CD Reviews 59
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Arutiunian: Trumpet Concerto [a]
Weinberg: Trumpet Concerto, opus 94 [a]. Shostakovich: Piano Concerto no. 1, opus 35 [b]
Paul Merkelo (trumpet), Russian National Orchestra/Hans Graf [a], Jae-Hyuck Cho (piano) [b]
Recorded, Zaradadje Hall, Moscow, Russia. 8–12 June 2019.
Chamber Symphony, opus 110a (arr. Barshai) [a]. Piano Concerto no. 1, opus. 35 [a,b]. Chamber Symphony, opus 49a
(arr. Barshai) [a]
Maria Meerovitch (piano), Sergei Nakariakov (trumpet) [b], Deutsche Radio Philharmonie/Pietari Inkinen [b]
Recorded, Congresshalle Saarbrücken, 16–19 November 2020 (opus 110a), 8 November 2020 (live) and 4–7 November 2020 (opus 35), 8–11 February 2022 (opus 49a)
SWR Music. SWR 19124CD
There are over one hundred currently available recordings of the First Piano Concerto, and while I would never suggest an embargo, new entries must have something to say to be heard above the crowd—and something worth saying, not just attraction-seeking contrivances.
One possibility is one of the alternate versions. To my knowledge, nobody has tackled Grzegorz Fitelberg’s Quasi Waltz, excising the soloists from the Lento to leave only the string orchestra. More valuable would be Shostakovich’s two-piano reduction which has yet to enter a studio despite DSCH Publishers’ edition appearing in 2010.
There’s also the version by Timofei Dokschizer (1921–2005), expanding the trumpet part for himself—among his other arrangements are the Three Fantastic Dances. This is a sort of return to Shostakovich’s original vision, as it began life as a trumpet concerto before he bolstered the piano part for himself to play. Sadly, though Shostakovich recorded the final version twice—with Iosif Volovnik under Samosud (DSCH 17) and Ludovic Vaillent under Cluytens (DSCH 20)—Dokschizer never joined the composer in the studio.
In addition to his solo work, Dokschizer was a respected teacher and principal trumpet at the Bolshoi, appearing in many recordings. Apart from admiring Dokschizer’s phenomenal technical and interpretative skills, Shostakovich may have felt a kinship as his father, like the young composer, accompanied silent films.
Like many Soviet instrumentalists, Dokschizer wanted a Shostakovich concerto but he never plucked up the courage to ask and later blamed himself for his “excessive tactfulness.”1 In the meantime he arranged, edited, commissioned, performed, and recorded many works. As well as the two joining the Shostakovich here, these include works by Andrei Eshpai, Alexander Goedicke, Vladimir Kriukov, Vladimir Peskin, Sergei Vasilenko, and Vladimir Yurovsky (father of Michail and grandfather of Vladimir). When Shostakovich died, Dokschizer adapted the First Piano Concerto, later describing it as one of his most important arrangements. Despite this, it appeared only posthumously as a piano reduction (DSCH Publishers, 2009).
Solo trumpeter Paul Merkelo combined this with a broadly unchanged Schirmer orchestral score. The trumpet largely takes over the piano’s melodic line, though technical and endurance issues mean that as the work progresses there’s an increasing dialogue between the two soloists. The effect, at least initially for a listener who knows the piece, is of it drifting in and out of familiarity. Nevertheless, from the start I recognised its effectiveness as an arrangement and beyond that it made me rethink the piece: some of the piano writing sits so well on the trumpet that Shostakovich’s first intentions become clearer, though conversely some of the comic passages are quite anti-trumpet. But the more I’ve listened, the more I’ve enjoyed the arrangement for itself, and that’s at least in part due to the performance.
Dokschizer took his transcription into the studio in 1992, with pianist Sergei Solodovnik and Saulyus Sondeckis leading the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra (now available on Bandcamp). There are also two 1982 concert performances of Shostakovich’s original—with Postnikova and Rozhdestvensky (Melodiya C10 28215 004), and with Mikhail Petukhov under Yuri Simonov (Russian Music Society 6423465000080). His characteristic focused sound suits much of the work, but Merkelo holds his own, especially in the ofter passages. In an interview with Mark Roberts (see n. 1), Merkelo says what initially attracted him to the instrument was its capacity for softness, and it’s a quality he exploits fully. The original’s cornet-ish solo in the Lento is as beautifully floated as any, while the militaristic and circus-y passages lose none of their edge. Pianist Jae-Hyuck Cho handles the reduced role well, and throughout the disc there’s good support from the Russian National Orchestra under Hans Graf. This is more than an interesting byway for the Shostakovich obsessed, but a valuable contribution to the repertoire.
Arutiunian’s concerto was planned in 1943 for the Armenian Philharmonic’s Zsolak Vartasarian, but he died and the work went into abeyance until 1950 when it was premiered by Aykaz Messlayan in Yerevan. But it was Dokschizer who brought it and the composer to prominence, through performances, his premiere recording, and his brief but virtuosic and idiomatic cadenza. The symmetrical septemvirate structure is easily comprehended, and the folkish melodies and colourful orchestration further guaranteed its success. The primary colours can glare in the wrong hands, but Merkelo brings the same round tone, softening the experience.
At half an hour, Weinberg’s is the most substantial piece here, and not simply in terms of its length. It was natural that Dokschizer premiered it on 6 January 1968 with the Moscow Philharmonic under Kondrashin.
With its panoply of borrowings, it’s an early example of the 1960s return to polystylistic quotation-collage popular in the 1920s and 30s and of which Shostakovich was a great exponent—one need only think of the First Piano Concerto. Western critics sometimes responded to this unrecognised phoenix with befuddlement, seeing it as merely winking playfulness, wilful obscurantism, or self-indulgent solipsism.
Etudes begins with a gesture that vaults and falls, ping-ponging between soloist and orchestra, with melodic relief arriving in the form of a circus march and some klezmerish fragments. A muted nocturne intervenes after which the earlier elements return kaleidoscoped into new shapes before the take-it-or-leave-it coda. The trumpet steps back for the start of the second movement, Episodes, brushing by the opening of Mahler’s Fifth made unfamiliar by being sounded on the strings. A long-limbed contemplative flute melody is continued by the trumpet, underscored by a ghostly procession of other instruments, until the soloist reclaims the Mahler, but refracted through strange glasses, leading to a cadenza and finale that melds quotations, including the Mahler, Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, and Stravinsky’s Petrushka, to the concerto’s opening gesture before a sudden slamming of the door as if in fear of revealing too much. No wonder Shostakovich described it as a “symphony for trumpet and orchestra”; it feels like a pivot-point between Nielsen’s Sixth and Shostakovich’s Fifteenth.
It’s not only one of Weinberg’s most frequently recorded works but something of a trumpet standard, and Merkelo navigates the changes of mood effortlessly. Dokschizer sometimes has a slightly brighter tone but Merkelo’s view is just as characterful. Sergei Nakariakov (of whom more later) with Andrey Boreyko (Teldec 8573 855582) brings a helter-skelter quality and undeniable virtuosity, but it ends up feeling too rushed and superficial.
Dokschizer’s reclamation of Shostakovich’s concerto reminds us that the second soloist goes unmentioned in the title, and a couple of recordings take this literally, anonymising the trumpeter. SWR doesn’t go quite that far, but Meerovitch and Nakariakov are unfairly demoted to small print on the rear cover. That’s a shame as their work should be recognised.
They don’t have the “advantage” of an unusual arrangement to mark them out from the pack, and like some others, they’re occasionally tempted to introduce some “ideas.” There’s a slightly cautious opening before a strong, steady-paced Allegretto. Many performers (as here) see the entry into the third movement as a chance for a bit of push-and-pull, and the tendency gets stronger in the finale, which has some slightly exaggerated rushes and ritardandi. Elsewhere, the Lento is, as so often, the highlight. The soloists bring a real tenderness, passionate but not overblown, and Nakariakov’s is one of the roundest trumpets you’ll hear. It’s a mix of live and studio recordings, but you’d be hard put to tell, though the slightly resonant recording might conceal a few things.
Iniken also includes two of the Shostakovich-Barshai Chamber Symphonies. The success of these transcriptions varies, but in a tradeoff with monumentalism, what is almost always lost is the originals’ sense of intimacy. Iniken goes for a very “public” performance of opus 110a, bringing plenty of heft to the tutti (though some slower sections seem emotionally detached), but his front desks still find space for a more personal approach, and the cello solos are a particular standout.
LThoeu iFsi rBstl oQisuartet’s enlargement for strings and celeste is less commonly heard; this appears to be only its fourth recording, after Barshai (Brilliant Classics 8212/2), Yablonsky (Naxos 8573466), and The Dmitri Ensemble under Graham Ross (Harmonia Mundi HMU907634). The orchestras take things a notch or two slower than many quartets, and this can bring a sluggishness. But the Danels (DSCH 24) make a success of a slower tempo, so perhaps part of the problem is the thicker textures. I also remain unconvinced by the celesta, which seems to be either inappropriately saccharine or self-conscious bling.
Despite their name, the Dmitri Ensemble don’t really get into the music, frequently sitting flatly on the beat. Yablonsky is better, but up to now it’s Barshai himself who, despite a couple of moments of problematic intonation, has most successfully negotiated the terrain between quartet and orchestra. Nevertheless, for those looking for this work and who are attracted by the rest of the programme, Inkinen’s is a good choice, though it’s the under-advertised concerto soloists who really make the disc attractive.
1 The Memoirs of Timofei Dokshizer: an Autobiography (ed. Joyce Davis and Kim Dunnock, from Olga Braslavsky’s translation. Westfield, MA: International Trumpet Guild, 1997). From Трубач на Коне [Trumpeter on a Horse], republished by Kompozitor, 2008). This is quoted in W. Mark Roberts’ interview with Merkelo in DSCH 47, 67–71.
John Leman Riley
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy. Mstislav Rostropovich (cello)
Recorded, Broadwood Hotel, Philadelphia, 8 November 1959 [opus. 10 and opus 107]; Town Hall, Philadelphia, 17 February 1963 [opis 43]; Town Hall, Philadelphia, 8 April 1965 [opus 47]; Hotel Philadelphia, 13 April 1966 [opus 22]. Town Hall, Philadelphia, 10–18 April 1968 (opus 93)
TT: 3:35:30 (60:20 + 76:40 + 77:59)
The legacy of Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in the performance and recording of Shostakovich’s music may have briefly gone under the radar, but it is a legacy of no small importance. As one of the country’s most formidable musical partnerships, they developed a clear appreciation for the Shostakovich repertoire, with credits that include the Western premieres of the Fifteenth Symphony and First Cello Concerto, as well as the American premieres of the Fourth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth symphonies. Likewise, it was the same team who delivered the American recording premieres of all of the above. There is no question that Ormandy took a leadership role in bringing this repertoire to a wider audience outside Russia and especially to America. Having assumed the directorship of what was to become his signature orchestra in 1938 from another Shostakovich champion, Leopold Stokowski, Ormandy, and the Philadelphians forged a major presence in American musical culture until his retirement in 1980. During that 42-year tenure, the longest of any American orchestra, they gave the world premieres of many other notable works, including Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances (which is dedicated to Ormandy and the orchestra), Bartók’s Piano Concerto no. 3, Britten’s Diversions for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra, and music by a host of other significant composers, both American and European.
This three-CD set includes Symphonies nos. 1, 4, 5 and 10, the First Cello Concerto and the “Polka” from The Age of Gold. This revives the early portion of the Ormandy/Shostakovich legacy, set down during that conductor’s 23-year association with Columbia Records, subsequently the property of Sony. He recorded the final three symphonies from 1970–72, but under the auspices of RCA Victor and thus not included in the current release. Similarly, outside my remit are several discs of varying legality and availability: a 1945 private recording of opus 35 with William Kapell, the Philadephians’ Fifth Symphony at the Moscow Conservatory in 1958, the Second Violin Concerto’s 1967 European premiere with the LSO, and a 1969 broadcast of opus 54 issued by the orchestra itself. However, I do make some comments on their 1975 RCA Fifth.
While Ormandy and his band remained a force to be reckoned with, his praises were often sung with reservations. Conductor Kenneth Woods ranked him among the world’s top twenty conductors, but not among the top 10, conceding that “His Philadelphia Orchestra was the only real rival to Karajan’s Berlin [Philharmonic] for sonic beauty in the 50s–70s, but was also a tighter and more versatile band.”1
In his 1967 study of Ormandy, critic Harold C. Schonberg concluded that he “does not conduct with the overwhelming personality interpretations that claim their own distinction, abetted by his orchestra’s outstanding musicianship. The celebrated and oft-cited Philadelphia strings have acquired a reputation all their own. Another feature that distinguishes the Ormandy readings is the consistently high quality and craftsmanship of the engineering. In contrast to the spacious, roomy acoustics found in many European recordings of the time, Columbia engineers opted for an intimate podium-based soundscape in which instrumental sections encircle the listener with vivid, at times pronounced, stereo imaging.
The recording of the First Symphony offers a prime example. In the first movement, the prominent entries of the solo trumpet, from its heralding first utterance onward, are situated to our immediate and extreme right, as are the double basses. The standout solo piano entries of the following Scherzo movement appear to our extreme and immediate left. The remaining solos and instrumental sections unfold in an up-close, naturally displayed theatre of sound, a panorama of proximity that adds a thrilling dimension to the work’s chamber-like textures, the quick exchanges within, and the driving force of Ormandy’s leadership. The superb musicianship of the Philadelphians, both individually and sectionally, commendably live up to the crisp close-up capture. Ormandy generates the weight and vibrant energy of the score in each of the four movements. The Scherzo’s athletic activity and the melodramatic exchanges of the final Allegro molto roll out with a lively precision that is once again enhanced by the wide stereo separation. Here as elsewhere there are no extravagant liberties taken with the score-indicated tempos, but the music never fails to reach rousingly thunderous peaks. This studio recording was produced during the same session as the First Cello Concerto, discussed below, and released on the same LP.
If there is one Shostakovich symphony that can be singled out as Ormandy’s most significant contribution to the cycle, it is the mighty Fourth. It was Ormandy and the Philadelphians, after all, who delivered the American premiere on 15 February 1963, only months after its world premiere in Moscow. When his rendition appeared on CBS shortly thereafter, there was only one other version in circulation—Kondrashin’s with the Moscow Philharmonic—issued the year before (MK C0295-8, reviewed as part of a Melodiya intégrale in DSCH 48). It would be no less than fifteen years before another version of this sprawling masterpiece appeared on disc, with André Previn’s stirring account with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1978 (Angel Records, S 37284). Just as one may puzzle over the lag in recording attention for such a significant work, one also marvels at the unblinking determination of Eugene Ormandy for assembling an interpretation of such impressive strength and solidity. While other conductors may have been initially deterred by the work’s sprawling anatomy, Ormandy’s musical instincts are point on in propelling the music forward with unflinching drive. He must have been inspired by Kondrashin’s propulsive example, since both versions, Kondrashin’s timing at 60:02 and Ormandy’s at 60:22, still rank among the shortest on disc (owners of the Ormandy LP may remember the awkwardness of the second movement being split between both sides!)
The recording once again shines for its sound engineering. No matter how crowded the orchestral texture, individual voices stand out with impeccable clarity. In a work with as many dense and spectacular effects as the Fourth, and in a performance delivered with such outstanding musicianship, this is no small achievement. A few details merit attention. If not more impressive than the transparency of voices in the first movement’s frenzied fugue is the impact of the passage that follows. As the whirlwind fugue reaches its point of culmination, the music decelerates with equally tumultuous fury, highlighted by a brake-slamming apotheosis of cross-rhythms. The latter takes place in the dozen bars between Figs. 77 and 78 (starting at 16:25), where the trumpets reiterate a figure of three crotchets to the measure while the rest of the orchestra plays in duple time. It is a brilliant touch of orchestral writing. However, there are too few recordings in which the trumpets’ cross-rhythmic chafing is heard as demonstrably and as rivetingly as in the Ormandy (the aforementioned Previn/CSO and the Jansons/Bavarian SO [DSCH 22] provide two favourable examples). In the otherwise fine Kondrashin audio account, this detail is completely buried in the fury.
Another illustration of this meticulously crafted theatre of sound is found in the closing pages of the second movement. Here, the percussive banter between tambourine, castanets, and wood block is cast into the widest possible stereo separation, their rhythmic chatter ricocheting back and forth between the listener’s left and right ears. The deployment creates an immersive, ear-catching presentation of the passage.
On the interpretive side, as mentioned, Ormandy keeps the music tight and on track, leaving little leeway for rubato, pauses, or other personal indulgences. What Ormandy does deliver is a straight-to-the-point execution, totally immersed in the Shostakovich idiom, that unswervingly holds the line and carries the weight. It admirably captures the work’s existential terror with strong percussive emphasis, attention to detail, and sensitivity to the work’s ever-shifting succession of moods. The opening flourish and heavy-footed march charge ahead with all the bravado called for. Similarly, the crescendos rise with power, especially with the final movement’s culminating peroration. The brass come across as robustly as they do in the Kondrashin and more so than they do in the Previn.
Ormandy and the Philadelphians recorded the Fifth Symphony for CBS in 1964 (MS 7279, issued in 1969) and a decade later for RCA in 1975 (RCA Red Seal, issued in both quad ARD1 1149, and stereo ARL11149, in 1976). The earlier performance included here clocks in a few minutes shorter than the later one and makes a slightly more coherent impression. Ormandy delivers another strong performance, maintaining a characteristically steady pace within each of the four movements, and within that measured framework, invests in bold gestures, sensitive phrasing, and meticulously controlled dynamics. The tightly packed stereo landscape again heightens the emotional engagement of the listener. The Carmen theme in the opening movement is full of tender expressiveness, adorned by the harp in the extreme left channel. If the march variant in the development section doesn’t fully capture the irony of the moment, the brass builds a stirring climactic ascent. The spatial distribution of French horn, flute, and harp provides an especially moving passage in the recap. Spontaneity abounds in the Scherzo, more so than in the later RCA report. While the opening pages of the Largo convey more fluidity than reflection, the crescendo in the strings that follows is mined for all its expressive depth, as is the central xylophone-garnished climax. In the rousing finale, the coda is taken at the faster uncorrected tempo, as one finds in Ormandy’s later RCA version and in most performances of the day.
Another performance in the current set that ranks as one of Ormandy’s best Shostakovich entries is the Tenth Symphony. It is here, especially in the opening movement, that the Magnificent Philadelphians, as they were often called, show their full strengths. The terrain is handled beautifully, with high points scored for atmosphere, solo work, architectural coherence, and not least, passionate crescendos. Notable in the sound department are the stirringly resonant gong strokes at moments of climactic emphasis (Fig. 36, 11:01), and the volleys of peak-excitement thirty-second notes on trumpet (Fig. 40 + 3, 11:54), two amplifying details in the development section that are too often swallowed up in other recordings. The storm and fury of the Scherzo is brought off in full measure. The listener has no choice but to be plunged directly into the tempest, emotionally and aurally, here with razor-sharp entries on the snare drum off to the far right, and punctuations on xylophone and timpani to the far left. In listening to the final two movements, one has to remind oneself that this performance dates from 1968, when notions of musical doublespeak and hidden agendas were not yet part
of the Shostakovich conversation. And yet in this Ormandy reading, a post-Testimony perspective readily applies, as does the post-Stalinist context that is now inextricably bound to the work’s interpretative layers. One readily hears in the third movement the explosive anger, the triumphant assertion of self and survival in the wake of the dictator’s death, by way of the climactic repetitions of the DSCH motif; and likewise, in the final movement, the unbounded glee of liberation, tempered with shades of hysteria. It is a tribute to Ormandy’s musical insight to have penetrated these layers of expression so passionately, well before they were given fresh context in later generations of Shostakovich studies.
It would be no exaggeration to say that the First Cello Concerto belongs to Mstislav Rostropovich, not only as the dedicatee but also by his recorded legacy. The world premiere recording, heard here, was set down in the studio by Ormandy and the Philadelphians in their native city, with Rostropovich as soloist, and in the presence of the composer, on 8 November 1959. This took place only two days after the same forces gave the Western premiere of the concerto, and only one month after the world premiere was given in Leningrad (again with Rostropovich, under the baton of Yevgeny Mravinsky). The Philadelphia concert marked the highlight of the second of Shostakovich’s three visits to America, this time in the company of a delegation of Soviet composers that included such notables as Dmitri Kabalevsky, Tikhon Khrennikov, Konstantin Danchenko, and Fikret Amirov, all of whom were present in the audience for the premiere. Rostropovich performed the concerto with other notable conductors over the years—with Rozhdestvensky and Kondrashin in 1960, under David Oistrakh’s baton in 1965 (DSCH 9 and 17), and with Svetlanov in 1966. Curiously, in each of these subsequent reports, the performance is taken at a successively faster, more driven tempo that is by and large invigorating, although at other times rather dizzying. Recordings of the above live concerts have been variously reissued. But the CBS/Sony recording with Ormandy stands out in being one of only two studio recordings that Rostropovich made of the work, the latter being with Seiji Ozawa and the LSO in 1987 (Erato 75485). Ormandy also recorded the work one more time, this time with Yo-Yo Ma as soloist on 3 May 1982, an auspicious event marking the final recording of a long and distinguished career on the podium.
In the current reading, Rostropovich’s performance, it goes without saying, stands on its own. The opening movement’s rhythmic tattoos and clashing riffs are embraced with engaging muscularity. Visceral involvement with the music is precisely what makes Rostropovich such a compelling Shostakovich interpreter, bolstered as that involvement is with a brawny tone that instinctively connects with the music’s multiple layers of tension. He brings out the pathos of the slow movement with depth and sensitivity. In the cadenza, his emphasis on dramatic gesture contrasts with Yo-Yo Ma’s more introspective, exploratory approach that yields very different, if somewhat more rapturous, dividends. Yet Rostropovich’s assertive command of the score projects its own charisma that secures its exalted place in the discography. Ormandy provides a vigorous accompaniment, with sharp-edged support in the strings when called for, and first-rate French horn playing by Mason Jones. Worth mentioning is the very frameable and collectible album cover of the original LP, this listener’s personal favourite, which features a full colour photo of Ormandy and Shostakovich in rehearsal sharing a priceless moment of spontaneous laughter.
The collection is topped off with Ormandy’s briskly paced “Polka” from The Age of Gold, sporting all the distinctive virtues as discussed.
This three-CD Ormandy set documents an outstanding collection of recordings that are noteworthy for a bounty of reasons: for the interpretive vitality brought to each performance; for representing and preserving a set of landmarks in the Shostakovich discography; and last but not least, for providing one example after another of sound engineering that stand as models of excellence for future productions. For the Shostakovich devotee, these Ormandy interpretations comprise a strongly recommended addition to the library.
2 Harold C. Schonberg, The Great Conductors (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 341.
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Walton: String Quartet no. 2 in A minor. Shostakovich: String Quartet no. 3 in F major, opus 73
Albion Quartet: Tamsin Waley-Cohen and Emma Parker (violins), Ann Beilby (viola), Nathaniel Boyd (cello)
Recorded, Saffron Hall, Essex, UK, 24–26 July 2021
Signum offers a unique and intelligent coupling of two quartets that were completed in 1946. Close contemporaries, Walton and Shostakovich had just lived through the same war, their countries allied against Hitler, but the two artists had worked in such different circumstances.
Sadly, the CD, recorded in 2021, also acts as a memorial for the Albion Quartet, which at the end of 2022 announced plans to disband. I encountered some of the members at a north-British music festival. They are highly dedicated chamber musicians as individuals, but something special happened when they formed the Albion Quartet in 2016 (which, incidentally, was the year the UK chose to leave the European Union); however, I’m not aware of the reasons for the Quartet’s demise.
With Brexit, Covid, war in Ukraine, and any number of other issues, it seems there’s so much background noise that it’s sometimes hard to focus on the music itself, or to recall why we play or listen. The Albion Quartet are not friends of mine, so this isn’t a partisan review. They perform sympathetically here, and differentiate the composers’ styles, with some clarity, in good sound.
Roger Parker offers a mix of detail and context in his booklet notes, though I’d disagree with him on this: “Walton’s Quartet, which cost him immense compositional efforts is much more studied and complex in its demands on the listener. By contrast Shostakovich’s work is almost poster like in its relative simplicity and directness.” I hold the Walton Quartet in high esteem, yet its well-defined emotional range makes a suitably direct impact on first hearing, especially so when projected with warmth and eloquence, as here by the Albions. It’s perhaps even more direct in the Sonata for String Orchestra arrangement for larger forces, made by Walton and Malcolm Arnold in the 1970s.
By contrast, the shifting layers and perspectives in opus 73 have grown no easier to define. The quiet ending, whether in the original or in Barshai’s orchestration, does not bring to mind any poster I’ve seen. Thoughts flick back to the work’s jolly opening tune. Moved and almost afraid to breathe, you wonder, “What did all of that mean?” and you start again. It’s the familiar Shostakovich listening position we enjoy, at (un)ease with lifelong uncertainty and irony. By lifelong, I realise I mean I’ve known each work for more than 50 years, originally from LPs by the Allegri Quartet on Argo (strangely, yet to make it to CD), and the Borodin Quartet in the Dubinsky era, now on Chandos (DSCH 19). They were both excellent performances, with the Borodin still unsurpassed in the Third, though the recording can sound nearly as aged as I do.
The Walton had also benefitted from a 1949 mono recording by the Hollywood Quartet (Testament SBT1052). There, Felix Slatkin and co. matched emotional expression and confident vibrato to driving force, in a way no later group would attempt. Among good stereo versions have been the Maggini (Naxos 8.554646) for the effortless teamwork, the Endellion (Warner download) for their expansive Lento, and the more recent Doric (Chandos CHAN 10661) for the fresh energy. The Albion offer thoughtful expression in each movement and no ostentation. It’s quite low-key but they almost make me forgive Walton the fugato in the first movement.
Nonetheless, the Albion are more convincing in the Shostakovich Third, which has been recorded so many more times in the last half-century. The Fitzwilliam (Decca) remain my favourite in good sound, provided you also have the early Borodin. The first violin part in opus 73 invites strong characterisation from the start. Tamsin Waley-Cohen takes to the stage with a witty and varied account of the opening themes,
more vBivyid Elyv gpreensiean tKedh bayz dthaen Albion players than by the Fitzwilliam. Both Scherzo movements go well, the four voices converging at the end of the Allegro by matching panic to poise. The Adagio is anchored by Nat Boyd’s heartfelt cello line, with the higher instruments conveying loss and grief, their tone so changed from the earlier movements. The Moderato is the toughest movement to pull off, especially the first half, as the music tries to recapture some of the insouciance of the Allegretto. Like most groups, the Albion keep the temperature quite low, after which the inconsolable return of the Adagio is not disappointing. At the end, the carefree fiddle from the opening seems to vanish quietly into heaven, or wherever.
Freshly grim times perhaps clarify 1946 meanings. The Albion’s juxtaposition of Shostakovich’s towering masterpiece, with a fine, underrated British quartet, works well. I think you’ll find their CD engaging.
Akh, nit gut! From Yiddish Folk Poetry
Joel Engel: “12 songs from Yidishe folkslieder,” [a]; 4 later Yiddish songs [a, b]
Shostakovich: From Jewish Folk Poetry, opus 79 (sung in Yiddish) [a]
Elizaveta Agrafenina, soprano; Sára Gutvill, mezzo soprano; Tyrone Landau, tenor; Jaap Kooi, piano [a] Pierre Mak, baritone [b]
Recorded, Zeeuwse Concertzaal
Middelburg, Netherlands, 10–13 July 2022
Zefir Records’ CD “Akh, nit gut!” includes a new recording of Shostakovich’s song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, opus 79, presenting the familiar cycle in Yiddish translation on an album that is the result of four years of work by a team of musicians from the Netherlands, Norway, and the UK. In addition to the Shostakovich, it features sixteen Yiddish folk songs arranged by Joel Engel. Hence, the Shostakovich work is presented as a continuation and a development of the Russian-Jewish academic tradition. And there are good reasons for this approach.
From Jewish Folk Poetry is an unusual work, if only because it represents two different cultures simultaneously. First and foremost, it is a work by a Soviet composer, written during the Stalinist era and as a response to it: Shostakovich completed the cycle in the autumn of 1948, a year that began with the assassination of Solomon Mikhoels on 13 January, soon to be followed by the arrests of members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which escalated into the mass arrest of Jews throughout the country. The Soviet poets’ translations of the songs themselves contain images and specific details that are clear and need no explanation for Russian listeners. For example, the last song ends with the heroine singing, in Yiddish: “Di zun aleyn shaynt gor in mayn lebn!” (“The very sun shines in my life!”). The pathos of her speech is partially offset by the play on words: “sons”— “sun” (in Yiddish, “zun” means both the sun and a son). The Russian translation of the line is different: “A star burns over our heads!”, recalling the Kremlin stars—the five-pointed summit of the Moscow Kremlin towers, installed in 1935 and eulogised in many poems.
At the same time, Soviet Jews perceived Shostakovich’s cycle as a work representing Ashkenazi culture. They discerned images and details referring to Jewish tradition. The text of “A Good Life,” for example, first refers to the psalm recited at the Sabbath service and then to the Pentateuch, which describes the land of Israel as a land where “milk and honey flow” (Numbers 13:28). That is, the collective land is likened to the Promised Land. When listening to “The Young Girl’s Song,” those who were aware of tradition detected similarities with the famous “Dudele,” a well-known song in Jewish tradition, composed by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, a prominent Hasidic leader and Torah scholar in the late 18th century.
In effect, Shostakovich addressed Jewish and non-Jewish audiences simultaneously. He presented Yiddish culture to the latter, and “in their language.” A good example of this approach is the subject of a lament for the dead (no. 1 “The Lament for the Dead Child”). In fact, this genre does not exist within the Ashkenazi peoples. However, in this way, Shostakovich enables the non-Jewish listener to see the Jewish characters as people like themselves and thus understandable to them.
Yet at the same time, Shostakovich spoke the language of Jewish culture, using its figurative, verbal, and intonational codes. For many years From Jewish Folk Poetry became a kind of substitute for a tradition that was being banished and destroyed. In the 1990s, when the ban on anything Jewish was finally lifted, this cycle—a cycle by a non-Jewish composer—became almost mandatory at numerous festivals of Jewish music. The conductor Vladimir Spivakov, who attended the first public performance of the cycle in January 1955 at the Leningrad Glinka Concert Hall, referred to Shostakovich by quoting a line from Marina Tsvetayeva’s poem “The voice of all the voiceless”:1 here the composer spoke out where hundreds of thousands were silent.
The texts for the cycle were taken from a recently published book.2 It contained translations of Jewish folk songs, the originals of which had been published seven years earlier, in 1940.3 Some of these songs were widely known and some were published in other folklore collections. Unsurprisingly, with time, the idea of putting the original Yiddish texts in place of the Russian translations arose, and Professor Joachim Braun of Bar-Ilan University (Israel) did this.4
One might have expected the new version to gain popularity quickly, but it has been performed rarely. To date, the cycle has been recorded in Yiddish only three times. On CD: a 1985 concert performance of the first eight numbers with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yuri Ahronovich (Jerusalem Records Stradivari Performance SCD 8005, released in 1988), and the entire cycle in 2000 with the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, conducted by Andrei Chistyakov (Saison Russe RUS 288166, DSCH 13). The other, earlier recording of a live concert in London was released in 1984 but only on cassette (B’na B’Brith 001).5
One of the peculiarities of this new recording is the concern given by the performers to the way in which the Yiddish text is set against Shostakovich’s music. The translations that the composer turned to were not, and could not be, equirhythmic. The whimsical rhythmic pattern of Ashkenazi folklore often does not conform to the norms of syllabo-tonic versification. Braun was obliged to remove some words and syllables, even though he strove to adhere to the Yiddish original as much as possible, while trying not to change anything in the music itself. As a result, functional parts of speech such as articles or prepositions often ended up on strong beats in the measure, distorting the sound of Yiddish.
In preparation for the recording of the album under review, the performers undertook painstaking work in an attempt to find the best solution for each such occurrence. Sometimes it was enough to change the rhythmic pattern of the vocal line slightly. For example, instead of (see Ex. 1) we now have (see Ex. 2).
By splitting the first beat rather than the second, the two erroneous accents are levelled out. In other cases, changes were more complex. For example, it proved impossible to bring back the folkloric text in no. 5 (“A Warning”), in which Braun, following the logic of the melodic pattern, had to rearrange the words of the Yiddish text. As a result, the rhyme was not retained—the text ceased to be an example of “folk poetry.”
The text that was reworked the most is no. 6, “The Abandoned Father.” Here the performers adopted a different strategy, making no attempt to reconstruct the words of the folk song; rather they reverse-translated the text used by Shostakovich. Thus, the affectionate address to the daughter “feygl” (little bird) is replaced throughout by “tokhter” (daughter), and the father promises his daughter rings and earrings (“ringen”) rather than outfits (“kleyder”). As the reader may know, Shostakovich also changed some of the song’s lyrics, replacing the social status of the main character Elye from innkeeper to a ragman. However, in this new release, Elye has lost his profession altogether and has simply become “reb Elye” (that is, “Mr. Elye”). This change is made to clarify the narrative: there is no explanation in the folk song or in the Russian translation for the “dressing gown,” which Elye puts on, having learnt his daughter Tsirl was baptised. (During the Soviet era, reference to religious realities was forbidden, so in Shostakovich’s cycle Tsirl had run away from home to a police officer.) In such cases, the parents performed the ceremony for the child in the same way as for the deceased, and the change of clothes indirectly points this ritual. In the reviewed version, the performers inserted a mention of this rite (“shiva”) in the first line, “sacrificing” Elye’s profession.
These changes are certainly successful. However, there are lines in this version where amendments are not so successful. For example, the daughter replies to her father that she intends to marry the police officer—this word in her speech is highlighted with a fanfare intonation and dotted rhythm, which become an indirect characteristic of this brave, empowered man chosen by Tsirl. In this new recording, the performers replaced “police officer” with “sheigets” (non-Jew), and if in the father’s speech this definition looks reasonable, then in the mouth of Tsirl, who is proud of her choice, it is inappropriate, and it also fails to fit the melodic characterisation. On top of everything, it seems that the “sheigets” and the “police officer” are different people. It turns out that in this little scene there are not three, but four characters, and Tsirl in her last line, calls for a policeman in order to get rid of her father.
There are other places in the cycle where the Yiddish text conflicts with the musical material. Shostakovich did not adhere the original genres of folk songs—for example, in no. 2, “The Thoughtful Mother and Aunt” Shostakovich uses the text of a lullaby, whose first words are “Shlof, shlof, shlof ” (“Sleep, sleep, sleep”). The Russian translator replaced them with syllables that could also be heard when rocking the baby: “bye-bye-bye.” But here, this text has become a song to amuse the child. It deploys a lively tempo, set to a light, bouncy accompaniment. The syllables “bay-bay-bay” do not contradict it, but the persuasion to sleep, uttered in a playful tone, is inappropriate. The resulting contradiction cannot be resolved simply by changing the opening words in the couplet: they rhyme with the next line. So here in the revised version the performers had no choice but to follow Shostakovich’s music, with no emphasis on the meaning of the words.
Similar contradictions occur in the first song, “The Lament for the Dead Child.” Shostakovich turned to the text with which the children’s game began. Many researchers have written about how the composer changed this text, depicting a strange landscape at the beginning, in which the sun and the moon, the rain and the fog are present at the same time. However, in the game “Zun mit a regn”—this is the “sun shower,” during which the sun shines and a rainbow appears. But for Shostakovich, the sun and the rain are opposites, and he begins his cycle with a microcosm that captures opposites, where there is the sun—and rain, radiance—and darkness, birth—and death. Accordingly, the two voices leading the dialogue also reflect this dualistic picture: the “bright” soprano and the “darkened” alto. The return of the “game text” is inappropriate here, despite the fact that rhythmically it fits well with the vocal line. A new translation is required. For example, the wonderful poet Boris Sandler, at my request, performed a reverse translation of this stanza into Yiddish:
Zun mit a regn,
S’a togshaynt un nakht.
Farshpreyt zikh der nepl,
The sun and the rain,
The glow of day and night.
The fog has spread,
The moon has faded.
A review of the changes in the lyrics of the cycle illustrates the extraordinary preparatory work undertaken by the performers in paving the way for new readings of the cycle. They find a suitable balance between the composer’s musical intent and the work’s lyrics. Paradoxically, their approach, not based on restoring original versions of folk songs, but rather on revealing them, newly recounted, brings the work closer to the Jewish tradition, in which texts could be freely transformed, regardless of whether they had authors and whether they were fixed in publications.
Equally challenging was the choice of a work that might be included on a CD alongside the Shostakovich cycle. The arrangements by Joel Engel are not the most obvious solution. Just as in Shostakovich’s opus, the pieces are an example of the composer turning to Jewish folk song. They are also in Yiddish. There are connections between some of the songs—in both the Engel and Shostakovich works there are songs about a girl’s fate (“A Warning” and “Shpatsirn zaynen mir”) and separation from a loved one (“Before a Long Parting” and “Akh, nit gut”). Engel’s arrangements are not only sung by almost the same performers (with the addition of another male voice, a baritone), but some of them are turned into dialogues, which should bring them even closer to the From Jewish Folk Poetry cycle. Nevertheless, dissimilarities between the two works are undoubtedly due to chronology, each composer’s experience with Yiddish folklore, their target audiences, and so on.
Folklorist and composer Joel Engel (1868–1927) was among the founders of the so-called Russian-Jewish school. While still a student at the Moscow Conservatory, he began recording Jewish songs. In the late 1890s he collaborated with Pesach Marek and Saul Ginzburg on the first anthology of Yiddish folk songs.6 Following a volume of song texts, a plan was formulated to publish an edition with music, but this project did not materialise, Engel later arranged some of the songs in the anthology and published them first in two small notebooks (1909 and 1912) and then in separate editions. These include twelve of the sixteen arrangements selected for this new CD. Among them is the popular song “Amol iz geven a mayse” (no. 15 “Once upon a Time”), whose melody serves as a reminder of the disasters associated with the destruction of the Temple,7 as well as the virtually forgotten paraphrase of the Passover counting song “Ekhad mi yodea” (“Who Knows One?”), in which traditional numerical symbolism is replaced with other values related to the wedding (no. 16 “Oy, akh, byomeynu”).
Joel Engel is known for his musical and critical activities, through which an understanding of Jewish musical tradition gradually crystallised. In the early 1900s, he vigorously debated in the press with Sholom Aleichem, protesting against the labelling of Mark Warshawsky’s songs as “folk songs.” Engel attempted to transpose into the Jewish tradition an understanding of folklore that had developed among conservatory-educated composers. However, over time his views changed. In 1915, he objected to the opinions of his colleague Lazare Saminsky (composer and folklorist, and member of the Society for Jewish Folk Music in St. Petersburg), who contrasted the music of the synagogue liturgy with Yiddish songs, which he considered to be full of borrowings and foreign elements. Engel, on the other hand, tried to prove the originality of the “everyday Jewish song” in response.
During the course of this dispute, both men referred disparagingly to the song “Oy, Avrom!”, calling it “a vile factory song favoured by the urban neighbourhoods of Odessa.”8 A few decades later, Shostakovich turned to this text, composing “Before a Long Parting” as the fourth song in his cycle. “A letter is as you read it, a tune is as you sing it,” wrote Yitskhok Leybush Peretz, and in the same lines it is possible to hear both frivolous vulgarity and a painfully poignant scene of parting lovers.
In his arrangements of folk songs, Engel followed the traditions of Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov: he kept the melodies unchanged, setting them, like precious gems, within the framework of a classical accompaniment. He also sought to choose harmonies that emphasised the tonal uniqueness of the songs.
Unlike Shostakovich’s cycle, where the new reading involved performers working with a Yiddish text, in Engel’s arrangements, they focused on the musical settings of some of the songs. For example, Engel arranged the song “Akh, nit gut!” (“Oh, It’s No Good!”), adding a violin to the piano. The melody given to the instrument conveyed the longing of the heroine. Tyrone Landau suggested another performing variant, transferring the violin part to a second voice. The quiet, airy phrase “Farges keyn geveyn…” (“Don’t forget to cry…”) becomes the refrain of the song.
Similarly, the violin part in no. 8 “Er hot mir tsugezogt” (“He Promised Me”) became a romantic interplay between the tenor and soprano. This background seems to be not so much a memory of past happiness as an illustration of the unfaithfulness of the beloved. “God pays him back … that will be his punishment!”—the deceived heroine repeats.
Song no. 3 “Rachel the Fair” is adorned with a vocalisation interlude that depicts the beauty of the girl whom the young man is dreaming of.
An extremely successful solution is offered in song no. 7 “Vi zingt dos khosidl” (“How the Hasid, the Rom, and the Russian Sing”). Its three characters each sing their own melody: for the Hasid, it’s a nigun (a form of Jewish paraliturgical chant); for the Rom, it’s a dance melody, as if accompanied by the jingle of coins in a necklace, and for the third character—Ivanka—this is not a song, but rather a cry used to urge on his horses. Assigning these parts to different voices allows them to be further interconnected. In the resulting score, the nigun became the main melody, the “Gypsy rhythm” became the accompaniment, and the driver’s cry became the top line. The song sounds very Hasidic. Legend has it that all melodies are born in the Heavenly Palace and descend to earth, but they end up with different peoples. By uniting, they form a unified harmonious sound. In the new arrangement, this song gained completeness and became one of the most interesting numbers on the album.
On first listening, Engel’s arrangements seem simpler than Shostakovich’s: they are not structured as a cycle, there is no predetermined dynamic in their ordering, and their accompaniment writing appears somewhat naive compared to the significantly more complex piano parts in Shostakovich’s work. But it was not by chance that Engel treated these songs as precious items, striving to preserve both their lyrics and their melodies. Many of these songs have second and third meanings and lead into the depths of tradition. For example, listen again to the song of the tired watchman (“Slushay!”). One of its early versions is included in mid-19th century collections by Berl from Brody, Galicia (Berl Broder or Berl Margulies, ca. 1815–68) though it was probably written earlier. In performing it, Pierre Mak emphasises the contrast between the character’s weakness and the zealous execution of his duty. This is probably what Engel himself imagined the song to be like when he classified it as a domestic song. However, both the initial cry and the subsequent response contain intonations of the Lern-shteyger mode, used to study the Torah, which becomes a reference to the words of the prophet: “So you, son of man: I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore you shall hear a word from My mouth and warn them for Me” (Ezekial 33:7).
Sára Gutvill produced the CD, inviting performers with excellent vocal skills and created a team of like-minded individuals. The four voices form a magnificent ensemble, in which each member adds his or her own colour to the overall sound. The piano is a full-fledged member of the ensemble. Jaap Kooi skilfully frames the performers’ voices in Engel’s arrangements, and in the Shostakovich cycle his instrument sounds with philosophical depth.
The unconventional choices of repertoire present the performers with difficult challenges. Despite many commonalities, Engel’s and Shostakovich’s works require different sonorities. Emotions that may appear similar are conveyed through different means. However deep the longing, the Yiddish songs possess a melancholy and sweet undertone. Conversely, in Shostakovich’s music, even in the softest of intonations one can detect the straining of nerves, and the more solemn the music, the more frightening it becomes. The performing group succeed in creating a panorama in which Jewish composers, admiring folk songs, sought to preserve them and present them to their audience: half a century later the songs cried out about the tragedy of their creators, and helped those who remained to survive.
The new album will undoubtedly appeal to fans of Shostakovich’s work. It will also appeal to connoisseurs of Yiddish song. But it is primarily intended for listeners who can ask questions, and also for performers and composers who can decide how folklore and academic traditions might be of interest to one another, and where they might intersect.
1 V.T. Spivakov, “Vladimir Spivakov on Shostakovich and Himself. Voice of All the Voiceless,” Chaika 19, no. 30 (8 October 2004). URL: https://www.chayka.org/node/338 (accessed 8 April 2023).
2 “Yiddish Folk Songs” (“Еврейские народные песни”) compiled by I.M. Dobrushin, A.D. Yuditsky; edited by Y.M. Sokolov (Moscow: State Publishing House of Art Literature, 1947).
3 “Yiddish Folk Songs” (“Yidishe folks-lider”) compiled by I.M. Dobrushin, A.D. Yuditsky (Moscow: State Publishing House “Der emes,” 1940). The volume is available online at https://archive.org/details/yidishefolksli00melu (accessed 17 May 2023). Thanks to Bret Werb for alerting me to this.
4 Joachim Braun, “Shostakovich’s Jewish Songs: From Jewish Folk Poetry, opus 79: Introductory Essay with Original Yiddish Underlay” (Tel Aviv, 1989). This is available online at https://yiddish-culture.com/multimedia_en/joachim-braun-shostakovich_en/ (accessed 17 May 2023).
5 The recording is available at the https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aE2yTJ4VFi4 (accessed 14 May 2023). I would like to thank Rudi Van den Bulck for making this available on his YouTube channel, together with scans of some of his memorabilia of the event.
6 “Yiddish Folk Songs in Russia” (“Еврейские народные песни в России”), compiled by S.M. Ginzburg and P.S. Marek (Saint Petersburg, 1901).
7 For more about this song, see Evgenia Khazdan, “Once There Was a Fairy Tale: Riddles of Jewish Lullaby,” Traditsionnaya kultura 4 (2008): 94–102 (in Russian). Also “Była sobie bajka. Tajemnice zydowskiej kołysanki,” Midrasz 5 (2008), 42–45 (in Polish).
8 Joel Engel and Lazare Saminsky, “An argument about the value of everyday Jewish melody,” in Iz istorii yevreyskoy muzyki v Rossii: Materialy mezhdunarodnoy nauchnoy konferentsii “90 let Obshchestvu yevreyskoy narodnoy muzyki v Peterburge–Petrograde (1908–1919)” (Saint Petersburg, 2001), 159.
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New Philharmonia Orchestra/Kurt Sanderling
Recorded live, Royal Festival Hall, London, 15 May 1973
ICA Classics ICAC 5171 (c/w Balakirev: Islamey opus 18 [orch. Casella], Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin,
recorded live, Royal Festival Hall, 24 January 1978)
Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse/Tugan Sokhiev
Recorded live, Halle aux grains, Toulouse, 8–10 September 2021
Warner Classics 9029637771
Ural Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Liss
Recorded live, Grand Hall of Sverdlovsky Philharmonic, Yekaterinburg, Russia, 22 November 2021.
Fuga Libera FUG 809
Here are three recently released live recordings of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, one a half-century old, showcasing a personal colleague of the composer at the helm of a front-ranked ensemble, the other two from late 2021, courtesy of less well-known conductors and orchestras.
The vintage offering is Kurt Sanderling and the New Philharmonia’s 1973 performance at the Royal Festival Hall. Sanderling had a deep relationship with the Philharmonia, beginning during their “New Philharmonia” period (1964–1977), when Sanderling stepped in for an unwell Otto Klemperer in 1972. Numerous collaborations in the following years culminated in Sanderling’s appointment in 1996 as the Philharmonia’s conductor emeritus. Shostakovich was frequently on their agenda over the decades, the musicians relishing the insights Sanderling brought via his professional association with the works’ creator. As noted by David Whelton, the Philharmonia’s General Manager, “For the Orchestra to be conducted from the score that had the composer’s own markings was an unforgettable experience.” Fittingly, Sanderling’s last appearance with the Philharmonia was a September 2000 performance of Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony.
This concert came four years before Sanderling’s studio recording of this opus with the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester on Berlin Classics (single-CD issue 0090182BC and five-disc reissue 0092172BC partnered with Symphonies nos. 1, 5, 6, 8, and 15). That 1977 recording has been deleted from the CD catalogue but is currently available for digital download, both as the Berlin Classics imprint and as an audibly indistinguishable 2021 remastering (Eterna Records 885470024257). This high-voltage account stands as a serious contender among opus 93 recordings. Despite Sanderling’s coaching, his Berlin Symphony Orchestra never matched the horsepower of their more illustrious counterparts on the western side of the Wall, but their lean, edgy tone nevertheless transmitted an understanding that serious matters are at stake in this symphony. The East Berliners’ commitment to Sanderling’s uncompromising direction also makes it easy to overlook the rare lapse, none more noteworthy than an indistinct piccolo trill at Fig. 165 in the fourth movement.
As fine as Sanderling’s Berlin account of the Tenth Symphony was, one sensed he could have generated more gravitas with a stronger team. The Orchestre National de France weren’t the players to achieve this for him, their 1978 live concert being hampered by conspicuous weaknesses in the woodwinds and brass (Naïve Classique V 4973; DSCH 21). Though the ONF strings didn’t share these shortcomings, their smooth enunciation wasn’t preferable to the punchier diction of the Berliners.
The New Philharmonia of the mid-70s resided on an altogether higher tier, and from the deep, gravelly opening notes of the Tenth Symphony we immediately sense that this could be the account to supply the heft missing from Sanderling’s Berlin SO and ONF recordings. For the most part, this hope is borne out by what follows. Thanks to those growling low strings, the protagonist in the first movement wanders through a larger, darker, and more threatening space than in either of the other two Sanderling documents; his baton keeps proceedings moving inexorably from one episode to the next, and the musicians deliver climaxes of terrifying violence.
However, anyone looking for a pristine recital of that first movement will be disappointed. This BBC broadcast tape of a single night’s event preserves gremlins we are unlikely to encounter on today’s commercial releases advertised as “live” recordings, which are typically compiled from multiple concert performances and patch sessions, allowing mistakes to be edited out. While the New Philharmonia musicians admit few outright errors, the narrative is materially affected by a warble that interrupts the clarinet duet at Fig. 57-1/17:29, and by a jarring break in the piccolo’s sustained high G that leads us out of the movement, at Fig. 70+12/23:52.
The Scherzo in Sanderling’s Berlin reading was already one of the more extreme on record, but this movement is even more frenzied in his London account (4:33 vs. 4:13, respectively). Sanderling heightens the tension by starting off at a deliberate pace before applying a neck-snapping accelerando. The New Philharmonia unleash a whirlwind of chaos, snarling and unpredictable. Despite being driven so hard, their only significant slip is a missed note in the flute’s run up to the Scherzo’s closing paroxysms.
The New Philharmonia’s third movement is also tauter than the Berliners’. The players invest the duelling themes with rich personality; special mention goes to the first horn for luminous voicing of the Elmira motif.
In Sanderling’s Berlin version, I found the fourth movement to be not quite as focused as the preceding movements, but the slackness I regretted there doesn’t manifest itself in his New Philharmonia reading, which he whips through in just 12:06 compared with 13:37 in Berlin. The musicians show no signs of fatigue, fully justifying the raucous applause that erupts before the last note has finished sounding.
Prospective buyers must be warned that this recording is littered with audience and onstage noises. While the ear adjusts to the ever-present background rustling, not all of the extraneous sounds are easy to overlook; for instance, the violins’ reprise of the opening theme in the third movement is marred by a peculiar clatter at Fig. 110/2:30. An audiophile production this is not, and the acoustics are especially unkind to the strings, which often sound distant.
ICA Classics give us an encore, also recorded at the Royal Festival Hall, though with a completely different team: a 1978 concert performance of Balakirev’s Islamey from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Kondrashin. Here we are served the spark-spitting orchestral arrangement of Balakirev’s piano original by Alfredo Casella, which strikes me as more of a Pops piece than Sergei Lyapunov’s orchestration. This amuse bouche is played with verve and granted nearly as much space as the main course in the brief booklet notes, but I imagine most readers will consider it to be immaterial to the decision of whether or not to add this release to their collection.
The Tenth Symphony from Tugan Sokhiev and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse (ONCT) is the second entry in what was to have been a complete Shostakovich symphony cycle on Warner Classics. Sadly, as I explained in my review of their Eighth Symphony (DSCH 58), further instalments are doubtful following Sokhiev’s resignation as the ONCT’s Music Director in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. We are lucky that this recording of no. 10 is assembled from concerts in September 2021, pre-war; it would have been a great pity not to have Sokhiev’s distinctive interpretation on disc.
Sokhiev takes a much more deliberate approach to the first movement than Sanderling in London, lingering two minutes longer overall (26:04 vs. 24:00, respectively). The opening pages are marked by heavy pressure on each note, eschewing the fluidity we are used to hearing from conductors of Kurt Sanderling’s generation. We struggle to step forward, staggering beneath a crushing weight.
This impression gives way to a more introspective exploration of sombre emotions, with finely calibrated nuances of dynamics and tempo heightening feelings of isolation and fragility. Impending menace is conveyed by the bassoon dialogue from Fig. 29/10:41 via subtle ritardandi applied to alternating measures.
The central climax erupts organically, its vehemence precise and targeted. Warner’s recording avoids unnatural spot-lighting, casting that often-too-prominent snare drum in a supportive, background role. The aftermath is uncommonly expansive—we wander through ruins. Sokhiev’s well-judged variations of tempo prevent attention from drifting even in the most protracted passages.
Sokhiev and Sanderling take almost exactly the same amount of time over the second movement, but the ONCT sound nimbler than the New Philharmonia. Some listeners may find their Scherzo somewhat scrawnier by comparison but I prefer to consider it lithe and controlled, and certainly all the players should feel proud to have despatched their parts so expertly. However, I do miss hearing clearly those heralding trumpet and trombone quavers at Fig 75+1/0:45 and their subsequent reprise; these notes are marked staccato and forte in the score, but here they are mumbled and barely audible.
Sokhiev launches the third movement briskly as a blithe waltz, a tempo that reappears in manic mien in the climax. Although other sections are given more breathing space, there is less a sense of mystery overall than a slower wand might have conjured. For that matter, Karajan managed to create a more unsettling environment in even less time in his 1966 recording (Deutsche Grammophon 429 716-2; 11:14 vs. 11:25 for Sokhiev). On strictly musical grounds, however, Sokhiev’s conception hangs together.
I should mention that the violins’ F instead of the expected F-flat at Fig. 102+6/0:32 isn’t a mistake but is as written in the New Collected Works edition, which replaces the flat marking on the F in previous scores with a natural.
Coming in at 13:33, Sokhiev’s fourth movement is virtually the same length as Sanderling’s Berlin reading, but I find the new recording to be more engaging. Its wider emotional range is attributable to Sokhiev’s kneading of tempo and some strikingly expressive playing, including a heartbreaking introductory oboe solo, supported by whispering violins, and a perky bassoon. The mourning at the beginning and celebration at the end feel genuine and justified.
None of the sonic limitations of the Sanderling broadcast tape afflict the Sokhiev recording, the audience rarely revealing their presence (there is no applause at the end). Unlike Sokhiev’s recording of Symphony no. 8, this CD of no. 10 is not supplemented by a SACD release from Warner Japan. The booklet notes are cursory.
Dmitry Liss has directed the Ural Philharmonic Orchestra since 1995, but their recording of opus 93 on Fuga Libera is their first physical issue of any Shostakovich symphony, although the same label released in 2022 an audio file of their Symphony no. 15 (FUG 799) and in 2019 a CD of no. 10 by Liss leading the Philharmonie Zuidnederland (FUG 756).
While preferable to his breezy dash through Symphony no. 10 with his Dutch orchestra, Liss’ version with the Ural PO is uncompetitive in the present company, not to mention the front runners of the extensive discography for this work. The Ural Philharmonic put in a respectable showing, but Liss adopts an unfortunate practice of accelerating in introspective passages and applying the brakes just when the proceedings are heating up. Listen to the way this tendency dissipates tension in the first movement’s initial outburst, at the end of its otherwise laudable main climax, and in its closing pages. The same issues pop up in the fourth movement, though not as prominently.
The second movement fares best, the musicians rising to the challenge of Liss’ fast pace (virtually identical to that of Sokhiev and Sanderling/New Philharmonia). Noteworthy is the introduction of portamenti for the swaggering violins from Fig. 74-8/0.29.
Liss’ tempo choices are better matched to the narrative in the third movement than in the first and fourth, but his horn soloist’s Elmira motifs sound winded and prosaic next to the offerings from the New Philharmonia and ONCT.
The case for this album isn’t advanced by Liss’ fondness for humming along, apparently to an entirely different soundtrack from what he’s conducting, a habit also much in evidence on his Philharmonie Zuidnederland recording. Fuga Libera’s recordings capture his vocal effusions in all their glory. On the plus side, the clear and natural acoustics are flattering to the Ural PO, and the audience quiet as church mice; applause has been expunged. The booklet annotation by Yelena Krivonogova provides an informative introduction to opus 93.
Of this trio of Tenths, Sokhiev/ONCT is the only one I would give a firm recommendation as likely to be taken off the shelf repeatedly over the long term. Sanderling/New Philharmonia warrants a qualified welcome for fans of the conductor and/or orchestra willing to overlook its limitations. Liss/Ural PO has its merits but is a less compelling proposition given the stiff competition in the current catalogue.
W. Mark Roberts