shostakovich, 24 Preludes and Fugues, opus 87
Peter Donohoe (piano)
Signum Classics SIGCD396
TT: 148:03 (2 CDs: 72:05 + 75:08)
Recorded in Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK, 16-19 February 2014
Celebrated as an interpreter of contemporary piano music with a Russian emphasis, Peter Donohoe, whose acclaimed recordings include the complete Scriabin and Prokofiev piano sonatas, as well as many works by Stravinsky and Rachmaninov, here confronts Shostakovich’s magnum opus for solo piano, the Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues. His rendering of the work, marking the eighteenth recording of the complete cycle, commands particular attention. Ifs an interpretation whose beguiling restraint remains its calling card.
Donohoe’s carefully measured approach in the opening Prelude and Fugue sets the tone of his performance throughout, with a polish and finesse that stand as the antithesis of the heavy-handed bluntness that characterise Tatiana Nikolaeva’s foundational recordings of the work (her 1987 traversal was reviewed in DSCH 23). Despite the reservations some may have for it, Nikolaeva’s iron-fisted style fits the idiom hand-in-glove, and for that reason her versions justly retain their legendary status. Yet there is also room for reflection and reserve in this far-reaching score, as Donohoe elegantly and at times, powerfully, demonstrates.
His rendering of Prelude and Fugue no. 4 represents his concept of the work at its very best, with phrasing that is gentle, deeply meditative, and with reserves of power that are stunningly revealed as he escalates the double fugue that follows to its monumental heights. Prelude and Fugue no. 7 shines with particular brilliance as well. Where other performers—notably Melnikov (DSCH 34) and Scherbakov (DSCH 15)—highlight the ongoing chromatic sparring between the phrases of Fugue no. 7, Donohoe offers a performance of sublime composure, softening the tone and dynamic contrasts throughout, conjuring a spell of serene rapture.
The poignant conversation between low and high registers is handled with velvety tenderness in Prelude no. 9, followed by a lively rendition of the carefree Fugue. In Fugue no. 10, one of the longest, most sublime, and one that most explicitly alludes to the Bach model, Donohoe’s interpretation is duly understated, as is his rendering of the Prelude. With a tempo notably faster than we find in almost every other version—Ashkenazy’s (DSCH 11), Melnikov’s, Nikolaeva’s, and Scherbakov’s included—Donohoe places emphasis on delicacy of phrasing, forward motion, and the finely drawn organic connection between the pair. Elsewhere in the cycle, a show of impressive dexterity can be found in the whirling sixteenth notes of Preludes nos. 2 and 21, with a rousing crescendo and a strong finish brought to the latter’s fugue.
Donohoe is especially fine at invoking atmosphere through tonal colour, one of the defining qualities of Caroline Weichert’s praiseworthy survey of the work (Accord 20203-2). In his hands, the pastoral repose and meditative depths of Prelude and Fugue no. 13 are brought off with heartwarming affect. He also excels in conjuring the dreamy and the mysterious in the thrumming strains of Prelude no. 22; and to poetic effect, he responds to each statement of the Fugue’s melancholic subject as if it were a fresh discovery. The dreaminess of Prelude no. 16 is also summoned persuasively; but more impressively, he manages to generate an uncommon degree of fluidity to the halting phrases and ruminative filigrees of the accompanying fugue. The strumming chords and cantilena tune in Prelude no. 5 are captured with all their intended naivete, as is the lightheartedness of the Fugue to which meticulous attention is paid to its cascades of reverberating notes.
Donohoes tendency to hold back the reins does not always lend itself to optimal results. There are a few high-profile entries where a little more force exerted in the Prelude would have enhanced the impact of the pairing with the Fugue. Prelude no. 3, with its parallel octave pronouncements, for example, could have been propelled more boldly, though the Fugue emerges lively and playful. Likewise there is something rather deliberate in his reading of Prelude no. 6, whose trochaic rhythms call out for the sharper edges heard in the performances of Scherbakov and Jenny Lin (Hanssler Classics CD98.530.000), among others. Meanwhile, he plays up the furtive ambience of Fugue no. 6 to its fullest, his subdued tone lending intrigue to its two contrasting ideas as if secrets were being whispered between them. Prelude no. 12 also seems a bit restrained, as it does not build to the monumental plateau realised by Scherbakov and other interpreters. Perhaps the intention is strategic, as he proceeds to summon all the athletic fire available in the Fugue that follows. The rather dainty touch he imparts to Prelude no. 15 takes the edge off its humorous twists and turns. While the sheer exuberance delivered by Colin Stone (DSCH 33) in this ticklingly taxing pair would be hard to match, Donohoe brings astonishing clarity and exactitude to the notoriously challenging Fugue, along with a few rousingly spontaneous highlights.
Prelude and Fugue no. 8 is a curious case. Donohoe gleefully decants the mischievous whimsy of the march-inflected Prelude, conjuring the image of elves dancing on the piano keys. The Fugue is another story. It carries a legacy of colourful interpretations, and with it, a few formidable comparisons. The sighing semitones that comprise the main idea in Fugue no. 8 are turned into a mournful essay in the hands of Nikolaeva (e.g. 1987), while Melnikov, in a rendition characteristic of his highly personalised interpretation, finds a deeply moving world-weariness in the piece. Donohoe opts for a softer tone and a more objective point of view that, while somewhat resigned, does not bear the same emotional weight as other versions.
In the tremolo-inflected Prelude no. 14, Donohoe envelops the listener in the music s ominous foreboding. While he does not capture the unparalleled depths of despair of Petrushansky (Dynamic CDS 117/1-3), nor can he claim the intensity, one might say melodrama, of other performances, he maintains a strong and sympathetic connection to the Fugue in both mood and tone. Other performers, notably Lin and Scherbakov, proceed to the Fugue rather nonchalantly and lose the relationship that Donohoe is so keen on preserving, here and throughout the rest of the set.
Fugue no. 19 lays bare a wide choice of interpretation. The main idea, angular and chromatic, is unleashed with sharp accents and at breakneck speed—the image of a sword-wielding samurai comes to mind—in the versions by Nikolaeva (1962), Ashkenazy, and Lin. Compare the similarly nervous edge that Scherbakov and Petrushansky evoke at a slower pace. Donohoe plumbs this thorny Fugues deeper layers in a more gentlemanly manner, yielding unexpected insights as it attempts to tame the music s somewhat chaotic trajectory and veneer of unapproachability.
In the final two entries, Donohoe takes up the valedictory tone of no. 23 and the synoptic breadth of no. 24 with the same measured pace and contemplative reserve that he has presented from the outset. In doing so, he not only brings his own vision of the work full circle, but reinforces the concept of the entire cycle as an integrated whole. He proceeds to bring the final fugue to a stirring and fittingly majestic conclusion.
Booklet notes, by the pianist himself, provide a generous thirteen pages of poignant insights into each of the 24 pairings. This is a cycle to which Donohoe has clearly given much thought, offering an introspective view that may be somewhat lacking in some of the extroverted moments, but one that reveals subtle and powerful insights with each listening.
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Viktor Ullmann, String Quartet no. 3; Shostakovich, String Quartet no. 2; Szymon Laks, String Quartet no. 3
Dover Quartet (Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violins; Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola; Camden Shaw, cello)
Cedille Records CDR 90000 173
Recorded at the Rolston Recital Hall, the Banff Centre , Banff, Alberta , Canada, 19-21 March 2016
The Dover Quartet, currently in residence at Northwestern University, is one of the
“hottest” string quartets on the American music scene, having accrued just about every award in sight, including top honours at the Banff and Wigmore Hall competitions, and an Avery Fisher Career Grant. Formed at the Curtis Institute, the group studied with members of the Guarneri, Cleveland, and Vermeer Quartets. This disc, their second, takes on war-related works from the 1940s; Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 2 (1944) is framed by two rarely-heard Third quartets—Viktor Ullmann’s (1943), composed in the Theresienstadt camp, and Szymon Laks’s (1945), written after the composer’s two-and-a-half years at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Dover Quartet hears defiance and resilience in all three quartets, and cellist Camden Shaw’s fine programme notes, at times quoted below, provide moving insights into the Dovers’ interpretation.
Austrian composer Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) studied with Arnold Schoenberg in the late-romantic/early modern Viennese musical world of Alban Berg, Gustav Mahler, and Alexander von Zemlinsky. Although the Dover Quartet hears Debussian harmonies in Ullmann’s work, to my ear the uneasy tonality of the Third Quartet echoes the late-romantic tonal style of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. His theatrical work, Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death Abdicates, 1943), presents a “mythical” country under an autocratic emperor, where life and death have lost their meaning. Theresienstadt commandants may have seen him as a caricature of Hitler, and the work’s debut was cancelled. In October 1944, Ullmann was shipped to Auschwitz, where he was killed within days. Defiance, indeed.
Ullmann’s Third Quartet is not quite 15 minutes in length, and the Dover players frame it in two movements. The longer first is in three parts (Allegro moderato-Presto-Largo), wherein a vaguely ominous central scherzo is framed by two freely interactive lyrical sections that are increasingly brooding and uneasy. A whiff of the troubling presto returns near the end, and the movement concludes without resolution. The brief second movement, just over two minutes, begins with an assertive rhythmic motif, and builds to a strong ending with recollections of the quartet’s opening lyricism. The Dovers’ interpretation is warm and exploratory—technically precise, but unafraid of the works darkness and unwilling to simplify its emotional complexity; I hear a careful avoidance of cliché and overstatement. I found it a grand introduction to this work, which is certainly worth getting to know.
The Dovers’ performance of Shostakovich’s Second String Quartet (1944) is exciting and powerful, full of subtle colour changes. The Overture’s opening is strong and incisive, but shadowed by modal uncertainty (major or minor?) and an uneasy second theme. The development works toward a blistering crisis spotlighting cellist Camden Shaw’s passionate high-register playing, and leads to the strange, minor-mode recapitulation.
The Recitative—a challenge for any first violinist—shifts from darkness in the opening to tenderness in the central romance, and then to harsh distortion as the “romance” disintegrates. Joel Link provides a lovely interpretation with a tone like spun more fragility in parts of the recitative, and more tenderness in the accompanying cadences, especially the last.
The third movement is appropriately eerie, violent, and exciting—a sinister waltz that is too fast for comfort. The Dover players carry us through the finale’s theme and variations with verve, a “model of pacing” (say the programme notes) that, in fact, is not easy to pull off. After the exciting, violent culmination, the return of the movement’s slow introduction
is indeed “filled with dread” and the Dover players hear the movement’s concluding theme statement as fragmented and uncertain, and its final chords as “soul-crushing.“ Overall, this is a powerful and convincing performance.
Szymon Laks (1901-1983) was a Polish composer and violinist who lived in Paris before and after World War II. In November 1941, he was transported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps, where he eventually became conductor of the Birkenau men’s orchestra, and was probably saved from the gas chambers by his music skills. As the orchestra’s conductor, he was able not only to protect himself and a growing number of musicians from extermination, but he also improved their lives by obtaining less strenuous work details and more rehearsal time. He survived his detention and wrote a memoir about it: Music of Another World (Northwest University Press, 2000).
Laks composed his Third String Quartet in 1945, just after the War. Although Shaw’s notes describe it as having been based on Polish folk tunes, I also hear Jewish folk inflections in the melodic augmented seconds, oom-pah rhythms, and syncopated accents. This music is neither strident nor stark. Its folksiness, fleeting Jewish features, and lack of recrimination remind me in some ways of the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg—Laks’s fellow Pole, who was writing his Fourth Quartet at the end of the War.
The quartet begins, Shaw’s fine notes tell us, “with a train whistle. Trains took Laks to Auschwitz, and also took him home. One can immediately tell that this is an ecstatic train ride;… he is going home.” We hear dance-like rhythms in the first theme, and continued memories in the second. As the themes interact with one another, and are superimposed upon each other, we begin to hear that memories of horror complicate the joys of survival.
The second-movement (Poco Lento) mourns, and is disrupted again by haunting memory. The programme notes describe “a screaming climax,” but in the Dover ensemble’s hands it is not shrill, and the players do not lose the warmth of their sound here; it is just intensely sad. A lighter, mostly-pizzicato scherzo follows, perhaps recalling the scherzo of Bartoks Fourth String Quartet.
The finale, a free theme and variations, is permeated by a drone, which drives the movement to its climax. The programme notes hear “tired footsteps, but a resilient spirit”—perhaps Laks’s experience approaching his home town after the war. “Yet the closer he gets, the more…his joy grows, until it becomes a veritable hurricane. This is the sound of new beginnings, and of freedom.”
In the hands of less skilful players, this music might be quite bland, or—even worse—played with a kind of maudlin sentimentality, but the Dover Quartet has brought it to life with this deeply felt, compassionate performance. Keep your eye on this group!
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Sabaneyev, Préludes (selections); Poème, opus 6, no. 1; Feuillets d’album (selections); Sonata in Memory of Scryabin, opus 15*
Jonathan Powell (piano)
Toccata TOCC 0308
Recorded at the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building in Oxford on 25-26 May 2015, and 5 May 2016
*World Premiere Recording
Leonid Sabaneyev (1881-1968) is usually thought of as a critic: notoriously, he excoriated Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, unaware that the concert had been cancelled. His accounts of Soviet music of the 1920s are valuable, but he is bestknown for his work on Scriabin. (They were close friends in the composer’s last years, but after Scriabin’s death, his legacy became divisive, and Sabaneyev, for various complex reasons, became more critical.) A dominant figure in Soviet music, Sabaneyev was President of ACM before emigrating to Paris in 1926. Shostakovich could not have failed to have known of him, and he must have known about the Soviets’ great musical hope. But little has so far been published on their relationship.
Sabaneyev regarded himself not as a critic-composer (a species he despised), but as a composer who had become a critic. There are a few orchestral pieces, and his later years were taken up with his vast, unfinished Apocalypsis Ioanis Apostoliy but mostly he wrote chamber music and solo piano pieces—Scriabinistically titled sets of Préludes, Poèmes, and Études, and, in 1915, the 32-minute Sonata In Memory of Scryabin. But despite this, he was keen to distance their styles; the older mans music was ethereal and ecstatic, whereas his own was characterised by tragedy and Wagnerian materiality. Although it is hard to agree entirely (he wouldn’t be the first artist to misapprehend their own work), there’s something to this characterisation. A dark turbidity pervades much of this disc, and the bell-like sounds intensify the sense of doom. But the dark, extended tonality, fluid rhythms, cellular construction, and fondness for anacruses are clearly derived from Scriabin. Jonathan Powell’s selection may intensify the tragic: of the 14 miniatures here, only two are in major keys and, with the Poème, op. 6, no. 1, there’s an excursion into G-sharp minor—the key of Scriabin’s Second Sonata.
But “miniature” is to do this music a disservice; some of the journeys on which Sabaneyev takes us have far greater implications than the few minutes of our time they demand might imply.
The major discovery here is the Sonata, given its world premiere recording after only a handful of performances. Its single 30-minute span is divided into three parts, filled with an unsurprising gloom. The funereal opening is shot through with attempts at brighter harmonies, a falling motif being tossed around the keyboard, and failed attempts to get motoristic rhythms going. There are moments of bewildered doominess, and all of this even before the central Misterioso section, whose thinner textures are punctured by occasional crashing dissonances. This moves into something more mystical, perhaps even redemptive, before falling back into the final Risoluto and revisiting the opening material. The end seems to peter out; there is nothing more to say. Powell convincingly proposes that the work owes something to the then-secret mystical bases of the Scriabin Ninth Sonata to which Sabaneyev was privy.
Sabaneyev’s piano works would fill two discs, and (coincidentally) two pianists have risen to the challenge. Volume 1 of Michael Schäfers chronological traversal (Genuin: GEN 15380) reaches op. 13. Powell prefers to present a selection of the shorter pieces as a prelude to the first recording of the Sonata. I’m not aware of any evidence that Sabaneyev intended the sets to be played through, so both programming decisions are equally valid. The performers’ approaches drift in and out of Sabanayev’s self-assessment, but Schäfer is perhaps a shade more Scriabinesque; Powell emphasises what the composer described as the muscularity that Scriabin lacked. Still, he brings out the strange jazziness of the opening of opus 2, no. 1—a weird transformation of Scriabin’s opus 11, no. 10—and steers a light skiff in opus 2, no. 4, where Schäfer, around 60 percent slower, heavily manoeuvres
his oars through turbulent waters.
The recording is nicely balanced, and the year separating the sessions is only betrayed by the booklet notes. Powell’s notes gives a wealth of background, but (frustratingly) the dates of the works remain elusive.
John Leman Riley