CD Reviews 53
*World premiere recording
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Violin Concerto no. 2, opus 129. Schumann: Cello Concerto, opus 125 (arr. for violin), reorchestrated by Shostakovich. Gidon Kremer, Boston Symphony Orchestra/
Recorded Symphony Hall, Boston (live) April 1992.
Universal Music Japan UCCG-52202.
NB The recording is now also available as a download from the DGG site.
Violin Concertos nos 1 (opus 77) and 2 (opus 129). Frank Peter Zimmermann, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester/ Alan Gilbert.
Recorded, Laeiszhalle, Hamburg. 6 and 9 December 2012 (released Nov. 2016).
Violin Concertos nos. 1 (opus 77) and 2 (opus 129). Christian Tetzlaff, Helsinki
Philharmonic Orchestra/John Storgårds.
Ondine. ODE 1239-2
Recorded, Helsinki Music Centre, Helsinki, Finland. 27, 28, and 30 November 2013.
The welcome rerelease, on a Japanese DG disc, of Gidon Kremer’s rendition of Shostakovich’s Second Violin Concerto with Seiji Ozawa and the BSO, originally issued in 1994, prompts a look back at a few recent recordings of this all-too-infrequently visited work. One of the lesser acknowledged masterpieces of the composer’s later years, it is every bit as compelling as its more widely performed predecessor. It plumbs the darkest depths of the psyche through a more challenging, at times confounding labyrinth of emotion. Adhering to classical forms, the inscrutable Shostakovichian contrasts of its outer movements, respectively cast in sonata and rondo form, surround a central Adagio of arresting candour. The three versions under review each meet the challenges of the work on their own provocative terms, from the commanding version of Gidon Kremer to the sensitively treated interpretation by Christian Tetzlaff.
The Kremer/Ozawa traversal recalls the unblinking confidence of David Oistrakh, the concerto’s dedicatee, and Kirill Kondrashin in their foundational recording. Kremer’s hard-edged attacks, driven by Ozawa’s unflinching momentum, sustain high tension, build imposing crescendi, and fuse the antagonistic juxtapositions of the opening Moderato’s development section with gritty intensity. Kremer also exhibits sensitivity in capturing the lamenting quality of the opening section as well as the reserved nobility in the strains of the Cadenza.
Zimmermann and Gilbert offer a less driven, more nuanced appraisal that secures a more personal connection to the music. The emphasis they place on each of the crescendi in the Moderato lends an impassioned strength and architectural clarity that distinguishes their performance. Notably, the rhythmically convulsive passage that culminates in the development section (Fig. 25), suggesting a musical incarnation of the composer’s first heart attack years earlier, is, in this performance, an embodiment that impacts.
An even more intimate, brooding version of the concerto is offered by soloist Christian Tetzlaff with John Storgårds leading the Helsinki PO. Here we find the mournful layers of the first movement’s outer sections brought to the surface and poignantly pried apart layer by layer. The development section, in their hands, advances through alternating relaxed and tense passages, an approach that lacks the taut momentum of the other versions, yet one that lays bare the underlying agony of the conflict. Some may find Tetzlaff’s version somewhat heavy-footed. Yet given the intense concentration soloist and conductor bring to this complex score, it bears its weight well.
One of the distinguishing features of the Second Violin Concerto is the expressive openness of the central Adagio standing in contrast to the multi-layered reflexes of the surrounding movements. Both Kremer and Zimmermann perform with eloquence and feeling, consolidating the movement’s forthright lyricism with its unfathomable sorrow. But it is Tetzlaff whose fresh exploration of this raw emotional terrain penetrates the very soul of the music. The solo violin’s duets with various solo winds, and in the final section, French horn, reach exquisite levels of tenderness. Tetzlaff takes the line to delicately hushed tones, preparing for and amplifying the moving passages that follow. The sublime turns of phrase toward the end of the movement, adorned with wistful glissandi in the strings, in his hands, reach a crossroads of infinite sadness. This is as heart-on-sleeve as one will hear Shostakovich performed, a rendering that has brought this listener to tears on each hearing. With such revelatory music making, Tetzlaff’s performance of this movement alone, I say without hesitation, adds an extraordinary contribution to the Shostakovich canon.
The three performances each unleash the tormented revelry of the final Allegro, with eloquently rendered cadenzas that sum up the unresolved inner battles the concerto leaves dangling in our ears. The mercurial mood shifts, so attentively negotiated by Tetzlaff and Zimmermann, are vigorously wrung out, accompanied by thunderously antagonistic interjections on timpani and tom-tom. Where Tetzlaff draws the listener in to the nooks and crannies of the solo line, Zimmermann turns the coda into a bracing gallop, leading to a finale that captures the music’s jarring ambivalence in full measure. Indeed, all three performances do.
In the First Concerto, the Zimmermann/Gilbert team circumvent the exalted reverence often brought to the opening Nocturne. Their take-charge approach, boldly assertive in tempo and phrasing, declines to invoke the mesmerising spell of darkness found in other performances. Their reading instead compels with its passionate driving force. They bring the same self-possessed fervour to the Passacaglia and Cadenza and stir up a lively swagger in the Scherzo and final Burlesque. Tetzlaff and Storgårds, at the opposite end of the spectrum, take the more textured approach as they do in their rendition of the Second Concerto, to great effect. At the Nocturne’s centre, Tetzlaff softens the solo line to a breath-halting whisper, its hushed tones leading directly into the gong and celesta-escorted epiphany of gloom, a stunning realisation of one of the 20th century’s darkest musical moments. Scrutinised in kind, their Passacaglia reaches soulfully beneath the surface, as does the soloist’s thoroughly examined Cadenza.
One relatively recent performance of the Second Violin Concerto to avoid is the 2004 Ontaris-5014 release with soloist Mischa Lefkowitz and Thomas Née leading the La Jolla Symphony. Flawed in every way imaginable—less than ideal orchestral playing, complete with missed cues, awkward sound balance, and cramped acoustics—it provides an ample source of cringeworthy listening. On the other hand, within the same time frame, the 2006 release with soloist Daniel Hope and Maxim Shostakovich leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra (reviewed in DSCH 26) is worth mentioning.
Once a collector’s item, recordings of Shostakovich’s re-orchestration of Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto have grown over the decades. The Kremer release also brings back into circulation the only recording of the same arrangement for violin. The background details are explained in the excellent liner notes by Richard Longman that appear on the original 1996 release—notes that are unfortunately missing from the 2019 rerelease. Longman explains.
“Shostakovich’s reorchestration of Schumann’s Concerto was inspired by his admiration for, and friendship with, Mstislav Rostropovich, to whom he also dedicated both his own cello concertos. His intention seems to have been to strengthen the orchestration in order to do full justice to Rostropovich’s calibre as an interpreter of the solo part. For the most part, Shostakovich’s reorchestration of the Concerto retains the basic character of the original, but inevitably his own musical personality and “voice” dominate at times. Rarely is the scoring identical, but the main differences—including some minor recomposition—are confined to tutti sections. Shostakovich adds a further two horns, piccolo, and harp to Schumann’s orchestra, making greater use of the woodwind and brass to sustain the accompaniment, and injecting more rhythmic energy into the strings.”
One does not need to lay the two scores side by side to recognise the Shostakovich touches, which are evident when compared with, say, Kremer’s recording of the work in the original Schumann orchestration with Nikolaus Harnoncourt leading the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Teldec, 1994). In the opening movement, for example, a recurring five-note accompaniment figure on the solo bassoon stands out as being from Shostakovich’s hand. Contrary to Longman’s observation, I found the most audible differences between the scores to be in similarly added parts for winds. Listeners will find these and many other intriguing details to discover in the Kremer/Ozawa recording.
Recording quality for all three CDs is excellent.
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Symphony No. 13, Babi Yar, op. 113.
Alexey Tikhomirov (bass), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Chorus/Riccardo Muti.
Recorded: Live at Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, Chicago, September 2018.
CSO Resound CSOR9011901
New recordings of Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony are usually confined to full cycles of the symphonies, but this present release breaks that trend and brings us something of a special occasion to boot. Riccardo Muti isn’t a conductor much associated with Shostakovich’s music—his official discography only embraces three works: the Fifth Symphony and
Festive Overture with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1995, and a 2016 release of a 2012 performance of the Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the in-house label, CSO Resound. Nevertheless, he does have particularly significant experience with the Babi Yar Symphony, having led the first performance of the work in Western Europe, in Rome in 1970—of which, more later. What’s more, the first of the three 2018 season-opening concerts, from which this new recording is derived, was attended by Irina Shostakovich.
After the concert, Muti took to the stage to talk with Irina Antonovna, who addressed the audience. “There is a belief that Americans are too concerned about their own lives,” she said, with her interpreter adding “Sorry—just translating!” Irina Antonovna continued: “But during tonight’s performance I saw how people were reading the program, how they reacted to the music, ow they were really deeply moved by this symphony, so I changed my opinion.” She also explained that Shostakovich himself had received a cassette of Muti’s 1970 performance and that he had loved what he heard, not least because of the novelty of the vocal parts being sung in Italian.
The performances and this subsequently-released recording received many laudatory reviews, but the weight of the occasion seems to have diverted attention from a more sober assessment of the performance and its relative merits. The event itself must have had a never-to-be-repeated feel, and I’m sure most of us would have felt the same, given, among other things, Mrs Shostakovich’s presence in the room. The weight of history that hangs over the symphony itself—both for its subject, and the bravery of its creation and first performance—also tends to condition responses, but it is ultimately not an immutable monument, but rather a piece of music, one with certain challenges that a group of musicians must negotiate in order to maximise its effect.
These are challenges with which Muti had to grapple alone in 1970. The score was slipped out of the USSR on microfilm; he could not simply ring up Shostakovich to check his tempi. The performance, with the Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of RAI Rome and bass Ruggero Raimondi, was released on CD in 1989 on the Memories label (HR4101) and can, at the time of writing, also be found on YouTube. It is, given the circumstances, surprisingly successful—well played, grimly monumental by turns, but also colourful and involving elsewhere. At this stage, Muti seems to have had a strong sense of how to tackle the basic problem of pace and variety in an hour-long work in which four of the five movements are slow.
In the nearly five decades between the two performances, Muti’s view of the work has solidified and broadened. The 2018 performance is more than 5 minutes longer than in 1970, but the total time is only part of the picture; pace has flattened out too, with a greater sense of steadiness in all of the movements. His approach to the symphony’s opening has been remarkably consistent, with a deliberate, slow, and rhythmically pointed tread established in both cases. Indeed, in this new recording, this opening setting of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem Babi Yar is immediately arresting and hypnotic in a way that promises something special. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s playing is crisp and exact, the men of Chicago Symphony Chorus’s singing weighty but clear, and bass soloist Alexey Tikhomirov focused in tone and exactness of pitch.
Pace, though, soon becomes an issue. Muti’s beat is so rigid that any contrast as the movement progresses disappears. It’s as though the implications of the text haven’t been considered; instead the poem’s famous opening lines about the lack of a monument at the site of the Babi Yar massacre have been taken as an instruction to emphasise the monumental,
at the expense of the personal. Yet the poem is resolutely a personal response to the failure of the Soviet regime to acknowledge the fate of its Jewish citizens at the hands of the Nazis. Yevtushenko’s text places its protagonist in different scenes of Jewish suffering, fleetingly in the shoes of Anne Frank, and Shostakovich’s music offers at this moment something recitative, accompanied by shadowy murmurs from the low strings. Though the ground might seem to falter beneath the feet, in Muti’s rendition it stays resolutely still.
In the second movement, the one truly lively episode in the piece, Muti’s pace is sluggish, and the otherwise impressive playing of the CSO a touch slack. This most witty and barbed of Shostakovich symphonic movements is, as a result, blunted. In the third movement, setting “In the Store,” it’s Tikhomirov’s richly felt singing of Yevtushenko’s lines about the silent forbearance of Soviet women that makes an impression, along with the distant, restrained playing of the horn that rises with the line “Они тихо поджидают—боги добрые семьи” (“They wait quietly—Their families’ guardian angels”). Muti has a manner of smoothing out the contrasts of
tempo, turning the Allegretto of the final movement into something more broadly in line with the two preceding slow movements, and losing a lot of the humour of Yevtushenko’s telling of the tale of Galileo and his forgotten colleague in the process.
It’s a shame, particularly since Tikhomirov is very appealing in the solo vocal part, with something of the directness of Vitaly Gromadsky, the last-minute replacement soloist at the premiere in 1961 (most recently available in Profil’s 13 CD Kirill Kondrashin Edition (PH18046)), but with much greater beauty and security of tone. And this album does preserve an occasion that Shostakovich admirers are going to want to hear, perhaps just the once. In taking the decisions he has about pace and tempo, though, Muti underplays the important interactions between text and music. Kondrashin demonstrated in the symphony’s first performances that the work can be a bustling and biting depiction of the scenes of life and history that evtushenko’s poems describe, and though his interpretation doesn’t preclude other views, it does suggest possibilities not explored here. It’s all the more frustrating since Muti, with, presumably, only his own intuition as guide, managed to find a broadly similar but altogether more involving way though the score in 1970.
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Shostakovich: Cello Concerto no. 2, opus 126
Tsintsadze: Cello Concerto no. 2, in Five Episodes
Maximilian Hornung (cello), Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Andris Poga.
Recorded: Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Dahlem, Berlin, 2017.
Myrios Classics MYR023
For many years, the landscape of Shostakovich Second Cello Concerto recordings seemed almost as emptily bleak as the work itself, with one recording—Rostropovich’s magnificent 1976 account with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony on DG—towering over an otherwise pretty slim list. But over the past twenty years or so, that has all changed. On the one hand, a generation of younger cellists has been ever keener to embrace this former “Cinderella” into their repertoire. On the other, the increased, if intermittent, availability of Rostropovich’s earlier Soviet-era recordings has cast that maestro’s classic interpretation into even sharper relief—white-hot performances at times even more intense than the DG recording. With this much-needed injection of both the new and the old, the Second Cello Concerto has come of age. Though it’s still hard to imagine it achieving the popularity of the First Concerto, it is no longer terra incognita. It now stands as a repertoire piece that is open for business, inviting and receiving a diversity of interpretation.
Ironically though, this (at least partial) mainstreaming of the Second Cello Concerto has not necessarily made its inherent musical obscurities any easier to deal with. As evidenced by the recordings themselves, this work remains a hard nut to crack—difficult to conceive, difficult to play, and difficult to conduct. The “otherness” of this concerto would indeed appear to be an ongoing and essential part of its character. Put crudely, your chances of encountering a poor, or musically misjudged performance here remain higher than they are with the First Concerto.
What cellist Maximilian Hornung brings at the outset is a sense of relaxed intimacy. The difference between him and Rostropovich is apparent in literally the first two bars—Rostropovich imbuing that falling semitone motive with a parched, almost fearful sound, employing a very subtle but tight vibrato, Hornung inviting the listener in with a purer, simpler, more open sonority. He strikes a warm, comforting, story-telling tone, one that interacts in an almost Lieder-like way with the DSO-Berlin’s richly eloquent cellos and basses. It may not be the “from the depths of the tundra” atmosphere that you associate with late Shostakovich, but it’s surprisingly appealing and potent.
Staking out one’s initial position is not particularly difficult, and as Hornung, Rostropovich, and others show, there are several legitimate choices. However, guiding the musical argument from the opening statement all the way to the movement’s first tutti, around three minutes in, is a different matter, and in many performances, you only have to go a few bars into the movement to feel the grip starting to loosen. So often, that tutti, a baleful intoning of the opening theme in the low reeds capped, a few bars later, by strident high woodwinds and horns, ends up being the place where performances that have started to lose the thread snap back into focus. The best performances—Rostropovich, Natalia Gutman with Dmitri Kitayenko (Live Classics LCL 202, DSCH 15), or Pieter Wispelwey with Jurjen Hempel (Channel Classics CCS SA 25308)—manage to avoid this trap. Though their interpretations are all very different from each other, all three conceive and deliver this long stretch of music in a single breath, while at the same time not short-changing it of its intensity or its ruminating, brooding quirkiness. Though he misses the searing intensity of Rostropovich, Hornung here does better than most. He has a sure sense of line and, just as crucially, there is a palpable connection with his conductor, Andris Poga. You hear it in the give-and-take between soloist and orchestral cellos and basses at the start. And just before the first tutti, those jabbed syncopations, first in the solo cello then in a solo horn, emerge with equal clarity in both instruments—in most performances, the horn version gets submerged in the general blancmange of orchestral sound. What emerges is an unusually strong rhythmic and contrapuntal clarity that helps the listener understand the various linear strands that converge onto this first tutti. A word here too for Myrios Classics’ recording, which combines sumptuous sound and excellent clarity, with no unnatural spotlighting.
The exposition’s second area, which is more a transformation of the first theme than a theme in its own right, can often seem rather static, with its repeated circling around the same D major cadence. Some cellists nudge the tempo forward a little, but Hornung shows that an even more magical result can be had by holding back. The close of the exposition is particularly haunting here. However, while Hornung’s restraint pays handsomely at the end of the exposition, it is less convincing in the development. Making some kind of accelerando is pretty much standard through this section, even though the score does not explicitly ask for one—the music here would be quite unimaginable played at the opening largo tempo. The question, though, is how much accelerando. Rostropovich’s is the most extreme, yet I find it to be the most convincing, with the music taking on an intensity akin to the “brutalising” developments of the first movements of the Fifth or Eighth Symphonies. Hornung, by contrast, is almost self-consciously deliberate. It is quite effective in the early stages, with the fractured “mechanical clock” rendition in the woodwinds of the movement’s opening material sounding appropriately strange and sickly. But as the development proceeds, the overall effect becomes heavy-handed and pedantic. Pieter Wispelwey goes for a similarly modest acceleration, but he brings greater spontaneity and accumulated tension, with sharper, more nuanced characterisation and there are particularly piquant contributions from Sinfonietta Cracovia’s woodwinds and xylophone.
The second movement Scherzo is presented in a clean-cut manner. Hornung charts a middle-of-the-road path between those who attempt to stay true to Shostakovich’s marked Allegretto and those who push the music closer to a full-throttle Allegro. The opening tune, “Bubliki,” is incisively projected (even if one misses Rostropovich’s naughty, vodka-flavoured portamenti), with alert interjections from the orchestra. There is also scrupulous attention to detail—some of those quieter dynamics that occasionally get passed over in all the excitement are duly delivered here. Whether you go for Allegretto, Allegro, or something in between, characterisation and sense of purpose are everything, and Hornung is largely successful here, at least in the movement’s first half or so. The bigger challenge comes later on, as soloist, orchestra, and conductor negotiate the network of competing cross-rhythms and other complexities—starting with the ferociously difficult interaction with the witches-sabbath-reunion trio of bassoons at around 2’30”. Hornung and his forces maintain total discipline here, but it’s all a bit tame. What we lack is the sense of recklessness, of the music about to come off the rails. Rostropovich’s scorching account takes the crown for “disciplined recklessness”—the Boston Symphony’s bassoons having a right old time here—though both Alexander Ivashkin (with Valery Polyansky and the Moscow Symphony, Brilliant Classics BC 9413) and Daniel Müller-
Schott (with Yakov Kreizberg and the Bavarian Radio Symphony, Orfeo C 659 081 A) offer outstandingly intense performances.
Hornung’s approach to the concerto’s seemingly episodic Finale is pretty much of a piece with the rest of the work. As before, the most successful portions are those that depend upon lyricism or poetry. For example, the flute and cello duet that forms the movement’s first main theme. Hornung weaves his accompanimental figure around the flute, shaping it as if it were the actual melody, and yet never getting in the way. This duet is hard to balance—a flute melody that descends over a span of two octaves and thus gets less prominent as it goes down, versus a cello that’s constantly jumping around. It usually emerges as a cello with flute accompaniment. This is one of the few recordings to get it right. Another place where Hornung’s poignant restraint pays off is in the “Boris Godunov” melody, first heard at 7’17”.
A comparison reveals a quite startling range of timings for this movement—from around 15 minutes or so for Rostropovich or Heinrich Schiff (with Maxim Shostakovich, Philips 475 7575) to around 17’30” for Wispelwey, Hornung, or Müller-Schott. And that’s not taking into account a notable outlier, Alisa Weilerstein (with Pablo Heras-Casado, Decca 00289 483 0835) at 14’09”. As a generalisation—and not including Weilerstein who takes pretty much the whole movement at a swift lick—the biggest determinant of timing is the tempo chosen for the march-like second theme and its derivatives. Hornung carries the tempo from the first theme over to this march, emphasising the march’s ominous sotto voce quality, and creating a sense of structural consistency. Rostropovich, on the other hand, offsets the march with a new faster tempo, injecting a degree of agitation.
Hornung’s approach to this theme is effective, in the same way that his approach to the start of the Scherzo was effective—a steady tempo and rhythmic, well-sprung playing. However, just like the development of the first movement and the second half of the Scherzo, the approach to the Finale’s horrifying climax—a grotesquely vulgar presentation of “Bubliki”—holds back for too long. There is a burst of steam right before the climax but unfortunately it’s too late. For this climax to make its full effect, it needs the previous momentum to be sustained over a longer period—arguably all the way from the start of the movement, possibly even from the start of the Scherzo, given the linkage that Shostakovich has created between the two movements.
The majority of recordings of this work couple it, predictably enough, with the First Cello Concerto. Nothing wrong with that, of course; the two very much go together. But it’s good to encounter different couplings every once in a while. The recently deceased Lynn Harrell recorded it twice with conductor Gerard Schwarz; in 2005 with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, coupled to Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto (Avie SV2090) and in 2011 with the Seattle Symphony Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony and five little pieces by Liadov (Artek 56). Wispelwey gives us the Britten Third Suite. while the various incarnations of Rostropovich/DG have appeared with everything from Vivaldi and Boccherini, to the Glazunov Chant du ménestrel (the original and most frequently encountered coupling), to Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.
Hornung’s choice of the Second Cello Concerto (“in Five Episodes”) by the Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze, composed the same year as the Shostakovich, is quite inspired. In fact, he dedicates the disc to one of his former teachers, Eldar Isakadze, who was closely associated with this concerto, and the impression given by Hornung’s online promotional video is that he chose the Shostakovich as a coupling to the Tsintsadze rather than the other way around.
With the connection between the two works announced by the title of the disc, “Cello Concertos of 1966,” it is naturally tempting to draw comparisons. There is perhaps one sense in which the connection is significant, namely in how the two composers responded to the period. Much of Tsintsadze’s earlier music featured the sound of Georgian folklore, contained within an otherwise fairly conservative style. In other words, as Elizabeth Wilson points out in her booklet note, Tsintsadze’s First Cello Concerto of 1949 ticked the boxes of socialist realism, particularly around the late 1940s, when music conveying friendship with “the republics” was usually guaranteed to go down well. Almost two decades later, the Georgian nationalist style is still on display in the concerto’s fourth movement (or “episode”), but the darkness and stylistic exploration of the other movements, not to mention the somewhat unsettling way in which the fourth movement collapses into the fifth, puts it all into a rather different light. It would be hard to imagine this going down quite so well with the arbiters of Soviet culture back in the 40s. But modernism was in the air in the Soviet Union in the mid-late 60s, and it’s fascinating to see how Tsintsadze responded to it. Meanwhile, for Shostakovich, 1966 was arguably the year that he entered his “late period,” with the Eleventh String Quartet and the Second Cello Concerto ushering in a new austerity in his writing. Two composers taking a cautious dip into waters unknown.
With all of that said, I don’t find much common ground between the two in terms of their sound world. Tsintsadze’s concerto covers a gamut of styles ranging from what one might call post-Prokofiev neo-romanticism of the first movement to the mystic minimalism of the second (which also contains some short-lived modernism at around 2’40”) to the Georgian nationalism of the fourth. The entire third movement is a cadenza, placing it in intent, if not in style, closer to Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto than to the Second.
The performance is excellent, with Hornung and the DSO-Berlin highly responsive to the ever-changing moods and styles. If the performance of the Shostakovich is ultimately a bit low-voltage at critical moments to displace Rostropovich/Ozawa or the very different Wispelwey/Hempel from the top of the list, this disc nevertheless brings some unique attributes, in particular, a fuller-than-usual exploration of the concerto’s lyricism, and of course the unique coupling. All helped along by first-rate engineering and predictably excellent booklet notes by Elizabeth Wilson.
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Galina Ivanovna Ustvolskaya, Suites & Poems
Young Pioneers’ Suite [a], Children’s Suite [b], 16-27 Sports Suite [c].
Lights in the Steppe (Poem no. l) [d], Hero’s Exploit (Poem no. 2) [e] Poem on Peace (Song of Praise, words by Sergey Davydov) [f].
[a] Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Arvïds Jansons, recorded 7 January 1954.
[b] Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Yevgeny Mravinsky, recorded 20 March 1957.
[c] Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Arvïds Jansons, recorded 8 October 1961.
[d] Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Arvïds Jansons, recorded 7 October 1962.
[e] The Leningrad Radio Youth Symphony Orchestra/Igor Borisoglebsky, recorded 16 February 1958.
[f] Ensemble-in-residence at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory The Studio for New Music; Vladislav Lavrik conductor; Moscow Boys Choir (School No. 1234), Bogdan Petrenko choir director; Mikhail Turpanov piano, recorded 23 October 2016.
Brilliant Classics 96084
Two discs. TT: 80:41 [37:50 + 42:51]
All tracks are in Mono AAD except Poem on Peace DDD
Note: The titles in brackets correspond to the composer’s own revised titles.
All World Premiere recordings except for Children’s Suite and Lights in the Steppe, previously released on LP in the USSR (Children’s Suite was also issued on CD in Japan).
Galina Ivanovna Ustvolskaya (1919–2006) was born in what was then Petrograd to non-musical parents. Precociously gifted, she began studying music at seven years of age and entered Dmitri Shostakovich’s composition class at the prestigious Leningrad Conservatory in 1939, as the only female student. Totalling less than six hours, the 21 entries in her generally accepted catalogue are a Piano Concerto (1946), six Piano Sonatas (1947–88), the Octet for two oboes, four violins, timpani, and piano (1949–50), the Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano (1949), a Violin Sonata (1952), twelve Piano Preludes (1953), five Symphonies (1955–90), the Grand Duet for Cello and Piano (1959), a Duet for Piano and Violin (1964), and the Compositions nos. 1–3 (1970–1975).
Boris Tishchenko described Ustvolskaya’s music as “burn[ing] … with an inhuman intensity and a spiritual strength, as if it has broken away from musical substance and exists independently, like radiation or gravity.”
Not long after her Conservatory graduation, Ustvolskaya fell foul of the Zhdanov-led anti-formalist movement embodied in the notorious February 1948 Resolution, following which she was obliged to indulge in a “profound reorientation” in respect of her compositional work. This led her to compose a number of pieces aimed at being “accessible to the people,” in the so-called Socialist Realist style. Yet despite the apparent conformism and official idioms deployed in the Suites and Poems reviewed here, her music was still considered too idiosyncratic, and the majority of these works were performed only once or twice. Ustvolskaya herself later banished them from her catalogue, going to considerable lengths to destroy all traces of their existence. Her attitude towards the few manuscripts that survived was that they were written “for the money.”
This double-CD offers a rare opportunity to hear some of these works, namely Young Pioneers’ Suite (1954), Children’s Suite (1955), Sports Suite (1961); the two symphonic poems Hero’s Exploit (1957) and Lights in the Steppe (1959), and finally Poem on Peace, (1962) the last Ustvolskaya work to be composed at the behest of the Soviet authorities, with texts by Sergey Davydov. Samuel Barber said of this composition: “If that is peace, I prefer war.” The intensity of the Poem evidently alarmed the Soviet authorities, so much so that it was never performed again, without a mention in newspapers or journals. And with this last commissioned work Ustvolskaya broke all links with conformism.
Nevertheless, Ustvolskaya’s music on the theme of children was popular with the public in the 1950s. In the rather solemn First Symphony (1955), the central theme is the suffering of children. Its opposite pole is the stridently vociferous music of works such as the nine-movement Children’s Suite, Ustvolskaya’s most often-performed work in the Soviet era. This opens with a mildly discordant percussive “striking” depicting the early hours of Morning, the movement’s title. This leads into a simple, sentimental melody on strings, sweet and tender. This segues into Cheerful Walk, again with very unchallenging harmonies and an almost filmic quality in its evocation of nature. There follows a lilting Ballerina’s Doll leading to a much less reassuring Bear’s Dance. The movement entitled Touch Last features mildly hysterical yelps and chirps from the orchestra before In the Glade reverts to meek reveries and a modest depiction of birdsong. Battle sprints along purposefully in what is the shortest of the movements (0’57”). Dance and a Cry Baby mixes shrill exclamations of joy with undertones of misgiving, before Evening brings the day’s exertions, and the Suite to a conclusion. It’s tuneful, plainly orchestrated and with only the very briefest excursion into the shadows. The highly competent performers—Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic—presumably tackled the unchallenging score with a detached ease.
If the Children’s Suite brought some recognition to Ustvolskaya, the fate of two other suites was less providential, being performed twice and then forgotten. The first, later renamed Young Pioneers’ Suite, is notable as the only one of Ustvolskaya’s works for which Shostakovich penned a review, for the newspaper Sovetskoe Iskusstvo. He wrote: “The suite is brilliantly orchestrated, and one listens to it with interest. It contains a genuine joy and love of life. I very much hope G. Ustvolskaya will continue in the future to compose works for a young audience.” The music is extraordinarily filmic, with echoes of a Shostakovich’s own score for the film The Unforgettable Year 1919 (1951). A Trumpet Calls! leads the charge followed by another pastoral excursion In the Forest—A Fairy Tale featuring interplay between light and dark motives (conceivably irksome to the censor’s ears?) then an overly passive At Leisure, an overly naïve A Game, a partying, rollicking A Celebration—movements that lead to the final recapitulatory Trumpet Calls! The relevance of Shostakovich’s aforementioned review should be viewed in context, given the one-dimensional nature of Ustvolskaya’s piece. The orchestra is again the Leningrad Philharmonic this time led by the legendary Arvīds Jansons.
The work entitled Sports Suite was later renamed Suite and saved from exclusion from Ustvolskaya’s catalogue at the insistence of the composer’s husband Konstantin Bagrenin, along with a handful of works from this period. It’s unclear what the relevance of sport here might be; the movements only refer to pace and mood: “Very quickly, cheerfully”; “Moderately, briskly”; “Melodiously, at a leisurely pace,” and so on. The suite’s 12 numbers, only one of which exceeds 2 minutes, are strident, march-like with a piccolo theme that is reminiscent of Prokofiev’s Kijé (although there, the similarities end). The Leningrad Philharmonic and Arvīds Jansons feature again, at what was, given the timid applause, a public concert.
The symphonic poem Hero’s Exploit featured in a competition to mark the 40th anniversary of the Soviet regime. Critics praised the work, but it quickly disappeared from concert halls. It begins enigmatically, hesitatingly, leading into a machine-like undercurrent over which brass and woodwind strive to overcome presumed trials (the hero’s struggle?) Finally the machinery halts, followed by a passage reminiscent of the invasion theme of the Leningrad Symphony (Shostakovich and Ustvolskaya were known to exchange ideas, motives, and themes. Ustvolskaya’s influence on Shostakovich can be further seen in his Fifth String Quartet (1953), with quotations from Ustvolskaya’s Trio. Shostakovich wrote to Ustvolskaya: “It is not you who are influenced by me; rather it is I who am influenced by you.”) The overall impression left by the poem is one of rambling indecisiveness.
A year later, Ustvolskaya was commissioned to write a piece to mark the 40th anniversary of the Leninist Young Communist League (the Komsomol). Her new symphonic poem, Lights in the Steppe, was dedicated “to the glorious Soviet youth, achieving feats of labour in the Virgin Lands.” The concert programme included the following description of the symphonic poem: “Its ‘subject’ is straightforward (there is no programmatic statement by the composer, but this can be easily ‘deduced’ from the music): the wide spaces of the desolate, sleepy steppe are awoken by the whistle of a locomotive and the ringing song of Komsomol members. Having overcome difficulties, experienced failures and been energised by a new wave of strength, the young people achieve victories through labour. […] In the steppe that was until recently lost in darkness appear the bright lights of new buildings!” The work was branded as an ideological failure. Even Shostakovich, then close to Ustvolskaya, said in a speech that the symphonic poem created “The very strongest and best impression,” but that “in conversations with comrades I have had, of course to agree,” that it expresses “the wonderful [Soviet] contemporaneity […] with imperfect musical means.”
Two months later, at a special session of the Composers’ Union dedicated to a discussion of Lights in the Steppe, the work received widely differing evaluations from fellow composers. At the end of the discussion the chair, composer Orest Evlakhov, advised Ustvolskaya to remove the “heavy basses” and “a certain gloominess from a number of episodes” (“the menacing steppe” and “the terrible train”), and to add “melodic breath” and Komsomol enthusiasm. The first, “unsuccessful,” version of the symphonic poem was not been preserved. The second variant, included on the current CDs, was performed in 1962, released on LP but then forgotten for several decades. The work is overtly episodic, and remnants of the “menacing steppe” and “terrible train” remain in this revision. Stylistic similarities include Khachaturian (dance-like episodes), Shchedrin (extended descriptive passages) and Shostakovich (a near-“DSCH” and a near-Eighth Symphony). Programmatic music this remains, frustratingly lacking cohesion. The performance is uneven (Leningrad Philharmonic under Arvīds Jansons), perhaps unrehearsed.
As has already been mentioned earlier, Poem on Peace proved to be Ustvolskaya’s final on-command composition, and one that rapidly disappeared into dusty oblivion following its premiere. The recording here is recent (2016), with the opening brass fanfares and harsh side drum rolls combining with piano accompaniment, all of which resonate in the brittle, bright acoustic. There are momentary allusions to Ustvolskaya’s distinctive piano percussiveness before a boys’ choir enters, chanting, pleading with insistent, sometimes raggedly articulated declarations, repeatedly on and around the tonic. Benjamin Britten’s works in this vein spring to mind, likely more fortuitously than born of any direct inspiration or connection. The recording is of a live concert, as attests the hesitating applause. Poem on Peace is a strange beast, meriting at least a second hearing if only for the atypical nature of Ustvolskaya’s scoring, and the sheer provocatory notion of “Peace.”
In all, these recordings of works by Ustvolskaya are as untypical as they are compelling as they are bemusing. A must for connoisseurs of the composer, they are perhaps discretionary for the Shostakovich aficionado, notwithstanding the well-documented “connections” between the two musicians. The CDs are at bargain price, and the booklet generously filled with enthusiastic notes by Andrei Bakhmin.