CD Reviews 54
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Symphony no. 4, opus 43.
London Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda.
Recorded: Live at Barbican Hall, London,
LSO Live LSO0832
The first decade of the millennium brought two Chandos releases announcing Gianandrea Noseda’s affinity for Shostakovich, the Italian conductor granting welcome attention to the infrequently recorded tone poem October and providing able partnership to bass Ildar Abdrazakov in the Suite on Words of Michelangelo and Six Romances on Texts of Raleigh, Burns and Shakespeare (CHAN 10358), as well as to soloist Enrico Dindo in both cello concertos (CHSA 5093; DSCH 38). Following his appointment in the 2016/17 season as Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, Noseda has been widening his slice of the Shostakovich discography. This 2019 release is the second entry in his projected complete symphony cycle with the LSO on hybrid SACDs, which kicked off with no. 8 in 2018 (LSO0822) and was joined by nos. 1 and 5 in 2020 (LSO0802).
No convergence in overall conception of the Fourth Symphony is to be found in the latest dispatches from Russia, as is readily revealed by total timing. Mikhail Pletnev’s 2017 recording stretches the proceedings to a record-breaking 74:47, heightening the surreal atmosphere here and there, but also generating longueurs that neither the commitment of his Russian National Orchestra nor Pentatone’s bright acoustics can overcome (2-disc set PTC 5186 647, coupled with Symphony no. 10). The middle-of-the-road 63:18 taken by Alexander Sladkovsky in his 2016 recording with the Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra is misleading, as extremes of tempo within yield one of the most exhilarating performances this work has enjoyed to date (Melodiya MEL CD 10 02470, DSCH 50). Valery Gergiev’s 2013 outing with his Mariinsky team lasts just 59:39 (Mariinsky MAR0545), pruning 4½ minutes off his tour with the same forces in 2001, back when these players were known as the Kirov Orchestra (Philips 470 842-2, DSCH 22 and 5-CD War Symphonies set 470 841-2, DSCH 24). In his later recording, Gergiev’s measured pace in the first movement gives way to an impatient dash through the second and a generally brisk clip thereafter, at the expense of both expressive diversity and ensemble.
In contrast, recent recordings of Symphony no. 4 from orchestras in the West have been quite consistent in duration, and this newcomer is no exception. At 64:39, Noseda lands within a few seconds of Andris Nelsons with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon 493 5220, DSCH 50) and Vasily Petrenko with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Naxos 8.573188, DSCH 40). Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic wrap up only a minute sooner (Deutsche Grammophon 483 5345, a 6-CD commemorative set in which op. 43 is the only Shostakovich work).
Other than total timing, however, these Fourths from Noseda, Nelsons, Petrenko, and Nézet-Séguin share precious little in common, and comparing just the first dozen bars of each reveals that very different journeys lie ahead. Many die-hard fans may question whether Noseda is travelling in the right direction.
Before explaining why, I’ll second the praise Louis Blois bestowed in these pages on the recordings from Nelsons and Petrenko, which deliver a wealth of insights and should be considered mandatory listening for anyone serious about this opus. As an aside, my enthusiasm for Nelsons’ take on op. 43 wasn’t a foregone conclusion, as his previous Shostakovich releases had left me cold. I remain flabbergasted that his Symphony no. 10 should have contrived to win Grammy and Gramophone Awards (Deutsche Grammophon 479 5059, DSCH 44), as in that work I found many of his tweaks to be arbitrary, while DG’s woolly acoustics did his players no favours, obscuring detail and blunting the violins’ edge. Happily, the soundstage is sufficiently improved for Nelsons’ Symphony no. 4 to transmit the finer points of his persuasive interpretation.
Nézet-Séguin’s report from Rotterdam is no less desirable and distinctive. One notable trademark, which I’ve also heard him stamp with his hometown band, Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain, is his handling of that thrice-repeated, ascending sequence on unison brass and strings at Fig. 92 in the first movement’s Presto section, right before the reappearance of the skeleton’s jig that kicked off the symphony. Each of these three “revving” iterations starts at an excruciatingly slow grind then accelerates, reminiscent of nothing so much as the protest of a car engine being started on a cold morning in February. This tempo shift isn’t prescribed in the score, but Rostropovich provided a milder precedent in his 1998 recording with the LSO (Andante AN4090, DSCH 22).
In this company, Noseda is the odd man out. Whereas Nelsons, Petrenko, and Nézet-Séguin conjure up an almost cinematic drama, Noseda appears to be more concerned with working through the musical logic without external allusions. With him at the helm, the LSO sail on calm seas, this stable platform permitting marvellously nuanced solo work; they are utterly unrecognisable as the panic-stricken crew Rostropovich steered
between Scylla and Charybdis two decades before.
From the outset, nobody familiar with Symphony no. 4 will fail to register Noseda’s unexpected insistence on legato phrasing. The first movement soon settles into a dreamy mood, and for a long stretch the discourse remains slow and meandering. An incremental ramp-up of pace brings excitement rather than fear, the only fleeting glimpses of something darker coming from the strangled winds at Fig. 30 (7:17) and the breathless horns at Fig. 47 (11:38). As unidiomatic as this may be, one cannot help but marvel at the virtuosity in abundance; the violin runs in the fugue of the Presto are among the swiftest and most slithery on record, and the violin solo preceding the movement’s unwinding is uniquely arrhythmic.
The second movement is where Noseda’s approach pays the most dividends, so clearly mapping out the formal structure: here’s a dance form; now let’s disassemble it, and inspect its components from various angles; now let’s reconstitute the pieces as a bombastic caricature of its former self. The most strikingly iconoclastic decision along the way is the imposition of a positively sleazy glissando in the violin’s waltz at Fig 124+3/3:06, not to be found in the score but echoing the notated slide 15 bars earlier.
Straight through to the end of the last movement we find an admirable rhythmic flexibility, with an organic ebb and flow. The LSO’s first chairs take full advantage of one opportunity after another to shine, and the well-focused recording cleanly delineates each strand during tutti. Still, is this music really supposed to be so safe and unthreatening? I can’t pretend not to be disappointed that the long-awaited final climax turns out to be more spectacular than cataclysmic. This is surely not the time for the brass to withhold their sparks, yet they do, conveying nobility instead of menace. Emerging unscathed on the other side, the coda feels melodramatic—it hasn’t earned the right to linger as long as it does.
While this would not be my own go-to version or be the one I’d choose to introduce opus 43 to the uninitiated, Noseda’s intelligent direction injects more than enough originality to make this a worthwhile purchase for an aficionado. Certainly, the participating members of the LSO (all of whom are justly named in the booklet notes) can be proud of a performance of high merit.
W. Mark Roberts
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Shostakovich, Piano Quintet, opus 57.
Weinberg, Piano Quintet, opus 18.
Mūza Rubackytė (piano), Mettis Quartet.
Recorded, Paliesiaus dvaras, Lithuania, June 2019.
The combination of Shostakovich’s Quintet with that by his colleague Mieczysław Weinberg has become a standard pairing, for obvious reasons: as they clearly share some of the same musical DNA. Shostakovich’s Quintet, one of his most popular chamber works, has been regularly featured in recordings practically since its premiere. Many composers have written in the Quintet’s shadow: after all, it was one of the very first chamber works to win a Stalin Prize (in 1941). Weinberg’s effort is one of those that very much stands on its own; the pairing with Shostakovich more often highlights the differences between them, rather than similarity. The same can’t be said of others from the same time, such as Georgy Sviridov’s Quintet (1946).
This release, featuring renowned Lithuanian pianist Mūza Rubackytė and the Mettis Quartet, provides a good comparison for both works. While it might not stand as a go-to recording for the Shostakovich, the fact that both works are here recorded by the same forces in the same session enables some of the closest possible comparison between the two works. Rubackytė has recorded other Shostakovich works elsewhere. Most recently, this includes the Preludes and Fugues (Brilliant Classics 8463). Her Russian concerto repertoire includes Shostakovich’s Second, Prokofiev’s Third and Schnittke’s, all of which she brought together on Doron 3061. Her career has been greeted with numerous national accolades, including being named as a National Artist of Lithuania.
For the Shostakovich Quintet, we are spoilt for choice when we consider numerous recordings to compare alongside this one, not least of which is the composer himself performing, though Argerich still remains my favourite (EMI Classics 50999 5 04504 2, DSCH 29—now on Warner Classics). Rubackytė’s playing is assured and controlled, which sometimes means that the skittish energy of Shostakovich’s recordings is absent. Sound recording is clear, though with a distant quality; the piano opening of the first movement, Prelude, risks moving into icy or even “tinny” territory at points. Ensemble playing with the strings is generally good, though there is a sense that Rubackytė affords little room for balance when the melody is passed to the string player. This is pronounced in the move to the subdued Fugue movement, where the Quartet demonstrate a remarkable restraint; when Rubackytė rejoins the group, a really rather special mood is achieved, quite different from the opening. It is apparent that the pairing featured on this recording is at their best when they focus on music of restraint. The middle Scherzo movement dominates Shostakovich’s Quintet: here, it is taken at a relatively safe tempo, which does mean we lose some of the exhilarating opportunity for the pianist to demonstrate virtuosity. The Mettis Quartet here provide good accompaniment; the klezmer-inflected second theme soars above the piano in this movement. The feeling of restraint carries over here somewhat, though it is counterbalanced with an appropriate sense of jubilation. Intonation in the lower lines is sometimes off —particularly in the mid-to-high register of the cello. These come towards the conclusion of the movement, and are particularly exposed, which is a shame. They give a haunting rendition of the passacaglia-like Intermezzo, with its exposed string lines. There is a Bachlike simplicity in the finale, and it takes dedication to successfully bring this out. The Finale requires clarity to work well: the contrasting theme really brings this together, providing a delightful conclusion. Overall, this is a confident reading that still manages to find new things in this familiar piece.
Weinberg’s Quintet was written in 1944, and is by far the most recorded of his pieces. The influence of the Shostakovich Quintet is of course felt, perhaps most obviously in how the central movement dominates the overall structure, but the ramifications from Weinberg’s Quintet often went in the reverse direction as well: elements from the work actually resurface in quartets by Shostakovich that followed. As with the Shostakovich, we have a recording with the composer, playing with the Borodin Quartet (Melodiya MEL CD 10 00979). Just as with Shostakovich, Weinberg takes tempi far more flexibly than the score indicates, more often on the fast side. Recent recordings of the work tend to either opt for the score or Weinberg’s version. Pleasingly, this rendition often opts for a middle ground, which marks it out immediately from some of the other options available. The writing for piano and strings is frequently far more challenging than the Shostakovich, and all the performers rise to meet it. It opens with a brooding string accompaniment that bubbles underneath a piercing motif given by the piano, which then comes to form the backbone of the rest of the movement. The motivic development rises out of the string parts, with intricate syncopation and adventurous modulations that stretch any ensemble: the Mettis Quartet here provide an admirable rendition, more than capable of highlighting new lines and melodies for even the most seasoned Weinberg aficionado. The central Presto starts with slithering lines that belay little of the main character of the movement: it is only when the piano starts shifting toccata-like into the second theme that we hear it: a quasi-orchestral version, complete with cadenza-like passages. While Weinberg has by now emerged from out of Shostakovich’s shadow, it is important to stress that more often than not, Weinberg takes Shostakovich’s musical signatures and manages to “go one further.” The Largo is an alarming illustration: nearly 15 minutes, slow tempo, exploring a mournful character throughout (with direct links to Shostakovich’s Third Quartet, 1946). Here, the ensemble actually manages a slightly fast tempo: other ensembles manage nearly 16 minutes. The finale is a tour-de-force of thematic invention: a tapping, machine-like motif gives way to a 6/8 folk-like melody, with complex counterpoint between them, and then a cyclical restatement of the motif from the very first movement. To do justice to this work, it needs to burst with energy and precision, which is certainly achieved here.
Overall, this CD is an interesting one, providing an excellent foundation for comparing these two works. While the Shostakovich is convincing, it might not win a place as a beloved interpretation, but the Weinberg is certainly up there with recent versions of the work, such as those of Piotr Sałajszyk and the Silesian Quartet (Accord ACD239), or Elisaveta Blumina in an orchestral version with the Georgian Chamber Orchestra Ingolstadt under Ruben Gazarian (Capriccio C5366). It continues to be one of Weinberg’s most beloved works and its pairing with Shostakovich is illuminating for both composers.
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Violin Concerto no. 1, opus 77; Violin Concerto no. 2, opus 129.
Ivan Pochekin (violin), Russian National Orchestra/Valentin Uryupin.
Recorded at the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, Moscow 2019.
On this CD, two newcomers to the Shostakovich catalogue take on the challenges of the violin concertos. Both conductor and soloist are equal to the task, having drawn wide acclaim throughout Europe and Russia. Valentin Uryupin has held distinguished posts with high profile orchestras and is a First Prize winner of the 2017 Georg Solti conducting competition. Ivan Pochekin boasts a small discography of mostly Romantic music and claimed first prize in the 2005 Third Paganini Violin Competition held in Moscow. In 2019 Uryupin made a well-received CD premiere, leading the Russian National Orchestra in two works by the contemporary composer Vyacheslav Artyomov, In Spe (with Pochekin as one of the soloists) and Latin Hymns (Divine Art, DDA 25184). Here the two artists team up once again, this time to plumb the dark regions of Shostakovich’s music. The performance of the First Concerto is nothing less than stunning.
The First Concerto’s sombre chasms are laid out with a bareness of depth and elegance. Pochekin’s ever-present vibrato may sound affected to some, but others will hear it as an endearing feature, along with the concentrated focus and personalised inflection he brings to the solo line. Uryupin leads the RNO with equal measures of quiet reflection that build to stirring crescendi. It’s a collaboration of heart-rending conviction. There’s that spellbinding passage mid-movement when amid the pleading tones of the violin in the highest register, a sequence of single notes on harp and celesta rises to a precipice of mesmerising expectation (fig 12 + 4), only to plunge into an abyss of utter bleakness. In the best performances, this moment has the effect of stopping the world dead in its tracks, and such an effect is achieved here. Conductor and soloist bring the same passion and power to the third movement Passacaglia, which Pochekin takes on with affecting hearton-sleeve expressiveness. High spirits abound in the faster movements, the Scherzo and the final Burlesque, where the dignity of the music prevails at the expense of some of the urgency and merry abandon found in other performances; note well the version by Dmitri Sitkovetsky with Andrew Davis leading the BBC SO (Virgin Classics, VC 7 91143-2). But it is in the cadenza that Pochekin’s unique insights shine most brightly. Here the violinist takes command of the solo, with rests and pauses that breathe extravagantly, fleshing out an expressive space that is explored with depth and breadth. One of the standout features of Pochekin’s cadenza is the hard stroke he places on some of the accented double stops. It’s a detail that may first sound a bit exaggerated, but upon return listenings, a detail that lends yet another measure of poignance to the solo, one of the highlights of this recording.
The Second Concerto, composed in 1967, nearly two decades after the First, belongs to Shostakovich’s later period. Its oblique, often cryptic musical terrain presents a different set of interpretive challenges that have no doubt kept it from capturing as much listener attention. The concerto’s expressive layout is unique in the Shostakovich canon: the multivalent terrain of the outer movements surrounds a central movement of disarming straightforwardness. Pochekin and Uryupin give a performance of the work that is as engaging as in the First Concerto. Uryupin again proves a worthy partner of Pochekin, who, as in the First Concerto, brings an impressive combination of eloquence and pathos to the solo line. The searching mood of the opening movement is compassionately evoked, as are the moments of inward reflection found throughout. The utter desolation Pochekin elicits in the solo passage at the end of the opening Moderato provides a fine example; his gripping battle with inner demons in the final movement’s cadenza is another. In the central Adagio movement, Pochekin inspiringly summons the tender vulnerability of the main theme, and in the final passages, uncovers more profound layers of sadness with subtlety that is ever so penetrating. The soloist’s empathic connection with these intimate moments is praiseworthy. I only wish Pochekin had engaged more vigorously with the confrontational, climactic portions of the outer movements, as that would have enhanced the performance’s cumulative impact. As lively and expressively as these sections are brought out, they are missing some of the fire and fury found in other interpretations. It nevertheless stands as a rendering that merits attention, mainly for the unique insights Pochekin brings to the introspective dimension of the music. For a more visceral coming to terms with the work’s broader expressionistic force, one may turn to the premiere recording with David Oistrakh, soloist, and Kirill Kondrashin leading the Moscow SO (re-released multiple times, including Icone ICN-9408-2, DSCH 10 and Alto ALC1062, DSCH 33). Among more recent performances, mention should be made of
the young firebrand soloist Alena Baeva, with Valery Gergiev leading the Mariinsky Orchestra, recorded in concert at the Salle Pleyel in Paris in 2014. This is available on DVD (Arthaus 107551) or Bluray (Arthaus 107552). Elsewhere, Baeva has also coupled Shostakovich’s First Concerto to Bacewicz’s “Divertimento” on the Polish Baltic Philharmonic Orchestra’s own label PFB 0102.
Still in all, for its standout performance of the First Concerto and a worthy one of the Second Concerto, this well-engineered disc makes a notable contribution to the discography.
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Symphony no. 11, opus 103.
BBC Philharmonic/John Storgårds.
Recorded at MediaCityUK, Salford, Manchester, 8 and 9 August 2019.
Chandos CHSA 5278
Symphony no. 11, opus 103.
London Philharmonic/Vladimir Jurowski.
Recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall, London, 11 December 2019.
Many, if not all of Shostakovich’s symphonies can be seen as “historical canvases” but the more explicitly programmatic ones—numbers 2, 3, 7, 11, and 12—have often been pushed to the edges of the canon, described as “pictorial” or, damned with faint praise, “cinematic.” Perhaps musical onomatopoeia is inimical to symphonic thinking or these works’ apparently straightforward narratives rule them out of bounds, or maybe they have too often been seen as nakedly pro-Soviet. It’s notable that the Thirteenth, running against the system and reflecting Yevtushenko’s kaleidoscopic viewings of history from different perspectives, has largely escaped such censure, while Beethoven’s Pastoral is more likely to be praised for cunningly interweaving the concrete and the abstract, the symphonic and the narrative, rather than being discussed in such iconoclastic terms.
For those who want to wield such criticisms, the Eleventh provides ample evidence—the overt 1905 (or, if you prefer, covert 1957) historical programme, the abundance of revolutionary songs and the uncanny musical portrayals of the freezing Palace Square and the onslaught of the troops (tanks?), etc. Hence, from its earliest days it was a divisive work: worn-out socialist realist toadying or Aesopian condemnation? But for all the theorising and musicological arguing and the view through the politico-aesthetic prism, the fact remains that performers do have to decide where they are going to place such works on a spectrum from tone poem to symphony.
The positive reaction, both “officially” and among musically sympathetic western performers, generated several early recordings, most of which have been multiply re-issued. A two-minute Soviet newsreel covered Natan Rakhlin’s Moscow premiere in October 1957 (viewable at https://www.britishpathe.com/video/russian-state-symphony-orchestra) before he took it into the studio (MK D04234-7—LP only), and Mravinsky led the Leningrad premiere on 3 November, a performance that also briefly made it onto disc (CD releases include Russian Disc and Profil Medien). Studio traversals from Cluytens—attended by Shostakovich (EMI and, most recently, Testament) and Stokowski, a few days after his US premiere (Capitol and EMI Angel)—followed in 1958 and, a year later, Mravinsky (Regis’ puzzling and unsatisfactory transfer was reviewed in DSCH 38) and Konwitschny (Eterna and Berlin Classics). Five studio recordings and one live within two years sated the market for a while and there was something of a pause, but from the mid-1970s on there has been a regular supply of new recordings and there are now over 50. More recently, five 1958 concerts have made it to disc: Malcolm Sargent’s Western premiere with the BBC SO (Eyewitness Records), Kegel in Dresden (Weitblick), two Moscow performances under Stokowski (Russian Disc and Moscow Conservatoire), and Gauk (Brilliant Classics).
Recordings of this symphony have a wider range of timings than many other works but the stopwatch isn’t always a guide to performance quality. Kondrashin’s 53:53 sounds not so much urgent as rushed, compared to Järvi’s 54:47, and Polyansky’s flabby 73:57 only just outruns Rostropovich’s compelling and monumental 72:25 with the LSO (DSCH 18). In the middle ground, many conductors head for somewhere around 57-67 minutes, with much of the disparity between the faster and slower performances often centring on the first and third movements.
Chandos has an impressive Shostakovich discography but, despite attempts with two conductors, hasn’t managed to compile a complete symphony cycle. Neeme Järvi helmed numbers 1, 4-10, and 13 before leaving to fill in the gaps for DG, and Polyansky’s (generally inferior) cycle was abandoned after 6, 7, 9-13, and 15. Even with Turovsky chiming in for no. 14, they’re short of 2 and 3 for a set.
Thus Storgårds’ is Chandos’ second op.103, and though it isn’t clear whether this is the beginning of a cycle that will prove third time lucky, it’s more than just a great improvement over Polyansky’s (still available, but only as a download).
Vladimir Jurowski also has an impressive Shostakovich track record, though the Eleventh is only his third symphony to be recorded with the LPO, after numbers 6 and 14 (the latter reviewed as a single release in DSCH 13) and the Piano Concertos (DSCH 42). The conductors doing the honours (or not) on other LPO own-brand releases are Haitink with the Tenth (DSCH 31), Masur coupling the First and Fifth, (DSCH 33) and the Seventh, and Rozhdestvensky for the Eighth (DSCH 39).
Opening the symphony, Storgårds prioritises tension over meteorology—there are chillier evocations of Palace Square; Mravinsky’s grittiness puts the listener at the heart of the action, albeit that that’s partly down to the recording, but Storgårds absolutely captures the feeling of dread at a tempo that is very close to the score’s crotchet = 66. The shifts of focus from the trumpet and horn fanfares back to strings and harp are beautifully achieved and the little pulsations of the many repeated crotchets keep things moving without distorting the music. When things first catch light at Fig. 12, he is careful to rein it in enough to show that this is just a brief flaring up, an impression underlined by the basses’ and cellos’ weary heaving in the song “The Arrested Man.”
Jurowski’s opening is more emphatic, the harp punchier and more percussive with the strings like an echo hanging behind and the timpani a rumble beneath. As the movement progresses Jurowski makes it less about tone-painting than in showing Shostakovich’s skill in marshalling the material, moulding the lengthy melodies and highlighting how he extracts motifs to throw around the orchestra. In short, Jurowski seems more interested in reclaiming it as a symphony.
In the surging of the opening of the second movement, Storgårds goes for homogeneity of tone across the different sections of the orchestra until the breakout with its glaring woodwind, but he again underlines the disappointment of the moment as it all sinks back into the lower strings. If we take a programmatic view of the Eleventh, Storgards’ is a story of repeated frustration, of quenched fires. But that could equally apply when we think of the wavering between major and minor thirds that pervades the symphony. Is that tension symphonic or programmatic? Jurowski, in contrast, very audibly marks out winds and strings from the beginning, underlining the counterpoint rather than the pictorialism of a crowd breaking apart.
Jurowski’s “entry of the troops/tanks” is properly overwhelming though a slight ritard at the end robs it of a hallucinogenic quality that some conductors bring as the section vanishes into the snowy mist of Palace Square as quickly as it appeared. The fugue-ish string section is firm and powerful in both performances: Jansons’ Philadelphia recording (EMI Classics CDC5 55601-2) is terrifyingly and appropriately mechanistic but Kreizberg’s live version (OPMC Classics OPMC 005) is so fast that, astonishing achievement as it is, seems to be striving for effect—and the wrong one.
The third movement’s circulations around “You Fell as a Victim” over a weirdly-twisted walking bass evoke or is evoked by other works, notably the Fifteenth, itself a revisiting of the Seventh. The violas give the entire melody, but where Haitink’s strings are dully straightforward, deadly for such a simple, if catchy, melody, Storgårds is careful to keep things moving without it becoming too easy. Still, the hymn to the martyrs must conclude that their sacrifice was not in vain and Storgårds impressively brings to music up from the depths of “Bravely, Comrades, Bravely Forward,” before turning to a tender evocation of Lady Macbeth, a distant variation on “You Fell as a Victim,” then to grim determination of a job to be completed, and then finally, a return to commemoration.
For Jurowski, there is less a sense of mourning in the leaping and falling tune (more hope and regret?) as a focus on moving forward, so that when the low winds enter at Fig. 106 it’s not so much a change of mood and direction as an intensification. The whole movement is thus brought together as a single sweep, which is not to say that Storgårds is choppy or incoherent, but that he is more alive to the varying moods while keeping the single-minded forward momentum.
Opening the final “Tocsin” with “Rage, You Tyrants!” several conductors follow Mravinsky in bizarrely alternating the tempi of the brass and string sequences; the score gives a constant crotchet = 120 with the sections switching between duple and triple time. It can increase the “cinematic” effect—something like parallel cutting between two scenes, or a long shot and close-up. Neither Storgårds nor Jurowski have any truck with that and both are impressively relentless, a notch or two above the score and none the worse for that, though that does downplay the shift up to 160 at Fig. 126. The BBC SO give Storgårds a slightly rawer sound and the strings dig in a bit harder, where Jurowski has a rounder tone, again going for the symphonic rather than the illustrative.
Finally, there’s a clear sense of hope which morphs into the determined and open-hearted joy and optimism of the marches “Warschawianka” and “Bravely, Comrades,” but in the excitement it all begins to spin out of control—Storgårds a touch more convincing—with reminiscences of the other Revolutionary songs before Shostakovich undercuts any true revolutionary fervour by satirically piling all kinds of fragments on top of each other in a terrifying swirling chaos.
And perhaps, among all this political history-making, there’s a small personal resonance. A quote from Sviridov’s operetta Ogonki is fit enough—it is, after all, a revolutionary story, loosely based on Kozintsev and Trauberg’s beloved Maxim character. Trauberg’s career never really recovered from the anti-cosmopolitan campaign and he was increasingly overshadowed by Kozintsev. Shostakovich supported the proposal simply to help get it approved, always intending to shuffle off the actual writing to Sviridov, but Trauberg misunderstood and was disappointed and embittered. What all that means, who can say (pointedly avoiding quoting his own Maxim music to offer an olive branch to a friend?) but it’s indicative of the personal messes that revolutions make and which can be forgotten in the sweep of history.
When the imperious brass are cut off by the tam-tam, we return to the Palace Square of the opening, one more bitter remembrance of where the journey started. Where, elsewhere, Jurowski’s urgency is exciting, here it cuts into the stunned moment too quickly for the moment to fully hit home. That said, his cor anglais gives an unbearably touching Maestoso full rendition of the choral song “Bare Your Heads.” Whatever one’s opinion of Testimony, the symphony is Shostakovich at his most Musorgskian and even melodies that aren’t revolutionary songs often have a declamatory, singing or chanting tone, evoking the people. The following bell-chords come straight out of Boris (though the instrumentation is slightly different from the one Shostakovich had given the Tsar), and slithering out of them an oily-black and serpentine bass clarinet stutteringly drags us to the final climax, quoting “The Ninth of January,” the sixth of his “Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets,” op. 88, and including a xylophone, like the fleas that would leap from the peasants’ jackets as Stepan Razin faced another reversal of revolutionary fortune.
The end of the symphony, for all the repetitions of “Bare Your Heads,” is at heart an urgent cry of “Listen!” and in it the crystallisation of the final movement’s title, the bells’ alternating major and minor thirds making an alarm that should ring out loud and clear over freezing Moscow—whether that cold is literal or political. However, against a large orchestra, the bells can get lost or the effort to be heard can spoil the sound; Stokowski’s Russian Disc percussionist makes them sound like bits of roughly hewn drainpipe. Judging by some of the performances I’ve attended, I suspect there’s occasionally some studio jiggery-pokery to bring them out. Jurowski comes over well and the major/minor third is clear enough and he lets them ring briefly before a few seconds of applause—the first sign of the audience’s presence in an impressive recording from a not always forgiving venue. But Storgårds uses four church bells rather than tubular bells. The booklet claims this is the first time this has been done in the studio since Mravinsky’s 1959 recording, taking that as implicit posthumous approval from Shostakovich. Chandos borrowed the bells from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, but, oddly, Petrenko didn’t use them in his recording, though his ending is nonetheless impressive. However, those bells provide a thrilling and urgent call to arms and ride easily over the massed forces of the BBC SO. With these at his disposal, Storgårds lets them ring on; Berglund, Bychkov in Berlin, Rostropovich and Petrenko are among others who take that option—inviting the audience not to shout for joy but to contemplate solemnly the previous 67 minutes.
So, two recordings of a work that has, in recent years been lucky in some of its renditions. Petrenko (Naxos 8.572082), Sladkovsky in Melodiya’s box set (DSCH 50), and Bychkov and the Berlin SO (Philips 420 935-2PH) all have strong views, though Wiggleworth brings an extraordinary sense of reverence and even of transcendence to some pages (BISSACD1583, DSCH 33). Storgårds, for me, might just pip Jurowski in balancing the symphonic and the pictorial, but as a reclamation of the work as a symphony, you’d be hard-pressed to beat Jurowski.
John Leman Riley
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Oleg Tsibulko (bass), The Choir of the Popov Academy of Choral Art and the Kozhevnikov Choir, Russian National Orchestra/Kirill Karabits.
Recorded: DZZ Studio 5, Moscow, November 2017.
The notoriety surrounding the composition, first performance and subsequent censorship of Shostakovich’s “Babi Yar” Symphony used to lend it a certain celebrity; no more, though, as the piece has receded from the place it once held on the edge of the symphonic repertoire, rather in tandem with diminishing public awareness of the horrific event which gives it its title. The Nazi massacre of almost 34,000 Jews outside Kiev in September 1941, which was itself part of a larger use of the site for the purpose of mass murder, elicits little recognition outside of specialist circles, now that Auschwitz sits as the location of Holocaust history and memory in the minds of the vast majority. There was a time when Shostakovich’s Thirteenth served a role as a commemorative piece, but it’s only rarely brought out in that capacity these days, which is perhaps just as well: it is, after all, about more than just the Soviet failure to properly remember the victims of the Holocaust.
Pentatone’s new recording of the Thirteenth Symphony is the latest in their occasional cycle with the Russian National Orchestra, and as Pauline Fairclough makes clear in her excellent booklet notes, the piece was the product of a very particular time. It’s hard to imagine it coming together at any other moment, but the brief cultural thaw in the first years of the 1960s that allowed the likes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Yevgeny Yevtushenko to squeak through their own literary bombshells about gulags and faulty Soviet historical memory also gave Shostakovich the chance to make the most overt statement of his career on conscience and intellectual honesty. “Joining the Party in 1960 had given him protection from further persecution,” writes Fairclough, “and for the first time in his career, he decided to exploit his protected status with a work he knew would be controversial.”
Despite its relative rarity in the concert hall, the Thirteenth has done quite well on disc lately, with five new recordings in as many years. In 2015, Vasily Petrenko chose to finish his Royal Liverpool Philharmonic cycle of the symphonies with it (Naxos 8.573218 and in the box 8.51111), and it was, of course in Alexander Sladkovsky’s 2017 complete cycle with the Tartarstan National Symphony Orchestra (Melodiya MEL CD 10 02470, DSCH 50). Michael Sanderling added it to his Dresden Philharmonic cycle in 2018, coupling it with Beethoven’s Ninth (Sony 19075874362) and Riccardo Muti’s live one-off with the Chicago Symphony appeared last year (CSO Resound CSOR9011901, DSCH 53). Now, Kirill Karabits enters the lists.
Karabits, born in Kiev in 1976, is the latest in a line of conductors to lead instalments of the RNO’s fifteen-years-andcounting cycle; these have spanned a spectrum of quality. In 2006 Vladimir Jurowski tackled the First and Sixth (PTC 5186068) and Paavo Berglund, the Eighth (PTC 5186084). A year later Yakov Kreizberg oversaw the Fifth and the Ninth (PTC 5186096), and Paavo Järvi led the Seventh in 2015 (PTC 5186511). Mikhail Pletnev has been the most regular contributor, adding the Eleventh (PTC 5186076  DSCH 27), the Fifteenth (PTC 5186331  DSCH 32) and, most recently, the Fourth, coupled to the Tenth (PTC 5186647 ). Off-piste, in 2017 Gustavo Gimeno and the Orchestre Philharmonique Luxembourg coupled the First to a collection of short early works (PTC 5186622).
In the Thirteenth, Karabits avoids the trap of monumentalism which ensnared Riccardo Muti in his recent live account and instead takes a lead from Kirill Kondrashin, conducting the sort of forward-facing and contrast-focused performance heard in the many recordings of the work’s first interpreter.
Here, the first movement begins with appropriate solemnity, but after the opening paragraphs, Karabits presses forward just enough at “Кровь льется, растекаясь по полам”/“The blood is flowing, covering the floor,” giving it shape where other conductors (Muti, for instance) treat the movement as a great, unvarying slab. His second movement is fleet, racing into the ironic pomp depicted in Yevtushenko’s poem “Humour,” but too fast too much of the time to nudge and wink in the way Shostakovich must surely have intended. By contrast, “In the Store” is handled much more effectively: not particularly slowly, but with movement where others opt for stillness and pensiveness. “Fears” and “A Career” maintain a strong throughthread. Karabits makes this symphony into a coherent whole; handled badly, it can seem to stand still and, in very much the wrong hands, feel like a lot of very slow, similar music. Karabits’ achievement here is no small feat.
From the Russian National Orchestra he gets clean and characterful playing, demonstrating how far Russian symphonic standards have come since the vivid but often haphazard results you’ll hear in this work’s early recordings. Vocally, too, the impression is of clarity and exactness. I don’t think I can recall a performance of the choral part in which every syllable is quite so precisely rendered as is managed here by the men of the Choir of the Popov Academy of Choral Art and the Kozhevnikov Choir. The same is true of bass soloist Oleg Tsibulko, whose singing is blessed with real beauty of tone and security of pitch. He’s similar in that regard to Riccardo Muti’s soloist, Alexey Tikhomirov, but Tikhomirov communicates the sense of the words more effectively; there’s not much vocal acting from Tsibulko, and while his performance is perfectly fine, he could really be singing about anything.
Karabits’ Thirteenth is a strong performance, cast very obviously in the mould of the most compelling recordings from the work’s early days under Kondrashin, but it doesn’t ultimately match the emotional temperature found there. Though the structure is handled well, there’s a coolness that robs the symphony’s most awestruck moments of their special intensity. The shape and variety Karabits brings to its form, though, draw the bulk of the symphony out from under the potentially overbearing shadow of the first movement. This is a performance with things on its mind beyond the solemn remembrance of the past.
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Prokofiev: Violin Sonata No.1 in F minor, opus 80. Shostakovich: Violin Sonata, opus 134.
Natalia Prishepenko (violin), Dina Ugorskaja (piano).
Recorded, Studio 2, Bayerischer Rundfunk, München, April 2016.
CAvi-music 42 6008553425 8
“What is the point of another recording?” asks Tatyana Frumkis in her not ideally-translated booklet notes for this CAvi-Music release of two familiar sonatas. It’s a very good question for any reviewer whose job it is to pick nits in poignant times. Most of us would prefer empathy to pedantry just now. Why does the writer say the violin opens the Shostakovich with the DSCH motif, when there’s a D flat in the middle of it? Maybe there wasn’t space to go into all that. So I’ve concentrated on the sounds, not the words, to help answer her leading question.
The sessions were held in Munich at Bavarian Radio in 2016. You can hear everything, dynamics are good and the relation between the instruments is about right. On competing CDs of these works, in contrast, you’ll encounter such defects as swimming pool acoustics, splashes of piano instead of detail, differing acoustics for the two instruments, and violinists one centimetre from the mic. Ugorskaja plays with sustained patience and shows powerful understanding of the required Russian styles. Crucially (thinking again of the competition) she nails the loud, virtuosic sections with the same kind of control she applies to the long, plodding figurations present in each sonata. The climactic solo piano cadenza in the Largo of the Shostakovich is not underwhelming or messy: on most recorded versions, it’s one or the other—or both. Prishepenko’s Guarneri gives her access to the required strong and dark palettes, as well as the quiet beauty needed for the swirling graveyard music in both sonatas, and subtle, withdrawn shadings for the Andante of the Prokofiev. She led the Artemis Quartet for many years; this is real chamber-playing, the interaction is compelling.
All of which is to evade the poignancy, and the point, and the music. I’m writing under the Johnson government. It’s the year we became free captives. That shared sense just about (only just) helps comprehension of life under the Stalin and Brezhnev regimes, where these mighty and related chamber masterpieces were incubated. Shostakovich echoes the Prokofiev work directly, going beyond in his own manner. Celebrating Oistrakh’s 60th birthday, he closes a protective circle of friendship and respect, encompassing the long-departed Prokofiev and the fiddler who’d inspired both composers, in the same expressive, emotional space. Out there, as Shostakovich wrote his Violin Sonata, were the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the student riots, the King and Warhol shootings, the Nixon victory, and the birth of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Enoch Powell gave his “rivers of blood” speech, warning of carnage through immigration and racial tension. On any day in 2020 I could turn to the maelstrom on Facebook and Twitter, drown in conspiracies, hear local people excoriate BLM and all foreigners, find antisemitism back in the news, and see abuse replace civility at all levels. Turning back to the real, it’s hard to know who to trust. As I listened to all this tragic music, a good friend died from Covid-19 after a three-week hospital battle. She was a broadcaster, a voice for good. People are disappearing, and we’re so often alone. Dina Ugorskaja, no stranger to Soviet antisemitism, died of cancer in 2019 aged 46. The CD is a memorial, like the works it contains.
So I was nervous about spending so much time, in difficult times, alone in the company of multiple versions of two really dark pieces I first heard in 1972. In the end it proved inspiring. Each sonata works best live, the (composed-in) drama making more sense with an audience. That said, recordings let us really inhabit the music and its own era. Oistrakh in the Prokofiev says the most, whether with Richter, Oborin, Bauer or especially (on 1950s RCA vinyl) with Yampolsky, recorded a couple of years after the composer’s death. Kremer/Argerich (DG) are sensational, all colour and élan. Mintz/Bronfman (DG) may be unbeaten in the fast music, and stretch a dreamy Andante. Ibragimova/Osborne (Hyperion CDA67514) make a strong, imaginative modern choice. Unmissable are Perlman/Ashkenazy (Sony 19439752272), caught in 1969. Perlman can seem restrained, but has the best Andante of all. Ashkenazy is magnificent, his best Prokofiev disc.
If in the Shostakovich, Oistrakh and Richter are a given; live, fallible, and forthright, then op. 134 is also notable for the great violinists who’ve not recorded it—their loss and ours. And let’s not forget some still awaiting a CD release, notably Kremer/Gavrilov, initially on Melodiya in 1979. Faust/Melnikov (Harmonia Mundi HMC902104, DSCH 37) have been criticised (for the violin) but I disagree. It’s a consistent and moving interpretation, which does not try too hard for expressionistic effect. Overdoing it is part of the piece’s aesthetic, if you can do it; but most violinists who try let you down. Many recordings don’t stand up to repeated listening. Mordkovich/Benson (Chandos 8988) remain highly convincing, exciting and characterful, if ironically making the sonata sound closer to Prokofiev. Josefowicz/Novacek (Warner 2564 62997-2, DSCH 26) are committed, intense, and propulsive.
Shostakovich ends his Sonata in the cemetery, like Prokofiev, like all of us! Yet the achievement of late Shostakovich is his palpable excitement in constructing old forms anew. The materials are bleak, the works proof of life. Even if Prishepenko/Ugorskaja sometimes make Prokofiev sound like Shostakovich, they really understand that point and the performances grow on you. Some slower sections can seem slightly flat, but it’s worth persisting. The unhinged Allegretto of op. 134 is pitched just right, not too quick, enough strain and edge, even a hint of Mahler. Otherwise it’s the place Shostakovich almost meets Bartók, yet elsewhere this duo made me hear Shostakovich channelling Szymanowski via Prokofiev, uncanny. The Passacaglia is well sustained and carefully tinted, the flies dropping as they should, the outbursts full-weight and troubling. If you need the coupling, I’d get this disc above the competing equivalents on Genuin, Dinnebier/Bieber (GEN 89154) and Malinovsky/Golan (GEN 15547). It’s helped reconnect the works to the reason I listen at all. Which is the point.
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Boris Tishchenko: Complete Works for Harp.
“To My Brother,” opus 98 [a]; “Testament,” opus 96 [b]; Harp Concerto, opus 69[c].
Ionella Marinutsa (harp)[a,b,c]; Anara Khassenova (soprano)[a,b,c]; Artem Naumenko (flute)[a]; Anna Homenya (organ)
[b]; International Parisian Symphony Orchestra/Mikhail Sugako[c].
Recorded CRR de Paris Auditorium, Paris[a,b,c]; 23–28 December 2018 [c]; 19 February 2019[a,b].
In 1977, the harpist Irina Donskaya became Boris Tishchenko’s wife, and as a wedding gift she was presented with the Harp Concerto (op. 69). Irina was the first performer of the work and later recorded it with the Leningrad Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra (Edward Serov, conductor; Tatiana Melentieva, soprano; Melodiya LP С10—12401-2, 1985; Northern Flowers CD, NFPMA9963, 2016). Subsequently, Tishchenko included the harp in other works, two of which feature on this excellent Naxos CD. Worth noting is the existence of two other Tishchenko works to feature harp—not included here—the Andante Espressivo (op. 71 bis) for cello and harp, written in 1978 for the end credits of the TV film Deti kak Deti, and Lamento, an orchestration of the third movement of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” sonata for harp and string orchestra (op. 140, 2005).
The two short works that open the CD are short, atmospheric, and steeped in Russian sentimentality. To My Brother is a heartfelt, lyrical lamentation following the death of the composer’s scientist brother, Mikhail Tishchenko, with its text taken from the poem “Testament” by Mikhail Lermontov (1840). Echoing the thematic poignancy of Sviridov, the work is elegantly fashioned by soprano Anara Khassenova, flautist Artem Naumenko, and harpist Ionella Marinutsa. A poem with the same name (“Testament,” although sometimes translated as “The Will”), written by Nikolay Zabolotsky, was set by Tishchenko in the same year (1986), and is scored for soprano, harp, and organ. This strident piece, notable through its unusual ensemble, is performed with panache, although the experience is somewhat marred by a too-distant organ.
If the opening two works together last little more than ten minutes, the Harp Concerto, composed in five linked movements, lasts well over forty minutes. As attests the extended opening featuring clarinet, piano, and harp, the style of the first movement is aesthetically simple, yet abstract—and in its thematic fixatedness reminiscent of a number of Tishchenko’s chamber works, such as the later string quartets. Following the arrival of a broader spectrum of orchestral colour, the harp adopts a chattering, contradictory tone, unspectacular yet mesmerising.
Movement two, allegro con molto, continues in a similar vein, with declamatory brass and woodwind dominating the orchestral tapestry, before the harp restates the previous pages’ fragmented interactions. The movement features an extended cadenza, beautifully executed by Marinutsa. The third movement, moderato, opens with an extended passage for percussion, the pulsating, infatuated rhythm finally interrupted by the harp’s statement of a new, flowing theme, which proceeds to alternate with the previous movements’ indeterminacy, through solo piano and harp. This leads to an orchestral tutti which is quickly broken down to the work’s principal protagonists. Movement four, Intermezzo, opens with a contemplative passage in woodwind, soon joined by the harp, before a wordless song for soprano enters, beautifully intoned by Khassenova, the movement drifting to a close through a sublime interplay between percussion and harp.
The final movement, Andante, is subdued, any resolution to the preceding enigmatic interplay starkly absent. Shades of Bartók, of Shchedrin perhaps, but the core textures are pure Tishchenko. In short, the overall nature of the concerto is perhaps deliberately cryptic, but the result is original and striking.
Marinutsa is excellent throughout—indeed, as a pupil of Irina Donskoy, she was able to discuss the work with its dedicatee as well as the composer. Able support is provided by Sugako and this new orchestra, founded in December 2018. A much-recommended addition to any listener’s Tishchenko collection.