CD Reviews 56
*World Premiere recordings
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
Shostakovich: Piano Trio no. 1, opus 8; Piano Trio no. 2, opus 67; Weinberg: Piano Trio, opus 24
Trio Metral [Joseph Metral (violin), Justine Metral (cello), Victor Metral (piano)]
Recorded, l’Arsenal de Metz (Grande Salle), 31 October–2 November 2019
La Dolce Volta LDV81
The time when any mention or recording of Weinberg had to be justified through his association with Shostakovich—even as Shostakovich-lite—is fortunately long past, and thanks to the championing of such luminaries as Gidon Kremer, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, and the Quatuor Danel, Weinberg-only discs are no longer a rarity.
But the Weinberg-Shostakovich pairing is still an attractive one, particularly when it comes to their output in the same genre. The French siblings of Trio Metral juxtapose both Shostakovich trios with the single one by Weinberg, effectively showcasing not only Shostakovich’s own evolution in the genre but also the dialogue between the two composers. If in the string quartet this dialogue was remarkably two-way—arguably even with heavier traffic from Weinberg to Shostakovich—when it comes to the piano chamber music the influence was overwhelmingly from mentor to mentee.
With its (mainly) intimate opening movement, manic second, and lamenting third, and with the general weighing towards the finale, Weinberg’s Piano Trio tips its hat structurally to Shostakovich’s Second. When it does not, as in the imposing opening, it is the latter’s Piano Quintet that supplies the model. Yet Weinberg’s Trio is equally replete with personal fingerprints, from oscillating intervals to the post-exhaustion limbo in the last movement that points directly to his much later Gogol-based opera The Portrait.
The Metrals are sensitive to Weinberg’s idiom and responsive to its athletic and mental demands, not least with a supersonic and visceral account of the “Toccata” second movement. Their performance is never less than refined and engaged. However, when it comes to emotional depth and drama, they are no match for Kremer’s group (DG 4837522), who set the current gold standard for this work.
Despite the booklet’s claim that Weinberg’s Trio is “little-recorded,” there are numerous versions on the market, several of which opt for a similar pairing with Shostakovich’s Second Trio. The Metrals stand out for their addition of his single-movement opus 8. Though no match for the Florestan Trio (DSCH 37), this is a sensitive interpretation, conveying an almost cinematographic immediacy. Black mark, though, for whoever placed a track division in the middle of the introduction rather than at the beginning of the exposition. If you stream with a non-premier subscription, be ready for advertisements in the middle of a phrase.
In their booklet interview, the Metrals describe Shostakovich’s Second Trio as having been at the heart of their repertoire since their early days. This certainly comes through in the streamlined blending of their sound, for instance in the opening cello-violin exchanges where minimal vibrato allows for an optimal fusion of timbres. Their frenzied scherzo is a tour de force. The Finale, however, is a tale of two opposites. On the one hand they seem more concerned with fidelity to the musical text than with the communicative heart of the music, particularly in their rigid adherence to metronome marks that were certainly not followed by the composer himself and that definitely do not make for a convincing and natural flow. How much more effective is Tsyganov’s swaying in the opening theme against Shostakovich’s irregular pulsations (Doremi DHR-7787 DSCH 18, most recently re-released on Archipel ARPCD0614). On the other hand, and again unlike Shostakovich’s own recordings, the Metrals ignore the instruction for the strings to be muted following the climactic explosion around 6:47. It is certainly easier to play this way, but it destroys the sense of struggle, of shouting through a gag, that is crucial to the musical drama.
All in all, then, this is a disc with many fine virtues, but not one that makes a compelling call on collectors.
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
Shostakovich: Cello Sonata, opus 40 [a]; Schnittke: Cello Sonata no. 1 [b]; Schulhoff: Sonata for Cello and Piano opus 17 [c]; Rostropovich: Humoresque, opus 5 [a]
David Geringas (cello), Tatjana Geringas (piano)
Recorded, Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg, 1994 [a], 1993 [c], Hochschule fur Musik, Lübeck, 1998 or 1999 [b]
Brahms: Cello Sonata no. 2, opus 99; Ligeti: Sonata for Solo Cello; Shostakovich: Cello Sonata. opus 40
John-Henry Crawford (cello), Victor Santiago Asuncion (piano).
Recorded, Abeshouse Productions, 23–25 August 2019.
Orchid Classics, ORC100166
Shostakovich’s sparing use of performance directions in his Cello Sonata leaves many aspects of expression up to the performers, as evidenced in dozens of contrasting recordings. Among these are two with the composer himself at the piano. The first, recorded in late 1946 and first released in 1947, was with cellist Daniil Shafran.(1) In this little-known recording of the 1935 version of the sonata, Shostakovich and Shafran go to extremes of tone colour, articulation, and tempo; their Largo, for example, is funereally slow and runs two minutes longer than most recordings. No subsequent performers have attempted to recreate the idiosyncrasies of this interpretation.
By contrast, Shostakovich’s recording with Mstislav Rostropovich (Moscow Radio, 1959, Revelation RV 70005 DSCH 9) is treated as a primary document by many present-day cellists. Here, Shostakovich and Rostropovich perform from a revised version of the score that would be published in 1960 (Shostakovich added further revisions in 1971). The main changes are the removal of a few notes in the cello part, some adjustments to dynamics, and the addition of much faster metronome markings in three of the movements. Even so, Shostakovich rarely adheres to his own tempi in this recording. He takes the final Allegro at frenzied speed; according to Rostropovich, he and Shostakovich hurried through the movement because they were eager to go outside to enjoy some uncommonly pleasant weather.
Two new(ish) recordings of this warhorse have appeared in 2021. One, the debut disc of John-Henry Crawford and Victor Santiago Asuncion, juxtaposes Shostakovich with two other canonic staples, the Ligeti and second Brahms sonatas. The other, Art of the Duo, re-releases older recordings of Soviet-era works by husband-and-wife duo David and Tatjana Geringas, who represent the last generation of performers to have been personally acquainted with Shostakovich and his circle.
According to the liner notes for Art of the Duo, Rostropovich himself praised David Geringas as “the best player of Shostakovich.” The Geringases’ magisterial take on opus 40 makes it easy to agree. Unlike the composer himself, they follow the printed performance directions and metronome markings closely (except for the coda to the first movement, which starts considerably faster than Shostakovich’s marking of crotchet = 50). David Geringas’ tone in the opening Allegro non troppo is by turns speechlike and singing, and an extraordinary range of contrasting vibrato and dynamic colour brings a sense of urgency to the rapid-fire key changes in the development section. The Geringases’ rendition of the second movement is full of fun, particularly in the sections where mercurial chains of natural harmonics whiz up and down the strings of the cello—Rostropovich reportedly likened this effect to “a little boy blowing bubbles.” Their Largo demonstrates once more their command of contrast and pacing: in their hands, a fleeting excursion to D-flat major after the darkest point in the movement is exquisitely moving. Despite taking the finale considerably slower than Rostropovich and Shostakovich, their performance is every bit as exciting.
It is fitting that the Geringases pair the Shostakovich with Schnittke’s first cello sonata, a work David Geringas premiered and has performed frequently for decades. Also on the disc is a little-known sonata by Erwin Schulhoff, a composer labelled “degenerate” and murdered by the Nazis. This neo-Romantic piece, which the Geringases rediscovered and premiered in the 1990s, deserves a place in the core repertoire.
After three serious sonatas, Rostropovich’s Humoresque seems a surprising encore; however, the liner notes explain that Geringas often performed it in the Soviet Union to protest not being allowed to mention his teacher’s name in interviews. The performers pull off its pyrotechnics with style, bringing their programme to a light-hearted conclusion.
It is interesting to listen to the Geringas recording of Shostakovich side by side with that of Crawford, an emerging artist and Instagram influencer. If the elder statesman Geringas exemplifies an intellectual Eastern European style, Crawford tends more towards the ultra-clean note-to-note trajectory of modern American cello playing. Throughout the three works on the album, his tone is bright and direct, perhaps due to a microphone placement that favours the cello over the piano. This is understandable in a piece like Brahms’s F major sonata, where the piano can easily dominate, but perhaps less necessary in the Shostakovich sonata.
Crawford and Asuncion take the first movement of Shostakovich on the slow side, slowing down even further in the second theme. The second movement, in contrast, goes at breakneck speed—at times, the performers play at 50 beats per minute faster than Shostakovich’s metronome marking—causing the individual harmonics to get lost during the “bubble-blowing” passages. Next, the introduction to the Largo begins very slowly before speeding up dramatically to nearly twice the initial tempo in places—Shostakovich’s only tempo specification is the initial metronome marking of crotchet = 69. Crawford’s tone is uniformly lean and energetic, his articulations almost unbelievably precise. There is little use of portamento, even across large intervallic leaps. The overall impression is one of scrupulous cleanliness. Crawford’s liner notes state a desire for dialogue during troubled times; in this respect, Asuncion is the ideal collaborator, matching Crawford’s spotless clarity note for note.
1 For details of some re-releases, see W. Mark Roberts’ review of the to-be-avoided Electra version in DSCH 14, since when it has appeared in the five-disc set “Shostakovich Plays Shostakovich” (Melodiya. MELCD1002596).
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
Chamber Symphonies, opus 73a and opus 83a, arr. Barshai
Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne/Joshua Weilerstein
Recorded, Salle Métropole (Lausanne), 30 June–2 July 2019
TT: 62:51, plus talks by Joshua Weilerstein (9:35)
Fuga Libera, FUG769
In 1950, four years after the work’s composition, Shostakovich reportedly told Edison Denisov that the first movement of the Third String Quartet should be played “gently, not with verve.” It is a tricky movement to bring off—a light-hearted, neoclassical piece with a gritty fugal development section—and Shostakovich was clearly aware of the pitfalls. It stands alone in a work whose remaining movements occupy a much more serious world. Does one embrace its status as a one-off and interpret it at face value, allowing the subsequent struggles and tragedies to emerge naturally in their own time? Or does one perform it in a more “knowing” way, telegraphing to the listener that things are not as they appear on the surface? Joshua Weilerstein’s first movement is very much in the latter vein. It is a serious, carefully measured performance, taken at a steady tempo, with rubato limited to the poco ritardandi marked in the score. If you are looking for classical elegance or wistful spontaneity, you won’t find it here. Barshai’s first recording, with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, at the same tempo as Weilerstein (DG 4775442, DSCH 23) or Roberto Beltrán-Zavala, at a slightly faster tempo (DSCH 45) will give you a clearer glimpse into those worlds. Later on, the movement’s development section generates the requisite gain in intensity, yet the air of measured didacticism never quite goes away.
As the work moves inexorably towards tragedy, Weilerstein comes into his own. Following a grimly sardonic second movement, the third possesses an ideal combination of power and pace, with none of the “virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake” that can mar performances of this movement.
From the outset, the fourth movement presents some basic interpretative challenges. On the page, it looks like one of Shostakovich’s “fast” slow movements—marked Adagio but with a relatively swift metronome marking (crotchet = 80)—a funeral march with definite forward movement. Set against that is the espressivo marking, which will usually encourage broader bow strokes and a smoothing of the jagged edges. And that’s before you even get to the question of how tempi conceived for a string quartet translate into the weightier orchestral medium. Weilerstein plays this unashamedly as a “slow” slow movement—over a minute slower than either of Barshai’s recordings. The sound of the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne is certainly well upholstered, but the concentration of the playing and the compelling rhythmic backbone, ensures that the performance avoids the wrong kind of plushness. The unfolding of the rest of this bleak movement is equally compelling, with moving solos from the Lausanne oboist and bassoonist.
The finale is excellent too. Like its Eighth Symphony counterpart, written three years before, it begins with one of Shostakovich’s “life gradually emerging from the wreckage” melodies—slightly numb to begin with, but determined to make it through. Catching that numbness without descending into waywardness is not easy, but Weilerstein negotiates this magnificently, never losing sight of the long journey to the movement’s tragic climax. The move away from the climax is also wonderfully done, the jaunty third theme emerging coyly, only gradually regaining its confidence.
Unlike in his familiar string orchestra arrangements of the Eighth and Tenth Quartets, for the Third, Barshai adds a small group of winds and the occasional harp. It is surprisingly effective. I say “surprisingly” because the winds’ initial appearance in the first movement does feel a bit gratuitous—a rather obvious attempt at contrast that partitions the exposition’s second subject (winds) off from the first subject and codetta (strings) in a not entirely natural manner. That said, the wind scoring at the end of the second subject (fig. 7-8 in the quartet score / 1:28-1:41) is wonderfully Shostakovichian in its baleful intoning of oboe, cor anglais, clarinet and bassoon. And as the movement picks up steam in the fugal development section, the integration of the winds adds weight as well as clarity to the lines.
Barshai’s addition of winds to the Third is relatively understated; the arrangement of the Fourth further adds brass and percussion. They are used relatively sparingly, but even so, open up an array of sonic vistas not attempted in opus 73a. The finale’s climax, in particular, has something approaching a genuinely orchestral sound. Previous DSCH reviewers have been split over the merits of opus 83a; C.H. Loh (DSCH 23) revelled in the excess, while W. Mark Roberts (DSCH 45) found it all to be a step too far.
Weilerstein takes the opening movement of opus 83a at a relatively relaxed tempo. But with plenty of lyrical power and contrapuntal propulsion between first and second violins, and with the drone coursing through the movement’s first climactic section sounding particularly ominous, there is no shortage of tension. Meanwhile, the slow movement’s journey from simple desolation to devastating climax, and back, is judged to perfection. The third movement is fractionally faster than in the two Barshai recordings, with Weilerstein finding an extra degree of hushed agitation at the start and making the most of the startling trumpet and drum entrances.
The finale gets off to a good start, as it usually does. Where this performance really scores is later on. As the recapitulation comes crashing in, in typical Shostakovich style, Weilerstein pretty much ignores the “poco” in Shostakovich’s poco meno mosso, and instead goes for broad declamation. In context, it feels utterly right, as does the gut-wrenching reprise of the great Jewish theme shortly thereafter. Many performances, with Barshai an honourable exception, spoil this reprise with a bright and breezy rendition.
Fuga Libera’s recording, as heard in the 24/96 hi-res version, is excellent, though with the occasional over-spotlighting of wind instruments when in a doubling role (e.g., the bass clarinet at 3:17 in the finale of opus 83a) and what sounds like an awkward edit in the first movement of opus 83a, at 3:33. I would also question the decision to list the movements of the Third Quartet with the titles that Shostakovich had at one point considered adding, titles that inject this 1946 work with a (perhaps convenient) wartime narrative. There would have been nothing wrong with including these if some context had been provided. Unfortunately, the manner in which they are listed, with no context or qualification, gives the titles the appearance of official status. Weilerstein’s recorded talk deals with the issue more sensibly, with the appropriate “health warnings.”
Of the two recordings conducted by Rudolf Barshai, the arranger and close associate of Shostakovich, the 1992 recording is preferable to his 2005 remake with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi (Brilliant Classics 8212). Some may find it over-refined, but it is unrivalled in its understated elegance and is well—if a little distantly—recorded. Yet, Weilerstein digs deeper, generating performances of great intensity and character, by turns brooding and searing, outstandingly played by the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne. The rather dour account of the first movement of opus 73a might not be to everyone’s taste, but Weilerstein and the Lausanne orchestra get so much else right after that. The above-mentioned performance by Roberto Beltrán-Zavala with The re:orchestra (sic), as well as Jean-Jacques Kantorow with the Tapiola Sinfonietta (DSCH 23), and Yuli Turovsky with I Musici de Montréal (DSCH 25) all have their qualities—and in the case of Kantorow, some eccentricities—but, for me at least, Weilerstein is the new front runner.
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues, opus 87 [a]; Ronald Stevenson: Passacaglia on DSCH [b]
Igor Levit (piano)
Recorded: Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, 2–4,6,7, and 9 May 2020 [a]; Leibniz Saal (HCC), Hannover, 4–6 February 2020 [b].
TT: 3:50:58 [63:38 + 82:11 + 85:09]
Sony 19439809212 (3 CDs); 19439889261 (3 LPs)
This review was of the CD release.
A visit to the Stevensons’ West Linton abode—reached by means of the 101 bus that threads its way from Edinburgh through the gently undulating Pentland Hills—always began with unfinished conversations restarted and enthusiasms rejuvenated. The vital aspects of life and art were cheerily embarked upon as soon as the threshold had been crossed and the last of the chilly haar had been expelled by hot tea, or a wee dram of something stronger, as the weather demanded. Apart from Marjorie Stevenson’s delicious meals taken in the kitchen that overlooked Ronald’s composing shed, all activity took place in the music room, with its floor to ceiling shelves, and its grand piano that, in addition to toppling towers of sheet music, supported framed photographs of Grainger, Busoni, Mac-Diarmid, Menuhin, and of Ronald presenting the score of his Passacaglia on DSCH to the work’s dedicatee, Dmitri Shostakovich. For a few hours we would take turns on the piano stool—actually an organ bench that once belonged to Busoni. Ronald would sometimes play his own music but was often more interested in playing composers he was currently enthused by: Yrjö Kilpinen, Ignaz Friedman, or Roman Vlad. My responses were always in the form of jazz, most especially those pieces of Fats Waller that I could muster, Waller being another star in the Stevensonian firmament. Moving from the piano without pause, books would be pulled from the shelves as Ronald prowled among their spines like an eager cat—volume after volume would land on my lap as I sat on a low chair like a supplicant to knowledge. Many of these books were not on musical subjects; Ronald was as much fired up by poetry, Celtic culture, or the theatrical theories of Edward Gordon Craig, as he was by music. It was Ronald who first introduced me to a quite different poetical universe existing far from the London-centric literary world and populated by poets he knew: MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, Sorley MacLean, Sidney Goodsir Smith. Ronald once told me that he would have been a poet had he not taken to music so readily and concertedly.
My memories of West Linton visits helped me to build a picture of what inspired Stevenson. From the piles of tomes on my lap I could see that extra-musical inspiration was vital to Stevenson’s creativity. Despite its austere “abstract” title and the mind-boggling ingenuity of its structure, I would suggest that his monumental Passacaglia on DSCH is not so different from many of his other works that eschew such intellectual-sounding titles, and foreground a wide cultural engagement—in the Passacaglia there are allusions to Africa, dance rhythms of many lands, and a stark memorial to the Holocaust. In his Tempo article of September 1988, Calum MacDonald suggested that Stevenson came close in procedure to “a MacDiarmidian ideal of a polylingual, world-encompassing artistic culture.”
All of which reminiscence leads me to On DSCH, Igor Levit’s new recording of the above-mentioned work, together with the 24 Preludes and Fugues of its dedicatee. A giant bolus of counterpoint, then? Well hardly. Levit’s performances of both masterworks are not only thrillingly virtuosic but have a responsive warmth to the music’s inner emotional core—in the case of the Stevenson work this means attention has been paid to its well-signposted extra-musical landscape—the very kind of landscape that was laid out for me during my visits to West Linton. Levit displays a variety of touch rare in modern pianism with its sometime-favouring of a steely-eyed glare; on the contrary, we have here the layered textures that Ronald himself so admired in composer-pianists of the Silver Age: Grainger, Godowsky, Rachmaninov, and the aforementioned Friedman. Levit has found that rich vein of lyrical counterpoint that illuminates rather than hammers. Just to pick out a few examples: the variety of touch achieved in the “Suite” gives us a kaleidoscope of post-Busonian phantoms—it is Levit’s fluttering pedal that allows for these ghostly effects. But three minutes into the “Suite” he is picking tangier staccato fruits from a bitter tree. By 5:40 we enter a deserted ballroom where a minuet (played with a waltz-like lilt by Levit) is still in the fingers of a forgotten orchestra. There seems dim candlelight hovering above abandoned music stands. If I emphasise the poetic above the structural, it is of course only one way of responding—and yet after the DSCH theme has been sounded umpteen times(1) (there is a nice card insert included with the recording that explains the cryptogram’s derivation), the listener surely knows it is there and can background or foreground it according to a kind of directed listening. This is the very nature of Stevenson’s scheme: the cryptogram often lies in the background while entirely contrary structures float above it like adrift geological plates. The miracle of Stevenson’s creation is that in spite of what might to most composers be a straightjacket, the DSCH motif for him is a key to creative freedom. No better example of this freedom is the profoundly moving “Pibroch (Lament for the Children)”: a desolate urlar arises from a dense bed of chords—and it is in the primal depths that the DSCH motif writhes in lament.
What struck me once again when listening to the piece is the amount of restrained intimacy it contains—stretches of meditative music that seems rapt in thought but never static, pools of near silence and rumination. Yet there are cataclysms and when they come Levit absolutely launches himself; for example, the frenzied outbursts of “Variations on Bread, Peace and the Land (1917)” are terrifying—a kind of controlled abandon is unleashed, and at 1:28 some goat-footed demon is abroad. These central episodes are where the pent-up energies of the meditative passages find their release, the pinnacle being reached with “Pedal Point: To Emergent Africa.” This visceral music shocked me again (and I have known the piece for over 25 years) by its unrelenting power and range of expression. Stevenson crowns the work by the addition of both the Dies Irae chant and the BACH cryptogram so as to reveal kinship with Berlioz and Bach as well as Shostakovich.
It is instructive to move directly from disc 2 to 3 as we get a sense that Stevenson’s “Sonata allegro” grows out of Shostakovich’s sound world—I’ve always felt it as a kind of homage to the opening paragraphs of Shostakovich’s Tenth symphony.(2) Levit’s readings of many of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues emphasise the essential intimacy of the form: one can imagine the composer in seclusion paying homage to his beloved Bach—no distractions, no public. Privacy in the Soviet Union was hardly an option, however—certainly not if you wished your music to be performed. As was customary for “public figures,” Shostakovich auditioned half the cycle before the Union of Soviet Composers on 31 March 1951, more than 18 months before the premiere of the entire set by Tatyana Nikolayeva. The Union’s assembled panel expressed dissatisfaction; the use of such an abstract form as fugue hinted at the dreaded Formalism.
In Levit’s new recording, the pianist always has the linear aspect of the music in mind and fingers; histrionics are avoided as if the music is being returned to the quiet of the music room where a lyrical, profound and unshackled imagination ran free. When drama is required, as in Fugue no. 6, in B minor, Levit responds with fabulously precise and propulsive playing; in Prelude no. 12, in G sharp minor he passes tonally from a lamenting nobility to a kind of moral exhaustion in one unrelieved span so that when the ebullient Fugue starts, it rouses the listener from this numb despair into a renewed combative spirit. Levit can brush the music with pastoral nostalgia, as in Prelude no. 13, in F sharp major; its following Fugue feels like a prayer to Bach: it is very beautifully played, surprising pools of colour glisten, and the end is a grateful sigh. The very next piece, the Prelude no. 14 in E flat minor, plunges into the dark chiaroscuro of a forgotten “picture” of Musorgsky. Levit attains the monumental heights needed for the huge closing Fugue in D minor, a fitting and quasi-orchestral end to the set. With music and playing as wonderful as this, I am hardly required to “recommend” these discs—this would seem a paltry response to such a self-recommending project. No one interested in these pieces would want to be without Stevenson’s own performances of his Passacaglia, neither should Shostakovich’s own playing of a selection of his Preludes and Fugues be neglected, let alone the complete set as recorded three times by Tatiana Nikolayeva. That we have such committed and frankly marvellous performances of both works by Igor Levit gives us pianistic landscapes astonishingly rich and rare, and allows us an aural witnessing of that friendship in art between Stevenson and Shostakovich.
1 “… I went on piling up the variations until they grew into hundreds. I don’t know precisely how many hundreds: I have never counted them.”—from “Reflections After a Premiere,” in Ronald Stevenson: the Man and His Music, ed. Colin Scott-Sutherland (London: Toccata Press, 2005), 83.
2 Stevenson’s further affinity with Shostakovich’s music can be garnered from his essay “The Piano Music,” in Christopher Norris, ed., Shostakovich: the Man and His Music (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1982), 81-103.
David Hackbridge Johnson
Symphony no. 11, “The Year 1905,” opus 103, arranged for piano four hands by the composer; Tea for Two from The Golden Age, opus 22, arranged for piano solo by the composer (played piano four hands; listed as Tahiti Trot, opus 16)
Ayumi Iga (primo), Masatoshi Yamaguchi (secondo)
Recorded, Grand Auditorium, Mie Center for the Arts, Tsu, Japan, 14–16 February 2017
Virtus Classics, VTS-003
Piano reductions served as midwives and life support to Shostakovich’s orchestral works throughout his career. As documented by Inna Barsova in her chapter in Contemplating Shostakovich: Life, Music and Film (DSCH 39), piano arrangements kept alive in the ears of the composer and his confidants those pieces like Symphony no. 4 and Violin Concerto no. 1 that had to wait years before the political habitat favoured their public debuts. No less vital was the role piano transcriptions played in securing official permission to perform his new orchestral creations in the concert hall, by enabling screening committees to assess the music.
Shostakovich preferred the piano duet transcription for its superior ability to render orchestral textures as compared with a reduction for solo pianist, and his arrangement of Symphony no. 11 was no exception. Having completed the full score on 4 August 1957, within three weeks he had finished the piano-four-hands version and rehearsed it with Weinberg. However, it was not Weinberg but rather the composer Mikhail Meerovich with whom Shostakovich premiered the reduction at the Leningrad House of Composers on 17 September. They performed it again the following week, this time before the Board of the Union of Soviet Composers in Moscow. Passing inspection with flying colours, the symphony was unveiled with full forces on 30 October.
With so much at stake, Shostakovich took considerable care to preserve the essential elements of his musical argument when crafting his transcriptions. Thus, hearing these symphonies in their pared down piano versions enhances our appreciation of the original texts. It does not follow automatically that one of these piano recitals graduates to an engrossing listening session in its own right, an accomplishment that I believe entails more than adherence to the score of the reduction, requiring a deep familiarity with the original orchestral document and its performance traditions. Happily, the married duo Ayumi Iga and Masatoshi Yamaguchi report that their interpretation of this four-hands version is indeed informed by study of the full score and classic Soviet-era recordings. In the present 2017 premiere recording, the duo follows a rare copy of the 1958 Muzgiz first edition of the reduction, and they also referred to the recently edited piano-four-hands text in the New Collected Works from DSCH Publishers (Vol. 26, 2013).
All that research has paid off handsomely, as Iga and Yamaguchi deliver as much gripping drama as we might reasonably hope to experience in any conventional performance of the symphony. Goosebumps are evoked from the very opening of “The Palace Square,” which sets off at a measured pace. Precise application of the sustain pedal lends a glassy sheen to the high notes and a gravelly reverb to low tones, substituting most effectively for the tremolo strings of the orchestra. The duo is keenly alert to the power of pauses to heighten the atmosphere of stillness and expectancy. The revolutionary songs “Listen” and “The Convict” regain an almost choral quality thanks to the richly characterised manner in which they are played as they move across different registers.
Iga and Yamaguchi plunge impetuously into “Ninth of January,” practically tripping over each other. The tension in the air is palpable. The piano reduction spotlights those monotone quaver-triplet–crotchet semaphore signals that Shostakovich sprinkled liberally throughout the movement, a prophecy of the gunfire to come. As the first shots ring out (Fig. 71/10:20), we arrive at the first section of the symphony in which I found the piano struggles to convey the full scope of the proceedings, for despite the violence inflicted upon it by Iga’s left hand, her instrument cannot replicate the explosive retort of the snare drum. The absence of the bass drum is also felt when the massacre reaches its height (Fig. 84/12:49), though the low rumble conjured by Yamaguchi is ominous in its own right. But the vista of blood and corpses in the aftermath is, if anything, even more horrific than orchestration depicts, the shock heightened by dissonant oscillation in the upper reaches of the keyboard.
“In Memoriam” sets off as if in numb disbelief, an impression amplified by Yamaguchi’s metronomic and resonant voicing of the contrabassoon he’s replacing. Both pianists effectively shift moods from solemn marching through radiant memory to righteous resolve, and their dynamic range is impressively wide.
The duo drives the opening of “The Tocsin” with irresistible forward momentum, though not at the expense of nuance—just listen to how many different ways Iga finds to deliver her trills. Later, it’s also remarkable how well the piano, a struck instrument, proves able to replicate the continuous shrieking of Shostakovich’s semiquaver runs on high winds and strings. In this movement the piano also seems at less of a disadvantage compared to an orchestral percussion section than in the second movement; witness Yamaguchi’s powerful thunderclap heralding entry into the Adagio (Fig. 162-3/8:11). In the following passage we find exquisite use of rubato, sitting naturally rather than seeming forced or arbitrary.
In his piano-four-hands score, Shostakovich did not replicate the orchestral bells in the coda of “The Tocsin,” and Iga and Yamaguchi play his original arrangement as their default version of the fourth movement. However, regretting the bells’ absence, they also recorded a bonus track in which they have represented the bells with shrill, fortissimo strikes. This fifth track on the CD picks up the proceedings at Fig. 167, and the simulated bell sounds from Fig. 176/1:31. The duo has thus undertaken a more extensive amendment than Viktor Ekimovsky made when editing the transcription for the New Collected Works, for he took it upon himself to add the bells only to the dozen closing measures starting at Fig. 179+13 (2:16). Another difference is that Ekimovsky pitched the bells for primo left hand, south of middle-C, whereas Iga plays them three octaves higher.
Beyond the care invested in their recording of the symphony, additional evidence of Iga and Yamaguchi’s profound affection for the composer appears in the CD booklet, which presents a dozen photos that the couple took of Shostakovich-related artifacts and sites in St. Petersburg and Moscow. These snapshots document their travels in September 2017 (after recording this album), when they performed the symphony at the concert hall of the Alexander Scriabin Memorial Museum in Moscow.
Iga and Yamaguchi have already given the Japanese concert premieres of piano-duet versions of Shostakovich’s symphonies nos. 1, 4, 6, 10, and 12. Their plan to record these in future should be warmly encouraged, as Shostakovich’s piano arrangements of his own symphonies remain rare on disc, and the duo would have the field to themselves in nos. 1, 6, and 12. Rustem Hayroudinoff and Colin Stone are still the team to beat in Symphony no. 4 (Chandos CHAN 10296; DSCH 23), notwithstanding the recent efforts of Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies (Supertrain Records 003; DSCH 52). The composer’s recital with Weinberg of Symphony no. 10 is self-recommending as a historical document and as the sole recording we have of Shostakovich performing a piano arrangement of a symphony (DSCH 9; most recently reissued in Melodiya’s 5-disc Shostakovich Plays Shostakovich set, MEL CD 10 02596). For technique and sound quality, however, this is outclassed decisively by a 1992 recital by Alexander Zelyakov and Folke Gräsbeck; their CD has been out of print for over a decade but the recording remains available for streaming or downloading from several platforms (Bluebell ABCD 049).
Toccata Classics’ enterprising series Shostakovich: Complete Music for Piano Duo and Duet has thus far yielded two symphonies in piano-four-hands versions: the sole recording of no. 9, from Jakob Fichert and Vicky Yannoula (TOCC 0034; DSCH 36), and the second appearance of no. 15, courtesy of Min Kyung Kim and Hyung Jin Moon (TOCC 0292), arriving a decade after the 2006 premiere by Philippe Entremont and Laura Mikkola (Cascavelle VEL 3102; DSCH 27). Also worthy of mention is the recording of Symphony no. 5 from the GrauSchumacher Piano Duo (NEOS 20801; DSCH 32), though this is of Levon Atovmyan’s arrangement, the whereabouts of Shostakovich’s own 1937 piano reduction currently being unknown.
Iga and Yamaguchi wrap up the present CD with another premiere recording: a charming rendition of Tahiti Trot. Legend has it that Shostakovich undertook his transcription of Tea for Two from Vincent Youmans’ 1925 operetta No, No, Nanette after listening to a recording with conductor Nikolai Malko on 1 October 1927, wagering that he could orchestrate it within an hour, entirely from memory. The feat of winning the bet with 15 minutes to spare is often cited as an example not only of Shostakovich’s skill as an orchestrator but also his uncanny recall, the implication being that this occasion was the composer’s first exposure to the song. However, in his contribution to the CD’s booklet, musicologist Satoru Takaku outlines how Tea for Two had already been assimilated (under the name Tahiti Trot) by theatrical productions in Russia in 1926. Given his affinity for the stage, Shostakovich was thus surely familiar with Tea for Two long before the wager, so arrangements may well have been marinating in the back of his mind for many months. I wonder if Malko knew!
In any event, Shostakovich’s orchestration was premiered by Malko in November 1928. Entering the composer’s catalogue as opus 16, the number found its way the following year into The Golden Age, opus 22, with revised instrumentation. Shostakovich then made a piano-two-hands reduction of opus 22 in which the movement is entitled Entr’acte (Tea for Two). This is the published score followed by Iga and Yamaguchi. Noting that some parts of Shostakovich’s opus 22 reduction are difficult for a solo pianist to perform, the duo decided to play it together on one piano.
Another team might have been content to take the opus 22 reduction as the sole source for such a snippet (it lasts just 3:35 in this recital), but even here Iga and Yamaguchi’s scholarly enthusiasm asserted itself. When preparing their recording, they also referred to the orchestral score of Tahiti Trot, opus 16 and ended up changing the tempo and even the notes of the final section to match.
Pianists now have a more straightforward path to opus 16 than was available to Iga and Yamaguchi for their 2017 recording, thanks to Dmitri Alexeev’s two-piano reduction of the orchestral score. This was published by Muzyka in 2018 in a volume with his arrangements of the Suites for Jazz Orchestra nos. 1 and 2 (that is the “lost” suite of 1938 rather than the Suite for Variety Stage Orchestra that has frequently stolen the epithet “Jazz Suite no. 2”). Alexeev and Nikolai Demidenko play all three transcriptions in A Touch of Jazz, a 2021 album with no planned physical release but widely accessible online.
Though Alexeev and Demidenko’s Tahiti Trot is jaunty enough, their attack feels deliberate in comparison with the lilting cadences of Iga and Yamaguchi. The Japanese duo tap every last drop of swing and sweetness from the piece—especially delicious is their giddy accelerando from the last slow passage into the closing measures. The number makes for a delightful conclusion to their programme.
Virtus Classics’ engineering confers clear acoustics with space for the notes to breathe. The thick CD booklet spans over 20 pages of annotation by the duo, Takaku, and another Japanese researcher, Hideaki Takaoki. Although the booklet is printed in Japanese only, DSCH has commissioned an English translation, available online.(1) Takaku’s contribution focusses on the programme at hand and is praiseworthy, though I did a double-take upon reading his non sequitur that although Testimony “is now considered a counterfeit, that is precisely why it should be regarded as ‘truth’.” Perhaps he meant that, because the book wasn’t an official Soviet publication, it might hew closer to unvarnished reality than if its provenance were genuine but subject to Party censorship? Takaoki’s meandering narrative, interspersed with pithy observations from the two pianists, should at best be regarded as capturing the spirit of Shostakovich, supplying too many oversimplifications and frank errors to enumerate here. But let’s not judge harshly, because it’s Takaoki whom we have to thank for first proposing this project to Iga and Yamaguchi, and their performance of the symphony uses his own copy of the score.
Overall, then, this album is a desirable acquisition not only for completists but also for anyone seeking a different and rewarding viewpoint on the oft-recorded Eleventh Symphony. Though not generally available from Western retailers, the CD can easily be ordered from Amazon Japan.
1 https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=VTS-003 (requires login or preview).
W. Mark Roberts
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
Symphony no. 11, “The Year 1905,” opus 103
SWR Symphonieorchester/Eliahu Inbal
Recorded, Beethovensaal, Liederhalle, Stuttgart, 8–12 November 2018
SWR Classic SWR19106CD
I write in the midst of a pandemic—maestros around the globe are succumbing in growing numbers to a mysterious ailment that compels them to sing and/or hum along to whatever they’re conducting! An even more baffling symptom, given their status as elite musical professionals, is that they are always out of tune!
Today’s patient is Eliahu Inbal. In this 2018 recording of Symphony no. 11 with the SWR Symphonieorchester, his self-indulgent crooning intrudes most prominently right when we want it least: moments of hushed alertness in “The Palace Square”; entreaties of O Thou, Our Tsar, Our Little Father in “Ninth of January”; passages of quiet bereavement throughout “In Memoriam.” Perhaps you could muffle Inbal’s accompaniment by listening through bargain-basement earbuds. On decent stereo equipment, however, you will most certainly discern his vocal contributions. In my book, these are sufficient grounds for dismissal.
One reason to try to overlook Inbal’s warbling would be to welcome the first purely orchestral album from the Südwestrundfunk (SWR) Symphonieorchester, which formed as recently as September 2016 from the union of the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart of the SWR and the SWR Symphonieorchester Baden-Baden and Freiburg.
On that topic, it bears mentioning that Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart delivered a genuinely riveting performance of Symphony no. 11 more than two decades before the present recording, in the very same space, the Beethovensaal of the Stuttgart Liederhalle, known for its acoustic clarity. Under the insistent baton of Yakov Kreizberg, that tightly wound 1997 version is the Eleventh projected on an IMAX screen. For portraying deadly and ineluctable fate, for visceral impact, and for imparting a sensation of being embedded in the events depicted, Kreizberg and his daredevil Stuttgart players have few equals and no betters. Recorded live, this has only ever been available via download or streaming (SWR10224); a proper physical production would be a far better testament to the late Kreizberg’s conception than his lone CD of this opus, a prosaic run-through with the eager but overtaxed Monte-Carlo Philharmonic (OPMC Classics OPMC 005), recorded in concert in 2010 when the conductor was suffering from the illness that would claim his life the following year at just 51 years of age.
Now an octogenarian, Eliahu Inbal first recorded Symphony no. 11 in 1992, when he was already five years older than Kreizberg at the time of the latter’s death. That account was part of Inbal’s complete Shostakovich symphony cycle with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra for Denon (single-CD CO-78920; reissued in box set COCQ-84843-53). Critical response to the cycle was lukewarm, and the Eleventh provides a representative example of the main reason: the strings simply lack the muscle mass needed to support Inbal’s generally protracted tempos, as a result of which the overall document struggles to hold the listener’s attention. Spotlighting of the percussion makes for exciting tutti, but too often the brass sound shrill and hectoring instead of panicked. The orchestral bells are almost inaudible in the melee of the closing pages. One standout moment is the exceptionally poignant handling of the cor anglais solo in the finale when the symphony’s opening theme reappears. This episode takes my breath away; if only the rest of the performance were equally engaging.
At least back in the 1990s Inbal seemed content to let the instruments translate the score without benefit of his larynx. In the last decade, he kicked off a second Shostakovich intégrale, this time on the Exton label with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra—plus his own exhortations added at no extra charge. The Eleventh is not among the halfdozen symphonies that have emerged thus far in the Tokyo cycle, which is probably just as well because Inbal’s vocalisations on the existing Exton releases are out of control, ruining introspective segments like the Largo of the Fifth Symphony.
The present release with the SWR Symphonieorchester on the SWR’s house label is thus Inbal’s second commercial recording of Symphony no. 11. Singalong aside, it is unquestionably an improvement over his Vienna Symphony traversal. Most striking is the enhanced momentum in the first three movements, now taken at a brisker pace and reaching “The Tocsin” 4½ minutes sooner. That last movement is slightly more expansive than before, but maintains a clear sense of direction. Overall, we have here a well-proportioned interpretation, in which each section of the orchestra generally acquits itself well.
Alas, I find Inbal’s new Eleventh too easy to admire at arm’s length, academically, my pulse comfortably constant. In the climax of “Ninth of January,” this version feels anodyne compared with the far more crushing experiences to be found in the next-most-recent arrivals covered in these pages (DSCH 54), namely Vladimir Jurowski with the London Philharmonic (LPO 0118) and John Storgårds leading the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos CHSA 5278). Inbal’s “In Memoriam” is stoic, failing to convey true grief, though here I suspect the engineering may share the blame by applying a smooth, burnished gloss on the strings. The aforementioned cor anglais solo in “The Tocsin” is not a tenth as gut-wrenching as in the Vienna Symphony performance.
There is also a tiny blemish in the second movement that I find disproportionately jarring: in the brass fanfare at Fig. 54/6:59, the first two blasts of the trumpets and tuba are obscured by the rest of the orchestra. These two notes are the launchpad for a chaotic frenzy that burns itself out at Fig. 61 with a spent echo of the same fanfare—if we have to struggle to hear them at the outset, the symmetry is lost.
A respectable effort, then, but not preferable to any of the recordings recommended by John Leman Riley in his detailed comparison of recent Elevenths in DSCH 54. My personal favourite remains James DePreist’s 1988 recording with the Helsinki Philharmonic (Delos DE 3080), still in the current catalogue and not supplanted by his lower-voltage remake with the Oregon Symphony (DE 3329; DSCH 21).
W. Mark Roberts
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
Shostakovich: Symphony no. 5, opus 47 [a]; Stravinsky: Concerto for Piano and Winds [b,e]; Knudåge Riisager: Little Overture for Strings [c]; Concerto for Trumpet and Strings [c,f]; Shostakovich: Two arias from Katerina Izmailova, opus 29 [d,g]; Honegger: Symphony no. 5 [d]; Bartók: Violin Concerto no. 2 [d,h]
Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Jensen. Herman D. Koppel (piano) [e], George Eskdale (trumpet) [f]; Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano) [g]; Henryk Szeryng (violin) [h]
Recorded, 31 October 1963, Danish Radio Concert Hall (live broadcast) [a]; 4 November 1954, Danish Radio Concert Hall (live broadcast) [b]; 27–28 January, 1949 [c]; 24 October 1962, Paris [United Nations Day concert] (live broadcast) [d]
2 CDs. TT: 146:35 (75:53 + 70:42)
Thomas Jensen enjoyed an illustrious conducting career in his native Denmark, a legacy that forms the capstone of a golden era when the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra could claim guardianship of a soon-to-vanish performance tradition that included no less a figure than Carl Nielsen. Jensen’s hardwon ascendancy was crowned by his appointment as chief conductor of the DRSO during the six final years of his life, from 1957 until his untimely death in 1963 at age 65. In July 2021 Danacord began issuing a commemorative series of recordings, many of them never before released, celebrating Jensen’s artistry with the DRSO. Volume 2 of that series, under consideration here, features an all-20th century programme recorded between 1949 and 1963 that includes Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and two arias from Katerina Izmailova sung by Galina Vishnevskaya.
Jensen’s repertoire was all-inclusive, though his closest associations were with Scandinavian music. He not only studied under Carl Nielsen, but also performed as a cellist under the composer’s baton for the premieres of the Fourth and Fifth symphonies, and himself led more than twenty performances of the Fourth. Likewise, he performed under Sibelius’s direction for most of the Finnish composer’s symphonies (Volume 1 of the Danacord series is exclusively devoted to Jensen’s Sibelius interpretations).
Jensen’s assertive reading of Nielsen’s stormy “Inextinguishable” (DACOCD351-353) suggests an adeptness for handling contemporary idioms. Still, for a somewhat obscure figure so directly tied to the Scandinavian tradition, one may harbour doubts about the sensibilities he might or might not bring to Shostakovich’s music. Happily, such doubts are dispelled out of hand. This exceptionally beautiful rendition of the Fifth came as a complete surprise to this reviewer. Jensen’s meticulous attention to phrasing and atmosphere at every turn, combined with the conceptual solidity of the interpretation, presents as immersive a performance of the work as one will find. There is bold, engaging drama in the action portions of the opening Moderato, as well as a most tender eloquence in the lyrical sections. Jensen’s choices of tempo throughout the movement are stately, dignified, and undergo only the slightest shifts, even as the music moves into and through the development section. He holds the line by his laser-focused concentration and beautifully executed sectional and solo work. His rousing outburst of irony and mock-triumph in the march variant of the descending theme in the development section signals Jensen’s complete assimilation of the Shostakovich idiom. The necessary bravado and ebullient spirits are well conveyed in the Scherzo.
The conductor’s eloquent rendering continues to impress in the Largo. If the xylophone-gilded crescendo at the movement’s centre marks the dramatic crux of the symphony, the lever of the work’s emotional depth is also wagered in an earlier, equally poignant crescendo, about three and a half minutes into the movement (the 17 bars between Figs. 81 and 83). Jensen embraces the full dimension of this deeply moving passage, one of the arresting moments of his interpretation. The rest of the movement is handled with no less passion and tenderness, and admirably delivered sectional work, especially in the solos for flute and oboe.
The finale is as rousing as expected, with the coda taken at twice the tempo indicated in the subsequently corrected score (that is, quarter note rather than eighth note equalling 188), as was the case in a host of Western recordings of the era—Ančerl (1961, DSCH 23), Bernstein (1945, DSCH 20, and 1959), Ormandy (1958), Rodzinsky (1942, 1946), Stokowski (1958, 1964), etc. The two conspicuous shortcomings in the sound reproduction department are the almost total burial of the celesta’s ascending figure in the coda of the Moderato, and the somewhat distant registration of the coquettish violin solo in the Scherzo’s trio. Otherwise, for the most part, the monophonic sound image here and in the rest of the album is quite serviceable.
This live 31 October 1963 performance of the Shostakovich Fifth is also notable for extramusical reasons. Jensen suffered ever-worsening hearing loss as his health declined. The challenge only increased as he neared the end of his life, which tragically took place a day short of two weeks following this concert. Jensen’s achievement, then, is all the more notable, not only for its own merit, but for its being a closing landmark on two accounts: the conductor’s final concert with the DRSO, and the final concert of an historical era for the orchestra itself.
The two arias from Katerina Izmailova, sung by Galina Vishnevskaya, are taken from a concert given in Paris on 2 October 1962 on what was designated as United Nations Day. In “The Foal Hurries to the Filly,” the aria that precedes Sergei’s seductive arrival at her bedroom at the end of Act I, Katerina expresses the loneliness and boredom of her colourless life. In the second aria, from the final act, “There is a Lake in the Deepest Part of the Woods,” Katerina voices her despair just prior to her suicidal plunge into the Siberian waters, taking Sonyetka with her. Vishnevskaya captures the emotional range of each aria with consummate passion and authority, as once again the DRSO, now in an accompaniment capacity, demonstrates its flawless rapport with the music.
The remaining works on the album reflect Jensen’s broad interest in and impressive proficiency with a wide range of the contemporary repertoire through the decades. Despite the limited rehearsal time for the 1962 Paris concert, of which the Katerina arias were a part, and his ongoing battle with deafness complicated by a bad cold, Jensen managed to convey complete confidence in leading the other works on the programme. They included Honegger’s Fifth Symphony (1950) and Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto (1937–38) with soloist Henryk Szeryng. Both works are found on this album, which also includes a 1954 performance of Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Strings (1923–24), and two works from the mid-1930s by fellow countryman Knudage Riisager, Little Overture for Strings (1934), and a Concerto for Trumpet and Strings (1933), with then-celebrated soloist George Eskdale. What stands out most on this album is the depth and understanding Jensen brings to his interpretation of Shostakovich’s Fifth, extramusical considerations aside. It arouses curiosity about the insights he brought to the repertoire represented on the other volumes of the ongoing Thomas Jensen Legacy series.
Volume 1’s all-Sibelius programme features the Second and Seventh symphonies, the Violin Concerto (Emil Telmånyi, soloist), the Lemminkainen Suite, and the Karelia Suite. Volume 3 features Brahms (Fourth Symphony, German Requiem) and Tchaikovsky (Violin Concerto, with soloist Endre Wolf). Volume 4 includes Nielsen’s first two symphonies and a selection of works by fellow Danes, Herman D. Koppel, Vagn Holmboe, Svend Erik Tarp, and Poul Schierbeck.