Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 27 August 2020

USTVOLSKAYA Suites and Poems

Young Pioneers’ Suite. Children’s Suite. Sports’ Suite (Suite). Lights in the Steppe (Poem No. 1). Hero’s Exploit (Poem No. 2). Poem on Peace (Song of Praise)

Yevgeny Mravinsky, Arvīds Jansons, Vladislav Lavrik, cond; Mikhail Turpanov (pn); Moscow Boy’s Ch; The Studio for New Music; Leningrad PO; Leningrad R Youth SO

Brilliant 96084 (2 CDs: 80:41)


Many composers of the Soviet era led double lives—musically speaking—writing “public” music in an officially approved style for government commissions while exploring more adventurous Modernist techniques elsewhere. The level of artistic conflict between these two musical personas varied from one composer to another. For example, Alfred Schnittke held his populist film music and Modernist concert music in an uneasy balance throughout the 1960s, but the tension eventually erupted into the polystylism that dominated his concert music from the 1970s, but also resulted in a greater Modernist experimentation in his later film scores. Other composers worked the balance through with less tension: the film scores of Shostakovich, for example, or the early Socialist Realist works of Lutosławski, sit alongside their “serious” music without disturbing either composer’s musical world.

But the tension could hardly have been greater for Galina Ustvolskaya, whose austere, insistent, and brutally devotional mature style would sit uneasily with any populist aesthetic. And yet, the composer spent the 1950s and early 60s writing works in an officially approved style, as documented on this two-disc set, Suites & Poems. The liner note, by Andrei Bakhmin in excellent translation by Simon Cosgrove, tells how Ustvolskaya’s official music began soon after the Zhdanov decree of 1948. She was not personally sanctioned by the decree, but her early works grew out of the conformist culture that it created in the last years of Stalin’s rule. These works were all written to state commissions, and demonstrate the uneasy relationship between the authorities and the younger generation of composers at the time. Both Ustvolskaya and Schnittke were commissioned to write pieces to commemorate Yuri Gagarin’s space flight. But Ustvolskaya’s Symphony of the Cosmos was never written, and Schnittke’s Poem About Space was never performed. Both composers turned their backs on “official” music projects soon after, but interestingly, Schnittke had only written in a Socialist Realist style in the 1950s, while Ustvolskaya’s official projects, documented here, run in parallel with more adventurous music for the desk drawer. Ustvolskaya’s later attitude to this early music is also complex. The notes tell us that, in the 1980s, she was inclined to distance herself from all of this music, but was persuaded by her husband to include it in her official works list. She agreed, perhaps reluctantly, but only after giving several of the works more ambiguous names, those new titles appearing in brackets above.

Even at her most restrained, Ustvolskaya could not avoid controversy, and these works proved problematic. They were all performed, by their intended ensembles and conductors—including some prestigious names, as appear on these recordings: Arvīds Jansons, Yevgeny Mravinsky—but soon disappeared into obscurity. Knowing where Ustvolskaya would later go, we can hear key elements of her musical personality in these works. Her taste for insistent repetition appears here, but in warmly harmonized repeating orchestral motifs. The orchestration is fluent but favors contrast of instrumental groups over blended textures. And the simple but unyielding quarter-note rhythms that make her later music so confrontational are anticipated here in a direct and foursquare phrasing structure, giving the rhythms a provocative simplicity, even in this very direct aesthetic.

The works are arranged in roughly chronological order and begin with two works for children, Young Pioneers’ Suite (1953) and Children’s Suite (1955). Shostakovich praised the first of these in print, particularly for its orchestration, which is colorful and bright. The recordings are by the Leningrad Philharmonic in the 1950s, a fact apparent from the spectacular trumpet vibrato on the opening note. All but the last work are presented here in historical recordings dating 1954–1962, most never issued in the West: some appeared on vinyl in the USSR, and the Children’s Suite also appeared on CD in Volume 4 of the Profil Mravinsky Edition, PH18045. The remastering is dry and clean, the sound narrow but detailed, little detracting from the listening experience. Sports Suite (1959, unhelpfully renamed Suite by the composer in later life) is a live recording from 1961, but sounds no worse for it. The work’s brief, characterful movements suggest incidental music, though there is no mention of this in the liner.

The second CD begins with two substantial tone poems, Lights in the Steppe (1959) and Hero’s Exploit (1957). These larger canvases give Ustvolskaya greater scope for exploring orchestral textures, but the style is more conventional. Lights in the Steppe channels Soviet-era Prokofiev, with bright clearly delineated textures and occasional bursts of folksong. Hero’s Exploit is a more strident and somber work, again dominated by vibrato-laden brass, this time from the Leningrad Radio Youth Symphony.

The program closes with another student orchestra performance, but this one recent, Poem of Peace played by the new-music ensemble of the Moscow Conservatory. This recording was made in 2016, and was presumably the impetus for releasing the album. The music is the closest of anything here to Ustvolskaya’s mature style, with a pair of trumpets playing in close, dissonant harmonies and insistently repeating notes at the upper end of the piano. There is also a children’s choir, whose emphatic refrains dominate the work’s ending. The notes relate that Samuel Barber was present at the first performance and commented, “If this is peace, I prefer war.” What a wag.

This is a fascinating release from the ever-adventurous Brilliant Classics label. It probably needed to wait until the composer’s death, given her ambivalence about her early works. And she was right that this music has little intrinsic value on its own terms. But the recordings are certainly of historical interest, giving a broader picture of this paradoxical but increasingly popular composer.

Denys Proshayev – Baroque Suites

 Bach Keyboard Partita No. 6 in e, BWV 830 

Rameau Suite in e (1728)

Schnittke (arr. Shchetynsky) Suite in the Old Style

Denys Proshayev, Nadia Mokhtari (pn); Piano Classics 10179 (67:34)


This new album, Baroque Suites, plays to the strengths of Ukrainian pianist Denys Proshayev. He spent much of the 1990s exploring the keyboard music of Rameau, and the recording of Rameau’s Suite in E Minor dates from 2005, and benefits from that long emersion. Proshayev also has a personal connection to Alfred Schnittke; his teacher Vladimir Krainev was the dedicatee of Schnittke’s Concerto for Piano and Strings. Proshayev recorded that work on a previous Piano Classics disc, which was well received, both by Huntley Dent and me in 38:5. That disc included the two-piano arrangement of Schnittke’s Gogol Suite, for which Proshayev was joined by Nadia Mokhtari. She returns here, for a four-hand arrangement of Schnittke’s Suite in the Old Style.

But to begin—Bach. Proshayev’s take on the Sixth Partita is lyrical and flowing. Tempos are relaxed but steady, and ornamentation is modest but applied with rhythmic freedom. There are obvious Slavic roots in Proshayev’s Bach, especially in the warmth and roundness he brings to the harmonies. But, while his touch is definite and focused, he avoids the physicality and weight that many Russian pianists bring to early repertoire. The result is an attractive balance of harmonic richness and contrapuntal line, though with little concern for period practice.

The Rameau is similar, generously melodic, but still with enough structural focus to maintain the music’s direction and shape. Proshayev is particularly indulgent with the—almost ubiquitous—ornaments, often lingering on the first few notes and then squeezing a complex turn into final moment, but the result always smooth and lyrical. The liner note takes the form of an interview between the pianist and Dr. Lotte Thaler. In it, Proshayev suggests that Rameau was not satisfied with the harpsichord, and that his elaborate ornaments were designed to overcome the short decay time. Proshayev also points out that Rameau was a keen organist, and his reading gives the impression of an organ tone, especially in the way that he relies on the aural foundation of sustained left-hand chords. But Proshayev also says that Rameau’s textures look forward to the Romantic era, and there is no doubt that this is a Romantic reading. Brief recorded applause follows the Rameau, which is the only live recording on the disc.

Schnittke’s Suite in the Old Style must be one of the most arranged pieces of the 20th century. The music is based on two of Schnittke’s film scores, and was originally arranged for violin and piano, at the request of Mark Lubotsky in 1972. Since then, it has been transcribed for chamber orchestra by Vladimir Spivakov and Mikhail Milman, for trumpet and piano by Vladimir Kafelnikov, for viola d’amore, harpsichord, and percussion by Igor Boguslavsky, and for flute quartet by Dmitry Varelas. Schnittke himself also returned to the score to make a solo cello arrangement of the one of the movements for Rostropovich, Musica Nostalgica. Curiously, no arrangement exists for solo piano, but the version here for piano four-hands, by Alexander Shchetynsky, is an elegant transcription. The “Old Style” of the title is a generic Italianate Baroque/Rococo, based on simple, bright melodies and propulsive counterpoint. Shchetynsky’s arrangement avoids weighing down the textures with heavy four-hand sonorities, and the players are instead set in light, imitative counterpoint. In the Fugue fourth movement, the bass entries of the theme are emphasised though left-hand octaves, but the sheer vitality of the playing from Proshayev and Mokhtari ensures that the delicacy is retained, even here.

Sound is good, from sessions in Berlin, Mainz, and Duisburg. The Bach and Schnittke were recorded on Bechsteins, the Rameau on a Steinway, but all produced warm, resonant tones under Proshayev’s patient fingers.

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Schnittke Anniversary Edition Melodiya

SCHNITTKE Dedication to Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich. Piano Quintet. Violin Sonata No. 2. Concerto for Piano and Strings. Concerto Grosso No. 4/Symphony No. 5. Violin Concerto No. 4

Gennady Rozhdestvensky (pn), cond; Dmitri Kitayenko, cond; Viktoria Postnikova, Alexander Bakhchiev, Vladimir Skanavi, Eliso Virsaladze (pn); Liana Isakadze, Gidon Kremer (vn); Borodin Qrt; Moscow PSO; SO of the USSR Ministry of Culture; SO of the Moscow Conservatory

MELODIYA 10 02630 (2 CDs: 145:09)

This two-disc album presents broadcast recordings of Schnittke’s music from concerts at the Moscow Conservatory between 1977 and 1990. Most of the works were very recent at the time of recording, and although there are no premiere performances here, several of the players are dedicatees of the music they perform.
The conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky is a looming presence throughout all of this music, though he was only directly involved in the composition of the first piece, the piano six-hand work Dedication to Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich (1979). This 1980 recording features the same three players who gave the premiere the previous year, Rozhdestvensky (in a rare outing as pianist), his wife, Viktoria Postnikova, pianist Alexander Bakhchiev. The 1979 concert for which Rozhdestvensky commissioned the work was devoted to four-hand and six-hand works for a single piano, and also featured music by Czerny, Grainger, Smetana, and Moscheles. Schnittke emphasizes the sense of humor of his three dedicatees, taking quotations from Shostakovich’s ballet The Golden Age, Stravinsky’s opera The Nightingale, and Prokofiev’s Humorous Scherzo for four bassoons. The composers are also represented by monograms, and the material is carefully layered among the parts. It is a light-hearted program opener—though the quotations are obscure—and is played well here.
The Second Violin Sonata (1968) marked a turning point in Schnittke’s music, away from the serial techniques he had employed in the early 60s and towards the polystylism for which he is best remembered today. Emphatic G-Minor chords punctuate the piano part, as if to reclaim the sonority, but there is still no functional tonal harmony. A motif based on the B-A-C-H monogram also appears, harmonized with unrelated diatonic harmonies. The work was written for Mark Lubotsky, who premiered it in 1969. This performance, by Liana Isakadze, dates from 1977. Melodiya also released a recording of Isakadze performing the work in 1978 (S 10-10831-2), but that was presumably a studio version, although it was with the same pianist., Vladimir Skanavi. Their playing here is propulsive and vigorous. Isakadze is less aggressive than some in this music, but she is able to maintain the sense of unpredictability, with each of the new ideas and transformations presented as a fresh and original idea.
The Piano Quintet (1972–76) was written in response to the death of Schnittke’s mother. It introduced an elegiac character into his music that continued for a decade. Ghostly waltzes and ethereal chorales add a polystylistic dimension, but everything is somber and reflective, avoiding the extreme stylistic contrasts of the sonata. The work is well-represented on disc, but this performance, from 1984, is a revelation. It is given by the Borodin Quartet and pianist Eliso Virsaladze. Although these players did not give the work’s premiere, the piece was originally written for the Borodin Quartet, and the fourth movement opens with a chord derived from each of the player’s initials. In this performance, they capture the contemplative mood perfectly, but, like Isakadze, they maintain a focussed narrative quality throughout. Virsaladze is able to blend the piano into the string sound, or at least project a feeling of unity within the ensemble, without any sense that the strings and piano are in competition.
The Concerto for Piano and Strings (1979) extends the religious imagery that Schnittke had been experimenting with in the Piano Quintet, and most of the music is made up of allusions to Orthodox chant and to Russian bell ringing. The work is harmonically dense, as both the chorales and the bells are usually presented through bitonal harmonies, cleverly voiced to give the impression of clear triads projecting though the dissonance. That sort of religious imagery pervades the work, but only comes through if the pianist has a feel for those unexpected moments of clarity. Vladimir Krainev gives a compelling account, with just the right mix of mystical contemplation and fervid aggression. The concerto was written for Krainev, and this recording, from February 1980 was made just two months after he had given the premiere in Leningrad. Unfortunately, the strings of the Moscow Philharmonic don’t match his precision, and Schnittke’s (admittedly complex) textures are often muddied by poor ensemble. This work is also well represented on disc. Top choice is the version with Viktoria Postnikova and Gennady Rozhdestvensky, conducting the London Sinfonietta (Erato 45742). But also consider the brand-new recording from Denis Matsuev with Kammerorchester Wien-Berlin under Rainer Honeck (DG 4838489, see review this issue), an expansive and highly Romantic account, a little lacking in bite, but rich in expression and with excellent ensemble.
The second disc opens with an address from Rozhdestvensky to the Moscow audience, ahead of the performance of the Concerto Grosso No. 4/Symphony No. 5. He speaks in Russian, but an English translation is included in the booklet. He seems to be concerned that the audience will struggle with the work’s double affiliation, but his explanation is clear and succinct. The first movement is the Concerto Grosso, for violin, oboe, and harpsichord soloists and in the Bach-focused neo-Baroque style that Schnittke had developed in his earlier grossi. It then develops into a Mahlerian symphony, by way of an arrangement of a piano quartet fragment that Mahler wrote as a 16-year-old. The work was written for the Royal Concertgebouw, a commission to celebrate the orchestra’s centenary in 1988. Rozhdestvensky’s performance is the Moscow premiere, given in 1990. The Concertgebouw had recorded the work, with Riccardo Chailly, in 1989 (Decca 430698), and that remains the benchmark. Chailly is more fluid in the Mahlerian music—Rozhdestvensky more frenetic. The Concertgebouw playing is far superior to the Symphony Orchestra of the USSR Ministry of Culture, heard here, but the latter does sound satisfyingly Russian, with narrow woodwinds and blaring brass.
The Fourth Violin Concerto (1984) was written for Gidon Kremer, who plays it here, and a monogram based on his name is one of the main motifs. The work is a companion piece to the more famous Viola Concerto, and in both, Schnittke experiments with the effect of corrosive banality, as a deliberate expressive tool. So the music regularly drifts into light dance rhythms or other incongruous allusions, like the Big Ben chimes with which it opens. A serious undercurrent balances these effects, and the “real” music that Schnittke writes here is similar to the quasi-Mahler in the Fifth Symphony, lyrical but freely atonal and dissonant. Kremer also recorded the work with the Philharmonia and Christoph Eschenbach in 1996. That was part of a variable complete set of Schnittke’s violin concertos (Warner 3984-26866-2), but fortunately it was the most convincing of the four recordings. Superior playing by the Philharmonia seals the deal—Kremer is consistently fine across the two accounts—though Rozhdestvensky is more laid back here than in the symphony, and is in perfect sympathy with Kremer’s approach.
Sound quality is reasonable to good. The first disc is noticeably older than the second in terms of recording standards, but both have a dry sound that suggests overly zealous remastering. The packaging is lavish, with the release described as an “Anniversary Edition,” marking Schnittke’s 85th birthday, which fell in 2019. The recordings have obvious historical significance, but they are also fine performances in their own right. The range of repertoire is also impressive, and even though the Piano Quintet is the only top-choice recording, the album should also serve to introduce new audiences to Schnittke’s music.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 44:1.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Fibich Symphony No. 3 Marek Štilec

Zdenék Fibich (1850–1900)
Symphony No. 3
Šárka: Overture
The Tempest, op. 40: Act III Overture
The Bride of Messina: Act III Funeral Music
Marek Štilec, conductor
Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava
Naxos 8.574120 (63:21)

Zdenék Fibich (1850–1900) is one of those many Czech composers who you are well-represented on disc, but who are only ever performed live in their homeland. Even there, Fibich has a checkered reputation. He was active in the 1880s and 90s, a time of high nationalism in Czech lands. But Fibich himself was ambivalent, and happy to follow German models, especially Wagner. That attitude is demonstrated by one of his most famous operas, The Bride of Messina (we get an excerpt here), which was based on a play by Schiller—German-language sources a big no no in Czech opera at the time. But it is easy to exaggerate the composer’s dissidence. The Bride of Messina, for example, won a competition which resulted in it being premiered at the National Theater in Prague in 1884. And listening to the music on this disc, it is obvious that the composer is Czech, even if some of the more adventurous harmonic shifts and sophisticated orchestral textures sound Germanic. In fact, there is often a tension between that cosmopolitan sophistication and the folk-like melodic style, similar to Smetana, though less memorable. There is also a grandiose side to Fibich, which becomes clear when he introduces menacing motifs in the lower brass, as he does in the first movement of the symphony and in the Messina music. The effect is somewhere between Weber and Wagner, although shorter of breath than either.
The Third Symphony was composed in 1898, shortly before the composer’s death at the age of 50. The liner note, by Richard Whitehouse, suggests that the first two symphonies are more Classical in structure, while the Third follows a “darkness to light” trajectory, more associated with the 19th century. If he is implying that this is the most Beethovenian of Fibich’s symphonies, it is notable how much less so it seems than the mature symphonies of Dvořák. In fact, it is difficult to link this music with any direct influence, “the highpoint of his maturity,” as Whitehouse writes. The outer movements are impressively dramatic, and in a clearly operatic vein. The second movement, nominally slow but marked Allegro con fuoco, is schmaltzy but tuneful, and the scherzo has an ideal balance of bite and bounce.
This release is the fifth and final in a series of Fibich orchestral music from Naxos, the first four with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, but this one with the Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava, all conducted by Marek Štilec. The orchestra sounds Czech, with rich woodwinds and obstreperous brass. But the string sound lacks character, and the ensemble loses focus in the tuttis. As I mentioned, Fibich is surprisingly well-represented on disc, and this version of the Third Symphony is up against three others, all recorded in the 1990s: Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic (Supraphon, rereleased in 2018 as 4250), Gerd Albrecht also with the Czech Philharmonic (Orfeo 350951, rereleased 2019 in the box set 1802), and Neeme Järvi with the Detroit Symphony (Chandos 9682). Only the Gerd Albrecht is available to me for comparison, but the most obvious contrast is the superior playing of the Czech Philharmonic, which gives a greater sophistication to this music, but without loosing its ethnic roots. A review of the Albrecht by James H. North (Fanfare 19:3) compares it with the Järvi and finds Albrecht’s tempos considerably slower. That is little surprise, given Neeme Järvi’s propulsive tendencies, but Štilec is slower again, and not always to his advantage. The first movement gains weight for the slower tempo, although it sounds ponderous in comparison with Albrecht’s sleeker textures (and cleaner ensemble). The second-movement conundrum is taken in different directions by the two conductors: Štilec treats it like the slow movement that it clearly is and ignores the Allegro con fuoco marking, with Albrecht starts at a tempo that reflects the direction—at least twice as fast as here—before settling into the more relaxed music to follow. Clearly, there are many different ways to present this music, and while I prefer Štilec’s approach to tempo, Albrecht wins overall for orchestral performance—with the additional proviso that North also praised the orchestral playing from the Detroit Symphony.
The fillers are orchestral excerpts from three of Fibich’s operas. All demonstrate that grandiose tendency heard in the first movement of the symphony, though it is only an echo in the Funeral March from The Bride of Messina, and the act III Overture from The Tempest is more dreamy woodwind than heavy brass. Confusingly, Fibich wrote two unrelated works with the title The Tempest, an opera (op. 40) and a tone poem (op. 46). This overture comes from the opera, but the tone poem is one of the fillers on the Albrecht Third Symphony recording.
One possible unique selling point for this series is that the conductor has done a great deal of research into sources to recreate the scores as Fibich knew them. Apparently many edits and cuts had crept in over the years within the performing tradition—further evidence, if you are still skeptical, that there is a performing tradition for this music. Štilec includes repeats that had previously fallen from favor. So it is to his credit that the music never sounds repetitious. Otherwise, this is another worthy addition to Naxos’s ever-adventurous catalog, the interpretations compelling, but the orchestral playing challenged by the competition.