CD Reviews 50
*World premiere recording
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Tatarstan Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Sladkovsky
Pyotr Mugunov, bass (opus 113 and 135); Natalya Muradymova, soprano (opus 135); Grand Choir Masters of Choral Singing of the Russian State Music TV and Radio Centre/Lev Kontrovich (opus 14, 20, 113)
Recorded at the Saydashev Great Concert Hall in Kazan, 2016
Melodiya MEL CD 10 02470
Symphonies 1 and 2 (50:01); Symphony 3 (31:18); Symphony 4 (63:20); Symphonies 5 and 6 (77:07); Symphony 7, mvmts i and ii (40:15); Symphony 7, mvmts iii and iv (39:28); Symphony 8 (64:38); Symphonies 9 and 12 (75:05); Symphony 10 (54:29); Symphony 11 (56:21); Symphony 13 (59:34); Symphony 14 (50:38); Symphony 15 (49:04)
The Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1966, has long flourished in obscurity, yet it has worked with some of Russia’s most distinguished musicians: its first artistic director and principal conductor was Natan Rakhlin. From 1989 Fuat Mansurov held the reins but since 2010, when Alexander Sladkovsky (born in 1965) took over, the TNSO has undergone what has been called a “Kazan Miracle”. While stepping up touring activity, a recording programme was launched in 2012 with a 3-CD survey of Tartar composers, followed by well-received annual discs, featuring standard-bearers such as Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Gershwin. 2017 brought a 3-CD set of Shostakovich’s complete concertos, with the present set of symphonies following in 2018. With these two issues, Sladkovsky and the TNSO enter the world stage de facto as a force to be reckoned with.
The First Symphony makes an impressive first entry in the set. With uninhibited enthusiasm and more than a little extravagance, Sladkovsky captures its youthful spirit of novelty that took the world by storm in 1926. From the opening trumpet call, the fleet-footed instrumental exchanges that follow do so with crisp edges and with energy to spare. The march sections in the first movement are briskly paced, the waltz theme alternates with sympathetic restraint. We find the same theatre of heightened contrasts in the mercurially propelled Scherzo, where the TNSO boasts its agility to turn rapid corners between the impetuous Allegro and moody meno mosso sections. The movement’s three windswept piano chords come crashing down as dramatically as you’ve ever heard. One of the hallmarks of Sladkovsky’s cycle is the intensity with which the crescendos surge, at times accompanied by the conductor’s faintly audible vocalisations—a personal touch, whether intentional or not—that contributes to the visceral drive of his interpretations. Another of the cycle’s hallmarks, also found in this performance, is the generous platform given to the instrumental solos, bringing out the full measure of the score’s transparency and drama. The oboe, cello and violin are beautifully and sensitively articulated; the sixnote tattoo in the Lento is brought to earth-shattering peaks, and the pivotal timpani solo is granted ample space to fully display its pontifical gestures. That and the operatic lyricism that surrounds these passages may seem a tad melodramatic in Sladkovsky’s excitable hands yet his treatment in these final pages is consistent with the verve he brings to the rest of the work.
Sladkovsky delivers another strong performance in the Second Symphony, making an exceptionally convincing case for one of the least performed, arguably least accessible symphonies in the canon. The composer shuns classical form in favour of an audacious open-ended floorplan, wherein the music wends its way through an improvisatory succession of stark solo passages and densely chromatic crescendos, garnished in its final pages by an incongruously homophonic choral setting. Ideological symbolism aside, the work’s finely wrought passages deserve the kind of detailed attention given them by Sladkovsky. The murky contrapuntal mist of the opening section is conjured as though the witches from Macbeth were involved, as are the moody settings that pave the way for the subsequent solo passages for trumpet, tuba, and violin. Each of the subsequent crescendos escalates with vigour to spare, the voices piling up, one on top of the other, in progressively thickening layers of dissonance and contrived pandemonium, leading, in the final passage, by way of wild cymbal crashes and antagonistic trombone slides, to a brassy plateau of block chords. With uncanny sleight of hand, Sladkovsky makes the succession of incongruities flow effortlessly and convincingly. After the prominent call of a genuine factory whistle, the chorus sings Bezymensky’s text with earnestness sufficient to transport the listener back to 1927 to hail proletarians worldwide.
After such an impressive rendering of the Second, Sladkovsky’s handling of Shostakovich’s other orphaned symphony, the Third, leaves something to be desired. The symphony is built on a composed-through technique, where new material is constantly being introduced, where quick transitions and flash-point turns are of the essence. Unfortunately, Sladkovsky’s choice of tempo in the two main Allegro sections that significantly define the work fail to spark the necessary excitement and spontaneity. The playing is robust, the crescendos well-accented, yet one is left with the impression of a conductor marking time rather than sculpting a performance. If there is one place where the underdriven tempo exacts a most conspicuous toll, it is at the snare drum solo that tops off one of the passages of climactic ascent. The pivotal moment is delivered with strokes that convey travel fatigue rather than the peak thrill found in more compelling renditions. The evocative Andante sections and the robust choral finale do the performance justice. However, the disappointing gait in the faster portions fails to provide the needed overall balance and equilibrium. Sladkovsky’s performance, at 31:18, is not quite the slowest, an honour that may go to Gennady Rozhdestvensky at 33:21, released on various labels: two are reviewed in DSCH 11 and 23. Still, it does join the company of other recordings at the long end of the spectrum, such as Petrenko’s (31:10. Naxos 8.572396; DSCH 35), Jansons’ (31:21. EMI 0946 3 56830 2 8; DSCH 27), and Haitink’s (32:31. Decca 421 131-2DH). What is common to these other long-end performances is that their Allegro sections remain briskly intact while the lengthening takes place in their more expanded treatment of the Andante sections of the work. Rozhdestvensky delivers an impressive interpretation whose highlights include a riveting treatment of the rising glissandi gestures in the final Andante section, their otherworldliness magnified in a manner that will send shivers up the proverbial spine. Haitink delivers one of the most sonically sumptuous renditions on record, with well-probed slower sections and engaging faster ones. Morton Gould’s 1968 Western premiere (RCA Red Seal SB 6755) at a brisk 28:39 remains one of the best in the catalogue.
Interpretations of the Fourth Symphony fall somewhere between two extremes: a broadside approach that seeks to tame the work’s teetering structure through more or less uniformly driven tempi; and a more adventurous approach that highlights the contrasts between its diverse sections. Sladkovsky’s manifestly falls into the latter category. His is a performance in which the work’s manic extremes and confounding opposites are shamelessly tested and impudently probed. The rampaging march rhythms of the opening section are driven relentlessly with the kind of ferocious percussive punctuations found throughout the Sladkovsky cycle. This is a performance that vents its spleen, though it judiciously ratifies architectural barriers: the hysterical chord at fig. 30 that closes the first portion of the opening movement rages with blistering madness, as does the chromatically ascending scale passage (fig. 47) that tops off the second section. The three principal crescendos in the final movement erupt with similar visceral force, again embodying a physicality and even brutality that distinguishes this performance. Complementary to these moments of intense outburst are the sensitively rendered instrumental solos and passages of chamber-like instrumentation that surround them, where a pronounced softening of the tone and broadening of the tempo pull them into their own expressive orbit. Some may find Sladkovsky’s tempo shifts a tad capricious, as in the sudden stepped-up
pace of the timpani eruption that leads to the climactic coda of the Symphony. The most dramatic tempo shift takes place in the opening movement when the winds burst in with a chattering rendition of the opening march theme. That passage and the following mighty fugue in the strings fly by so swiftly, if somewhat unnervingly, it prompted a stopwatch comparison with more than a dozen other renditions. My suspicions were confirmed: the entire sequence is taken at record-breaking speed, bypassing even the parallel passage in Kondrashin’s meteoric version (most recently released in Melodiya’s complete symphonies box MEL CD 10 02431, DSCH 48). Whatever tactical disequilibrium one may find in these and other impetuous gestures throughout the performance, it does make for thrilling listening.
With a strategy of heightened contrasts, Sladkovsky demonstrates that the interpretive possibilities of the ever-popular Fifth Symphony remain fertile territory for exploration. In the opening movement, the two thematic areas of the exposition unfold sensitively and softly. But with the appearance of the piano’s three-note volley, the development section is launched with a marked upshift in tempo and the music surges with sinister enthusiasm. Where the march-variant of the descending theme makes its jarring appearance, some conductors quicken the tempo. Sladkovsky does the opposite, pulls the reins back, and parades the moment’s mock triumph with sneering bravado. From this caustic point of departure, the music accelerates toward a gripping climactic destination. The humour and frivolity of the Mahler-inflected Scherzo are scathingly accented. In the internally directed Largo, the highlight of the performance, the mood is reverential, prayer-like, griefstricken. A crescendo of stirring depth is followed by arias for flute, oboe, and clarinet, each sympathetically delivered and poignantly individualised. Throughout the movement Sladkovsky’s tempos are extravagant. The hymn-like sonorities approach utter stillness, an arresting serenity that almost brings the entire symphony to a halt. The principal climax that follows is soul-stirring. Even the celesta solo in the movement’s final pages is given a luxurious sound pedestal and made all the more poignant. An early tempo surge in the finale may seem impetuous, especially in light of the sharp deceleration of the broader lyrical material at the centre of the movement. Neither here nor in the heavily accented coda does one detect palpable signs of doublespeak, the forced rejoicing or concealed resentment that we find so unabashedly in Petrenko’s politically weighted account (Naxos 8.5722167, DSCH 32). While the big Russian theme that emerges just before the coda deserves more than the understated treatment it receives here, the finale, for all appearances, seems to be taken at its triumphant face value.
The transparent instrumentation and frequent solo passages in the Sixth Symphony give TNSO members plenty of opportunity to show their individual strengths in a lively performance in which Sladkovsky navigates a musical journey from darkness to joviality with characteristic vim and vigour. In the balance between mood and momentum in the opening Largo, momentum is slightly favoured, the crisp pace fortified by vigorous timpani rolls that establish forceful terms of engagement. This, until the breakaway passage toward the end of the movement where Sladkovsky virtually stops the flow of time in the Zen stillness of the flute duet’s aria. In the reprise of the principal theme in the Largo’s final pages, where some conductors impart a feeling of resilience and consolidation, here, as in the Petrenko interpretation (Naxos 8.572658, DSCH 36), we find a more subdued, melancholy synopsis. In the last two movements, the various solos, textural shifts and moments of local colour receive exuberant attention with strong percussive presence, though the brief but noteworthy tambourine part in the Allegro somehow gets swallowed up. In the Presto, consistent with the occasional liberties with tempo markings found throughout the Sladkovsky cycle, the finale’s high spirits are ramped up in discrete steps of increasing velocity.
If Sladkovsky’s impulsive approach to the Fourth Symphony stirs doubts about his ability to negotiate larger pieces of musical architecture, his beautiful rendering of the Seventh dispels those notions. His conception is very much tied to the time and place that comprise the manifest content of the work, the Siege of Leningrad. His detailed attention to the thematic and narrative relationships between the movements, as well as the human element to which they are connected, make this a deeply stirring and memorable account. Both the large- and small-scale features are well delivered. The invasion theme escalates with indefatigable force, with increasingly accentuated rhythms appearing in the sixth repetition until, in the last few there is a decided, almost jolting upshift in tempo. The return of the opening theme warily hints at the resilience that fully expresses itself with its return in the final movement. Sladkovsky’s fondness for sudden tempo surges highlights the central episodes of the two middle movements. The Adagio remains the symphony’s expressive centre, a place of emotional regathering, a summary reflection of the traumas surveyed in the preceding movements. Its pensive outer portions have invited a variety of approaches, from Bernstein’s (Sony Classical SBK 89904) and Kitaenko’s pastoral account (Capriccio 71029), to Temirkanov’s affectingly mournful one (RCA Red Seal 09026 62548-2), to the moving eloquence offered by Rudolf Barshai (in his complete Brilliant Classics set, 6275, DSCH 20). But it was no doubt Vasily Petrenko (Naxos 8.573057, DSCH 39) and his personalised touches—his slower tempi and subtle restraint—that paved the way for Sladkovsky’s internalised version, marked by gently applied rubato, rapturous phrasing, and tenderly hushed tones. The central conflagration stirs the air with due agitation, my only complaint being that the Spanish-style trumpet fanfare that caps the section could have stood out more prominently. In the final Allegro non troppo Sladkovsky awakens with inspiration the movement’s spirit of gathering strength, determination, and hard-won victory.
Sladkovsky leads a weighty dignified Eighth Symphony, guided by steady and measured pacing, free of the sharp if sometimes capricious tempo shifts found elsewhere in the cycle. After the enunciative spasm of the opening bars, the two themes of the exposition are stated in the same hushed tones that distinguish his version of the Fifth Symphony’s Largo, where, like here, crescendos rise like personal moments of an epiphany. At the onset of the development section Sladkovsky bears down on the three-note rhythm with thunderously heavy accents. Tone and temper rise vigorously, escalating at every turn. At the moment marked Allegro non troppo, where the section turns lean and mean with rousing hiccup rhythms, and where conductors from Kondrashin (BMG Classics Melodiya 7432119841-2) to Nelsons (DG 00289 5201), and notably Petrenko (Naxos 8.572392), shift the tempo into high gear, Sladkovsky does the unexpected and keeps the music moving at a fairly constant pace, choosing instead to build tension with increasing dynamic levels. He maintains a fairly steady pace over and through the heavyfooted marcato passage through to the cataclysmic recap of the symphony’s opening exhortation. The impact is overwhelming. The remaining movements are handled with comparable muscle. The virtuosic chatter between the various instruments in the Allegretto movement is highlighted with strong accents and tight-edged playing. Likewise the panting gasps of the Allegro non troppo are breathlessly whisked forward. In the trio section of same movement, the snare drum’s five-note tattoo receives an extra jolt forward as the percussionist exerts a snap-force on the fifth and final note of the figure. Sladkovsky holds the line with eloquent restraint in the long contours of the Passacaglia, and again with tempos held fairly steady as in the opening movement, he invokes the rebounding-from-the ashes mood with stately compassion throughout the final Allegretto-Allegro.
The TNSO provides a lively rendition of the least problematic symphony of the canon, the postwar Ninth. It cheerfully gives in to the Stalin-taunting joviality of the first movement, with all its symphonic skid-marks, drollery, faux-drama, and not least, the trombone’s deliberately mis-cued cadences. The succession of wind solos invokes the “evening lights” ambiance of the Moderato, and the Presto’s irrepressible chattering is stirred up with virtuosity to spare. Cowering between the brass’s bravado declarations in the Largo, the solo bassoon’s arias capture a befitting mood of caution and circumspection. The ensemble gleefully plays along with Shostakovich’s parting shot, the melodramatic ascent to a sneering anti-summit, a jerk-your-string trumpet and snare drum cackle, a paean in a pisspot for the Great Leader and Teacher. Again taking liberties as he does in the finales of the Sixth and Tenth, Sladkovsky throttles up the tempo in the last few bars for a thrilling finish.
As with the Eighth Symphony, the TNSO delivers a performance of the Tenth with dignity and passion, where Sladkovsky again mingles spontaneous impulses within a solid architectural framework of interpretation. The opening movement is exalted by moment-by-moment attention to detail: each phrase meticulously sculpted, each pause lovingly rendered, each dynamic shift reverentially observed. In the brooding landscape of the exposition, where contrasts are accentuated, Sladkovsky exhibits constraint in the quiet sections, then raises crescendos to maddeningly intense peaks. The spring in the step of the second theme, introduced by solo flute, further charges the air with anticipation. The development section’s crowning three-note horn statements are fortified with plush front-and-centre gong strokes, forming glorious summits. In the Scherzo the snare drum’s mighty muscle fortifies the vitality of the performance—once again demonstrating the prominent role TNSO’s strapping percussion section plays in defining the cycle. In the third movement the horn’s ELMIRA theme is delivered sumptuously, arrestingly in each of its incarnations. The climactic fandango, heralding the DSCH motif as nowhere else in the Shostakovich archive, rings out with ever-increasing fervour as well as ever-increasing tempo, a now familiar creative license that Sladkovsky also takes in the finale of the closing movement, where the timpani broadcast the repetitions of the DSCH motif with accelerating speed and determination.
In the Eleventh Symphony, The Year 1905, as in the Second and Seventh, Sladkovsky makes the transcendent connection between music and the time, place and emotions associated with historical events. The spirit of Revolution summoned here is a youthful one, steeped in coiled energy and blazing vitality. Amid the sinister murmurings of the opening Palace Square, where in other versions one finds a tone of vigilance, Sladkovsky’s pre-Revolutionary landscape glimmers with optimism and aspiration. Likewise, the hurtling gestures of January 9th teem with athletic verve, the broader lines with eager determination atop the prevailing agitation. The massacre sequence near the movement’s end, one of the peak moments of the 1905, and arguably the zenith of musical militancy in the Soviet era, bears special attention. Sladkovsky’s bolting tempos throughout this passage may well be the most impetuous on record and, by a considerable margin, the fastest, exceeding even Kondrashin’s brisk pace (Melodiya MEL CD 10 01065) by almost 50%: compare their timings of 2:24 and 3:34, respectively, over the identical passage. Sladkovsky also takes the liberty of cranking up the pace once or twice during the sequence, reminiscent of Neeme Järvi’s similarly escalating tempos (his sequence times at 3:16) (DG 459 415-2GTA2). While some may ascribe to the notion that Shostakovich can never be played too quickly, setting some upper speed limits, in this case for the sake of savouring the contrapuntal details of the fugue, as well as maintaining the movement’s overall rhythmic stability, may well be advised. While no rival recording of the Eleventh has been engineered with the stellar clarity and balance of Kondrashin’s, in the current recording the timpani’s all-important rhythmic tattoo could have been set a little more forward in the fugue’s electrifying peak moments. The timing of Sladkovsky’s In Memoriam falls on the short end at 10:27, only outpaced by Ashkenazy’s record-holding 9:41 (Decca 448 179-2DH). What Ashkenazy does with those precious nine-plus minutes is powerful, with implacably striding outer sections surrounding a central climax of staggering projectile force. Sladkovsky may not realise the same level of dignity or emotive impact, but still delivers valuable goods with the fluidity of the outer sections and a central crown of rousing percussive intensity. The final Tocsin is driven with all the might and Revolutionary zeal the Tatars can muster. The English horn solo is delivered with uncommon eloquence.
In the most uncanny of Shostakovich’s symphonies, the Twelfth, a first movement that carries enough punch and poundage to provide a passable measure of respectability is followed by three vestigial limbs which dangle in a kind of inert musical limbo. If anyone can assert ownership of this odd assemblage, other than its doubtfully honoured dedicatee, Vladimir Lenin, it is Yevgeny Mravinsky, whose interpretation, at least of the first movement, makes an electrifying case for it. Not even Kondrashin’s solidly driven account (MEL CD 10 02431, DSCH 48) quite matches Mravinsky’s invocation of menace lurking beneath the passages of playfulness and triumph (Le Chant du Monde PR 7254 017). That layer of menace is found in performances few and far between. Petrenko’s peppy performance with the RLPO (Naxos 8.572658, DSCH 36), to refer to a recent recording, misses it by a few grooves. Bernard Haitink, surprisingly, commandeers all the strata in question with a weightily polished rendition, only to be outdone by the relentlessly rousing version of Neeme Jarvi (DG 459 415-2GTA2). Despite the soft-edged attacks of the opening motto theme, Sladkovsky invests his version with vivaciousness and virtuosity to spare, even if it doesn’t quite capture all of the darker layers within. He takes the Razliv movement at a slow reflective pace, making the best of its aimless wandering with a well-honed crescendo and nicely turned final trombone
solo. The TNSO percussion section give the shatter-fest of Aurora their eruptive best and offer as convincing an impression of musical substance as possible in the endlessly repetitive gestures of the final Dawn (or more appropriately “Yawn”) of Humanity.
In the Thirteenth Symphony, Babi Yar, Sladkovsky is fortunate to have bass soloist Pyotr Migunov. Singers including Artur Eizen, Dimiter Petkov, Anatoli Safiulin and Marius Rintzler have brought imperious tones and majestic bearing, but Migunov defines the role in more proletarian terms. Soil and sweat combine with the refinement of the concert hall to shape a performance which is immediate, intimately personal and imbued with spontaneous inflections. In short, he provides an ideal counterpart and worthy ally to Sladkovsky’s extempore style of interpretation. The chorus, too, is on board from the start: its opening phrase rises from a restrained ppp to a fiery fff, hinting at the passions soon to be unleashed. And indeed they are, conveyed by way of an evocative contrast between Migunov’s softer pleading tones and the chorus’s sharper edges. The percussion entries, which play a defining role throughout the cycle, are particularly notable. At the first movement’s summit and in its final bars, the climactic return of the opening fournote figure is punctuated with a series of colossal gong strokes that are often heard as background fortification. In Rozhdestvensky’s potent account (Melodiya A10 00285 000, DSCH 11), these punctuations resound. In the Sladkovsky, however, the gong strokes take on a life of their own, their majestic reverberations given centre stage with powerful impact. In Humour Migunov’s passionate exhortations and emphatic surges bring an engaging spontaneity. While other basses may bring more pathos to In the Store, Migunov movingly conveys tenderness and vulnerability. The TNSO scores strong atmospheric points, both here and in Fears, whose vehemence and guarded anxiety are well captured by all the forces.
In the next symphony, the Fourteenth, Migunov exhibits the same versatility and heartfelt connection to the texts and music. With Death as the prevailing adversary, the darker timbres of his voice predominate as he comes to terms, quite movingly, with a very different set of expressive challenges. In the opening De Profundis he embodies the sense of world-weariness in a slow sombre delivery that sets the stage for the work. Soprano Natalia Muradymova also brings a wide range of emotions, with ample intensity in key passages. There are a few instances when her voice struggles to meet the tempestuous pressures of the moment, as in the exchange of vocal and instrumental exhortations of On Watch. Yet her resourcefulness impresses, from the high-strung tensions of Malagueña to the disconsolate contours and sudden outbursts in The Suicide. Migunov also displays the full measure of his powerful voice in the Zaporozhian Cossacks setting, and his tenderness in O Delvig. The two soloists strike a perfect partnership with each other in their sneering exchanges in Madame, Look! and their riveting dialogue in Loreley. Throughout, Sladkovsky’s tempos are tight, but not as extreme as Kondrashin’s (Melodiya MEL CD 10 01065) or the premiere Barshai recording with Reshetin and Vishnevskaya (MEL CD 10 02431, DSCH 48). The slowing of the pace in the pizzicato passage of In Santé Prison provides poignant breathing space amid the anxious proceedings. The TNSO is more than adept in keeping a tense line and listeners at the edge of their seat as they deftly negotiate the sharp turns and dissonant jabs in Shostakovich’s most expressionistically concentrated score.
In the final work of the cycle, the Fifteenth Symphony, if nothing else, Sladkovsky shows himself a master of the unexpected. In his interpretation, the dark shadows of the two Adagio movements extend over and through the two lighter Allegrettos, thus suffusing all four movements with pervasive unrelieved darkness. The point is tellingly made in the opening Allegretto, whose pace and timing at 9:10 are categorically the broadest on record, just overshooting Wigglesworth’s reflective traversal at 9:05 (BIS-1643). In contrast to Wigglesworth’s, however, Sladkovsky’s unhurried pace projects a more baleful tone, a grey pallor cast over the ostensibly upbeat spirits, with the result that the chattering woodwind solos sound more equivocal than freewheeling, the William Tell quotes brought off more as eerie grimaces from a dispirited soul than the rib-tickling jolts found in other performances. Adding arsenic to the cocktail is the TNSO’s percussive clout, as their violent entries underscore the chilling subtext being tendered. Sladkovsky also stretches the following Adagio movement to its limits—compare his slowest-of-all timing of 19:02 with the next longest, Petrenko’s 17:25 (Naxos 8.572708, DSCH 37), to Barshai’s short-ended 11:43 (Brilliant Classics 6275, DSCH 20). The expanded treatment magnifies the sense of desolation embodied in the solos for cello, trombone, and vibraphone, as it amplifies the devastating impact of the central cataclysm. The finale is also long-paced, heartbreakingly so. The first note of the sentimental Glinka theme is held achingly long, the interruption chords make a stabbing entry, the passacaglia brought off with relentless drive. My one reservation concerns the crash chord upon which the entire symphony descends in the last measure of the passacaglia, a pivotal moment that Sladkovsky accentuates a tad too fleetingly, one that could have been elevated to deservedly monumental proportions in keeping with the staggering intensity of the second movement’s convulsion and the overall dark focus.
Lastly, the cycle is beautifully recorded and engineered, with minor imperfections as noted, and handsomely packaged with informative
liner notes by Boris Mukosey. Here we have a Shostakovich cycle whose individual profile and outstanding moments merit our attention.
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Weinberg, Clarinet Sonata, opus 28 (arr. for viola and piano); Dick Kattenburg, Sonata for Viola and Piano; Max Vredenburg, Lamento; Shostakovich, Viola Sonata, opus 147
Ásdis Valdimarsdóttir (viola), Marcel Worms (piano)
Zefir, ZEF 9657
Recorded at the Zeeuwse Konzertsaal, Middelburg. 17–18 February, 26 March 2018
Forget the jokes: the viola has a plaintive voice that lends itself to the most personal of statements: take, for example, the popular-culture association of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante with the death of the composer’s mother. Linking the personal to the political, Finnish violist Ásdis Valdimarsdóttir and Dutch pianist Marcel Worms have here created a programme consisting of works by composers who at one time or the other fell victim to oppression.
As always with such ventures, the danger is that the back-story is more interesting than the music. Max Vredenburg’s Lamento, in memory of his sister, is a case in point. Certainly there is pathos and emotional yearning aplenty in the playing, and a clear sense of devotion and admiration for a composer who, having survived a Japanese internment camp after fleeing to Indonesia from the Nazis, did much for the post-war advancement of Dutch and Jewish music. As for the music itself? Not distinguished.
Vredenburg’s compatriot, Dick Kattenburg, was not as fortunate in his fate, though judging by the pieces included on this disc he was, or would have become, a finer composer. The Allegro moderato is the only surviving movement of what was to have been a complete sonata. It dates from the year of Kattenburg’s arrest and deportation to Auschwitz, where he would soon perish at the age of 24. As a self-taught composer, Kattenburg here shows signs of a more personal style and a clearer departure from the Debussian and Stravinskian influences than in his earlier works. The seriousness of Hindemith comes to mind especially in the recurrent polyphonic passages, interwoven with sensitive excursions into pentatonicism and subtle references to jazz harmonies, one of Kattenburg’s greatest passions. The limitations of his compositional technique, evident from the lack of continuity and some predictable sequences, are compensated by genuine energy and refreshing sincerity.
Also his last work, of course, Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata goes on a journey similar to Professor Isak Borg’s odyssey through his own memories towards ultimate serenity in Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries. It has all the markings of “lateness”, echoing Gordon McMullen’s description of Shakespeare’s late style: a “whittling down to basics, a return not only to the artist’s youth but also to the youth of the art, which is at the same time a looking forward to the future after the artist’s death”. But its feeling of stepping outside time and space is hard to capture in performance. Valdimarsdóttir and Worms’ opening movement, admirable for its shapely phrasing, continuity and structural coherence, is at the same time curiously nonchalant and light-hearted in tone, and with no redeeming undertones of cynicism or defiance. It takes the cosmic alignment of Bashmet and Richter to show how infinitely long lines in a hyper-slow tempo can create a chilling effect of the body-clock gradually winding down. Given that Valdimarsdóttir and Worms’ first movement takes more than three minutes less than Bashmet and Richter’s, an electrifying and energetic second movement would have been appropriate. Instead theirs never really takes off and is generally heavy and laboured, missing Shostakovich’s magical blend of memories and absurdities by a mile. Though clearly aware of the eschatological significance of the closing Adagio, Valdimarsdóttir and Worms never dare to stare death in the eye. As a result there is a sense of denial of the end rather than a peaceful acceptance and surrender to it, as depicted by Bashmet and Richter.
Valdimarsdóttir and Worms’ account of Shostakovich’s sonata derive from their understanding of Weinberg’s, originally composed in 1945 for clarinet. They certainly bring out a wistfulness in both first movements; exactly what Weinberg invites, though hardly appropriate for Shostakovich. The second movement opens in deceptively carefree mood, but as the skies turn darker the persistent easy-going melody becomes first a self-soothing shield and later an explosive defiant statement. Jewish klezmer shades are most prominent in this movement, conveyed not just through modal alterations but in the characteristic rhythmical outbursts. Valdmarsdóttir and Worms do not force the Jewish character in the way that Julia Adler and Jascha Nemtsov do in the only other recording of the piece in its viola arrangement. Where Adler and Nemtsov bare it all, you might say, Valdimarsdóttir and Worms appreciate that there is no need to show too much flesh in order to be sexy. Worms is eloquent in the tragic declamatory piano solo that opens the concluding movement (Adagio, as in the Shostakovich), and his funereal chords are never harsh, providing an appropriately austere background for the surging viola lines, and adding up to a truthful-sounding reflection of the sonata’s life and times.
It seems that Weinberg’s music is destined to come as a package with Shostakovich and with his own extraordinary biography: his double escape from the Nazis and his family’s tragic ending. Given the composer’s own lifetime mission of commemorating the victims of war and atrocity, it may be that he would have raised no objection. Still, hopefully we are on the way to a time when his music will be allowed to speak for itself.
Prokofiev, Cello Sonata, opus 119; Myaskovsky, Cello Sonata no. 2, opus 81; Shostakovich, Cello Sonata, opus 40
Marie-Thérèse Grisenti (cello), Marc Vitantonio (piano)
Recorded at Grange de Beaulieu, France, April 2017
NB The physical disc is available from French outlets (e.g. FNAC and Amazon.fr). In other territories (e.g. the UK) it may only be available through streaming or as a download
Prokofiev wrote his sonata in C major in 1949, after being so inspired by Rostropovich’s performance of Myaskovsky’s Second Cello Sonata that he determined to write a comparable work for the cellist. The resultant piece was premiered on March 1 1950 in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, with Rostropovich as soloist and Sviatoslav Richter at the piano. Myaskovsky hailed it as “A miraculous piece of music!” and the piece marked, to a degree, Prokofiev’s rehabilitation following the slamming critique of the 1948 Decree. The sonata is eminently classical in form and in style, with typically Prokofievian sweeping melodic lines interspersed with episodes conveying barbed mischief and stabbing doubt. The second movement in particular is pure Prokofiev from the Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet stable of expressiveness and lyricism. The performance on this crowd-funded CD is excellent: the depth and warmth of Grisenti’s playing enhances the eclectic nature of this nevertheless unexpectedly conventional piece with a perfectly matched Vitantonio, whose piano accompaniment is the perfect foil to the virtuosic utterances of the cello.
Also dedicated to Rostropovich is Myaskovksy’s Second Cello Sonata, written in 1948. This highly romantic work has little in common with its Prokofiev counterpart apart from a prevailingly intense and warm expressiveness, intermingled with an underlying sense of foreboding. The sonata’s thematic dramatic traits are deftly portrayed on this recording, the purity of tone from the two players leading to a fiery counterpoint in the final movement’s coda, built on the scurrying, urgent nature of the closing pages of the work.
If the duo’s technique and interpretative prowess are easily equal to the later sonatas on this disc, the work from an earlier decade, namely Shostakovich’s 1934 sonata, challenges the musicians’ insight and interpretative skills. There is a lack of attack in some key passages of the first movement, and of precision in the aria-like pleadings that bridge into the movement’s development section. A certain string fragility ends the episode as the opening theme drifts back into view, not completely convincingly. Likewise, the subsequent pulsations expose the cello’s unwillingness to engage—or is this a deliberate retreat? The closing piano single notes are beautifully captured on this exquisite recording but have lost the sense of wilderness. The brilliance of the second movement is better assured, with powerful, piercing playing from both musicians; the interpretation is striking also from the point of view of dynamics: few versions I own reach such sonic extremes, and here, to great effect. Back to the elegiac nature of the third movement and a return to a less-persuasive, more tenuous and insubstantial rendering of this remarkable movement’s underlying fearfulness. To round off the disc’s programme, the final Allegro is charming and ebullient with splendid virtuosity exercised by both instrumentalists.
An unequal Shostakovich sonata then, but overall a highly attractive disc, featuring three major cello works from the twentieth-century, from substantially different viewpoints and styles. The audio quality is superlative from start to finish and the sleeve-notes (only in French) by Marie-Thérèse Grisenti extremely thorough and informative.
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Symphony No 4[a]; Symphony No 11[b]
Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons
Recorded: live at Symphony Hall, Boston, 22 March 2018 [a]; 28 September 2017 [b]
TT: 2:07:03 [CD1 64:24; CD2 62:39]
DGG 0289 483 5220 3
Decorated with Grammy awards two years in a row for the Under Stalin’s Shadow releases that launched their Shostakovich cycle, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra have become the resident toasts of the town. In 2016 they won in the Best Orchestral Performance category for their widely-praised Symphony No. 10 (reviewed in DSCH 44). In 2017 they won it again for their trifecta release of Symphonies 5, 8, and 9. Now with a two-CD pairing of Symphonies 4 and 11, the artistic partnership yet again vies for accolades.
With its stubbornly untidy, fiercely tempestuous landscape, the great Fourth Symphony presents a daunting set of interpretive challenges, even by Shostakovichian standards. Performances have had varied degrees of success. Kondrashin’s pioneering recording (most recently heard in the Melodiya box reviewed in DSCH 48), with his characteristic full-throttle pacing, set a high standard of expressive and formal coherence which a number of conductors, notably Simon Rattle (EMI 555476-2), have emulated. Others have commendably held the line while personalising the colour and character of the work’s ever-twisting episodes. Prominent among them is Vassily Petrenko’s glowing version with the Liverpool PO, and Gergiev’s recent power-packed report with the Mariinsky Orchestra (both to be reviewed in a forthcoming DSCH). James Judd’s version with the EYCO (Nuova Era 67340) remains a personal favourite , outstanding for the expressivity of its instrumental solos. By contrast, one can find others that seem to stumble or plod along in the music’s wilderness. It is its driving force and attention to detail that gives Nelsons’ performance a distinguished place in the discography.
One of the notable features of Nelsons’ performance is the confidence with which he promptly takes command of the score. The opening measures come charging out briskly and bracingly. It is fortified with gloriously thunderous punctuations, thanks to the heavyweight sonic spectrum DG has provided this and the previous releases in the Nelsons series. The energetic pace is used both expressively and as a formal reference point, invoked whenever the opening theme makes a front-and-centre appearance in each of its guises throughout the movement: through the broad opening paragraph; in the woodwind chatter section at the movement’s centre, leading to the grand fugue based on the theme itself; and in the solo bassoon’s final restatement of the theme at the movement’s end. The formal clarity so achieved is especially appealing. In between these reference points, the pace is flexible, the whiffs of yearning lyricism in the strings are sensitively detailed, the harp- and the celesta-adorned moments are explored with subtlety and grace, and the valedictory solos for oboe and violin are eloquently delivered. At the same time, climactic moments rise to the fullest—they include the outburst of existential terror that concludes the opening paragraph, the crescendo of chromatically ascending brass further on, and the massive fugue-driven climax at the movement’s centre. The second movement also advances at a crisp pace, emphasising the edgy obsessiveness of its four-note tattoo. The broad descending theme reaches impassioned depths. A letdown is the weak recorded presence of the coda: the impact of the percussive reverberations that bring the movement to a close—one of the symphony’s most striking and poignant moments—is disappointingly lost.
In the final movement Nelsons shows the same unblinking confidence as he did in the first, again arriving at a cogent and captivating realisation of another runaway structure. The shifts in tempo over this irregular terrain are cast boldly and imaginatively; at the same time the contrasting episodes flow into each other with compelling force. From the ruminative pace of the opening march, Nelsons steps into high gear as the galumphing two-note theme materialises and takes centre stage. A sumptuously dreamy gait follows with the succession of waltztime reveries that include a playful review of the imitative Magic Flute duet. The music again lurches ahead when, with introductory flourish, the solo bassoon embarks upon its round of ecstatic commentary. Solo work is superb all around, notably the fragmentary exclamations of the trombonist. The impishly delivered elisions and a sudden quickening of pace convey the disquieting metamorphosis that leads to the movement’s tumultuous destination. With a startling surge forward, Neslons delivers that final peroration powerfully and with profound impact. He still could have taken it up a wee notch had the passage’s final percussive stroke, the “clincher”, been given a more satisfactory wallop (as the score indicates). Compare the shattering impact Gergiev manages to achieve from that final climactic thwack in the Mariinsky. Nelsons concludes this dazzling performance by throttling down and slowly sailing into the sustained C-pedal waters of the coda, hypnotically steering its final bars toward eternity.
The calibre of any performance of the Eleventh Symphony is proportional to the emotional depth with which a conductor is able to capture the spirit and soul of the historical events the music portrays—by turns, the feelings of oppression, aspiration, confrontation, and in the final analysis, resurgence, in the aftermath of catastrophic defeat. In his interpretation of Shostakovich’s masterly work about the 1905 Workers’ Revolution, Nelsons succeeds at almost every turn. In the opening movement, Palace Square, he brings out the individual as well as the collective call to arms, drawing out passionate cries of discontent rising from a landscape of misery and injustice. In the all-important instrumental solos, the phrases from the folksongs Listen and The Convict are articulated as deeply felt articles of faith. Rubato-inflected and personalised, they rise up amid the slow, ardently drawn out atmosphere of gloom. January 9th bolts forward with uncoiled energy; crests ascend rapturously, and the furious reiterations of Our Little Tsar ring out with the urgency and spirit of insurrection.
All this is fine until the ultimate moment of confrontation arrives, the massacre sequence. The single flaw I find in Nelsons’ performance is his breakneck speed in this passage. As rousing and exhilarating as it is, the inner voices of this tempestuous fugue are nearly lost beneath the haste and fury, the details of its instrumentation whisking by all too comprimised. In context of the performance, the effect, I’m afraid, is more cinematic than symphonic. Yet Nelsons redeems himself in the following In Memoriam. At its climax, the notes of Bare Your Head are heartbreakingly broadened. The final Tocsin unfolds at a fairly fast pace, save for the stentorial enunciations of Rage, Tyrants, revelling in its moment of arrival. Nelsons takes the tempo down to an arresting stillness in order to set the scene for a beautifully delivered English horn solo. Regrettably, the high-profile solo for bass clarinet that follows gets sidelined in the audio mix, as does a clear enunciation of the chimes’ symbol-laden major-minor-third motto theme in the closing bars.
A few quibbles aside, I would unhesitatingly nominate this latest entry in the Nelsons cycle for a third Grammy. Also I would strongly recommend that for the remainder of the project, DG employ sound engineers better acquainted with the acoustic demands of the scores.
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Grigori Frid, Sonata for Viola and Piano No 2, opus 78*; Six Pieces for Viola and Piano, opus 68*; Sonata for Viola and Piano No 1, opus 62; Alexander Vustin, In Memoriam Grigori Frid*
Elena Artamanova (viola), Christopher Guild (piano)
Recorded in The Old Granary Studio, Suffolk, 15–16 July 2015
*World premiere recording
Grigori Frid (1915–2012) was a prolific composer in all genres, though his bestknown works are his “mono-operas” The Diary of Anne Frank (1969)—so regularly performed one might call it his greatest hit—and The Letters of van Gogh (1975). His pupils included Vustin, composer of this disc’s tribute pieces, and Nikolai Korndorf, whose complete cello music is recorded on Toccata TOCC 0128. Frid’s portfolio career also included writing about music, promoting contemporary music concerts and even painting.
According to Frid, the viola is not an instrument for virtuosic works. Rather, its timbre makes it “ideal for quiet and slow music. It is an instrument for reflection and contemplation.” Apart from the chamber works for viola here recorded, Frid wrote two concertos. The Concerto for Viola and Chamber Orchestra (1965) is dedicated to Druzhinin, who recorded it in 1976, though Sikorski’s work-list includes only a piano reduction, plaintively asking ‘Is there a full score available?’ His Concerto for Viola, Piano and Strings (1985), using the same forces, was premiered by Bobrovsky.
There are several connections between Frid and Shostakovich. They first met in May 1937, while the disgraced Shostakovich was in the midst of writing the Fifth Symphony. Two years later Frid graduated with his first essay in the genre, the first of a number of his works that Shostakovich would greet enthusiastically. The older composer became a great influence stylistically before, in the 1960s, Frid launched into areas—such as a mild polystylism—that Shostakovich would only enter some time later. Frid’s First Viola Sonata (dedicated to Druzhinin) was first performed in Shostakovich’s apartment in 1974—shortly before the older composer’s embarked on his own sonata. Conversely, we may speculate as to whether the Lorca settings in the Fourteenth Symphony (1969) inspired Poetry, Frid’s Lorca cycle two years later.
The 13-minute First Sonata (1971) exploits the viola’s dark and mournful voice which is counterpointed by a piano whose intermittent chords provide harmonic tent-poles—a technique much in evidence on this disc. Much of the material derives from the viola’s opening ten-bar monologue yet is transformed into a frenzied Allegro and a funereal Lento.
Frid described the Six Pieces (1975) sketches for The Letters of van Gogh, though the similarities are sparse (unlike, for instance, Shostakovich’s reuse of The Gamblers in his Viola Sonata). Nevertheless, the kaleidoscopic changes of mood and the lamenting opening and closing sections capture the tone of the artist’s life. Like several of the pieces on this disc it ends with a long-held high note fading into nothing.
There’s some confusion about how Frid reused his music for a 1985 staging of Racine’s Phèdre. Artamonova mentions two derivative works: the Viola Sonata No 2, and a quintet for viola, two violins, cello and piano, whereas Sikorski claims the former is an arrangement of the latter. Whatever, for the sonata Frid kept the cue-titles, which help explain the dazzling variations in style from piece to piece, with everything from a paraphrase of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella (a paraphrase of a paraphrase, if you like), through jazz to colouristic tone clusters. Much of the first movement features the viola’s sombre musings running bleakly over a Shostakovichian skeletal tolling C.
Frid’s three works are presented in reverse chronological order, with Vustin’s tributes at the end. I would have preferred to follow Frid’s development, but it’s easy enough for those so inclined to do so.
Vustin’s 11-minute two-movement tribute was written in 2014, especially for the CD. It majors on timbre, using a host of playing techniques from pizzicato to harmonics. In the Introduction the outbursts of heartfelt melody are often cut tragically short, but they find full voice in Farewell Song. It’s an effective evocation of Frid’s style while staying entirely true to Vustin’s own voice.
As with all Toccata releases this is rare repertoire: all first recordings apart from the First Sonata, which has been laid down twice. Druzhinin’s 1976 rendition (coupled to Weinberg) has yet to make it to CD, while Igor Fedotov and Leonid Vechkhayzer take things a smidge slower on a multi-composer disc Naxos 8.572247.
Elena Artamonova knew and corresponded with Frid and we feel the authenticity of the both players’ performances. Her notes are a superb introduction to the composer and the music on the disc.
John Leman Riley
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York Bowen, Phantasy for Viola and Piano, opus 54; Clarice Assad, Metamorfose*; Robert Schumann, Märchenbilder, opus 133; Garth Knox, Fuga libre; Shostakovich, Impromptu for Viola and Piano*; Franz Waxman, Carmen Fantasie (arr. for viola and piano*)
Matthew Lipman (viola), Henry Kramer (piano)
Recorded: Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, NY, 7 July 7 2018 (Shostakovich), American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, 25-26 April 2018 (Assad), American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, 1-3 October 2017 (all other pieces)
Cedille Records CDR 90000 184
*World premiere recording
While many of the newly discovered Shostakovich works are to some degree or other fragmentary, the Impromptu for Viola and Piano is complete if, at less than two minutes long, slight.
The three sheets (a title page and one for each instrument) were discovered among the papers of Vadim Vasilievich Borisovsky, the Beethoven Quartet’s violist from 1923 to 1964 who died in 1972—some of his transcriptions appear on Music for Two Violas (Meridian CDE84641, reviewed DSCH 47). However, the Impromptu was dedicated to “Aleksander Mikhailovich”—assumed to be A.M. Ryvkin, violist of the Glazunov Quartet, which premiered the String Quartet no. 1 in 1938. The manuscript’s date (“2 May 1931, Leningrad”) and “in memory of our meeting” has led to the assumption that Shostakovich wrote it in a single sitting shortly after the encounter. Later that year, Shostakovich wrote two pieces under similar circumstances for the Jean Villaume String Quartet. They are devoid of an opus number but the Impromptu became Opus 33 though for still-obscure reasons he later re-assigned it to the score for the film The Counterplan, completed in October 1932.
It’s a simple, slightly lopsided AAB structure. The A (about 45 seconds each) is a mournful waltz typical of Shostakovich’s work at the time, though the “wrong notes” take the form of occasional flattenings which give it a Jewish inflection of the sort that would become more familiar later in his career. The 25-second B section is more lively and reinforces the Jewish tone with a klezmerish bass line.
Lipman programmed Ascent as a series of fantasies, dedicated to the memory of his mother, and he and Kramer meet the challenge of these pieces’ rapidly changing moods. As a starting point, he commissioned Assad’s Metamorfose which moves through multi-coloured arpeggios, highly ornamented passages and plangent melodies. Paradoxically—and appropriately—its sudden halt implies a continuity of the soloists’ relationship, if only in memory. Knox’s Fuga Libre might be enjoyed by admirers of Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin, from which it seems to have learned a few lessons. And for this non-devotee of Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie, the transcription at least brings it closer to the original’s mezzo heroine, especially when Lipman plunges into a lovely throaty tone.
Cedille released the Impromptu streamed and as a single download ahead of making the whole disc available. As it is the only Shostakovich on the disc, hard-core devotees might be tempted to forego the rest, but that would be to miss some worthwhile music, enjoyably played. Doubtless, in time other performers will append it to the Viola Sonata (or even one of the viola-isations of the Cello Sonata) but this is still a disc worth investigating for its own sake.
John Leman Riley
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Nikolai Medtner, Piano Quintet in C major, opus posth.[a]; Sergei Prokofiev, Overture on Hebrew Themes, opus 34[a,b]; Alexey Kurbatov, Sextet*[a,b]; Dmitri Shostakovich, Piano Quintet in G minor, opus 57[a]
Ludmila Berlinskaya (piano) and the New Russian Quartet (Julia Igonina and Elena Kharitonova, violins, Mikhail Rudoy, viola, Alexey Steblev, cello)[a], Igor Fedorov (clarinet)[b]
Melodiya MEL CD 10 02486
Recorded live in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on October 29, 2016
* World Premiere Recording
The programme on this Melodiya CD has been carefully, almost ostentatiously, structured: two major 20th-century Russian piano quintets, by Medtner and Shostakovich, flank two shorter Russian works by Prokofiev and Kurbatov for piano quintet and clarinet. The selection of composers, whether inadvertently or not, also exemplifies one of the major choices that all Russian composers were required to make throughout the twentieth century: Nikolai Medtner left the Soviet Union and never returned; Sergei Prokofiev left and returned; Dmitri Shostakovich never left; and Alexey Kurbatov was a child when the Soviet Union collapsed.
The performers are pianist Ludmila Valentinovna Berlinskaya (daughter of one of the founders of the Borodin Quartet), clarinettist Igor Fedorov, and the New Russian Quartet (founded in 1908).
The disc opens with Medtner’s Piano Quintet in C major. A younger contemporary of Rachmaninov, Medtner was born in Moscow on January 5, 1880 (O.S. December 24, 1879), left Russia in the 1920s, after the Revolution, and finally settled in England, where he died on November 13, 1951. He was a virtuoso pianist and, as with Chopin, all of his sizeable compositional output includes the instrument.
Medtner’s music has undergone something of a revival in the last few years; all of his concertos, most of his solo piano works, and many of his songs have been recorded. Much of it sounds, certainly at first hearing, as if it were composed by Rachmaninov on an off day—he has much of the elder composer’s harmonic language and rhapsodic structure, but little of his melodic memorability.
Medtner seems to have spent much of his life tinkering with the Piano Quintet, which he considered his musical testament. His earliest sketches date from 1903/4, it was finally completed in 1949 and published posthumously in 1955. It’s clearly aiming at epic quality: the tunes are often bold, even if they’re a bit too four-square and limited in range to stick in the memory, and the structure is rhapsodic in a way that some might describe as “individual”.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953) was one of the rare Russians who left his native land after the Revolution, lived in various other countries (including the United States and France), and then returned in 1936 to the Soviet Union. His death on March 5, 1953 was barely noticed, coinciding as it did with the death of Stalin.
The Overture on Hebrew Themes was commissioned by a Russian sextet in 1919, shortly after Prokofiev arrived in New York. The themes may or may not have been authentic; the sextet’s clarinettist gave Prokofiev a notebook of tunes which he claimed to be Jewish folksongs but which may in fact have been the work of the clarinettist himself, and they have never been traced to any authentic sources. Its structure is fairly simple: a catchy klezmer tune on the clarinet leads to a more introspective cantabile theme in the strings, and then back to the klezmer tune. Prokofiev seems not to have thought very highly of the work, but its popularity has survived even its ill-advised and not terribly successful arrangement by the composer for chamber orchestra.
Alexey Kurbatov, born in 1983, describes his own style as “post-neo-romanticism,” and there’s little in his Sextet that couldn’t have been composed in the first half of the 20th century. The performers’ original intent was to perform and record three major 20th century Russian piano quintets by Medtner, Shostakovich and Mieczysław Weinberg. This proved to be too long to fit on a CD and probably too heavy for an audience to sit through, so the Weinberg was dropped, the Prokofiev was added, and, to balance things out, Kurbatov was commissioned to compose a piece for the same instrumentation as the Prokofiev.
Structurally, it’s not terribly different from the Prokofiev. The first part of the seven-minute Sextet features a long clarinet melody floating above a chugging motif in the strings and piano. This slows almost to stasis, as if the train has reached a station, with melody in the piano over a steady beat in the strings. Then the train starts up again and roars ahead until an upwards slide on the clarinet brings the piece to an end. It’s an enjoyable and useful companion to the Prokofiev, and the performers seem to welcome its expressivity.
Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet is one of his most popular chamber works, and it was designed to be so. It was composed in 1940, three years after the Fifth Symphony that returned the composer, however temporarily, to official favour, and Shostakovich told his friend Isaak Glikman that he had “written himself ” into the piece, so that touring ensembles would have to take him along as the pianist if they wanted to play it.
The first two of its five movements comprise a rather sombre Prelude and Fugue. A short, burly Scherzo is followed by a slow, lyrically introspective Intermezzo that leads attacca into an allegretto Finale that combines playful cheekiness with nonchalant grace—the work of an enfant terrible on his best behavior.
The performances are all of an extremely high quality. Instrumental balances are finely judged, intonation is impeccable, and there is a constant, living rhythmic pulse that never sags in slow movements and never gets out of hand at faster moments. Shostakovich’s music, in particular, tends to attract performances that strain at trying to link the music to contemporaneous political events, as if all his works were incomprehensible unless one knew what was happening on the days in which he wrote them. Here his Quintet is played, as are most of the works on the disc, with an emotional and musical straightforwardness that is extremely compelling.
Sound quality is very natural and clear. The performances were recorded live in front of a preternaturally quiet audience—a few seconds of applause at the end of each piece is the only hint of their presence.