CD Reviews 58
A Child’s Exercise Book [sic], opus 69
Symphony no. 14, opus 135, arranged for soprano, bass, piano, and percussion by the composer (1969) *
Variations on a Theme by Glinka (complete) [Hulme, sans opus T] **
“Funeral March in Memory of Victims of the Revolution” (1918)
Sonata (unfinished) for violin and piano (1945)
Fragment from Mahler’s Symphony no. 10, arranged for piano four hands*
*World Premiere recordings
**World Premiere recording of complete set
Recent Recordings of Symphony no. 8 in C minor, opus 65
Sokhiev, Gergiev, Noseda, Boreyko, Sanderling, Tabakov, Nelsons & Petrenko
Since 24 February 2022, I’ve probably listened to the Eighth more often than all the other Shostakovich symphonies put together. Compared with its neighbouring “War Symphonies,” this grim protest is better equipped to withstand the barbarity unleashed by the Kremlin than the triumphalist Seventh or the sardonic Ninth. The Eighth’s battle-scarred landscape gives space for my grief, disgust, and rage to roam.
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Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse/Tugan Sokhiev
Recorded, Halle aux grains, Toulouse
7 December 2019
TT: 66:25. Warner Classics
9029528436 (CD) and Warner Classics (Japan) WPCS-13832 (hybrid SACD/CD)
So, now seems a particularly apt time to survey eight recent releases of opus 65. The latest arrival, a 2019 live recording from Tugan Sokhiev and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse (ONCT), has been impacted retroactively by the war in Ukraine, as it was the first entry in a planned Shostakovich symphony cycle on Warner Classics that now appears unlikely to be completed anytime soon, given Sokhiev’s resignation as the ONCT’s Music Director a week and a half after the Russian invasion. Sokhiev issued a statement on Facebook explaining his decision and rejecting calls to take a position on the war (the following is abridged but otherwise unedited):
… I have never supported and I will always be against any conflicts in any shape and form. For some people even to question my desire of peace and think that me, as a musician could ever speak for anything other than Peace on our planet is shocking and offensive. During various catastrophic geopolitical events our humanity faced during last twenty years of my career, I always remained with my fellow musicians and we always, together, shown and expressed the support and compassion for all the victims of those conflicts. This is what we musicians do, we express things with music, we say emotional things with music, we comfort with music those who need it. … I am always very proud to be a conductor who comes from such a rich cultural country as Russia and I am also very proud to be part of rich French musical life since 2003. … In Europe, today I am forced to make a choice and choose one of my musical family over the other. … I will be soon asked to choose between Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy. It is already happening in Poland, a European country, where Russian music is forbidden. I cannot bear to witness how my fellow colleagues, artists, actors, singers, dancers, directors are being menaced, treated disrespectfully and being victims of so-called “cancel culture”. We as musicians are given extraordinary chance and mission to keep human race kindhearted and respectful to each other by playing and interpreting those great composers. We musicians are there to remind through music of Shostakovich about horrors of war. We musicians are the ambassadors of peace. Instead of using us and our music to unite nations and people we are being ivided and ostracised. Because of everything that I have said above and being forced to face the impossible option of choosing between my beloved Russian and beloved French musicians I have decided to resign from my positions as Music Director of Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse with immediate effect. …
No doubt Sokhiev had Symphony no. 8 front of mind when he called out the power of Shostakovich’s music to depict the horrors of war. This Diapason d’Or-winning performance, however, feels less filmic than most of the others under consideration here. From the outset, a reticent pulse, subdued dynamics, and smooth-edged strings combine to set an introspective atmosphere. Even the central climax of the first movement is relatively restrained, and the aggression of the second and third movements is relayed with chamber-music economy.
A year ago, I probably would have counted these features in the debit column, craving more horsepower. But now, Sokhiev’s interpretation strikes me as exactly the extended lament our times call for, echoing in weary disbelief that we find ourselves here, yet again. Heard in this context, the cor anglais solo in the first movement is almost unbearable to sit through, utterly bereft and beyond consolation. The resignation of the finale’s coda is born of exhaustion rather than acceptance. In its own way, this is as intense and harrowing an Eighth as one could reasonably request, penetrating straight to the soul.
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Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev Recorded, Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg
15 & 17 June 2011, 16 May 2012, 23 March 2013. TT: 65:36 Mariinsky MAR0525
Readers seeking a more traditional approach might prefer the 2013 release of Symphony no. 8 from the Mariinsky Orchestra under Valery Gergiev—Sokhiev’s mentor and fellow Ossetian. This supplies greater orchestral heft than the ONCT performance, with spark-spitting brass harking back to Soviet-era benchmarks. Despite being assembled from multiple sessions across three different years, the Mariinsky release conjures a sense of immediacy that makes it easier to overlook the occasional imprecision of ensemble.
Gergiev’s tempos in the first four movements are generally swifter than Sokhiev’s, resulting in a corresponding gain in sense of urgency. In contrast, Gergiev stretches the fifth movement to 15:20 compared with 14:40 in the same team’s 1994 recording (Philips 470 841-2; DSCH 24) and 14:57 in Sokhiev’s account. At times, the proceedings bog down to the point of aimlessness, a trap that Sokhiev manages to avoid.
Unfortunately, the Mariinsky SACD captures Gergiev’s almost incessant vocalisations in crystal clarity, and I find this distracting enough to rule this release out of the running. Admittedly, this is a bête noire of mine; other listeners may be more tolerant.
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London Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
Recorded, Barbican, London, 8 April 2018
TT 65:08. LSO Live LSO0822
The first physical release in Gianandrea Noseda’s ongoing Shostakovich symphony cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra (no. 4 was reviewed in DSCH 54; nos. 9 and 10 in DSCH 55) gives us an even more unconventional Eighth than Sokhiev’s, subjecting the score to a complete disassembly and rebuild. Tempo relationships throughout are revised for heightened symphonic contrast. In the first movement, listen at Fig. 13/7:33 to how Noseda slaps the cellos and double basses into first gear; they grind almost to a halt before we can resume our inexorable drive towards the climax. Or again, at the transition from the fourth movement into the finale, note how the extreme rubato applied to the bassoon dialogue shakes us out of our trance (about which, more anon).
The individuality of this performance is attributable not only to its pacing but even more so to the remarkable degree of character and nuance the LSO players invest in virtually every note. I find the historical associations falling away as I’m swept along by the orchestral precision on display, the purely musical drama just as gripping in its own right. The fourth movement alone would be worth the price of admission for the way its breathtaking focus fixes the listener’s attention, inwardly, as if one’s eyes were peering backwards into one’s own skull. No less eerie, the spectral violin solo at Fig. 171+7/13:38 in the last movement evokes goose bumps.
An interpretation as iconoclastic as Noseda’s could easily come across as a sequence of gratuitous tweaks, yet upon repeated auditions I find that it all hangs together as a convincing whole. Strongly recommended to anyone open to an alternative viewpoint on this opus.
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Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR/Andrey Boreyko
Recorded, Beethovensaal, Liederhalle, Stuttgart, 25 & 26 February 2016
TT 65:65. SWR Classic SWR19037CD
The antithesis of the refined Noseda/LSO reading, the 2016 live recording from Andrey Boreyko and Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart of the SWR is the most brutalist account in the present company. Execution is raw and reckless—at times, the brass sound positively deranged—but if any symphony can turn these traits to its advantage, it’s the Eighth. There’s no denying the exhilaration that the SWR players’ untrammelled assault generates in tutti, the risk of derailing ever-present.
As one might predict, the movements that fare best under these conditions are the second and third. Unfortunately, it’s a rather tedious slog to arrive there, not because the first movement is too slow per se (at 28:29, it’s neck and neck with Sokhiev’s 28:22), but rather due to its laboured, plodding gait. Boreyko’s banishment of legato phrasing results in the narrative continually being interrupted, to the detriment of forward momentum. The Largo also drags, prosaic enunciation leaving the impression that we are merely tracing the boundaries of this otherworldly dimension without breaking through into it. Overall, this recording fails to move me.
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Dresdner Philharmonie/Michael Sanderling
Recorded, Lukaskirche, Dresden, 23–26 August 2016
TT 67:34. Sony Classical 90758 72452
(complete Shostakovich symphonies boxed set)
A traversal of Symphony no. 8 with greater emotional engagement is supplied by Michael Sanderling (son of the great Shostakovich champion Kurt Sanderling) in his complete cycle with the Dresdner Philharmonie on Sony. Even though considerably more expansive than Boreyko in the outer movements, Sanderling’s varied, fluid pacing better maintains the listener’s concentration.
Thoughts of war are never far from this performance, the remarkably pellucid tone of the strings and winds ably depicting the fragility of the protagonist. Sanderling and his Dresden team are fleet, sharp, and savage in the second and third movements, evoking true terror. The fourth movement pivots to numb isolation. Even the cello solo after the climax of the finale (Fig. 166/11:45) isn’t permitted to dream hopefully, instead being slowed to a wistful memory of a dance from an innocent past. Glassy orchestral textures aid Sanderling’s suspension of time as he draws out the remaining proceedings to the breaking point, leaving the listener spent.
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Bulgarian National RSO/Emil Tabakov
Recorded, Studio 1 of the Bulgarian National Radio, Sofia, 21 & 25 November 2011.
TT 66:47. Gega New GD 381
(single CD) and GK 02 (complete Shostakovich symphonies boxed set)
Listening to Emil Tabakov’s outing with the Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra makes me regret the conductor isn’t leading a top-tier band, because his conception is epic but exceeds the grasp of these players. The orchestra are clearly giving their all, but commit far too many conspicuous errors for this release to be considered as a contender. The brass and woodwinds are the culprits in the most cringe-inducing instances, but the strings also have their lapses. This is a great pity, because in between mistakes the performance is riveting. Still, I can’t imagine any reader considering this a worthwhile purchase given the available alternatives.
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Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
Recorded, Symphony Hall, Boston, March 2016
TT 66:36 (Symphony no. 8 only)
Deutsche Grammophon 479 5201 (2 CDs. c/w symphonies nos. 5 and 9 and Suite from Hamlet, opus 32)
I should probably recuse myself from reviewing recordings from Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, because I couldn’t disagree more with the received opinion on most of their efforts in Shostakovich. This Eighth won a 2017 Grammy award in the Best Orchestral Performance category, yet I can barely force myself to sit through it!
Nelsons is profligate in his application of tempo shifts, the vast majority of which strike me as arbitrary and self-indulgent. Why should the snare drum roll in the first movement’s climax be drawn out to such a circus-top extreme? What insight does Nelsons hope to convey by slowing the closing pages of that movement to a sedated shuffle?
The second and third movements escape relatively unscathed, but the Largo has to submit not only to rubato run amok but also such indignities as an unmarked glissando and the passacaglia ping-ponging between legato and staccato. The fifth movement is a noodly mess, succumbing to the same arrythmia as the first.
The Nelsons/BSO album is also unique among the releases covered here for being afflicted by problematic acoustics, with strings muddy and recessed. I simply don’t understand all the acclaim.
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Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
Recorded, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 6 & 7 April 2009
TT 61:57. Naxos 8.572392 (single CD) and 8.501111 (complete Shostakovich symphonies boxed set)
I’m including Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in this survey, even though their 2009 album is older than the other releases, because their Eighth somehow escaped coverage in these pages alongside the other entries in their highly rated Shostakovich cycle. I’ve lived with this recording for over a decade, and returning to it for this review is a welcome reminder of its positive qualities. Nothing is forced or exaggerated, and the score unfolds naturally at a generally brisk clip, resulting in the shortest total timing in the current pack. The Liverpool forces are lithe and responsive, with some memorable solo work; special mention goes to the sizzling trumpet reveille in the third movement.
And yet, I can’t shake the sensation that this chronicle is too far removed from real-world consequences. Petrenko’s direction is musically cogent, but skates so rapidly over the treacherous ice patches that I never feel we’re at risk of plunging through. This isn’t to imply that Petrenko isn’t equipped to confront the darkness, and indeed he has suspended all engagements in Russia until peace in Ukraine has been restored, not a decision that this Russian conductor can have taken lightly. He might have quite a different view on opus 65 today than he did when setting down this recording.
Looking back over these eight Eighths, it’s remarkable that no two are alike. I imagine that anyone in the market for a new version should find at least one in this collection that suits their preferences.
W. Mark Roberts
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Symphony no. 6, opus 54; Symphony no. 9, opus 70
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Steven Lloyd-Gonzalez
Recorded: BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, Wales. 30 November–2 December 2021.
First Hand Records FHR120.
At around half an hour each, numbers 1, 6, and 9 are the shortest of Shostakovich’s more popular symphonies and thus often find themselves coupled in various permutations. As they have all been regularly recorded since their studio debuts, there are, unsurprisingly, many worthwhile recordings to choose from. Nevertheless, this new release from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Steven Lloyd-Gonzalez is certainly worth considering not only for the overall quality but for some of the conductor’s bold and largely successful choices.
The Sixth’s strange proportions—the long opening Largo followed by much shorter Allegro and Presto movements—can prove an architectural challenge and some conductors have been tempted to “even things out” with quite fast first movements. Most end up with the first movement filling about half the total running time, but Lloyd-Gonzalez pushes in the opposite direction and his very long Largo (19:19) approaches two-thirds of the symphony’s total length which, in his hands, comes in at 32:12, the longest rendition I have ever encountered.
But that running time surprised me as Lloyd-Gonzalez opens the symphony with a smooth nobility that certainly doesn’t lack propulsion, and there is no feeling of sluggishness. He picks up his feet a little for the second subject and the string tone is slightly grainier which, coupled to the characteristic dotted rhythm, makes it almost a pre-echo of the Eighth Symphony. This impression is intensified by the piccolo solo (slightly distantly placed) and a climax whose knotty counterpoint sounds like a real panicked alarm. The following woodwind solos bring regret and desolation with the flute in particular evoking a stunned bird surveying a barren landscape. When the sun finally reappears and we hear the first subject again it is, as Eliot said like knowing the place for the first time, and this is one of the highlights of Lloyd-Gonzalez’s interpretation, before the sun again sinks but less with despair than simple weariness.
Early critics saw the symphony as lacking a fast first movement which would have put it more firmly in the tradition of the “classical” symphony—effectively asking Shostakovich to normalise it for their own comfort. But the composer clearly wanted to do nothing of the kind, intending it straightforwardly to pick up speed as it progressed. The job of the critic is to ask why that might have been, and that of the performer is how best to convey that intention.
For me, the symphony is at least in part about boiling a frog: how emotions, when not acknowledged or addressed, can spiral out of control, how, after trauma, feelings of relief and release can transform into hysteria. Hence the steady acceleration.
Having pushed the first movement to such length, Lloyd-Gonzalez decides rather to heighten the contrast by taking the second movement more quickly than many, coming home in 5:44. But I’m afraid this raised my own alarm bells—how would that symphony-long acceleration be achieved when, in the second movement, we were already very nearly in fifth gear? What could a Presto be like in comparison with such a speedy Allegro? I was left conflicted: the playing is outstanding and there are moments of insight, for instance the trombone solo and the subsequent funereal section, but overall had he shot his bolt for the finale?
And for me, the answer is “partially, yes,” not least because, having sped up the Allegro, he slows down the Presto, leaving their pacing too similar. Admittedly, the staccato quality of the playing gives it an effective hammering quality that undercuts the apparent joyousness, but the slowing—a common enough approach recently—downplays the movement’s deliberate crudity and circusiness. Ultimately, it becomes more straightforwardly jovial, ironically bringing about some of the normalisation that early critics wanted.
One comparison that might leap to mind is Mark Wigglesworth’s recording, also with the BBC NOW (DSCH 12 and 57). Astonishingly, that was mBadye L ao quuiasr Btelro oisf a century ago but there are still points of similarity. Wigglesworth was also a fan of the slow and weighty opening movement but even he doesn’t push it as far as Lloyd-Gonzalez, and yet here there is more of a sense of movement, less danger of stalling.
The Ninth Symphony is another story of emotions going out of control, but here, depending on the interpretation, the change can come on more suddenly. The genially disposed conductor can keep the Haydnesque opening Allegro going for a surprisingly long time. But Lloyd-Gonzalez isn’t fooled; soon into the development the Pioneer striding has become more akin to a head-down relentless stomping, later the flute and piccolo swing from insouciance to insubordination, and the climactic chaos borders on the (appropriately) panic-stricken. The only downside is—as in a number of other interpretations—the trombone thumbing its nose from the back of the crowd rather than giving the bird at the front.
The score’s tempo marking implies a second movement lasting around six minutes and while few conductors heed that, Lloyd-Gonzalez’s 8:35 is definitely at the slower end, albeit without entering the ludicrous realms of Efrem Kurtz whose half-tempo 11:45 (CBS Masterworks Portrait MPK 45698) makes the players sound like struggling sight-readers. Whatever tempo is chosen, it’s important the music has an airy, floating quality. Kondrashin (DSCH 45) comes close to the prescribed speed but avoids a feeling of rush by allowing his soloists plenty of space for rubato. Lloyd-Gonzalez doesn’t go as far but there’s still a deal of flexibility there and the quavering flute solos add to the emotion. The clarinet is similarly beautifully floated over the bass line which later becomes more prominent so that it’s almost over the solos but this doesn’t sound in any way forced or even “wrong.” The climax has a numbed gnawing in its repetitions but always holds determination in balance with grace.
The Presto third movement is quick but still beautifully articulated, making it one of the disc’s highlights, particularly the clean trumpet solos and the emphatic entry into the mock funeral. In the Largo fourth movement, the low brass don’t blow you out of your seat, but the bassoon is nicely shaped with some touching vibrato, particularly in the second half.
Allegretto finale is well handled with clean almost staccato strings. The clarinet urges us on but progress is steady till the lurch forward, which even at this tempo is more joyful than jackbooted until the more breathless coda.
Lloyd-Gonzalez’s interpretation isn’t one that wears its dissidence on its sleeve like, for instance, Rozhdestvensky (DSCH 11) but those undercurrents are definitely there, making it a good choice for those with ears to hear.
Unsurprisingly the recording—made by the BBC for Radio 3—is excellent. Richard Whitehouse’s notes, placing the symphonies in the wider context of the cycle from the Fourth to the Tenth, are a good introduction for those not intimately acquainted and include some provocative thoughts for those who are, though his caveating of Testimony flashes by almost too quickly to notice. The cover singles out Joshua Wilson for the bassoon solo in the Ninth Symphony, but the solos throughout are outstanding, so it’s only fair that all the members of the orchestra are listed, giving due credit to all the players.
John Leman Riley
Symphony no. 10, opus 93
Recorded, Auditorio Miguel Delibes, Valladolid. No dates given. TT: 54:27.
Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León/Andrew Gourlay.
In the second release of their newly launched download-only label, the Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León delivers a superlative rendition of the Tenth Symphony under the direction of Andrew Gourlay. The artists involved are newcomers, the OSCyL having been founded in 1992, here led by the relatively young Andrew Gourlay, who was born in 1982. Gourlay, who is of Russian ancestry, studied at various UK institutions, notably London’s Royal College of Music, where he rose to prominence assisting and covering for various notables of the podium. He held the position of principal conductor of the OSCyL between 2015 and 2020, during which Symphony no. 10 time his ambition was to give the orchestra in that northwestern Spanish province greater prominence on the world stage. His efforts are duly noted. He led well-received renditions of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in January 2012, and again in January 2014 with the BBC Philharmonic. His confident shaping of the work in this performance, from February 2019, is captured with roomy, superbly tailored acoustics.
Gourlay takes on the architectural challenges of the work with impressive breadth and attention to detail, especially in the imposing arc of the opening Moderato. While some interpreters render the movement’s various sections with judicious shifts in tempo, Gourlay is one who prefers a steadily measured pace throughout, with broad, deeply focused direction that reaches the mighty crescendi with power and passion. His timing of 24:14 falls in the middle ground between Ančerl’s speedy 20:45 with his Czech Philharmonic (DSCH 17) and Yoel Levi’s crawling 26:52 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (Telarc CD-80241). Within this broad landscape, solo passages, particularly in the winds, stand out for their sensitivity and eloquence. The intimacy of these passages is further enhanced as soloists are prioritised within their own acoustic and expressive space, thanks to superb choices of microphone placement and studio mixing. One does not find instrumental highlighting of this complexion in all recordings of the work, certainly not in the earliest, oft-cited standards by Kondrashin, Mitropoulos, Svetlanov, and von Karajan. That feature has become more common in subsequent generations of recordings, and in the Gourlay rendition, one discovers an exceptionally fine collaboration between conductor and sound engineer. Even in the denser dramatic sections, individual lines and inner voices stand out with exemplary clarity and a minimum of reverberance. Dividends from this teamwork are most evident in the opening Moderato, where the essential elements of ambience and sonic expanse are also given due attention. Listen, for example, to the nuances afforded the clarinet solos in the exposition of the first (fig. 14 + 7, 5:42) and second (fig. 24, 8:14) themes, and likewise the flute solo (fig. 17, 6:44) in the same section. In the recapitulation, when these instruments return, in solos or in pairs, they do so with the same intimate perspective, making all the more poignant their symbolic role of the protagonist, the composer himself, in the symphonic drama. The gong strokes punctuating the movement’s climactic passages register with resonance.
Among fierce and blustery renderings of the “Stalin-portrait” Scherzo, this one takes its own place. What stands out, even defines Gourlay’s rendition, is the startling gusto of the snare drummer, whose enthusiastic entries are accentuated by the acoustic spotlighting we find throughout this recording. One will find muscular snare drummers in other renditions, e.g. Ashkenazy/Royal Philharmonic, Mitropoulos/NY Phil and Wigglesworth/BBC National Orchestra of Wales (DSCH 57), but none are as aggressively thrust into the melee as this one. Readers of the Journal will rejoice. The rest of the ensemble is just as engaged in delivering all the brawn the movement calls for.
In the remaining two movements the transparency of the sound imaging again provides a lucid platform for the praiseworthy musicianship of the OSCyL. Gourlay steers a persuasive course through the cryptic passages of the third movement, with comparatively broader tempi than those taken in other versions. The music gets underway with strings conveying a feeling of uneasy trepidation, leading to the repetitive, and here, assertively dignified pronouncements of the signature anapaest rhythm and DSCH motif. This paves the way to the eerily placid utterances of the Elmira theme, elegantly articulated by OSCyL’s horn soloist. Atmospheric values are wellheeded, with obliging wind entries and gentle gong strokes lending a smoky air of mystery to both sides of the central climax. At the movement’s dramatic summit, the repetitions of the DSCH motif are delivered with a vengeance, giving way to the majestic appearances of the Elmira theme, now stated with a grand sense of nobility.
The final movement gets under way with a prologue of comparatively slow tempi. An aura of guarded reflection is well supported by fine solo passages on the oboe and bassoon. The solo clarinet gleefully springs the music into the Allegro episodes that follow, the vodka and tonic spirit joyfully embraced by the ensemble. Gourlay manoeuvres through the subsequent shifts of tempo and quick thematic transitions with savvy to spare, attentively catering to the tone and temper of each. The edges may not be as sharp as those found in Mravinsky’s vigorous surveys with the Leningrad PO (DSCH 14), though few are, nor are the contrasts in mood as underscored as one may encounter elsewhere, note well on this point the versions of Nelsons/BSO (DSCH 44) and Ashkenazy/Royal Philharmonic. Yet Gourlay leads a rousing course through the movement, down to an invigorating coda, where the timpani’s signal repetitions of the DSCH motif are clearly and resoundingly registered, a detail of no small significance.
And so, here we have a praiseworthy performance of the Tenth Symphony that finds its place on the map for an estimable bounty of strengths: its engaging interpretation, its fine sectional and solo work, and not least, for the well-tailored engineering that illuminates all of the above with engrossing detail and clarity.
Dmitri Shostakovich, Complete Piano Works, Vol. 2
Piano Sonata no. 1, opus 12. Piano Sonata no. 2, opus 61. A Child’s Exercise Book [sic], opus 69. Murzilka [Hulme,
sans opus S], Variations on a Theme by Glinka (complete) [Hulme, sans opus T] **
Eugenio Catone (piano)
Recorded, Auditorium “Adele Solimene,” Palazzo Capone, Montella
(AV). November-December 2021
Stradivarius STR 37224
** World premiere recording of complete set
The second volume of Eugenio Catone’s complete piano works of Shostakovich includes both the First and Second Sonatas, the Children’s Notebook (here called the Child’s Exercise Book), the Murzilka, and the Variations on a Theme by Glinka. None of these works are particularly widely known popularly, except perhaps the Children’s Notebook, which is used often for teaching. In fact, the full collection of Variations on a Theme by Glinka is recorded here for the very first time, as Catone writes in the CD’s liner notes.
The First Sonata was written in 1926, by which time Shostakovich had attained widespread fame with his First Symphony (1924–1925). Despite the success of the symphony, Shostakovich suffered a creative crisis after his graduation from the Leningrad Conservatory. Looking for inspiration and a personal voice, the young composer became interested in Western music and the avant-garde. It was in this frame of mind that Shostakovich created his first substantial work for the piano: the First Sonata. This was shortly followed by the Aphorisms, which Catone recorded in volume 1 of this ongoing series. The sonata is a one-movement work in three clearly divided sections: Allegro–Lento–Allegro. While the work is in C major, the intense chromatic saturation and textural complexity give the illusion of atonality. The sonata is too rarely played or discussed academically, possibly because of its extraordinary difficulty and harshness.
Catone’s rendition of the First Sonata is admirable in its execution. His fearless tempos bring the performance time to a little shy of 11 minutes—one of the fastest recorded interpretations of the work. Shostakovich is known to have played quite fast, and his tempo indications are often on the edge of impossible. Catone stays true to the score, but this raises the question of whether this already difficult-to-understand work could benefit from a more moderate speed. Most performances of the sonata average between twelve and thirteen minutes—as per the composer’s recommendation in the score—while Konstantin Scherbakov’s fifteenminute recording (Naxos 8.555781, DSCH 20) is among the most leisurely. Although Catone’s performance is hugely impressive in its technical execution, I am left wishing I could hear more clarity in the texture and musical ideas. The abundance of complex counterpoint in the work would take on a different meaning if given a bit more room to breathe. On the other hand, where he stays true to the marked tempos, it allows for a tight structure and shows off the pianist’s virtuosic energy and stamina.
The Second Sonata, largely written in 1942 during Shostakovich’s evacuation in Kuibyshev, is dedicated to the memory of his piano teacher Leonid Nikolaev. Second in scope only to the cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues, the sonata is his most substantial solo piano work. Unfortunately, it has not yet entered the standard repertoire, which could be due in part to its being written between two more popular works—the war symphonies, nos. 7 and 8. However, we do have recordings of it by some celebrated pianists, such as Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca, DSCH 21), Alexei Lubimov (ECM, DSCH 24), Maria Yudina (an MK LP, then various CD labels) and Emil Gilels (RCA, then BMG and Praga Digital).
Catone’s performance adds another beautiful rendition to the recording repertoire and contributes to the dissemination of the work. His recording is controlled, clear and well-structured. The opening of the first movement is treated with neo-classical clarity and expression. The second theme in E flat major is grand and impressive in its technical execution. The following chromatic transition could have, in my opinion, benefited from a smoother legato to contrast with the lefthand’s militant figure. The second movement is quite different in style and harmonic language and gives the pianist an opportunity to leave their personal artistic mark, with Shostakovich’s indication of molto rubato allowing freedom in phrasing can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Catone’s tempos are quite quick in comparison to Boyadjieva (DSCH 33) and Stoupel (DSCH 55). His treatment of the music stays true to his intellectual pianism and shies away from excessive sentimentality or lyricism. The third movement’s opening theme is rhetorical rather than lyrical. Variations two and three warm up the sound and bring personal expression to the surface. The staccato eighth-note variations are played with crystal-clear rhythm and internal energy. The performance brings a neo-classical treatment to the forefront compared to Boyadjieva’s much more personal interpretation.
Next on the CD is the group of children’s pieces, opus 69. Catone plays each one of these miniatures with careful attention and clarity, bringing them to life in an exquisite way.
A real treat for the listener is the last work on the disc, the Variations on a Theme by Glinka, a collection of eleven variations on “The Song of Vanya” from Act 3 of Ivan Susanin, written by Eugen Kapp, Vissarion Shebalin, Andrei Eshpai, Rodion Shchedrin, Georgy Sviridov, and Yuri Levitin with Shostakovich contributing variations VIII, X, and XI. Martin Jones (AMV AVZ 3020) and Boris Petrushansky (like Catone, on the Stradivarius label) have previously recorded Shostakovich’s contributions but Catone gives us the world premiere of the complete work. In the liner notes, Catone says the origin of this collective work is not precisely known but it can be inferred that it was meant to mark the centenary of Glinka’s death—the complete work was first published in a supplement to Sovetskaya muzyka magazine, 1957, no. 2. Each variation is a miniature work that explores different characters and compositional styles. The Italian pianist not only brings those pieces to our attention, but does so with style, clarity, and beauty. This collection is a tremendous asset to the Shostakovich admirer, bringing one more facet of the composer’s life and work to the surface.
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Shostakovich Symphony no. 14, opus 135, arranged for soprano, bass, piano, and percussion by the composer (1969)
[a, b]*; Sonata (unfinished) for violin and piano (1945) [a, c]; Fragment from Mahler’s Symphony no. 10, arranged for piano four hands; [a, d]*; “Funeral March in Memory of Victims of the Revolution” (1918) [a]; “Toska” (“Nostalgia”) (1918) [a]; “In the Forest” (1919) [a], “Bagatelle” (1919) [a]
Nicolas Stavy (piano) [a]; Alexandros Stavrakakis (bass) and Ekaterina Bakanova (soprano) and Florent Jodelet (percussion) [b] Sueye Park (violin) [c]; Cédric Tiberghien (piano) [d]
Recorded, Sendesaal, Bremen, Germany, 7–10 December 2021.
BIS-2550 (SACD mastered)
* World Premiere Recording.
Prior to this release, French pianist Nicolas Stavy’s most noteworthy 20th century recordings featured the music of Boris Tishchenko (the superlative June 2015 release (BIS 2189 SACD) of the Seventh and Eighth Sonatas), and Britten and Korngold (piano works for the left hand and orchestra: Éditions Hortus 710, 2014). Stavy’s inaugural plunge into the Shostakovich recorded repertoire includes two world premiere releases, as well as a selection of rarities. By far the most substantial work on the disc is Shostakovich’s own reduction of the Fourteenth Symphony (1969), scored for soprano, bass, piano, and percussion. The work, opus 135, sets eleven poems; two by Federico Garcia Lorca, six by Guillaume Apollinaire, one by Wilhelm Küchelbecker, and two by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated into Russian by various hands.
Rather unusually for Shostakovich, the Fourteenth Symphony was completed firstly in vocal score (on 16 February 1969 during a stay at a Moscow hospital), and in full score two weeks later (having returned home). As we know from his own comments, and letters, several of Shostakovich’s symphonies and concertos were first auditioned in versions he prepared for piano (two or four hands, or two pianos) for private renditions for friends and colleagues or for formal auditions before Party officials. 1
The version of the score used as a basis for this recording of the reduction of the Fourteenth Symphony is included in Volume 29 of “New Collected Works” (DSCH Publishers, Moscow 2012), where resources were drawn from documents such as the author’s manuscript of the piano score, the edition of the full score in Volume 14 of “New Collected Works” (DSCH Publishers, Moscow 2012), the first edition of the score (Muzyka, Moscow 1971), as well as to Shostakovich’s subsequent corrections to this 1971 edition.
In the reduction, the highly expressive and intimate string writing is passed to the (solo) pianist, who also performs several celesta passages. The percussion section is as per the orchestral version although played here by a single percussionist, rather than the three indicated in the original orchestral score.2 Given the radical change of balance (a piano replacing Shostakovich’s multi-layered string orchestra against bass and soprano solo lines), the initial impression is that the contrasting nature of the texts appears now to be thrown into sharper relief: the verses’ unconditional poignancy, set amid the deathly landscape that dominates them, is truly centre stage. No better example is that of the very opening of the first movement, where the floating, tense murmurings of the piano depict to perfection the full version’s divided violin writing. Greek-born bass Alexandros Stavrakakis cautiously intones Lorca’s opening lines in “De profundis,” in a hushed anticipation of the contrasting episodes to come. The transition to the second movement, Lorca’s “Malagueña,” features an arresting opening chord sequence from Stavy, who maintains an impressive level of “orchestral” drive throughout the entire movement, along with soprano Ekaterina Bakanova (of Russian and Ukrainian origin), who opts for an assured, yet not overstated interpretation of the work. The third movement, “Loreley,” with words by Apollinaire, is a true soloistic tour de force from all the musicians, ranging from the frantic to the peaceful: reminiscent in many details of Shostakovich’s Satires, opus 109, and of the Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok, opus 127. I did miss Shostakovich’s impassioned string writing towards the end of fourth movement “The Suicide,” although the tri lilii finale in this arrangement is impressively tentative. Bakanova also excels in the fifth movement, also to verses by Apollinaire, “On the Watch,” with Stavy’s sense of drama accompanied by the incredibly resourceful percussionist Florent Jodelet bringing the movement to an outstanding conclusion. In Apollinaire’s “Madam, Look!” I found Bakanova’s khokhochu outbursts slightly too restrained, and the final xylophone assertion, strangely subdued. “In the Santé Prison” is, for me, one of the less successful movements of this recording and/or of the vocal score: the long central section scored for strings and wood block lacks textural and dynamic contrast when the former is transferred to piano. Nevertheless, Stavrakakis’ sensitively muted interpretation that concludes the movement in a chilling deathly hush is remarkable. He also excels in the following Allegro movement, the last of the six Apollinaire settings, “The Zaporozhian Cossacks’ Answer to the Sultan of Constantinople.” At one juncture, Shostakovich chooses to deploy the xylophone, not the piano, to replace the violins’ frenetic semiquaver runs (bar 74 in the original “Old Collected Works” score), producing a slightly strange, almost cinematic, effect. In the full score, the following movement “O Delvig, Delvig!” is scored for split strings (violins 1 & 2; violas 1 & 2; cellos 1, 2 & 3, plus double bass), producing a lilting, chamber music-like quality: the piano reduction is predictably impoverished in this respect, despite some touchingly delicate playing from Stavy. Stavrakakis is again on fine form, producing a suitable piano-bass balance reminiscent of Shostakovich’s Four Romances on Poems of Pushkin, opus 46. Movement ten begins, thematically and texturally, with an allusion to the opening of the symphony. The same, sparsely scored piano, but this time we hear the soprano, in Rilke’s “The Poet’s Death”:
“The poet lay dead, his face retaining Its usual paleness, rejected something.”
The transition into the final movement, Rilke’s “Conclusion,” is brilliantly executed, as is the subsequent combination of voice, piano and percussion: “Death is all powerful. It keeps watch even in the hour of happiness.” The Bartók-like freneticism of the final bars burst from the piano’s fff conclusion, the final lingering harmonics hanging in the air like ice.
The CD booklet, with excellent notes by Elizabeth Wilson, provides texts in Cyrillic and English. The recording quality is very good, without excessive “spotlighting” of instruments; the overall impression is certainly one of more intimacy, in part through the relatively dry acoustic.
The other world premiere recording to feature on this disc sees Nicolas Stavy joined by fellow pianist Cédric Tiberghien in a fragment from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, scored by Shostakovich for piano, four hands. Mahler began scoring his final composition in July 1910, working on the piece until September. When he died in May 1911, he had been unable to complete a full orchestral draft. Some of the manuscripts were published in facsimile, in 1924, by Paul Zsolnay. According to Wilson’s booklet notes: “The Russian musicologists Svetlana Savenko and Inna Barsova believe that Shostakovich got to know the work in the second half of the 1920s, and date his arrangement for fourhand piano of the opening Adagio movement to this period. Probably he started on the task as soon as he laid hands on the facsimile score of the Tenth, most probably a copy procured by Sollertinsky. Shostakovich’s version is incomplete, encompassing just under a third of this movement’s duration, and was probably conceived for personal study purposes and to demonstrate the unknown work to fellow Mahler Society members.” The work is immediately recognisable in Shostakovich’s arrangement, which lasts just over eight minutes. Indeed, he seems to revel in the music’s stark contrasts, echoed in some of his own symphonic works, such as with the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies (1935–36, 1937). Wilson’s notes—as relevant and as informative as one might expect—also remind us that “In 1943 Shostakovich received an invitation from the Gustav Mahler Society of New York to complete the Tenth from the existing manuscript. Like other recipients of this invitation, Arnold Schoenberg and Benjamin Britten, he felt unable to accept such a mammoth and demanding task.”
The unfinished Violin Sonata from 1945 was first issued as commercial recording in 2015, with Sasha Rozhdestvensky as violin soloist accompanied by Jeremy Menuhin (First Hand Records, FHR037, DSCH 44). This double exposition sketch comprises just over 200 bars, with music immediately reminiscent of Shostakovich’s klezmer-inspired chamber works, counterpointed by a theme that was later to find its way into the Tenth Symphony’s expansive opening movement. Archivist Manashir Yakubov, who approached Alfred Schnittke with a view of completing the Sonata, considered that the work’s abandonment may have been as a result of the lengthy and tonally wide-ranging nature of the double exposition. This would have led to an excessively lengthy development section. Schnittke declined the invitation, and the sketch was forgotten. The performance here, by the young South Korean violinist Sueye Park along with Nicolas Stavy, spotlights the twin themes’ contrasts in a suitably dynamic and authentic fashion. Unlike the 2015 recording, which includes an eleven-bar coda written by Gennady Rozhdestvensky, here the score breaks off abruptly.
The final offering, or offerings, constitute four early works for solo piano: “Funeral March in Memory of Victims of the Revolution” was probably composed in 1918, rather than the more obvious 1917, this theory expounded by DSCH Publishers (Volume 109, “Piano Pieces from 1918–1920”) who state that the piece “was dedicated to the memory of Ministers of the Provisional Government Fedor Fedorovich Kokoshkin and Andrei Ivanovich Shingarev, who were murdered during the night of 7 January 1918 by anarchist sailors, while undergoing treatment in the Mariinsky Hospital.” Shostakovich’s stridently youthful funeral march was undoubtedly inspired by Beethoven’s celebrated Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un eroe from his Piano Sonata no. 12, opus 26 “Funeral March”: the piece is brief, march-like, with a single exposition. The March is followed by “Nostalgia,” (or “Toska”) composed in 1918 (again, the exact date is unclear). DSCH Publishers refer to a potentially different version of the title: “Soldier Reminiscing about His Homeland,” which may have been the piece’s initial title or its intended subtitle. The publishing house also postulates that, considering both the work’s content and its alternative title, it in fact refers to World War I. This piece, lasting almost two and half minutes, is steeped in sentimental and melancholic overtones, exquisitely projected by Stavy. Next comes the two-minute piece “ln the Forest” from Four Pieces for Piano (1919), with an opening that displays more than a hint of Liszt’s Waldesrauschen (“Forest Murmurs”). This quickly leads into a high-trill, musical-box-like motive so typical of Shostakovich’s dance-driven impishness. Shostakovich’s pianistic evolution—from a composer’s and from a performer’s point of view—is by now becoming evident, and the virtuosic phenomenon is confirmed with the concluding “Bagatelle” for solo piano (1919). The work had a dedicatee: one Marianna Fedorovna Gramenitskaya, with whom the author studied in Professor Leonid Nikolayev’s piano class at the Conservatory. Again, Stavy excels in this short, virile piece, with fine emphasis placed on the use of alternate hands and ever-changing dynamics. These short pieces received their premiere recordings on a recent CD by Eugenio Cantone (Complete Piano Works, vol. 1, Stradivarius STR37201, DSCH 57): Stavy’s approach is noticeably more atmospheric (a consequence of the more generous acoustic, and a more fluid, lighter touch); especially noticeable in “ln the Forest” and “Bagatelle.”
In conclusion: the clear highpoint in this release is Shostakovich’s own vocal score version of the Fourteenth Symphony, excellently conceived, performed and recorded. The Mahler transcription offers an interesting insight into the world of music in the 1920s, and the Sonata an elegant morsel of what would have probably become yet another Shostakovich instrumental masterwork. The short piano pieces are curiosities that will sate the appetite of anyone seeking to hear the “voice” of the juvenile Mitya, pre-First Symphony. Highly recommended.
1 In the case of the former, conductor Kirill Kondrashin wrote:
“Some time in the spring of 1969, I had a call from Shostakovich with an invitation to come to his home and hear a new work. R. Barshai and R. Bunin had also been asked round. Shostakovich showed us his Fourteenth Symphony.
It was difficult for him to play because of the pain in his hands. At the same time, he was singing the vocal part in a quiet, almost child-like voice. Several lyrical moments (of “The Suicide,” “The Death of the Poet,” “O Delvig, Delvig!”) made a tremendous impression on me. We could feel that this work was particularly dear to Shostakovich. When it was over and we were drinking tea, he said in passing that he had not been able to sleep for some nights after handing over the score to the copyist. ‘I kept trying to work out whether I could piece it together again from memory, if the original were to be lost.” (Source: original manuscript. © DSCH Publishers, Moscow)
2 The full score lists: wood block, castanets, whip, soprano, alto and tenor tom-toms, xylophone, tubular bells, vibraphone, and celesta.