CD Reviews 55
*World Premiere recordings
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Karol Rathaus: Piano Sonata no. 1 in C minor, opus 2[a]; Piano Sonata no. 3, opus 20[a].
Shostakovich: Piano Sonata no. 1, opus 12[b]; Piano Sonata no. 2, opus 61[b].
Vladimir Stoupel (piano).
Recorded, WDR Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal, Cologne, July 2013[a]; July 2014[b].
TT: 104:10 (56:24 + 47:46)
Born in Russia and now residing in Berlin, Vladimir Stoupel inherited his pianistic genes and early training from his mother, Rimma Bobritskaya, who is perhaps most familiar to this audience for her album of Russian piano miniatures for children (Saison Russe RUS 788034, DSCH 11; reissued on Brilliant Classics 9214). Stoupel’s own discography signals an affinity for the repertoire less travelled, admitting few works more familiar than his previous forays into Shostakovich, which include the Sonata for Violin and Piano in a 2011 collaboration with Judith Ingolfsson (Audite 92.576) and the Piano Quintet in a 2009 recording with the Breuninger Quartett (IPPNW CD 70/71).
The present 2-CD release from CAvi conforms to this adventurous mould, partnering Stoupel’s iconoclastic readings of both Shostakovich piano sonatas with recitals of the odd-numbered piano sonatas of the four penned by Karol Rathaus, a rarely heard composer whose cerebral brand of expressionism should find appreciative ears in the Journal’s readership.
Rathaus was born in 1895 into a Jewish family in a region of Poland then lying within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Educated in Vienna and Berlin, he belongs to that legion of composers whose European careers were uprooted by Nazism. His first two symphonies and score to the ballet The Last Pierrot won Rathaus acclaim—and more than a little notoriety—in the artistic ferment of Weimar Berlin, but rising anti-Semitism in Germany drove him to relocate to Paris in 1932. Following a professionally unsatisfying stay in London, he moved to the United States in 1938, where he remained until his death in 1954. Although his American years were productive, yielding significant commissions for concert works, several film scores, and a comfortable professorship at Queens College in New York, he was never to enjoy the level of recognition he had received in Germany in the 1920s.
Relative obscurity has dogged Rathaus to the present day. The absence of a genuine revival is at least partly attributable to the uncompromising complexity of his music. A student of Franz Schreker, Rathaus unites the feverish emotions of the likes of Scriabin and early Schoenberg with a staggering degree of rhythmic unpredictability. Though he was not a practitioner of strict serialism, much of Rathaus’ writing is marked by dissonance and a promiscuous attitude towards tonality, characteristics not liable to find favour with the general concertgoing public.
Paradoxically, while his American years saw Rathaus migrate towards a somewhat more accessible language, few of his compositions from this period have been granted commercial recordings. Among the rare exceptions is his last completed work, String Quartet no. 5, which was recorded by the Pro Arte Quartet in 1986 and is currently available on a compilation of his chamber pieces from New World – CRI (NWCRL 559). But this last quartet is no crowd pleaser either; finished just 4 months before Rathaus’ death from complications of tuberculosis, it is as bracing as the creations of his youth, and one of the few instances in his oeuvre where true twelve-tone techniques pop up.
The most prominent appearance of Rathaus on disc remains the 1998 coupling of Symphony no. 1 and The Last Pierrot in Decca’s Entartete Musik series (Decca 455 315-2), which has been deleted from the catalogue in most markets but can still be ordered from Germany, where these CDs are being kept available for obvious historical reasons. Both works register less as storytelling than as discursive philosophical treatises, and Rathaus makes the listener work hard to rasp his meaning, nesting parentheses within parentheses. Themes erupt assertively but are rapidly thwarted in their drive to move forward, instead branching fitfully, metastasising across time. Repeatedly, Rathaus teases with lyrical gestures only to allow these to wither before they can bloom, even in the Pierrot ballet where one might have expected a conventional melody or two to take root. Lumbering in periodically are grotesque elements reminiscent of Shostakovich’s early stage scores. These same features are prevalent not only across Rathaus’ other orchestral works but also in his chamber, vocal, and instrumental pieces.
Solo piano works make up roughly a fifth of Rathaus’ concert output. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, collectors cannot yet assemble a complete set of his four piano sonatas. Sonata no. 4 from 1946 has received sporadic performances but no recordings to date. Vladimir Stoupel gives us only the second chronicle of no. 1 (1920) and the first of no. 3 (1927), while Daniel Wnukowski offers the premiere recording of the recently rediscovered no. 2 (1924 rev. 1928) on a compilation of Rathaus’ piano works from Toccata Classics (TOCC 0511). The Toccata Classics production is recommendable not only for Wnukowski’s committed performances but also for the wealth of information on the composer in the booklet essay written by Michael Haas, the producer of Decca’s Entartete Musik series.
Stoupel supplies his own notes for his CAvi album, providing a concise but eloquent introduction to Rathaus and highlighting a focus on polyphony in his solo piano writing that he shares with Shostakovich—“The piano transforms itself into an orchestra.” I imagine that this aspect of the programme must have been especially attractive to Stoupel as he is also an orchestra conductor, having studied with Rozhdestvensky at the Moscow Conservatory.
Rathaus’ Piano Sonata no. 1 was his examination entry piece to Berlin’s Hochschule für Musik, winning the 25 year-old a place in Schreker’s class. Only his second numbered work, it is more conventional in form and utterance than most of what came afterwards, but the composer’s rhythmic inventiveness is already apparent. The first movement alternates ominous waterfalls of sound with innocently meandering themes; the second movement is a languid reverie with undeniable impressionistic leanings; the third is an angular scherzo that ricochets back and forth between Rachmaninov and Ravel, with an unexpectedly romantic trio section nestled in the middle; and the finale is a fantasia that disgorges propulsive motifs in rapid succession.
With its unbridled drama and profusion of ideas, it is baffling why Rathaus’ First Piano Sonata had to wait 80 years for its first recording, courtesy of Kolja Lessing (EDA Edition 0192). A persuasive advocate, Lessing plays by the book, which is not to say “straight” since Rathaus’ score is not stingy with its expression markings. Lessing’s recording could well serve as the standard introduction.
But turn to Stoupel and we find an entirely different approach, one that stamps the sonata with the soloist’s highly personal vision from first to last note. Here we have vastly more expressive diversity, the piano truly channelling myriad voices. Tempos are always in flux; note runs flow like liquid; pauses are pregnant, generating a level of anticipation not to be found with Lessing. Stoupel’s use of the sustain pedal in the first movement conjures a ghostly shimmer that raises goose bumps. His hushed tones and reticent tempos in the second movement render it mystical, not merely dreamy. In the third movement, Stoupel heightens the contrast between the tempestuous outer presto passages and the tender central trio. The last movement acquires a satisfying sense of inevitability.
Rathaus’ Piano Sonata no. 3 is also cast in four movements, but shares little else in common with no. 1. A strong influence of jazz is evident in the improvisatory quality of the first movement and the syncopations of the fast second and fourth movements. The finale even admits snippets of blues. Less jazz-inflected is the third movement, a weighty fugue, though it too refuses to adhere to any given pulse for long. Stoupel’s rhythmic flexibility is well matched to the demands of this piece, and he is also alert to its frequent cheeky asides. It’s difficult to see how this sonata could have received a more auspicious debut on disc.
Before moving along to consider the Shostakovich sonatas on Stoupel’s agenda, I’ll take a quick detour to point Journal readers to the Rathaus opus that I wager will resonate most strongly: his Third Symphony from 1942/43. With uncharacteristically long-limbed phrasing, this halfhour tour de force is far more of a linear narrative than either of its predecessors. The plaintive third movement is particularly unusual for Rathaus due to its unrestrained lyricism and
emotional vulnerability. The listener easily detects echoes of the Leningrad Symphony throughout, from the ominously expectant pulse of the slow opening movement through the motoric dance of the second to the triumphant finale. The sole available recording is a fine one, from Israel Yinon conducting the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt; this comes paired with the spikier Symphony no. 2 (CPO 777 031-2).
In his review in DSCH 49 of Peter Donohoe’s Signum Classics disc of Shostakovich’s piano sonatas and concertos (SIGCD493), John Leman Riley provided a helpful survey of key recordings of both sonatas. Stoupel’s interpretations join that elite club, so radically different from any that have come before that there is no risk of duplication no matter how many alternative versions one already owns. Moreover, his artistry is such that I consider the question of authenticity to be beside the point. We have no recordings of Shostakovich performing either opus 12 or opus 61, but we know his distinctive style from numerous recordings of other works, and Kabalevsky’s description of his handling of the premiere of opus 12—“somewhat dry and toccata- like”—couldn’t be less applicable to Stoupel. Nevertheless, like Claudio Arrau in the late Beethoven sonatas, Stoupel has uncovered in the Shostakovich sonatas a fascinating parallel universe.
In the First Piano Sonata, where Donohoe hammers sharp angles with an almost metronomic beat, Stoupel toys recklessly with tempo, compressing and stretching from moment to moment, adding a full minute to the overall playing time (12:13 vs. 13:17, respectively). The only other pianist I can think of who has summoned a comparable sense of ethereality at its core is Andrey Gugnin, whose highly desirable recent all-Shostakovich album adds to both sonatas the opus 34 Preludes and the Nocturne from The Limpid Stream (Hyperion CDA68267).
A much younger Stoupel recorded Shostakovich’s Second Piano Sonata in 1989 for the French label Rodolphe (RPC32600; deleted), but his new release eclipses this in artistic and technical assurance (as well as audio quality). In contrast to Donohoe’s steady pulse, here, too Stoupel treats time as variable. In the first movement, Stoupel continually leaps ahead of the beat, and although the fleet-fingered Gugnin reaches the finish line neck-and-neck, Gugnin’s use of rubato is far less extreme. Downshifting gears, Stoupel is again off in his own dimension in the Largo, at 9:30 the longest to date, displacing previous record-holder Caroline Weichert’s 8:23 (Accord 4428213; deleted), and much more expansive than either Gugnin (7:25) or Donohoe (6:36). Stoupel is similarly alone in the way he suspends time in the third movement, which he draws out to 17:32, compared with 13:40, 13:29, and 12:21 for Weichert, Gugnin, and Donohoe, respectively. Whether or not one agrees with the liberties Stoupel takes, they cannot be dismissed as arbitrary; he applies them with precision and the overall effect is hypnotic. Fine engineering transmits the nuances of Stoupel’s touch.
Though it doesn’t detract from my strong recommendation, I should mention just one niggle: the record label self-identifies variously as CAvi-music, Avi-music, and Avi-Service for music, and thus vendors are filing this release under different names, potentially complicating life for prospective buyers.
W. Mark Roberts
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Piano Quintet, opus 57[a]. Seven Romances on Poems by Aleksandr Blok, opus 127[b].
Trio Wanderer (Jean-Marc Phillips Varjabédian (violin), Raphaël Pidoux (cello), Vincent Coq (piano)[a, b]), Catherine Montier (violin), Christophe Gaugué (viola)[a], and Ekaterina Semenchuk (mezzo-soprano)[b].
Recorded, February and August 2019 at Teldex Studio, Berlin.
Harmonia Mundi HMM 902289
In 1987, three Paris Conservatoire graduates (Jean-Marc Phillips Varjabédian, violin; Raphaël Pidoux, cello; Vincent Coq, piano) formed Trio Wanderer and, after winning major competitions in the United States and Germany, embarked on an international concert career. They now have a library of over 20 discs, ranging from Haydn to Messiaen and more recent composers, and including a well-received performance of Shostakovich’s Trios, opus 8 and 67 and Copland’s Trio Vitebsk (DSCH 22). This second Shostakovich CD is an enjoyable reading of two contrasting works: the outgoing Piano Quintet from 1940 and the introspective Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok from 1967.
In 1940, when he wrote the Piano Quintet, Shostakovich had just met the Beethoven Quartet, who played the Moscow premiere of String Quartet no.1. While preparing that concert, they became friends, and the Beethovens became the composer’s muses for string quartet and chamber works and remained close friends with him for the rest of their lives. Shostakovich was especially taken with first violinist Dmitry Tsyganov’s sound in high registers, and, beginning with the Piano Quintet, he wrote many high lyrical passages throughout his quartets to showcase this. He also told Isaak Glikman that he had composed the Quintet so he could play its piano part and tour with the Beethovens, which he did for over 15 years. Shostakovich’s 1955 recording of the Quintet has the benefit of years of performing experience with the work and with the Beethoven Quartet, is a benchmark for Quintet recordings and presents a high bar for later ensembles. It has been re-released multiple times, various of which were reviewed in DSCH 9, 18 and 23.
As I have listened to the Quintet over the years, I hear it more and more as simply a happy work, a rarity for this composer who lived through such turbulence. I cannot think of any other Shostakovich work that is so at peace with itself. The Wanderers’ rendition, like the Beethovens’, is subtle and nuanced, and seems to highlight the simple delight of the music. Jean-Marc Phillips Varjabédian, the Wanderers’ first violinist, shines here, matching Tsyganov’s sweetness and beauty. The group’s two collaborators (Catherine Montier, violin, and Christophe Gaugué, viola) have worked with them before, and fit in smoothly. Gaugué adds a special depth to their interpretation, bringing out inner lines I had not noticed before. This is a lovely, lyrical Quintet reading, with much to recommend it.
By the mid-sixties, the composer had returned to intimate compositions, writing works for friends and supporters like Mstislav Rostropovich, Galina Vishnevskaya, David Oistrakh, Mieczyslaw Weinberg, and (still!) the members of the Beethoven Quartet, shifting his focus from politics and war to late-style issues of death and aging, the loss of close friends, and the unpredictability of life. His writing style became more chromatic, less tonal, less formally traditional. Opus 127, completed over three days in 1967, followed a composing block following his second heart attack in 1966 and increasing immobility from ALS. Responding to Rostropovich’s request for some vocalises that the cellist could perform with his wife Galina Vishnevskaya, Shostakovich dedicated the songs to the soprano. He told Rostropovich that he had tried to write a work for cello and voice as requested, but after he had completed “Ophelia’s Song” for cello and high voice, “I started the second song with a whacking great pizzicato for cello, and I realised I didn’t have enough instruments to continue, so I added a violin and piano.” The songs touch emotions of love and longing (“Ophelia’s Song”), to prophecies of violence and oppression (“Gamayun, Bird of Prophecy”), intimacy (“We Were Together”), night-musings and the coming of dawn (“The City Sleeps”), a great, wild storm, explicitly drawn (“The Storm”), intimations of the ending of life (“Secret Signs”), and a magical finale on redemptive quality of music (“Music”).
There are plenty of technical challenges to performers, especially the vocalist, who must often pluck unlikely notes out of thin air with little help from other players, and hit high notes at top volume without losing voice quality. In general, recent performances have met these challenges, as do the Wanderers and mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk, but there are a few intonation and voice quality problems in “Gamayun, Bird of Prophecy,” perhaps not even noticeable unless one is following the score.
I have compared the Wanderers’ disc to two other fine performances. Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich, joined by Ulf Hoelscher and Vasso Devtsi, recorded in 1976, after their exile from the Soviet Union and when the stars had been performing the Blok songs for over a decade (EMI 7243 5 62829 2 6 or Angel 7243 5 62830 2 2. DSCH 21). Russian-Hungarian soprano Polina Pasztircsák’s traversal with soloists from the Winterthur Chamber Orchestra (Nascor NS07) is much newer, from 2010.
Of these, I found the Wanderers’ interpretation to be the most restrained, with the exception of “Storm,” which was especially exciting and wild. In contrast, Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich played as if romancing one another, Vishnevskaya fluid and delicate and unfazed by the chromaticism and range demanded of her, to produce great contrasts in quality and shading ranging from the stillness of “We Were Together” to the violence of “Storm” and “Gamayun.” The 1976 Vishnevskaya performance is indeed a classic recording, full of maturity and love for the work. Polina Pasztircsák is also up to the challenge, despite her youth. Her voice is supple and lovely, and her interpretation heartfelt and subtle. The other works on her disc are unusual and especially appealing: Strauss’s Four Last Songs, songs by Kodály and Hungarian folk-song arrangements by Bartók. Any one of these discs is worth spending time with.
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String Quartets: no. 2, opus 68; no. 7, opus 108; no. 8, opus 110.
Pavel Haas Quartet: Veronika Jarůšková and Marek Zwiebel (violins), Jiří Kabát (viola), Peter Jarůšek (cello).
Recorded, Domovina Studio, Prague, 11–12, 26–27 and 30–31 May 2019.
Supraphon SU 4271-2
With six Gramophone awards and numerous other honours under their belts, the Pavel Haas Quartet are one of the most celebrated chamber ensembles of our day. They are also a personal favourite for their sheer musicality and my impression (entirely subjective, of course) that they invariably manage to penetrate to the very essence of whichever work they happen to be playing. These characteristics have persisted despite a number of personnel changes since their inception in 2002.
Their discography has concentrated mainly on Czech composers, and this latest CD of three Shostakovich quartets is only their second album of Russian repertoire, following roughly a decade after a fine all-Prokofiev entry that adds his Sonata for Two Violins to both quartets (Supraphon SU 3957-2).
The present release lives up to the high expectations I had. The Pavel Haas’ conception of Quartet no. 2 ranks among the stronger recent versions I’ve heard, a category that includes the fine account from the Pacifica Quartet, which I reviewed in DSCH 40 (Cedille Records CDR 90000 130). The Pavel Haas drive the first movement faster and harder than did the Pacifica, accentuating its drones with well-judged sforzandi. Conversely, they add a minute to the Pacificas in the second movement, entering timing territory that few groups have ventured into since the Borodin Quartet’s classic recordings. At moments time itself feels suspended. This movement is transformed into a rapt meditation—it is almost physically painful to leave it. Over the course of the third movement, listen to how the string tone sheds its warm gloss to a more metallic bite as the waltz loses its innocence. Mercurial changes of mood carry through the fourth movement, which offers an unusually wide dynamic range and daring shifts in tempo. On my first few auditions, I did find myself wondering if the closing bars needed to be quite so emphatic, given how delicately rendered many of the preceding passages had been, but have since come around to finding this wholly appropriate given the emotional scope of the performance as a whole.
Having mentioned the Borodin Quartet, I should note that a year before the arrival of the Pavel Haas’ disc, the current incarnation of the Borodins released a new boxed set of all fifteen Shostakovich quartets, recorded in Moscow between 2015 and 2018 (Decca 483 4159). This proves not to be the daunting competition for the Czech team that one might have predicted. Through Shostakovich’s quartets courses a vein of fragility, one mined by the Borodins’ original members in their 1967–1972 recordings of the first thirteen quartets (Chandos Historical CHAN 10064(4), DSCH 19) and also in the 1978–1983 intégrale with different violinists (Melodiya MEL CD 1001077; deleted). Between the two sets, violinists Rostislav Dubinsky and Yaroslav Alexandrov had been replaced by Mikhail Kopelman and Andrei Abramenkov, but violist Dmitry Shebalin and cellist Valentin Berlinsky ensured a continuity of vision. However, there is no overlap with today’s Borodin team—Ruben Aharonian, Sergey Lomovsky, Igor Naidin, and Vladimir Balshin—who apparently lack patience for human weakness. Their String Quartet no. 2 starts promisingly enough, but perpetually overheated rhetoric soon induces aural fatigue. This powerhouse approach also shortchanges the poetic potential of the “Recitative and Romance.” The energetic third movement fares better, as does the opening of the finale, though some quirky cadences thereafter will likely register as distracting rather than revelatory. Next to the wealth of nuance supplied by the Pavel Haas Quartet, the new Borodin offering seems rather coarse and one-dimensional.
Turning to Quartet no. 7, the exquisite technique of the Pavel Haas players is aided by Supraphon’s soundstage, which yields just enough reverb to heighten the strangeness of this opus. The pizzicato note runs in the first movement are a master class of precision. The second movement Lento is as otherworldly as any on record; the Pavel Haas’ second violinist Marek Zwiebel renders his long central sequence of heartbeats uniquely disquieting, its invariant rhythm and volume disconnected from the events being experienced by the other instruments. The third movement Allegro is despatched with such violence that it’s a wonder the strings didn’t melt. The abrupt shift to hesitant meandering in the closing Allegretto leaves us in existential bemusement.
The Pacifica Quartet also give a richly characterised performance of no. 7 (Cedille Records CDR 90000 127). As for the latest Borodin Quartet interpretation, this is one of the better entries in their Decca box, the score well served by their powerful momentum. This outing even transmits a few of the winks Shostakovich embedded here. Sadly, the Borodins’ robust treatment of the Lento keeps it earthbound.
No such complaints adhere to the lithe reading of the Seventh Quartet in the first entry in a series partnering works of Shostakovich and Beethoven from the Valentin Berlinsky Quartet (Avie AV2253, also including Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 8 and Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” no. 1), which was rightly welcomed by Judy Kuhn in DSCH 37. The Berlinskys’
interpretation of opus 108 offers a comparable degree of timbral diversity to the Pavel Haas, though shares none of the specifics. To take just one example, the Berlinskys’ cellist Alexander Neustroev delivers an uncanny impersonation of a theremin in his sinuous passage beginning at Fig. 18+4/0:45 in the second movement, whereas in this same section (from 0:49 on Supraphon) the Pavel Haas’ Peter Jarůšek instead sings with the expressiveness of a human voice.
Another wide-ranging recent view of no. 7 comes from the Ehnes Quartet (Onyx 4121). This performance shares a disc with the Eighth Quartet and a genial jaunt through the Khachaturian Violin Concerto in which James Ehnes is supported by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Mark Wigglesworth. With strong musical personalities at play, the Ehnes Quartet’s generally taut account of the Seventh Quartet offers a satisfying emotional progression from the insouciance of the first movement through the mysterious second to a particularly hard-driven Allegro—though not quite as scorching as the Pavel Haas’ account; here the equally brisk Berlinskys adopt a threadier tone—before returning to a gentle close.
The marketplace is glutted with Eighth Quartet recordings, but even so the Pavel Haas stand out as a worthy addition. The first movement opens with a gradual surge that tricks the listener into predicting this will be an extroverted performance, only for the players to turn inwards, though eschewing the hush of the Pacificas (on the same Cedille release as no. 7). The Pavel Haas’ second movement is terrifying in its mechanical brutality, and the third is hardly less disturbing thanks to the alternation of slight but effective ritardandi and accelerandi that keep the listener perpetually off balance. Their fourth movement is an eruptive protest, with heartrending handling of the Seryozha refrain. To my ear, their execution of the finale signals resignation rather than despair, a less shattering leave-taking than the Pacificas supply but no less emotionally substantial.
The version of Quartet no. 8 in the new Borodin set is a Technicolor marvel, practically symphonic in heft. Few challengers can match their impact in the fourth movement. In my teen years I would probably have found this recording tremendously impressive, but now it strikes me as over-egged.
Without tipping over into melodrama, the Berlinskys plumb far deeper emotions than the new Borodins’ opus 110 touches. They propose no shortage of deviations from common practice in terms of enunciation and emphasis, but I find these generally remain supportive of the storyline. More questionable are a few outright departures from the score, most jarringly the failure in the fourth movement to vary the notes as written from the first to the second set of three hammerblows at Fig. 53+19/0:27.
As mentioned, the Ehnes Quartet also supply opus 110, and a thoughtful one it is. They start at a brisk pace, and though some listeners might consider their opening movement too airless, this sets up an effective contrast with their utterly spent closing Largo, and thus we don’t simply end up back where we began; rather, the vestiges of vitality clinging to us when we entered have been pounded out of us. The Ehnes Quartet’s panicked sprint through the second movement is well matched to the tremulous tone they adopt there, and their enunciation of the Jewish dance is shrill and hoarse. Extra credit to cellist Robert DeMaine for the truly disquieting vibrato he applies to his pianissimo whine shadowing the reprise of the waltz in the third movement.
Listeners preferring a greater sense of spontaneity in no. 8 than any of these other teams convey may appreciate the Edinburgh Quartet’s spark-spitting 2013 recital (Delphian DCD34081, with Haydn’s “Joke” Quartet and Prokofiev’s Quartet no. 2). Steely rather than muscular in violent passages, this also boasts some of the most whisper-quiet pianissimos on record. While it doesn’t rank amongst my top recommendations (I find the end too easy to bear, and miss a greater sense of loss), the performance rewards repeated listening.
Overall, the Pavel Haas Quartet have delivered another winning album. If I had to find a complaint, I’d say that although the recording is admirably clear, inhalations are captured too prominently for my liking. Don’t let that dissuade you from adding this to your collection.
W. Mark Roberts
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Symphony no. 9, opus 70[a], Symphony no. 10, opus 93[b].
London Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda.
Recorded, Barbican Hall, London, 24 June 2018[b] and 30 January and 9 February 2020[a].
LSO Live LSO0828
Composers don’t generally plan consecutive works to conveniently fill CDs and Shostakovich’s symphonies only occasionally fit those Procrustean beds. But even where it is possible, record companies have often passed on the opportunity. Admittedly, coupling the Ninth and Tenth can be a squeeze and for conductors with an expansive view of one or other work there may not even be room. Here, Maxim Shostakovich’s hour-long 1990 recording of the Tenth with the LSO lumbers into view (Collins 11052, recently re-released in Alto’s symphonies-plus-some-extras box ALC3143). And, for our purposes, it lumbers out again.
Still, some pairings do exist, though often repackaged rather than original conceptions. Oleg Caetani, not perhaps the first Shostakovichian to leap to mind, managed it by filling Arts Music 47675-2 to bursting point (80:22), earning a welcome from W. Mark Roberts in DSCH 22. Barshai’s very solidly recommendable traversal in his cycle with the WDRSO (Brilliant Classics 6324) is another. Among the ‘re-packagers’ are the Moscow PO with Kondrashin (Le Chant du Monde LDC 278 1005-6), while on CBS Masterworks Portrait MPK 45698 the NYPO is conducted by Efrem Kurtz in the Ninth and Dmitri Mitropoulos in the Tenth. But though pairings are rare, the catalogue overflows with individual recordings so I’ll address the two works separately.
The brevity and ‘humour’ of the Ninth seems to have encouraged some unusual suspects to the rostrum and it’s among the rarer forays into Shostakovichiana for conductors including Klemperer in 1955 (Fonit-Cetra Archive Rai LAR 37), Malcolm Sargent in 1959 (most recently, Vanguard Classics (Everest Collection) EVC 9005) and, trying out a different role, David Oistrakh in 1969 and 1970 (respectively Russian Disc RDCD 11 192 (1993), and the 1975 LP Melodiya C10 05203-4). All are able but count more as interesting than essential. Koussevitzky was an early advocate, but attracted the composer’s ire at his tempi (see, Richard Pleak, “Unpublished Letters from Shostakovich to Koussevitzky.” DSCH Newsletter XIII (August 1989) 4–7, and Derek Hulme. “Moderato, not Adagio,” DSCH Newsletter XIV (November 1989), 8–10). However, Kurtz is among the most catastrophic: often unengaging, occasionally scrambled, and lengthening the second movement to an extraordinary 11:43, around 50% longer than the score implies.
But enough of the ones to avoid and some of the more ho-hum essays. What do we want from the Ninth Symphony and where does Noseda and the LSO fit in? Expectations were high for a glorious chorus-and-orchestra third panel to complete a wartime triptych but Shostakovich delivered 25 minutes of what might appear to be jeu d’esprit. However, he hadn’t misread or even avoided the brief; rather he had met it on his own terms: not a glorification of victory in the Great Patriotic War, but a street-level Carnivalesque view of events, dressed in neo-classical garb. It is one of Shostakovich’s most disturbing and ambiguous works: masks are ripped off only to reveal more masks beneath. It’s not surprising that in treading such a tightrope, Shostakovich had to take a couple of runs at it, as evidenced by the abandoned attempt recorded by Mark Fitz-Gerald and the National Polish RSO (Naxos 8.572138, DSCH 30). When the final version did arrive, it was soon enough banned, but then unbanned to became one of his most popular works, clocking up more than sixty recordings.
On the surface, its militarism may seem ‘toy soldier-ish’ but Yakov Milkis told Elizabeth Wilson that Mravinsky urged the trombones and low strings (presumably at Fig. 94) to produce “the sound of the trampling of steelshod boots,” and everyone understood that he meant the KGB. Sadly, having premiered the symphony in both Leningrad and Moscow, Mravinsky didn’t record it.
You get that snarling, bared teeth view in several recordings. The regularly re-released Rozhdestvensky (DSCH 11 and 48) and Kondrashin (DSCH 45), and Gergiev with the Mariinsky (DSCH 44; his Munich Philharmonic version—a download from the orchestra’s website—doesn’t quite have the same bite). A particularly impressive recent archive release is Jan Krenz with the Warsaw Autumn Festival of Contemporary Music Orchestra in concert on 16 September 1959 (Archipel ARPCD0609)—not to be confused with his 1961 version with the Polish Symphony Orchestra.
Sometimes it seems not so much a symphony as a concerto for wind and brass, perhaps a nod to Soviet military band music, but Noseda’s view isn’t always as sarcastic as some. Initially, the first movement’s woodwind is more insouciant than bitter and the trombone isn’t boorishly interruptive, but by the end the lips have been pulled back and we see the teeth. At 8:02, the second movement is slower than most and certainly well below the metronome’s crotchet = 208, which implies a running time of around 6:00—Wigglesworth (DSCH 29) is one of the few who approaches the tempo. Still, Noseda keeps it moving along enough not to sag. In the third movement the trombone is impressively implacable and against it, the strongly vibratoed bassoon’s pleading is very touching. The finale’s stamping dances on a knife-edge between exuberance and sarcasm, giving an ambiguity that one could imagine leaving the post-war apparatchiks scratching their heads. But overall, Noseda’s view is sometimes towards the gentler side—surprising in the light of his recent recording of the Fourth (DSCH 54). For those who favour more the neo-classical view but still with a snarl, Noseda’s is eminently recommendable, but for me the bite of the subtext comes and goes.
The widely held view of the Tenth as “Shostakovich’s best symphony” and a juicy, albeit dubious, backstory courtesy of Testimony has made it a mainstay of record catalogues and concert schedules—listeners rarely have to wait more than a couple of years for a chance to hear it live. In contrast to the Ninth it was widely praised from the start and there is a slew of early recordings. Key among these must be the pianistration with the composer and Weinberg (DSCH 9) and the Leningrad PO and Mravinsky’s first recording, laid down in April 1954, four months after premiering the work in both Leningrad and Moscow. His were among the quickest performances his 1954 recording comes in at 50:38 and a 1976 concert makes it home in 49:05—matched to the second by Kondrashin. Nevertheless, a surprising number gather around 52-54 minutes, which would certainly leave room on any disc for its predecessor.
Indeed, looking at the timings for the four movements, it’s almost worth asking whether a “performing tradition” has developed, as the ranges between longest and shortest are generally surprisingly small. Shostakovich and Weinberg are a little quicker than most in the slower sections, but the piano’s decay may have encouraged them to push through to maintain the line.
One of the great advantages that Noseda has is the LSO, here playing absolutely at the top of their game—listen to the beautifully blended woodwind that also allows standout solos, including the limpid clarinet and the softly throaty flute around figures 14 and 15. Noseda also has an excellent grip on the architecture, especially in the ascending waves of the first movement, controlling the ebb and flow of the subterranean strings and the entrances of wind and brass. By the climax around figure 45 he has built up a thrilling drive which dies back not to exhaustion but to a kind of re-grouping, preparing for the wailing woodwind of figure 61 and the etherially delicate strings of figure 68.
Perhaps the second movement is not quite so convincing, the woodwind, paradoxically seem less distressed than in the first movement—it’s almost too beautiful. But things are back on track in the third movement with an impudent collective of piccolo, flute and oboe and a collection of varied renditions of the ELMIRA theme. The oafish interludes are not as extreme as some but that’s all of a part in this interpretation.
The finale opens in hushed stillness, the woodwind like strange birds in a haunted landscape out of which the rest of the movement will grow. Overall, it doesn’t quite match the organic drive of the opening movement—the standout of this disc—but it is still impressive even if the DSCH ending lacks the last edge of irony.
With few competitors coupling the two symphonies, Noseda’s would be worth considering for that alone, but the Tenth is a fine performance in itself.
John Leman Riley
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Violin Concerto no. 1, opus 77; Violin Concerto no. 2, opus 129.
Alina Ibragimova (violin), State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov”/Vladimir Jurowski.
Recorded, Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, Moscow 2019.
Russian-British violinist Alina Ibragimova has established a formidable discography with Hyperion Records—from Bach to Roslavets—and here records Shostakovich’s violin concertos, to startling and forceful effect. She’s partnered by conductor Vladimir Jurowski and his State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov,” a much-recorded ensemble which, as the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, enjoyed a 35-year association with the maestro whose name is now incorporated into its own.
Many violinists taking on the First Concerto read the first movement’s title, Nocturne, as suggesting something shadowy and veiled. Ibragimova, though, is forthright and propulsive from the very beginning, pressing ahead and into the strings of her instrument with uncomplicated emotive power. As they move deeper into the Nocturne, she and Jurowski shape it really effectively, through subtle changes in tempo and instrumental colour. It becomes a demonstration of what is and isn’t on the page: Shostakovich gives a lot of small but essential tempo indications here (violinist Vadim Gluzman once told me that observing them is essential, and that they create the effect of pulling back and pressing forward, again and again), and Ibragimova and Jurowski follow them carefully, but add changes in musical character which can’t really be represented on the page. As this team approaches the first movement’s second subject, the wind seems to drop from the sails, and the feeling is of dejected stillness, where before there was movement. It is indeed, as the score dictates, a tempo, but a lot more besides. The result is a performance of this movement that has real shape and purpose, one of the most successful I’ve heard.
Ibragimova pecks at the staccatos that open the Scherzo, and everything else follows in this vein. Perhaps it’s the way in which the recording picks up every slight blemish in her tone here, but for me it’s ultimately too relentlessly terse and clipped; there’s more in Shostakovich’s frenetic whirl than just frenetic whirling. A stately tempo is adopted in the mighty Passacaglia, but it’s wrung for all its anguished power. Ibragimova’s approach to the cadenza, though, is a head-scratcher: where other violinists build escalating momentum, Ibragimova arrives at something more abstracted, deconstructing the musical logic to its base parts and presenting it as a fiercely violent and mechanical grinding of gears. She carries straight on into the finale, restoring the violin’s first statement of the opening melody that Oistrakh asked Shostakovich to remove, and from then on it’s a fairly straightforward run to the end. This is a performance which ends up being most successful in the outer movements – spectacularly so the case of the Nocturne – but though the solo playing is utterly committed and virtuosic throughout, it’s a rather bruising experience.
Ibragimova’s brand of combative sincerity suits the Second Concerto well. In her hands, the violin line rises from confessional to blistering attack as the first movement’s opening subject plays out, and once again, conductor and soloist present the second subject with an attention to contrast that helps delineate the piece’s larger shape. The Adagio has a sense of space and distance to it, and is capped by the surprise of a warm-toned horn solo, redolent of an old-fashioned Soviet-era sound in an orchestral performance otherwise free from the sort of distinctive Russian timbre you’d associate with old Melodiya records. The piece’s natural angularity is better suited to Ibragimova’s blistering playing than the First Concerto, particularly in the last-movement cadenza, which stabs and grinds furiously.
Ibragimova is accompanied excellently by Jurowski, a very experienced conductor of Shostakovich who navigates changes of tempo and character expertly. As I listened to the playing of his State Academic Symphony Orchestra, I was struck by just how much Russian orchestral standards have changed since these works were written. Their sound is refined and their wind and brass intonation precise; in all, about as far as one could go from the nadir of Soviet symphonic playing endured by Julian Sitkovetsky in his 1956 live performance of the First Concerto with Alexander Gauk and the USSR State Radio Symphony Orchestra (Syd Records, SYD 005). There can be a stiffness and anonymity to the State Academic Symphony’s playing, though, and an earlier live performance (available on YouTube) under Jurowski with Julia Fischer and the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 2010 proves an instructive comparison: the State Academic Symphony’s wind are every bit as beautifully tuned and unanimous in the chorale near the start of the First Concerto’s Passacaglia, but the same passage really speaks with the LPO in a way that eludes their Russian counterparts.
Ibragimova’s Shostakovich is bracing, virtuosic, and extremely direct, and although some of her choices left me cold, these are performances which command attention and offer something genuinely distinctive to the discography of these works.
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Cello Concerto no. 1, opus 107[a]; Cello Concerto no. 2, opus 126.
Alisa Weilerstein, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Pablo Heras-Casado.
Recorded, Herculessaal, Munich, Germany, 28-30 September 2015, [a] live on an unspecified date.
DECCA 483 0835
Cello Concerto no. 1, opus 107; Cello Concerto no. 2, opus 126.
Alban Gerhardt, WDR Symphony Orchestra/Jukka-Pekka Sarasate.
Recorded, Philharmonie Köln, Cologne, Germany. 6-9 November 2018.
Hyperion CDA 68340
Two very different interpretations of the Shostakovich Cello Concertos make fetching subjects for comparison. Still in her 30s, the American-born Alisa Weilerstein enjoys a much-decorated international career as a solo cellist with a style that has been praised as “spine-tingling” and “irresistible.” The other soloist, German-born Alban Gerhardt, a generation older, has also been widely decorated. The Guardian has hailed his playing as “expressive, unshowy, and infinitely classy.” Each artist brings these respective attributes to their performances, with varying results.
The two cellists each take on the First Concerto’s opening movement with an urgency that favourably compares with past recordings. Gerhardt drives the movement with muscular force abetted by strong support from the WDR Symphony Orchestra, led by Jukka-Pekka Sarasate. Weilerstein, with greater attention to detail, delivers an energetic palette of ear-catching nuances, elisions and rubatos that lend a beguiling personal touch. Here, she also enjoys an excellent musical partnership with the Bavarian RSO led by Pablo Heras-Casado. The First Concerto was recorded live in late September 2015, and the Second in the same hall later in the week, but without an audience.
It is in the slow movement where the differences between the two interpretations are most striking. Weilerstein pours heart and soul into the Moderato movement (timing at 11:12) with playing of exceptional beauty. She summons a deeply moving, inconsolable sadness in the solo part that plumbs the movement’s not-often explored potential for such pathos. The music builds, crescendoing to an impassioned climax. Weilerstein’s sumptuously expansive phrasing in the cadenza further broadens her mournfully searching interpretation. Gerhardt takes a diametrically opposite approach to the music with a reserved, rather aloof reading whose tempo and timing possibly stand as the fastest and shortest (10:15) in the catalogue. One has to look back to the 1965 performance with Rostropovich as soloist and David Oistrakh leading the Moscow State Philharmonic (Revelation, RV 10087, DSCH 9) to find an interpretation of similar pace and duration (10:18). Though somewhat pressed forward and not as nuanced as the Rostropovich, Gerhardt’s unvarnished elegance brings with it an expressive vitality all its own and leads to a splendid, robust crescendo. His restraint takes on a more sensitive complexion in the cadenza, where he pursues a subtler, more understated tone, with quietly plucked chords lending their own poignance. The concerto is brought to a rousing conclusion in both performances.
The two cellists again display very different sensibilities in the more elusive layers of the Second Concerto. Weilerstein fully immerses herself in the shadowy chasms of the opening Largo with a very personalised reading. She again brings meticulous attention to detail as she allows each phrase of the solo line to breathe with its own dark shades, almost as if she were searching her own inner demons. Though the second thematic group unfolds with little change in tempo from the first, conductor and soloist hold the line steadily and unswervingly. The tentative whimsy of the music builds compellingly towards the movement’s dramatic peak: the solo cello’s anguished exhortations punctuated by thunderous strokes on the bass drum, both delivered with an intensity that drives home the existential angst of the passage. In the Scherzo, Weilerstein’s sharp accents and the timpani’s forceful interjections rousingly carry the Bublichki theme through its ever-twisting paces, as it ratchets its way up from playful, here almost giddy, dance to an unbearable peak of unreleased tension. In the final Allegretto, heralded by the French horns’ sneering fanfares, Weilerstein, with nurturing attention, focuses on the individual character of each of the movement’s checkerboard of rondo themes. Curiously she gives little heed to the score’s ritardando marking in the recurring phrase ending in a trill, thus depriving its stature as a point of repose that one hears in other performances. The music thus takes on a slightly more assertive tone as it builds to the concerto’s long-deferred climax, the monumental re-statement of the Bublichki theme, with Weilerstein delivering stirring, tormented pre- and post-climax solo passages.
As he does in the First Concerto, Gerhardt takes an objective approach to the score of the Second. In the opening Largo his reading is expressive, though it assumes a more driven than internalised character. He again breaks the record in delivering the fastest performance in the catalogue, timing at 11:26, where the average duration of other performances falls between 14 and 15 minutes (Rostropovich’s versions clock in at just under 14 minutes). The recording that comes closest to Gerhardt’s speed record is the live one from 1970 with soloist Daniel Shafran and Yuri Temirkanov leading the Moscow PO (Brilliant Classics 8713/97), timing at 11:58, a performance characterised by a quirky speeding up of the movement’s central section. Gerhardt may not be searching for inner demons in the score, certainly not the way one finds in Weilerstein’s personalised account, but he does show a deep respect for the music with thoughtful, involved phrasing which very much lays claim to the music’s dark interior. He builds convincingly toward the first crescendo and embraces the point of denouement against a punctuating bass drum with impressive vigour. I rather like Gerhardt’s somewhat compressed version of the Largo, if only for the cooler point of view it presents, its patent avoidance of indulgences, and the admirable polish of its execution.
Gerhardt’s tempo choices in the remaining two movements do not tend toward the same extreme and fall more in line with those of Weilerstein’s. He squeezes a good measure of irony out of the glissandi in the following Scherzo and builds stirring levels of angst as the music makes its way toward the first Bublichki moment of crisis. Each of the various rondo themes in the final movement is brought off with one lively turn after another, though the solo passages surrounding the Bublichki climax—here brought off with breathtaking power by the WDR band—do not reach quite the same level of the anticipatory and reactive anguish achieved by Weilerstein. In both performances the wistful strains of the coda unfold as poetically as one will find them. The artistic partnerships provided respectively by the WDR SO and the Bavarians throughout these performances are superb, as are the details of the sound engineering in each.
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Two Fables of Krylov, opus 4 no. 1; Six Romances by Japanese Poets, opus 21a nos. 2 and 4; Two Romances on Verses of Lermontov, opus 84; Six Songs on Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva, opus 143 nos. 2 and 5; Four Romances on Poems of Pushkin, opus 46 no. 1; Six Romances on Verses of British Poets, opus 62 nos. 5 and 6; From Jewish Folk Poetry, opus 79 nos. 3 and 5; Greek Songs, nos. 2 and 4; Spanish Songs, opus 100 nos. 1 and 2; Satires, opus 109 nos. 2 and 4; Preface to the Complete Edition of My Works and a Brief Reflection apropos of this Preface opus 123; Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, opus 145 no. 11.
Margarita Gritskova (mezzo), Maria Prinz (piano).
Recorded, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Studio 2, Munich, 8–11 July 2019
In their collection of Shostakovich’s songs, mezzo Margarita Gritskova and pianist Maria Prinz take an unusual approach to create a disc that is valuable but also has some frustrations. Rather than focusing on complete cycles or investigating a particular period or style, they deliver a disc that acts as an introduction to Shostakovich’s songs, choosing individual songs ranging from his first to almost his last and, perhaps controversially, annexing some songs from other fachs.
The piano reductions of the Two Krylov Fables had to wait until 2002 for a recording—on the third of Yuri Serov’s invaluable five-disc survey of Shostakovich’s songs (DELOS DE3309). As Louis Blois notes in his review (DSCH 20) it oddly mixes a Rimskyan vocal line with more Shostakovichian piano accompaniment. Gritskova gives us just the first (“The Dragonfly and the Ant”) and brings and enjoyably sly tone of voice at a fairly relaxed tempo that helps the intimate skazka-ish quality.
The second and fourth of the Japanese songs come next. Originally for tenor, the two chosen are not so gender-specific though the whole cycle has been recorded by sopranos Verena Rein (with Jascha Nemtsov, Profil Media PH 10005) and Viktoria Evtodieva, with Yuri Serov on the above-mentioned DELOS disc. Gritskova brings a hollow tone to “Before the Suicide” (knowing that Shostakovich was prey to such thoughts gives an extra frisson to this song), and Prinz picks out the strange, widely spaced harmonies of “For the First and Last Time,” but Gritskova ignores the pianissimo at figure 32, the first of a number of occasions where she crashes through such instructions.
Gritskova and Prinz’s rendition of the two Lermontov Songs, opus 84 is notable for being the first to actually perform them in the correct order! While “Ballad” gives Gritskova a chance to show her fine lower register, she doesn’t really follow the dolce instructions. Though it doesn’t necessarily sound like it, “Morning in the Caucasus” features constantly shifting time signatures and though it returns to a recitative-ish 12/8 for the voice, the song has a floating quality that comes over well in this performance.
Next, Gritskova and Prinz jump forward to 1974 for the second and fifth of the Tsvetaeva songs, opus 143. The piano version is rarer than the orchestral—again, DELOS is the easiest comparator, this time volume 1 (DELOS 3304) (DSCH 18). Gritskova is heartfelt with an occasional awestruck breathiness in “Whence Such Tenderness?” and in “No, Beat the Drum,” brings a tense anxiety and an almost operatic drive to the repetitions of the word ‘Honour.’
Back to 1937 for “Rebirth,” the first—perhaps the best known—of the Pushkin songs opus 46. Taking over the Japanese songs was a question of aligning the perspectives of singer and protagonist but here moving a song from bass to mezzo is more complex. In the redemptive last stanza a bass will likely use head-voice, bringing a real sense of transformation but here the two parts of the song simply sound too similar, lessening the emotional punch. In moving the well-known setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 66 to the mezzo voice, Gritskova’s textual insights don’t compensate for the lighter tone that again reduces the intensity, an effect that isn’t helped by the slightly speedy tempo that brings it in in just 2:54. In contrast, she gives “The King’s Campaign” an amusing ‘retired Colonel’ tone of voice that underlines the satire.
A mini-survey of Shostakovich’s ‘folk’-ish songs combines two each of the Jewish, Greek, and Spanish songs. In opus 79’s “Lullaby” Gritskova gives the mother an appropriately hollow and exhausted tone, and she acquits herself well in the soprano’s fifth song “Warning.” The four “Greek Songs” are among the most anonymous of Shostakovich’s works but their rarity makes these two a somewhat welcome addition. Currently the only rival is Mikhail Lukonin and Yuri Serov on the previously mentioned Volume 1 of the DELOS cycle, though it was re-released with different couplings on Northern Flowers NF/ PMA 9912. Gritskova and Prinz cut the second verse of “Pentozalis” which can’t be thought a great loss, but they do bring some nobility to “Zolongo.” The Spanish Songs would similarly be hard to spot as Shostakovich’s but again their Hispanicisms are nicely characterised.
The final four songs on the disc are from some late masterpieces that are often bathed in ambiguity. “Satires” is one of Shostakovich’s most inscrutable cycles and it can seem that the harder you look the less clear it becomes. Yet this, and in particular “Misunderstanding,” is the highlight of the disc, with Gritskova bringing her operatic experience to playing out the roles and teasing out the text’s layered meanings, and Prinz deftly supporting and moving through the various musical styles, allusions, and outright quotes. I hope Gritskova and Prinz will record the whole cycle (frustratingly, there would have been room on the present disc for it).
The last two songs, again, were composed for bass voice. The Preface to the Complete Edition of My Works is another Chinese box and giving Shostakovich’s “voice” to a mezzo may have added another needlessly confusing drawer. Nevertheless, Gritskova’s is an enthusiastic reading and she relishes the sforzandi in the Pushkin epigram as well as leaning in with a wry stage whisper at the end. Though “Immortality,” the last song in the Michelangelo suite was not Shostakovich’s final vocal production, it does make a fitting end to the recital and though Prinz’s key-pecking musicbox sound is perhaps a little loud at the start, overall it’s an interesting, if not key performance.
For anyone wanting to dip a toe into Shostakovich’s songwriting this disc is a useful introduction, but there are also pleasures for those more acquainted with the repertoire, though it would have been nice to have a couple of complete cycles to demonstrate the range Shostakovich finds within them.
Unfortunately for new listeners, the notes are sparse and while there are Cyrillic, German, and English texts for some songs, copyright problems mean that others lack translations and a couple have none at all, but rather rely on precis.
Gritskova and Prinz have also recorded a disc of Prokofiev songs, to be released at some point and it will be interesting to hear that, as there are even fewer recordings of those than of Shostakovich’s songs.
John Leman Riley
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Boris Tchaikovsky: “From Kipling: The Distant Amazon.” “Homer”[a].
Shostakovich: Two Romances to Poems by Lermontov, opus 84. Borodin: “My Songs are Full of Poison.” “For the Distant Shores of Your Native Country.” Taneyev: “A Night in the Scottish Highlands,” opus 33/1. “Stalactites,” opus 26/8. Boris Tchaikovsky: Two Poems by Lermontov. Myaskovsky: “The Albatross,” opus 2/8.* Shostakovich: Spanish Songs, opus 100. [Two discarded songs from Belinsky, opus 85] Desdemona’s Romance (Willow Song)*, A Pointless Gift, a Chance Gift.* Elena Firsova: Two Songs to Poems by Boris Pasternak.* Myaskovsky: “The Sphinx,” opus 2/11.* Firsova: “Winter Elegy,” opus 91*[a,b]
Hamish McLaren (countertenor), with Matthew Jorysz (piano), except: Hamish McLaren and Nathalie Green-Buckley (viola)[a], Claudia Fuller (violin), Ben Michaels (cello)[b].
Recorded at St Paul’s Church, Chelsea, London. 27 August, 7, 16–19 September 2019.
Orchid Classics ORC 100161
Few Russian romance collections cast their net as widely as Orchid Classics’ “Sphinx,” which focuses on strange lands and exotic travel. The six composers range from Borodin to Elena Firsova, the songs from 1868 to 1999 with seven world premieres, including two newly discovered Shostakovich songs—for more about these, see the news item on page 69.
The other point of interest is the singer. Hamish McLaren is a countertenor—not the voice for which most of these songs were written and an unusual one in such repertoire, but one that brings a new perspective and often works well.
Borodin only wrote 16 songs; perhaps the epigrammatic “My Songs are Full of Poison” is missing the last sneer of contempt but McLaren and Jorysz move us beautifully through the grief, hope and disappointment of “For the Distant Shores of Your Country.”
By contrast, Taneyev wrote more than sixty songs though most are little known. The Pushkinesque poet Yakov Polonsky’s “A Night in the Scottish Highlands” is a robust stride through the (not very Scottish sounding) mountains, but McLaren brings an archaic uncanniness to Nobel laureate Sully-Prudhomme’s “Stalactites.”
Myaskovsky’s hundred-odd songs are overshadowed by his 27 symphonies though are well worth investigating. These two Balmont settings are premiere recordings, both with an air of gloomy solitude; “The Albatross” wheeling over the dark ocean, and the “Ozymandias”-like “Sphinx” wearily surveying the desert. To both, McLaren’s voice adds a patina of eeriness.
Boris Tchaikovsky is represented by two pairs of songs from the beginning and end of his career. The Lermontov songs (1940), written when he was fifteen, are unsurprisingly tinged with Sovietised late-Romanticism but their transparent unaffected language is typical of the composer. Two songs “From Kipling” are all that he completed of a late cycle for mezzo and viola. “The Distant Amazon” is enjoyably wry and perky but the lighthearted text of “Homer” is given a more melancholy, veiled accompaniment, leaving an ambiguous impression. All four songs appeared on Toccata’s survey of the composer’s song cycles and chamber music TOCC0046. McLaren and violist Green-Buckley generally take more expansive tempi, imparting a dreamier feel.
The prolific Elena Firsova has often set Mandelstam but here we have three premiere recordings, setting others. The “Two Romances to Poems by Boris Pasternak” (1966–67) are “by” the poet-hero of “Dr Zhivago,” then still contentious and bowdlerised in the Soviet Union. Composed for high voice and piano, they suit McLaren very well. He begins “The Wind” with a stunned quality (“I am no more but you live”), working to climax for the storm that rocks the pine trees “into the far distance” before dying back “in longing to find words for you for a lullaby” after which pianist Matthew Jorysz manages a beautiful retreat into the distance. “Twilight” is a similarly compressed drama, every twist and turn expertly illustrated by Firsova. “Winter Elegy” is the disc’s only song written expressly for countertenor, accompanied by string trio. Pushkin’s desire for peace and the simple pleasure of work also hints at a desire for death but he cannot quite bring himself to make it explicit. The lithe interwoven voices of the trio scrupulously reflect the text before whirling up to their highest reaches, into the sky and out of sight.
Lastly (in this review), the songs that will most interest DSCH readers, those by the man himself: the Lermontov songs, the “Spanish Songs” and, potentially most excitingly, two new discoveries.
Where Boris Tchaikovsky prefers to reflect the stanza structure in his settings of Lermontov, Shostakovich produces something, if not Musorgskian, at least on the borders of declamatory recitative. In the only previous recording (DELOS DE 3304, DSCH 18), mezzo Natiliya Biryukova and pianist Yuri Serov reversed the published order, and McLaren follows suit: “Morning in the Caucasus” preceding “Ballad.” Gritskova and Prince on Naxos (also reviewed in this issue) are the first to save the pedantic listener the effort of reprogramming the player. But of course, McLaren’s voice is the major difference and he is as reactive to both text and music as he is throughout the disc.
The “Spanish Songs” are not particularly Shostakovichian but are in the line of Russian Hispanophilia and part of his “folk music” period. Despite mostly being “male” texts, they have been recorded by singers from soprano to bass though mezzo Zara Dolukhanova, who commissioned and premiered them, chose not to. Undemanding and catchily tuneful, they have retained a fingerhold on the repertoire but McLaren is the first countertenor to tackle them and, as with much of this disc, he does so with great sensitivity.
That patriotic “folk music” period, with Shostakovich occasionally invoking the Rus of the Mighty Handful was at its height following the 1948 denunciation. He found economic if not artistic respite in a series of narod-ist biopics, though these were often troubled productions. Having split from Trauberg, Kozintsev refashioned the 19th-century literary critic Vissarion Belinsky as a pioneer Slavophile finding inspiration in the art of the common people. If the centenary of Belinsky’s death in 1948 was the incentive, the film missed the hagiographical deluge and stumbled along, only being released in 1953 in a form that Kozintsev disowned. Now, it seems that the re-edit also discarded some of Shostakovich’s music.
Desdemona’s Romance (Willow Song) sets Ivan Kozlov’s loose translation from Othello, though Shostakovich contemplated various adaptations of the play so perhaps there was also some vestigial relationship to one of those. It’s not exactly 1840s-ish but while it’s hardly avantgarde, some moments of harmonic turbidity in the piano’s solemn tread, above which McLaren floats his pure voice, may have spurred some Zhdanovian frowns.
The setting of Pushkin’s A Pointless Gift, A Chance Gift is probably also a Belinsky discard. This is slightly more conventionally romans-y and it’s hard to imagine it scaring the horses but, for whatever reason, it too was ditched. Nevertheless, both open up our understanding of this problematic project and perhaps further investigation will unearth more cast-offs.
Marina Frolova-Walker’s note sets the songs and the collection in context, and Richard Shaw’s translations of the sung Russian texts sit alongside the Cyrillic. Unfortunately, the biogs don’t include Claudia Fuller or Ben Michaels, who complete the string trio in Firsova’s “Winter Elegy.”
Completists will naturally want this disc for the two newly discovered songs, nice renditions of the others, and the unusual opportunity of hearing them sung by a countertenor. But there is far more to the disc than that. McLaren has a firm voice which is even through the range and is more expressive that some countertenors, who can sound beautiful but slightly detached. The only drawback is an occasionally slightly over-resonant acoustic, but this shouldn’t deter anybody from acquiring this enjoyable disc of (mostly) rarities.
John Leman Riley