CD Reviews 52
*World premiere recording
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The Bedbug, opus 19; Love and Hate, opus 38 Includes world premiere recordings.
Deutschestaatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Mannheim Opera Choir (choirmaster Dani Juris)/Mark Fitz-Gerald.
Recorded in the Philharmonie, Ludwigshafen, 18–21 February 2019.
Naxos is quickly becoming the main source for new recordings and world premieres of Shostakovich’s film scores. Since 2000, they have released Hamlet (2004, review in DSCH 21), Alone (2008), The Girlfriends (2009, DSCH 30), New Babylon (2011, DSCH 36), and in 2018, Naxos released the world premiere of the complete music for The Gadfly (my review in DSCH 49). Now comes the world premiere recording of the complete incidental music for the play The Bedbug, opus 19 (1929) and the film music for Love and Hate, opus 38 (1935). As with The Gadfly, Mark Fitz-Gerald conducts the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz.
For the recording of The Gadfly, Fitz-Gerald had to do some orchestral transcription and reconstruction in order to fill in the gaps from missing or incomplete cues. His task for Love and Hate was substantially more challenging. In the liner notes, he writes, “Shostakovich’s 1935 manuscript full score of this work could not be found. The composer was always meticulous about keeping all his manuscript scores in order and in a safe place. This must be a rare case of a score not surviving the siege of Leningrad.” Fewer than half the cues contained piano sketches, so the amount of work that Fitz-Gerald did in creating a full orchestral score for this work was immense. It was so valuable, that he said, “The reconstruction of this film score is strongly recommended for both publication and Naxos recording by the DSCH editors (Moscow), and highly encouraged by Emmanuel Utwiller at the Paris Centre.” While the film and its music once existed, this is nearly the equivalent of discovering a previously lost and unknown Shostakovich score.
As has become customary, the liner notes for this recording have been meticulously researched by Shostakovich scholars Gerard McBurney (The Bedbug) and John Leman Riley (Love and Hate), and are an essential part of this recording. McBurney situates the play in the context of the time period of performance, and provides essential background into the creation of the play from the major participants, followed by descriptions of scenes that use Shostakovich’s music. Without this context, the music is liable to fall flat for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that a significant portion of music is score for “local firemen’s bands,” music that is essentially for brass band and somewhat lowbrow. If The Bedbug is not widely known, then Love and Hate is even less known. Riley’s notes span nearly four pages, comprehensive in every sense. Like McBurney’s descriptions, Riley also provides detailed scenarios for the action where Shostakovich’s music is used, as well as the context of the writing process. Riley writes, “Both Love and Hate and The Girlfriends (Naxos 8.572138) just pre-date the official condemnations of Lady Macbeth and The Limpid Stream and both have interesting and innovative scores. But, for whatever reason, [Shostakovich] chose not to draw any particular attention to them: he did not extract concert suites and neither was published—indeed much of the manuscript material was lost.” This early score is exciting and, in some places, provocative, with Shostakovich clearly interested in the project, rather than the paycheck.
Most of the cues for Love and Hate are shorter than 90 seconds in length, but the tightness of composition atones for the abbreviated lengths. In the longer cues, Shostakovich doesn’t waste time with long sustained tones, as is fashionable these days. The opening “Introduction” immediately imbues the music with a sense of gravitas, perhaps too much seriousness, because its ending seems oddly abbreviated and interrupted by a cymbal and gong crash.
Two significant musical ideas return in the score. The first is the march titled “Distribution of Arms,” immediately recognisable through its woodblock eighth notes. It returns in an ironic fashion to accompany the cue “Death in the Mines,” where the townswomen fight back against their male occupiers, while its final return is sincere, accompanying the Red Army soldiers returning to their spouses. The other prominent idea that returns is first heard in the “Soldiers’ March,” performed by a male choir, accompanied by the pipe organ, a rarity for Shostakovich. This music also concludes the film, reiterating the victory of the Bolshevik “Red” Army over the White Army.
The centrepiece of the score is “The Funeral.” The music is serious and dramatic, supporting the funeral of three townspeople at the hands of the Whites. Over the first two minutes, the music grows, texturally and dynamically, and reaches a climax that is sustained throughout the final minute of the cue, featuring tutti chords, timpani, and a slightly dissonant ending. The latter portion of the cue returns almost immediately—two cues later—and heightens that scene’s tension.
Shostakovich’s music for The Bedbug makes use of some unusual instruments, such as flexatone and soprano saxophone. Although these timbres are not necessarily used sarcastically, one can hear sarcasm, largely because Shostakovich was told not to write “symphonically.” Two pieces, the Galop and the Closing March, could easily be confused as works composed by Prokofiev, as the tonal centres shift and change with ease and freedom. Shostakovich also included jazz music, again playing against type of the firemen’s band. There is much to enjoy in this incidental music.
The performances on the recording are terrific, with few exceptions. First, on the Waltz II from The Bedbug, the off-beat rhythm at the opening is slightly out of time, but this normalises itself by the fourth measure. Second, the vocalist on Love and Hate’s “How Long Will My Heart Ache and Moan” sounds a little flat to me, just enough to be slightly out of tune with the accompanying chamber ensemble and choir. Overall, the performance and sound quality are typical of what has come to be expected of these Naxos releases.
Love and Hate is not a major film in Shostakovich’s output, but now we are lucky enough to have a recording of its music, something that was not possible even three years ago. The opportunity to listen to it and situate it within Shostakovich’s output is exciting, and I hope that Naxos and Mark Fitz-Gerald continue this relationship for a very long time.
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Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No 1, opus 107; Weinberg: Fantasy for Cello and
Orchestra, opus 56. Kobekin: Baccants for Cello and Orchestra (2018)[a]
[a] World premiere recording
Anastasia Kobekina, Berner Symphonieorchester/Kevin John Edusei
Recorded at Diaconis-Kirche, Bern (Switzerland), 24–27 September 2018
Claves CD 1901
This recording, providing the by now familiar pairing of Shostakovich with Weinberg, but with an unusual twist, shining a spotlight on some lesser-known works and showing Anastasia Kobekina’s prowess as a soloist.
Shostakovich’s concerto dominates the disc and there are, of course, many predecessors to choose from. Kobekina’s interpretation is always sprightly, yet sometimes distant. The cello motif that opens the first movement, with the orchestra responding, seems slightly short of the mark but it’s difficult to tell whether the recording hampered this. That said, Kobekina’s tone is excellent throughout, meeting the challenges this work brings: requiring a warm singing tone, alternating with an aggressive, even distorted gnarl that can only result from extremely heavy bowing. The second movement, Moderato, provides more space for Kobekina to demonstrate the expressive range of her playing. The Berner Symphonieorchester provides excellent
accompaniment, with the horn being the stand-out. Edusei’s tempo for this slow movement errs towards the safe, though it does increase the sense of tension embedded within. The very best passages of this rendition are found here: especially the tender exchanges of counterpoint between the cello and different sections of the orchestra, giving a kind of tortuous searching. The emotional climax of the movement brings in a child-like dance section, which is contrasted with an accruing sense of anguish and Kobekina and the orchestra provide an astonishing build towards the powerful restatement. The Cadenza is, of course, the soloist’s moment to shine in any concerto, more so here than in most. Shostakovich’s score gives the soloist tremendous space to develop and provide powerful contrasts; Kobekina gives an admirable reading, though some opportunities are missed, for instance, the links between the separate sections are often glossed over, rather than given the space that they require. She copes with the technical demands excellently, but it is the structural view that requires rethinking here. The orchestra response brings us to the final movement, where the Symphonieorchester really shine. Sprightly string lines are paired with bombastic woodwind and percussion, verging on virtuosity. Here, Kobekina shows real mastery for the first time, dealing in her stride with the hectic lines that accompany the orchestra. The ensemble provides an excellent sense of distorted contrast with the reprise of the motif from the opening movement, while Kobekina rises to the fore in the final variations on the motif. Overall, an intriguing reading of this piece, but one that is unlikely to become a must-have.
The work that follows is deserving of more attention. In his centenary year, Weinberg came into the spotlight, including a performance of his Cello Concerto at the 2019 BBC Proms. Written a few years later, his Fantasia for Cello and Orchestra is at times mournful, at times wistful and provides a solid vehicle for any soloist. Here, Kobekina comes into her own and seems far more comfortable with the required long singing lines. There
is a sprightly central section, where the ensemble alternate exchanges, with powerful and heavy string chords against a winding line for the soloist. The 18-minute piece is not in league with Weinberg’s own Cello Concerto (or Shostakovich’s), but it provides an excellent companion to other more familiar warhorses. In contrast to the Shostakovich, the forces on this disc provide a convincing and powerful interpretation of Weinberg’s Fantasia, certainly to rival those already available.
The final work has a deeply personal connection for the soloist—a piece for cello and orchestra by her father, Vladimir Kobekin (b. 1947) He is one the younger generation of composers who reached maturity in the USSR—though he has continued to compose in Russia to marked success. He is usually known for his operas, but Kobekina performs Bacchants, dedicated to her. Stravinsky-like rhythms alternate with timpani and an expanded percussion section, with the cello dancing in a kind of parody in between searching and whirling string accompaniment. It has powerful moments, with a stringent dotted rhythm in the central section; altogether, it provides an excellent snapshot of Kobekin’s writing but, disappointingly, there are no liner notes to provide context. Father and daughter have also recorded a disc of his works for cello and piano (Feral Note, FN002D), which is worth exploring. Altogether, this disc provides a fine addition to the library of renditions of the Shostakovich, but it is the Weinberg and Kobekin here that stand out and truly reward repeated listening.
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String Quartets, Nos. 13, opus 138; 14, opus 142, and 15 opus 144.
Fitzwilliam String Quartet [Lucy Russell and Marcus Barcham Stevens (violins), Alan George (viola), Sally Pendlebury (cello)].
TT: 86:03 [Disc 1: (String Quartets 13 and 14), 48:13. Disc 2 (String Quartet 15), 37:48]
Recorded in St Martin’s Church, East Woodhay, UK, on 19–22 November 2018 and 14–16 February 2019
Linn: CKD 612
In celebration of its 50th anniversary, the Fitzwilliam Quartet has presented a fine CD set of Shostakovich’s last three quartets. Formed by four Cambridge undergraduates in 1968, the ensemble boasts a personal connection with Shostakovich. Fitzwilliam violist Alan George explained that he wrote to Shostakovich in 1971 after hearing a Beethoven Quartet recording of the composer’s then-new Quartet no. 13 when its music was unavailable in the United Kingdom. Shostakovich sent the music and, during his 1972 trip to the UK, went to York to hear the Fitzwilliams give the British premiere before spending the following morning working with them on several of the earlier quartets. He later sent copies of his last two quartets, which the ensemble premiered in the UK, and recorded shortly thereafter. The ensemble performed the later quartets from the late 1970s on, and has continued to make something of a specialty of these demanding and less frequently heard works. Of the four players who worked with Shostakovich, only violist Alan George remains today, but Shostakovich’s works remain a centrepiece of the Fitzwilliams’ repertoire.
Quartets 13 and 14 are the last two of four quartets dedicated to the Beethoven Quartet, the pioneering ensemble whose members became Shostakovich’s quartet-writing muses. By the time of the Thirteenth Quartet (1970), after Shostakovich had worked closely and joyfully for 30 years with the group, two of its original members had been lost to death and illness. Shostakovich grieved for these close friends, and also knew that he himself was incurably ill. It is not surprising that these three last quartets are often heard as exploring the contrasting faces of sadness and mortality. In these challenging works, performers are called upon to shade Shostakovich’s “piano” markings so that they express numbness, vulnerability, tenderness, intimacy, grief, solemnity, fear, and much more. It is often these subtle shadings and colourations that create heart-stopping performances; the varied readings of individual performers teach us the complexities and possibilities of a work. The Fitzwilliams have bared their souls to us.
Violist Alan George’s special feeling for the late quartets is a highlight throughout these discs, and especially in the Thirteenth Quartet, dedicated to Beethoven Quartet violist Vadim Borisovsky and described by his successor Fyodor Druzhinin as “a hymn to the viola”. George opens the Thirteenth with almost no vibrato, very little drama or fuss, but with an understated emotional power and warmth that sneaks up on us. Throughout these CDs, the Fitzwilliams reveal similarly strong emotions without resistance or self-conscious drama, simply as a picture of what is. This is no mean trick; in lesser hands, it could be boring; with the Fitzwilliams it is riveting. As the quartet’s second section heats up, the Fitzwilliams get louder, but never harsh, never fighting the emotional turbulence—in contrast, for example, to the Danels’ intense and outspokenly angry interpretation of this section—also great, just different (Fuga Libera, FUG 512: 2005). For the Fitzwilliams, it is all said with colouration. In the Thirteenth Quartet, pizzicatos sizzle, sudden crescendos loom and break off, and taps on the bellies of instruments click and clack, enlivening and enriching the work’s texture.
If the Thirteenth Quartet is a hymn to the viola, the Fourteenth is a virtuosic concerto for the cello, in affectionate tribute to the Beethoven Quartet’s indomitable Sergey Shirinsky, who once reportedly performed Beethoven’s op. 130 shortly after having slammed his hand in a car door. I hear Shirinsky’s resilience in the cello’s cheerful opening theme, which encounters repeated challenges, sometimes threatening to collapse, but repeatedly bounces back, almost comically impervious to the surrounding chaos. The Fitzwilliams’ unflappable cellist Sally Pendlebury certainly rises to the challenge; her full sound never loses its humanity and expressive power despite the demands of the score. A highlight of the Fourteenth is its second movement, where the Fitzwilliams’ hushed numbness at the beginning and ending frame a luminous duet between first violin and cello, with the cellist soaring high above the violin, at the top of its register. Shostakovich called this duet his “Italian bit” because of its sixth-filled harmonies reminiscent of Italian operatic duets. The Fitzwilliams navigate the finale’s challenging and seemingly incomprehensible chaos (perhaps not one of Shostakovich’s finest hours) with admirable energy, subsiding to a gentle wistfulness as the end of the work.
The Fifteenth’s strange succession of six slow movements thrives on the Fitzwilliams’ rich variety of colouring. The opening processional canon, like the start of the Thirteenth, is more full-throated but, as it unfolds into the second theme, is unexpectedly moving. It simply is—undefended, unresisted, feeling almost like an internal music that is deeper and more essential than what we usually hear. The second-movement Serenade’s crescendos swell and are stifled, repeated notes slash, and pizzicatos pop. The movement’s tipsy waltz is far too slow to dance to, wonderfully unstable. Other highlights include the floating, otherworldly atmosphere of the Nocturne, and the finale, as it shockingly, without protest or tension, simply runs down to the end. These CDs reveal nuance and wisdom in the late quartets and will deepen your appreciation of them.
1 Alan George, “The Fitzwilliam Quartet at 50!” DSCH 50, pp. 69–70.
2 Quoted in Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (2nd edition). London: Faber, 2006, p. 499.
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Symphony no. 4, opus 43 (arranged for two pianos by the composer)
Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies
Supertrain Records 003
Recorded [No date or location given]
Piano reductions played a fascinating role in the early life of Shostakovich’s symphonies, particularly in the case of the Fourth. The story of the composer’s version of the work for two pianos reveals that, despite the legend of its disappearance between its withdrawal in 1936 and eventual premiere in Moscow in 1961, the symphony was not quite so absent after all. Shostakovich played it with Mieczysław Weinberg for a sympathetic audience at his apartment in 1945 (Evgeny Makarov’s account of the occasion appears in DSCH 51, pp. 5–6); an edition of 300 copies was even published at the time. A further performance took place in 1960, played by Boris Tishchenko and a Professor Dimitriev of the Leningrad Conservatoire (described by Tishchenko in DSCH 13, p. 34), before the first public performance of the reconstructed orchestral original the following year rendered the two-piano version somewhat redundant.
The two-piano reduction then resurfaced in 2000 as part of the New Collected Works from DSCH Publishers, and in 2005 a studio recording followed from Rustem Hayroudinoff and Colin Stone (Chandos 10296). The present disc, from wife-and-husband team Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies on Supertrain records, is only the second commercial recording to date, and it represents a substantial departure for two artists most closely associated with the music of Philip Glass.
A key difference between their op. 43 and that of Hayroudinoff and Stone is clear before the disc has even gone in the player: 71:55 is the duration given on the back of the case, pretty close to the upper end of running times of recorded Fourths, and a full 13 minutes longer than the Chandos performance. It’s a consistently slow reading of the score which, while not necessarily a problem in itself, is here coupled with metronomic inflexibility which reduces the energy that ought to be inherent in this most wildly propulsive of Shostakovich’s symphonies.
In their hands, the opening march has a certain grim presence, but it’s the rigidity of the more subdued passages that follow that signals a problem. Shostakovich’s tempo indications are particularly sparse here; almost the first half of the movement is built on a consistent pulse, meaning the responsibility falls to the performers (be they pianists or conductors) to find other ways to delineate the complex structure and build a sense of journey and contrast. But by approaching the score quite so unvaryingly, Namekawa and Davies are dogged by the curse of a symphony-in-piano-reduction: it all sounds the same.
The present team does catch the atmosphere of troubled calm that haunts a number of the first movement’s passages, but they simply cannot muster the momentum or heat required in the thundering climax at the movement’s centre. Their playing of the furious string fugato sounds like their first read-through of the score, with all the excitement you’d expect from a careful preliminary go at one of the symphony’s most awkward corners. Their Moderato con moto second movement is more successful, though without much of the moto or, crucially, the music’s wit.
The finale, though, is a real headscratcher because, while Shostakovich gives a range of tempo indications which ought to be a first step towards characterising its diverse episodes, Namekawa and Davies iron out the differences and, with them, the music’s thrust and sheer variety. All those lively central segments become lifeless because of the sheer doggedness of the speeds chosen and the limited effort to inject personality into any of the phrasing. The depressed finality of the long quiet coda is actually quite effectively rendered, but by then too much of the colour has leached out of the piece for it to really matter.
All of this might lead one to conclude that much of the music’s power is reliant on the awesome orchestral force which we know from the full score, but the great success of Hayroudinoff and Stone’s Chandos recording is that it is a gripping performance despite the stripping away of the more familiar instrumentation. It can work, in other words, in pianistic terms, and it is on other grounds that this new recording fails.
In his booklet notes, producer Richard Guérin mentions, by way of partial justification for the present release, that Hayroudinoff and Stone’s disc is out of regular print. The earlier recording is, however, not so very unavailable. It can be downloaded in lossless audio from Chandos’s website; they will even burn you and a CDR and send it through the post. Or you can do what I did and find a second-hand copy online. If you are in the market for a Shostakovich Fourth on two pianos, that’s three ports of call before you need turn to Supertrain’s effort.
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Mieczysław Weinberg, Complete Sonatas for Solo Viola
Sonatas no. 1, opus 107 [a]; no. 2, opus 123 [c]; no.3, opus 135 [b]; no. 4, opus 136 [c].
Solo Musica SM 310
Recorded at La Caja Acústica Studios, Mexico City. September 2015 [a]; April 2016 [b] March 2017 [c]
Two discs. TT: 94:03 [40:19 + 53:44]
The rapid growth in the international popularity of Weinberg’s music in the recent years is surely a remarkable phenomenon. And the centenary year certainly furthered the resonance of the “Weinberg boom”. Gone are the days when any mention of his name had to be followed by justification in the form of “friend and disciple of Shostakovich” or “if you love Shostakovich’s music and hope to hear something with similar dramatic effect by a composer other than Shostakovich, in Weinberg you’ll find an answer to your prayers”. In fact there are areas in which Weinberg is totally independent and Shostakovich simply didn’t have any input at all. The most conspicuous of these is the solo strong sonata, where Weinberg had to his name three for violin, four each for viola and cello and one for double bass. Of these, the viola sonatas are probably the hardest to grasp. Compared to the vertiginous virtuosic excitement of the violin sonatas, the pensive lyricism of the cello sonatas, or the sheer symphonic scale of the double bass sonata, the viola sonatas are predominantly austere, cerebral and abstract.
For anyone looking for echoes of Weinberg’s sorrowful and epic biography, then, these sonatas are a challenge to decipher. Yet they also offer an encyclopaedia of Weinberg’s musical idiom albeit in its late, most distilled and even bleakest form. Not only are there typical Weinbergian gestures such as oscillating intervals, his signature grand détaché bow-strokes, and long stretches of relentless forte, but also some recycling of his other works such as a reworking of the second movement of his Second Cello Sonata in the Fourth Viola Sonata.
From its French-overture opening movement to echoes of Bach’s Chaconne in the second movement and even in the finale, there is something Baroque-like in the geometry of the 1971 First Sonata. Viacheslav Dinerchtein’s angular and direct approach is particularly effective here. Compared to him, Julia Rebekka Adler (Neos 11008-09) looks for and finds more lyricism and grace—a no less valid approach. The highlight of the Sonata, both in its variety of colour and texture and sheer virtuosity is the theme-and-variations finale, with its typically quiet and mysterious ending. Weinberg dedicated this Sonata to Fyodor Druzhinin, violist of the Beethoven Quartet from 1964 and dedicatee of Shostakovich’s final work. Druzhinin’s own recording of this sonata (MEL CD 1002519) remains the benchmark for its extraordinarily complex yet fascinating dramaturgy and its richer palette of colours compared to either Dinerchtein or Adler.
The Second Sonata was composed seven years later and dedicated to Dmitri Shebalin, son of the composer Vissarion and violist of the Borodin Quartet from 1953 to 1995. This sonata is more compact and hence easier to grasp than its predecessor. Comparing the original manuscript to Weinberg’s fair copy shows his gradual move towards abstraction, since he removed not just the tempo/expression indications from the beginnings of movements but also the movement numbers themselves, leaving just the metronome marks. For those familiar with Weinberg’s late string quartets this is a familiar feature. But here the seamless transfer from movement to movement in the absence of any borders might be cause for some confusion for performers. Adler’s disc has four movements while Dinerchtein’s clearly identifies five, presumably because Adler has taken her cue from the original manuscript as to where the third movement ends and the finale begins, whereas Dinerchtein considers the ghostly dance-like episode of the original third movement as a separate fourth movement, followed by a fifth and final movement starting with what sounds like a recall of the repeated notes at the beginning of Couperin’s La Poule.
Weinberg continues his trend of removing tempo/expression marks (not movement numbers thankfully!) in his next two sonatas, which were composed in relative quick succession (August 1982 and December 1983). Both are dedicated to Mikhail Tolpygo, principal viola of the USSR Symphony Orchestra from 1967 to 1991. The Third is a lengthy and demanding quasi-suite in five movements that has become increasingly complex. Dinerchtein is faithful to Weinberg’s minimal dynamic indications in the first and the third movements, each of which carries just an initial forte, resisting the temptation to nuance, despite the intricacy of phrasing. Dinerchtein is equally convincing in the soulful fourth movement and in the relentless finale with its extravagantly virtuosic coda.
With its nostalgic opening movement and mournfully delicate finale, the Fourth Sonata is in a quite different world from its predecessor. The central movement’s athleticism and passionate cries are here conveyed most convincingly. As with Adler, Dinerchtein is an excellent advocate for Weinberg’s less immediately assimilable viola sonatas. Apart from its musical merits, Dinerchtein’s disc comes with an informative booklet, including Dinerchtein’s thought-provoking pitch for the sonatas, interspersed with short testimonials from various members of the ever-growing Weinberg family, from his first daughter (Victoria) to his recent champions (Kremer, Sanderling, et al.).