CD Reviews 57
*World Premiere recordings
**World Premiere recording of complete set
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Nos. 1, 2 [a], 3 [a], 4, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13 [a, b], 15. Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra. Netherlands Radio Choir [a]. Jan Hendrik Rootering (bass) [b]
Nos. 5–7, 10, 14 [c]. BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Joan Rodgers (soprano) and John Tomlinson (bass) [c]
Dutch recordings made in the Music Centre for Dutch Radio and Television, Hilversum, the Netherlands. Unless noted, Welsh recordings made in the Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, Wales.
Disc 1: Symphonies nos. 1*, 2**, and 3**.
Recorded, October 2006*, October 2010**
Disc 2: Symphony no. 4.
Recorded, September 2005
Disc 3: Symphonies nos. 5* and 6**.
Recorded, December 1996*, November
Disc 4: Symphony no. 7.
Recorded, 2 and 4 December 1996
Disc 5: Symphony no. 8.
Recorded, 20–22 December 2004
Disc 6: Symphonies nos. 9* and 14**.
Recorded, December 2004*, St George’s
Brandon Hill, Bristol, England. 18–19
Disc 7: Symphony no. 10.
Recorded, November 1997
Disc 8: Symphony no. 11.
Recorded, March 2006
Disc 9: Symphonies nos. 12 and 15.
Recorded, March 2006
Disc 10: Symphony no. 13.
Recorded, March 2006
Mark Wigglesworth began recording his symphonic cycle in 1996, only completing it nearly fourteen years later in 2010. However, that is misleading: he laid down symphonies nos. 6, 5, 7, 10, and 14 with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, in just over two years. Then, after a five-year hiatus, he continued with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, with nos. 8, 9, 12, 13, 4, 11, 1, and 15, and after another fouryear break, nos. 2 and 3, which took a further two years to appear. Hence, barring the last sessions, the tapings actually covered less than five years in total.
The DSCH Journal reviewed several of the individual releases, but BIS’s box—which also returns some deleted performances to the catalogue—gives us a chance to hoover up the MIAs and assess the cycle as a whole. In tune with its slow emergence, it is one of the most thoughtful cycles on the market, its seriousness perhaps signalled by the fact that Wigglesworth doesn’t fill the shorter discs with occasional pieces: it’s the symphonies, the whole symphonies, and nothing but the symphonies.
Neither is this a straightforward re-release of the older discs; rejigged couplings present the symphonies (mostly) chronologically, and the Welsh recordings have been reengineered for surround sound. As a general point, purchasers should ensure that they either live in splendid isolation or have very accommodating neighbours; at ordinary listening levels some moments are near-inaudible, but turning up the dial brings some wall-shaking moments.
The First Symphony—a Dutch performance—is one that slipped through our net. This was previously released with its two successors (BIS-1603 SACD in April 2012) and then coupled to the Fifteenth (BIS-1643 SACD, February 2014). The box includes the former incarnation on an 81-minute disc. The only previous iterations of this trifecta are Michael Sanderling with the Dresden Philharmonie (Sony G010004080223H), Barshai and the WDR Sinfonieorchester (DSCH 20), and, in a posthumous re-release, Kondrashin with the Moscow Philharmonic (Chant du Monde LDC 278 1001/02).
The opening of the First Symphony is taken more legato than some, making it less pawky than insouciant. Maybe some of the balletic woodwind solos are not as airily light on their feet as they might have been but, as throughout the set and from both orchestras, the playing is never less than good and often thoughtprovokingly characterful.
The second movement’s skittering Keystone Kops opening features an energetic cinema-pit piano, but the duetting flutes at the meno mosso at Fig. 6 lack the last ounce of mystery; Horenstein, in a 1970 concert with the Royal Philharmonic, brought the dreamy quality of this sequence out wonderfully though the climaxes are unfortunately congested (BBC Radio Classics 91542). And that seems to be a characteristic of the performance—the oboe opening of the third movement is similarly a little earthbound, but the performers come out of it wonderfully, and the next section has all the exuberance you could wish for, before the chillingly hollow coda. The finale might be the highlight of the reading, with some achingly beautiful passages and a thrillingly driven coda.
It makes sense to couple the Second and Third symphonies for their choral finales, but also as Shostakovich said they were “part of a cycle of symphonic works dedicated to the revolutionary Red calendar.” [‘A Declaration of the Composer’s Obligations. Rabochii i teatr 1931, no. 31]. It’s not clear whether he ultimately regarded the diptych as complete in itself, but they certainly fulfil his stated aim that the Second portrayed the struggle and the Third had a more festive mood.
Kondrashin, laying down the first complete cycle, pushed ahead with nos. 2 and 3, but if it was an attempt to impart urgency, the sheer strangeness is often lost. Rozhdestvensky (DSCH 11) goes the other way, especially in the Third, drawn out to an unconscionable 33:18. Wigglesworth finds a good middle way. In the Second, he brings out the Nose-ishness and points the curious echo of Petrushka’s “Shrovetide Fair” at the end. The dynamic range is so wide it starts with one of those “is the disc actually playing?” moments, but once it enters the realms of audibility, it has a marvellous hushed tension, like a dissonant version of the Eleventh. From Fig. 13 the activity builds impressively to the weird collapse at Fig. 29, where the gabble of solos and hyper-counterpoint show the Netherlanders’ virtuosity to great effect. This is the hardest section to bring off, as it can descend into a shapeless chaos until the brass fanfares whip it into line, before the symphony descends again into the depths; but Wigglesworth keeps things moving forward like a murmurating crowd. As is increasingly usual, we hear a proper siren rather than the inferior brass. Shostakovich thought Bezymensky’s words ludicrous but has a good go at setting them, though the Dutch choir sometimes spends a bit too much time singing and not enough yelling—at least until the very end.
The Third Symphony is, if anything, rarer than the Second, which at least has managed to capitalise on Soviet kitsch. Notably not a state commission, its interest lies in Shostakovich’s formalistic idea of writing a symphony with no repeated themes. Initially, it can seem choppy, more a notebook of ideas than a coherent piece, making it one of the toughest assignments for a Shostakovich conductor. Ideas fly by, often leaving the listener frustrated that they aren’t developed and won’t be heard again. Some of it sounds like the theatre and film scores he was about to start writing—snappy pieces that conjure a mood within a few notes, but extending the approach to half an hour can be dizzying. It’s best to hear it as a series of snapshots of the joys of revolution. Kirsanov’s verses aren’t much better than Bezymensky’s (was he trying his own formalist trick in ending as many lines as possible with “a” or “ya”?) Oddly, Shostakovich went for a more conventional setting—there are moments that sound like a refracted Musorgsky—and the creative tension sags through to the bombastic coda. But Wigglesworth and his Dutch team certainly characterise the early scenes well and the playing and singing are outstanding.
The Fourth (reviewed in DSCH 32) is one of the cycle’s triumphs and deserves a place on any shelf. This was the tenth release in the cycle and by this time those who were following the cycle would have a good idea of what to expect. Wigglesworth give us one of his trademark opening movements, weighty enough to be impressive but without overbalancing the whole symphony, knowing that, as overwhelming as the first movement climaxes should seem at the time, the truly shattering moments must be saved for the finale, and when they arrive, following a series of strongly characterised scenes, they are emotionally annihilating.
This recompilation has allowed BIS to correct an egregious error in the original release where the Fifth Symphony (coupled to nos. 6 and 10) was split over two discs (DSCH 12). Here, nos. 5 and 6 share an 83-minute disc, a timing which is achieved by adding minutes in particular to the first and third movements of the Fifth so it all adds up to 51:45, perhaps exceeded only by Maxim Shostakovich and the LSO (Collins Classics 1108-2), with Petrenko coming up on the inside at 51:23 (DSCH 32). This was an early release in the cycle but Wigglesworth was clearly nailing his colours to the mast of the “weighty opening movement with sections demarcated by tempo changes,” but it’s a hit-and-miss-affair that brings insights but sometimes turns into simple sluggishness.
So, for example, while the opening is not unusually slow, the brakes are applied during the descent into the second theme so the corresponding rising phrase sounds like struggling out of a pit followed by the tentative response to daylight. When the piano opens the stomping middle section there’s a lack of momentum that’s compensated by a sudden acceleration. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales do a stand-out job, though in the Largo, they don’t have the drenched quality that, say, Bernstein would bring; rather there’s a graininess that stops the music becoming schmaltzy, while the quiet passages, particularly in the run up to the coda, have a heart-stopping delicacy. Perhaps surprisingly, Wigglesworth doesn’t go for the grindingly slow coda to the finale—though neither is it Bernsteinian delirium—there’s a knowing efficiency to it and the brusqueness of the very end seems to say “this is what you wanted—and here you are!” It’s an effective melding of the two views, holding them both in balance.
For the Sixth, Wigglesworth chooses fairly conventional tempi but still manages sometimes occasionally to teeter on the edge of collapse. But within that, the Welsh players provide some marvellously characterful playing in a performance that goes big on mood. The bugleish trumpet gives a feeling of post-war battlefield, and the woodwind are equally atmospheric, but the two fast movements lack the last degree of mania and the circusy finale mostly comes over as goodnatured banter with only the occasional outbreak of true violence.
The Seventh was one of the first Wigglesworth recorded (DSCH 10) but his approach was already in place, particularly in changing tempi for new sections to underline the move to new “scenes.” However overall, he seems more comfortable with the reflective than the dramatic. The march begins almost inaudibly—the most distant hint of invasion—some variations seem more jolly than threatening, and there’s a lurch forward for the last, but the return of the pastorale is lovely. The third movement has impressively
weighty strings and woodwind that squeals while still being musical, but the “Spanish” passage is fluffed. The slow end of the symphony has a nobility but there’s a feeling of weariness in the victory.
The Eighth (DSCH 24) was the first of the Dutch recordings and Wigglesworth pushes things to the limit, not least in extending it to over 69 minutes—longer than early interpreters such as the essential Mravinsky (DSCH 11) and, particularly, Kondrashin (DSCH 21) who habitually came in at under an hour, to the detriment of the music. But others who could claim “authenticity” are more in line with Wigglesworth, such as Rostropovich (DSCH 23). Wigglesworth’s first movement is resolute, but too slow to sustain the mood. The second movement is punchy and the wind solos—as so often with both orchestras—distinguished. The Largo has the exhausted feeling of a landscape after battle, with the chilly woodwind barely warmed by the tepid horns’ doomed attempt at consolation. That consolation does arrive in the finale with the strings, and the piccolo even manages some joy, but in the remembrances of war Wigglesworth seems almost afraid to be ugly, as if the memories are too much to bear. Yet for all that, there is hope at the end, and as with several other entries in this cycle, Wigglesworth manages to hold conflicting moods in a convincing balance.
The Ninth was previously coupled to the Twelfth (DSCH 29) and, though it would fit on one disc with the Tenth, BIS have here coupled it to the Fourteenth. Wigglesworth takes the “neo-classical” tag more literally than most and it occasionally reminded me more of Prokofiev’s First than the edge-of-a-volcano Stalin-taunting that it can be. The first movement’s trombone interruptions are indicative, here reduced to a voice calling from the back of the crowd, rather than an impudent raspberry from the front. It’s one of the less raucous views of the symphony, though the quieter moments are very effective. The second movement seems slowly to recover consciousness from being dazed and gives the movement a real feeling of being a journey. But again, the finale just isn’t jack-booted enough for me.
The Tenth, previously released on the aforementioned twofer with nos. 5 and 6, now stands alone. Again, Wigglesworth begins with his weighty first movement, but at over 25 minutes it struggles to maintain momentum. However, from there on things increasingly improve. The second movement rages fearsomely and the third’s grimacing dances contrast with an Elmira theme that holds out a distant hope. As with the Fifth, in the finale Wigglesworth treads a line between red-mist anger and linetoeing optimism, convincingly arguing their co-existence.
The Eleventh has, of course, always been a solo release (DSCH 33). At 63:09 it’s certainly in the upper quartile of lengthy performances, though still nearly ten minutes quicker than one of my favourites, Rostropovich (DSCH 18). Both conductors show that the stopwatch is a poor critic; Wigglesworth’s “Palace Square” has a palpable tension through which fortes punch like the snarls of a caged animal. “The Ninth of January” reveals a crowd grimly understanding unfolding events even through their terror and, after a restrained “In Memoriam,” the “Tocsin” shows determination to achieve victory.
The Twelfth’s reputation and running time have often presented coupling problems. Neither of the adjacent symphonies fit, though Chant du Monde (278 1007/8) got all three Kondrashins on two discs by slicing the Twelfth in half. Wigglesworth’s view, previously coupled to the Ninth (DSCH 29), doesn’t open in the midst of a surging crowd-filled “Revolutionary Petrograd”; rather this is a loftier view, perhaps an evocation of noble aspirations, or an aerial view of the teeming streets. The clearing clouds in the middle of the finale are a real breath of cool clear air before it plunges down again. Wigglesworth brings some real nobility to the coda. Yet he seems also to be trying to de-propagandise it, to treat it as a symphony rather than a series of placards. If so, it’s an interesting attempt to redeem the work, though personally I feel a more successful approach is to play it for what it is—a cinematic panorama—and let the listener lay an interpretation on top of that, such as Rozhdestvensky’s hell-for-leather approach.
Tragically, recent events have reminded us of just how blazingly relevant the Thirteenth Symphony remains. Reviewed with a group of rival releases in DSCH 27, Wigglesworth’s recording is 15 years old and it is interesting to think how he—and other conductors—might approach this work now. Wigglesworth opens respectfully, the choir intoning solemnly and bass Jan-Hendrik Rootering suitably ruminative. Even the Dreyfus episode is slightly distanced, making the first outbreak of violence, the Belostok pogrom, even more extreme. Rootering croons a little in the Anne Frank section and Wigglesworth undercuts himself by slowing slightly on the way up to the Nazis’ arrival and the crashing return of the opening material, but the attack itself remains shattering. Rootering brings an enjoyably disdainful, almost arrogant tone to “Humour” but the solo violin is backwardly balanced and too sweet: this is no scratchy Mahlerian Todesgeige. Against that, the middle section catches the ghostly atmosphere perfectly. Watching the women “In the Store,” Rootering is tender, almost afraid to disturb them, and later the choir steals in almost invisibly, building up to the full outrage, before the movement ends on a note of prayerfulness. “Fears” opens with a very eloquent tuba solo and the whole movement has a restrained “held-in” quality. Finally, “A Career” may not dance on the ironies of the text and music as nimbly as some, but the frenetic fugal section is so brilliantly played that, as it exits, there’s a real feeling of the orchestra coming to its senses.
I confess I didn’t immediately get Wigglesworth’s conception of the Fourteenth, here coupled to the Ninth, but previously a standalone (DSCH 16). The concentration seemed to drift in and out of focus, with moments of searing insight followed by dazed incomprehension. But that is Wigglesworth’s conception—a particularly nihilistic one. The numbed “De profundis” is followed by an imperious “Malaguena,” though with the castanets—like much of the percussion—unfortunately cast too far into the background. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the col legno/percussion of “In the Santé Prison” is far too quiet. The dramatic scenas “Lorelei” and “Madam, Look!” are among the highlights, Tomlinson cleverly moving between narrator and character, the urgency of his pleas to Lorelei culminating in the agonised desperation of “Nazad!” Rodgers revels in the surreal text of “Madam, Look!” (“The sunset bellows like a cow”), and though her laughter doesn’t quite drain the last dregs of bitterness, weakening her descent into despair, in “The Suicide” she brings fantastic levels of disgust to her “verminous bed.” Wigglesworth proposes the symphony as being in four movements: songs nos. 1–4, 5, 6, 7–10, and the last two, though he seems rather to treat the last three songs as a group, all, for me, a little underplayed. After the fury of the Cossack’s reply, “O, Delvig, Delvig!” would profit from more warmth, “The Poet’s Death” is more sombre than tender and the resonant acoustic robs the very end of the symphony of its ultimate brutality. Still, this is a performance with enough to make me want to return to it.
Coupling Shostakovich’s last symphony to the Twelfth might be an attempt to contrast the composer’s public and private personas but ultimately seems more a matter of saving an extra disc. But, for different reasons, both present interpretative challenges: on one hand, how to “save” the much-derided Twelfth, a regular contender for the Shostakovich wooden spoon, and on the other, how to parse the inscrutable ambiguities of the Fifteenth.
The first movement’s opening flute and violin solos are beautifully shaped, and the voicing of the last chord brings out a rarely noted unresolved ambiguity. In the second movement the brass underplays its espressivo marking the better to contrast with the solo cello. The third opens with a nice limping rhythm but the brass glissandi at Fig. 89 are underdone, reducing the deflating grotesquerie a little. The finale’s adagio opening is imposing but where often a ritardando introduces the bittersweet string theme, Wigglesworth pushes straight on, creating more of a cut than a dissolve. The chaconne opens with a (by now, unsurprising) quietness but, more seriously, in pairs of repeated notes, the second one is sometimes underplayed making the “launch” into the next note a bit soggy. One of the highlights throughout is the percussion, particularly in the coda, where maximising the difference between the side drum, castanets and wood block shapes it into something more akin to a shrivelling melody rather than the web of sound that some conductors aim for.
Wigglesworth’s own notes for the original releases included some interesting thoughts, though Pauline Fairclough, while welcoming the performance of the Fourth, took him to task for historical inaccuracies and a wholesale acceptance of Testimony. He has trimmed them for the box’s 20-page essay and, whether Fairclough can take any credit, at least some of the shortcomings are corrected. The originals are on Wigglesworth’s website https://www.markwigglesworth.com/writings/. Here, they are translated into French and German, but the sung texts are in Cyrillic and English only, adorned with a couple of useful footnotes.
So, is this the Shostakovich symphony cycle you should have? I hesitate even to entertain the question—various conductors present stronger or weaker arguments for this or that work—nobody hits fifteen home runs. But Wigglesworth’s cycle is undeniably his and despite taking fifteen years and two orchestras to complete, there is a singular vision behind the set. I can’t say I always agree with it, but it is always Wigglesworth and for that alone it demands attention.
John Leman Riley
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Aphorisms, opus 13; Eight Preludes, opus 2;**
Three Fantastic Dances, opus 5; Funeral March in Memory of the Victims of the Revolution (1918);* Nostalgia (1918);* Piano Piece in C Major (1919);* Prelude-March (1919);* In the Forest (1919);* Bagatelle (1919);* Three Piano Pieces (1919–20);* 24 Preludes, opus 34.
Eugenio Catone (piano).
Recorded, Splash Recording Studio, Naples, December 2020. TT: 66:46.
*World premiere recordings.
** World premiere recording of complete set.
Eugenio Catone opens his first volume of the complete piano works of Shostakovich with the Ten Aphorisms. Written in 1927, following the brutal First Sonata, Aphorisms is a modernist and experimental piece in which Shostakovich’s unmatched sense of humour and irony are on display. Each movement is a miniature universe, posing a variety of technical challenges and demanding great imagination from the pianist. While youthful works are often associated with a composer’s search for an authentic voice, it is important to note that Shostakovich had already achieved great fame with the premiere of his First Symphony. Thus, Aphorisms is the work of a composer who had already made great strides in establishing his compositional style.
Catone’s performance is impressive in its precision and technical flawlessness. The opening “Recitative” demonstrates clarity in voicing and phrasing, allowing the listener to follow the melodic line throughout. In the “Dance of Death,” he takes a brave tempo and executes the movement’s technical challenges with ease, and the “Serenade” is played with lightness and transparency. The “Nocturne,” however, leaves something to be desired; while it is played well, a greater variety in sound and more freedom in the phrasing would enliven the interpretation. In comparison, for example, Raymond Clarke’s recording (Divine Art 25018, DSCH 18) shows that a gestural rather than a literal treatment of the texture makes this movement come to life, thereby leaving a stronger impression on the listener. The same critique applies to the last movement, “Lullaby,” where Catone again takes a neo-classical approach compared to Clarke’s more impressionistic interpretation.
The second substantial work on the CD is the Twenty-Four Preludes, opus 34. The collection was written in 1933, following Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the opera that brought on the composer’s first public denunciation. Consisting of 24 short pieces that express a wide range of emotions in a variety of styles and forms, the preludes are lighthearted in nature and more conservative in musical language than the First Piano Sonata and the Aphorisms. Catone’s recording situates him in a long line of fine pianists, including Menahem Pressler, Tatyana Nikolayeva, Elisso Wirssaladze (Live Classics LCL 306, DSCH 17) and Konstantin Scherbakov (Naxos 8.555781, DSCH 20). Catone’s interpretation is clear in intention and respectful of the score. His technical brilliance shines through especially in high-energy, fast-moving preludes, such as nos. 5, 9, and 11. His interpretation of no. 6, in particular, stands out with its vigour and humour, but while the playing is beautifully controlled and elegant, it lacks a certain lyrical depth. The enormous variety of sound and ideas in Scherbakov’s take on this work, for example, and the almost romantic lyricism in Boyadjieva’s recording (Artek AR-0048-2, DSCH 33), represent a side to Shostakovich’s music that is not present in Catone’s performance. In preludes of a more lyrical nature, such as nos. 4, 7, 10, and 19, his playing would have benefited greatly from a warmer and fuller sound.
Between opus 13 and opus 34, the listener will hear the Eight Preludes, opus 2, Three Fantastic Dances, and a collection of Shostakovich’s juvenilia. Catone’s light, playful, and clear touch is appropriate to the character of the Fantastic Dances; however, I was left wishing for a riskier interpretation in terms of dynamic climaxes and pacing. While his performance is well-crafted, there are moments when it lacks musical flexibility. We are lucky enough to have Shostakovich’s own recording from 1958 (EMI 7243 5 62646 2 5 and Angel 7243 5 62648 2 3, DSCH 20). Despite the obvious deterioration in the composer’s technique, it gives a clear idea of the variety in pacing and phrasing he wanted at that time. Many acknowledge that Shostakovich’s own performances as a pianist were notably intellectual and not overly sentimental, and Catone certainly stays true to those ideals. The Eight Preludes, opus 2, are likely pieces that are less familiar to the music-lover. They were composed between 1919 and 1921 as a contribution to a collection of twenty-four preludes composed by Shostakovich and his classmates Georgi Klements and Pavel Feldt. These light and incredibly well-crafted children’s pieces were written by the then 13-year-old Shostakovich. Catone’s thoughtful interpretation brings each one of them to life with precision, charm, and grace. It is certainly a great introduction to the work for those who are not familiar with it.
Special attention should be paid to the premiere recordings of nine short pieces of juvenilia, composed between 1918 and 1920. These early compositional experiments vary in length from 0:36 to 3:39. Although simple and naïve, the pieces nevertheless display a clear sense of harmony, texture, and phrase structure, and, even at this young age, Shostakovich’s indisputable talent for musical synthesis and his comfort with various styles and forms. Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution reminds one of Beethoven’s funeral march in his Piano Sonata in A-flat, opus 26. Nostalgia opens with a Brahmsian chorale followed by a Chopinesque nocturne. Traces of Schumann and Mendelssohn’s musical language can be detected in the three pieces Prelude-March, In the Forest, and Bagatelle. The CD notes mention that the last three cannot be attributed to Shostakovich with certainty. They do display a slightly more experimental and sophisticated compositional language, but given Shostakovich’s ability to change and adapt, they do not diverge completely from the earlier ones. Catone’s playing brings these works to life masterfully and with great dedication.
This CD is a valuable addition to the recordings of Shostakovich’s piano music, with liner notes in both Italian and English that provide important historical context; however, the English translation is slightly difficult to understand at times. Eugenio Catone, a pianist with undoubted abilities, interprets and delivers his first volume of Shostakovich’s complete piano music with clarity, intelligence, and elegance. My preference for a more lyrical interpretation, greater variety in sound, and freedom in phrasing does not take away from the skilful performances.
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Beethoven: Vier Russische Volks-lieder, WoO 158, nos. 13–16 [a,b]. Stravinsky: Pastorale [a,d]. Weinberg arr. Alexander Oratovsky): Jewish Songs, opus 13 [a,b]. Shostakovich: Piano Trio no. 1 [b]. Gubaidulina: Brief an die Dichterin Rimma Dalos [a,c]. Rachmaninov (arr. Roland Viewig): Vocalise [a,b]. Shostakovich: Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok, opus 127 [a,b]. Auerbach: Postscriptum [a,c,d].
Katharina Konradi (soprano) [a], Trio Gaspard [b] [Jonian Illias Kadesha (violin) [c], Vashti Mimosa Hunter (cello) [d], Nicholas Rimmer (piano) [e]. Recorded, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, England,
12–14 August 2021. TT: 72:55.
The Trio Gaspard pair with Kyrgyz soprano Katharina Konradi to present a new release which could easily be viewed as an extended recital programme. Entitled Russian Roots, their disc explores music either from Russian figures, or that has close roots in Russian culture. The result is a potpourri of repertoire, with Beethoven, Stravinsky, Weinberg, Gubaidulina, Rachmaninov, Auerbach, and two Shostakovich works: the Piano Trio no. 1, and Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok. Paul Griffiths writes in the liner notes that “here we have indigenous roots, roots recalled by exiles (Gubaidulina and Auerbach), roots brought in (Weinberg), and roots transplanted out (Beethoven), all producing their own particular fruits and flowers.” The inclusion of Beethoven in a celebration of Russian music might seem odd, unless one thinks of the Razumovsky Quartets—but there is also the under-appreciated Neues Volksliederheft. The Russian song selections featured here are sensitively delivered by Konradi, with a very clear balance between singer and ensemble. That said, their inclusion strikes this listener as a puzzling choice, given the disc would easily fill an hour without them.
From Beethoven, we move to Stravinsky’s short Pastorale as a palettecleanser. This brief song for wordless soprano and piano, written in 1907, is from Stravinsky’s early high-romantic phase, and Konradi gives a convincing reading, with Nicholas Rimmer on piano. Following this is the first really substantial work: Weinberg’s Jewish Songs, opus 13. For the work, written in 1943, while in Tashkent after a long and protracted flight from the Nazis’ advance into his native Poland, Weinberg drew on Yiddish poetry by Izik Perez, translated into Russian by Nataliya Konchalovskaya. The cycle gives a heart-breaking narrative of the loss of a child’s innocence during wartime, culminating in the devastating “Sorrow”: at the conclusion, the soprano sings “Ash, that is what is left of our house.” The performance here is of Alexander Oratovsky’s transcription; while a powerful vehicle for Weinberg’s music, the version for voice and piano is more effective in its intimacy.
Following the Weinberg cycle, we have the first appearance of Shostakovich: his youthful First Piano Trio. Written while he was still a Conservatoire student in Leningrad, it is atypical of his later style. Its history is intriguing—composed when he was just 16, prepared for performance at a Moscow audition, and then almost entirely forgotten. When it was posthumously published six decades later, the missing final page of the score was completed by Shostakovich’s friend Boris Tishchenko. The Trio Gaspard come into their own in this performance, but it is in some ways a difficult work to pull off successfully: it is a single-movement piece, with a clear narrative arc of establishing a chromatic opening motif that is subject to multiple developments and elaborations, only to be questioned and darkened, and then finally reprised (signalling Shostakovich’s later approach for much grander formal structures). The performance is sound and convincing on this disc, but it suffers from a lack of space. Such a difficult work does not benefit from being “in the middle” of the disc—an opener or closer, maybe.
Then, a striking contrast: Sofia Gubaidulina’s Brief an die Dichterin Rimma Dalos, a setting of Rimma Trusova’s aphoristic text for unaccompanied soprano, to which solo cello responds. The result is a fragile, near-vulnerable exploration. Vashti Mimosa Hunter on cello gives a sterling performance. We then hear perhaps the most famous piece presented here, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, here in an arrangement by Roland Vieweg.
Following its melancholy tone, we are plunged further into the depths by moving to Shostakovich’s masterful Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok. Each movement features a different combination of the performing forces, allowing each artist the limelight in duos, trios, and finally, tutti. It was in many ways an extremely private work for Shostakovich: he wrote it for close friends to premiere—Vishnevskaya, Oistrakh, Rostropovich, and Weinberg—and the texts reflect something of the Brezhnev-era stagnation. Richard Louis Gillies, in his Singing Soviet Stagnation: Vocal Cycles from the USSR, 1964–1985 (Routledge, 2021) describes it as representing “the bleak torpor of Shostakovich’s late style.” The Trio Gaspard with Konradi here certainly do justice to its demands—not least of which is the fifth movement, “The Storm,” which pushes the performers to the limits of expressive contrasts. Jonian Ilias Kadesha’s violin playing particularly stands out.
The recording concludes with Lera Auerbach’s Postscriptum (2006), the only post-Soviet work featured. There is scarce information available, but it certainly fits the character of a programme closer. It presents an uneasy farewell, with a sonic world that at first appears tentative and melancholy, only to be pierced by increasing dissonance. Konradi again sings the wordless role (designated for mezzo-soprano), and each of the trio members is allowed to shine for one final gesture.
The overall package is attractive, with programme notes from Paul Griffiths (confusingly, presented in an order different to the track listing). Listening all the way through, it seems a rather piecemeal grouping of miniatures, dominated by the Blok Romances. This also means the Romances don’t quite have the impact and space they so often require. While the performances are always convincing and the sound production crystal clear, the choice of programming is the only questionable aspect of an otherwise excellent disc.
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Shostakovich: Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets, opus 88. Marian Koval: “Lake Ilmen”; “Hey, You Land, Lovely Land”; “The Leaves”; “Human Tears”; “Why are You Bending o’er the Waves.” Georgi Sviridov: Two Esenin Choruses; Five Choruses to Lyrics by Russian Poets
Leningrad Radio & TV Choir / Grigori Sandler.
Recorded, Studio of the State Capella Concert Hall, 1973 [Shostakovich], 1979 [Koval and Sviridov].
Northern Flowers CD, NFPMA 99148
This Northern Flowers release bristles with the unexpected. On the musical side, it features a programme of attractive, seldom heard a cappella choral works by Shostakovich and two of his contemporaries, Georgi Sviridov and Marian Koval. On the sinister side, during the Zhdanov era, when a tormented Shostakovich was at his most vulnerable, Koval stepped forward as one of his most vitriolic critics. Finding the music of such a prominent tormenter and tormented figures side by side would have both composers turning in their graves. As if to accentuate the indignity, the disc’s principal work of interest is Shostakovich’s Ten Poems on Texts of Revolutionary Poets, opus 88 written in 1951, during the heyday of Zhdanovshchina.
Throughout his choral works, with and without instrumental accompaniment, Shostakovich maintained a connection with his Russian roots, its folksong traditions and its revolutionary past, all sympathetically joined in the Ten Poems. They represent the composer’s first attempt at a self-standing a cappella choral work, unconnected to a larger composition. In this, as in the small handful of his other a cappella settings, Shostakovich adopts a more conservative musical language and more predominantly homophonic textures than usual. Collectively, they might be heard as his least characteristic works, though not totally devoid of his fingerprint. While 1951 also saw the Ten Russian Folk Songs, (Sans opus Q in the Hulme Catalogue), the notion that Shostakovich embraced the genre as a shield against political recrimination is only partly true, inasmuch as we find a similar stylistic approach to his a cappella writing in works written well after Stalin’s death and into the composer’s late period—as in the folksong settings of Two Russian Folksongs, opus 104 (1957) and the eight Dolmatovsky verses of Loyalty, opus 136 (1970).
fully immersed in the soul and spirit of the 1905 uprising, as he was six years later in his epic Eleventh Symphony, both in his choice of historically specific texts, and by alluding to and directly quoting songs tied to the event. The thematic links between the two works are explicitly found in the sixth chorus, “Ninth of January,” where Shostakovich quotes the folksongs “Bare Your Heads” and “O Thou, Our Tsar,” both of which are organically woven into the lyrical fabric of the symphony; as is the folksong “Listen,” which is alluded to in the rhythmically lively second chorus (“One of Many”) and the hymn-like fourth (“Meeting in Transit to Exile”) setting of the Ten Poems. The panoramic evocation of the era is completed with imaginative lyrical variety, from the hearty march tunes of the first (“Boldly, Friends, On We March!”), third (“Onto the Streets!”), and last (“Song”) choruses; the declamatory seventh (“May Day”); the prayerlike “Last Shots”; and the aspirational “Meeting in Transit to Exile.”
The Ten Poems is the most frequently recorded of Shostakovich’s a cappella settings, with at least half a dozen interpretations since the first, from 1959 (Melodiya D-05642-43), featuring Aleksandr Sveshnikov and the RSFSR Academic Russian Choir, who gave the work its 1951 concert premiere. On the current disc, Grigori Sandler and the Leningrad Radio & TV Choir deliver an impressively robust performance, with well-embedded microphone placement enhancing the ensemble’s praiseworthy vigour and vitality. This portion of the disc originally appeared on a 1974 Melodiya LP (C10-04937-38) and has subsequently appeared in various incarnations, on a Victor LP (VIC 5359), and in 2012, on Praga Digitals PRD DSD 350 060. The most recent performance of Ten Poems appeared in 2007, a serviceable rendition by the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir (Caprice CAP 21773). One has to look back to a 1979 LP to find a more penetrating account by Valentin Iljin and the Slovak Philharmonic Chorus (Opus 9112 0787), one that stands out among the various versions for its expressive sensitivity to phrasing and mood. There is also a lively digital rendition from 1998 with Viktor Popov and the Moscow Academy of Choral Singing (Le Chant Du Monde Russian Season RUS 288160 (DSCH 12), rereleased in 2013 on Brilliant Classics CD 9414). The absence of texts in the current release is regrettable; however, the full set of texts for the Shostakovich can be accessed online and without purchase at www.BrilliantClassics.com.
The second portion of the programme consists of a selection of five choruses by the dubious Marian Koval (1907–71). He takes his place in music history as a minor composer of opera and other vocal music whom Laurel Fay describes in her Shostakovich biography as “one of those mediocrities elevated abruptly by the Zhdanovshchina into a position of influence.” Immediately after the publication of the insidious 1948 Decree, in a series of articles in Sovetskaya Muzyka, of which he was the “heavy faced” editor at the time, Koval found evidence of “decadence” and “cacophony” in almost all of Shostakovich’s works, which he referred to as “formalist vermin.” An undoubtedly shaken Shostakovich reportedly responded, “Surely he is ashamed of himself.” Though Koval subsequently softened his acerbic stance, one’s response to his music, understandably, may be swayed by the damage he inflicted. Presented here are a handful of his technically fluent choral settings that offer a few worthy highlights. They embrace the mass-song genre, as in the opening “Lake Ilmen,” as well as the hymn-like “Hey, You Land, Lovely Land.” The pieces range from the merely dutiful to the genuinely impressive, as in the jewel of the compilation, the inspired “Leaves,” one of the three settings of Fyodor Tyutchev with imaginative textures and dramatic effects in support of a captivating melodic line.
The final section of the disc is devoted to Georgi Sviridov (1915–98), a Shostakovich student and one of the great figures of Soviet music, a composer whose mainly vocal compositions still await due recognition in the West. His cantata Poem in Memory of Sergei Esenin (1955–56) ranks as one of the most original works of Russian choral music. Likewise, his Music for Chamber Orchestra (1964) stands as one of the outstanding Soviet-era works in the genre.
What here is collectively listed as “Seven Choruses,” in fact encompasses two distinct works, the Two Esenin Choruses (1967) and the Five Choruses to Lyrics by Russian Poets (1958), both of which have previously appeared on disc. Oddly, the otherwise informative liner notes give no indication of this concatenation, and to further confuse matters, the Two Esenin Choruses appear as, respectively, the fourth and seventh entries in this chimera, a misguided disruption of the dramatic and artistic conception of each work. That nuisance aside, Sandler’s performances do full justice to the music and Sviridov’s infallible talent for creating rapturous choral landscapes, and the pious devotional mood of these settings. The tenor arioso in Gogol’s “On My Lost Youth,” and the call and response exchanges between baritone and chorus in Esenin’s “My Soul Yearning,” evocatively summon the Russian Orthodox liturgical style often found in Sviridov’s music. The highlight of the collection is the majestically inspired setting of Sergei Orlov’s “Birth of a Song” with its beguiling theme and haunting dialogue between male and female sections. Sandler takes on the Five Choruses, timing at 15:23, more briskly than Aleksandr Yurlov and the Russian Republican Choir (19:29, Melodiya SM 01943-44) and the more reflectively paced version by Vladislav Chernushenko and the Glinka Choir (22:17, SUCD 10-00215), two other valuable contributions to the Sviridov discography.
Despite the intrigues and oversights in the release, it is still unhesitatingly recommended, if only for the strong performance of Shostakovich’s Ten Poems. The exquisite irony of Shostakovich and Koval appearing on the same programme surely, in itself, provides a collectable conversation piece.