On record – Oberton String Octet – Slavic Soul (ARS Produktion)

Oberton String Octet [Jevgēnijs Čepoveckis, Veronika Brecelj, Andrii Uhrak and Alberto Stiffoni (violins), Serhii Zhuravlov and Hanga Fehér (violas) Floris Fortin and Dorottya Standi (cellos)]

Shostakovich Two Pieces for String Octet Op.11 (1924/5)
Afanasyev Double Quartet in D major ‘Housewarming ‘(1872)
Glière String Octet in D major Op.5 (1902)

Ars ProduktionARS38305 [59’26”]

Producer Anette Schumacher
Engineer Daniel Comploi

Recorded 19-21 December 2019, Florentinersaal, University of Arts, Graz

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The debut release from this ‘purpose built’ string ensemble which intends to encompass the repertoire for octet and double quartet, examples of both being featured here together with music by a composer whose ‘enfant terrible’ phase proved as reckless as it was short-lived.

What’s the music like?

Long since a footnote in musical history, Nikolay Afanasyev (1821-98) became a pioneer in Russian opera and chamber music, likely composing this Double Quartet for the inauguration of the St Petersburg Society for Chamber Music. Taking his cue from those four pieces with which Spohr had intended to launch a new medium, it follows an outwardly classical format while being permeated by aspects of Russian folk music. Best are an animated Scherzo with its stately trio, then an Andante of suffused pathos. Both outer movements betray a degree of formal uncertainty, a reminder that Afanasyev (as with Glinka before him) was essentially an autodidact, yet their energy and charm override such failings. Certainly, the Oberton sounds captivated by the qualities of this ‘Housewarming’ which it is (rightly) intent on championing.

Whereas Afanasyev writes for four parts, Glière writes for eight voices in his Octet. One of several works for string ensembles from the outset of his career, this follows audibly in the lineage of Mendelssohn with its emphasis on intensive dialogue and textural richness, even if both its formal layout and tempo indications indicate knowledge of his Russian forebear. Here, too, the middle movements – the second poised between scherzo and intermezzo, and the third an eloquent ‘song without words’ – are highlights, though the initial Allegro yields telling understatement while the finale builds a cumulative momentum that carries all before it. The Oberton are unfailingly alive to its contrapuntal energy and often orchestral sonority, adding another piece to the roster of Octets such as marked their composers ‘coming of age’.

As curtain-raiser, Shostakovich’s Two Pieces duly launches the programme in unequivocal fashion. Written either side of his seminal First Symphony, the ‘Prelude’ fairly abounds in volatile emotion while the ‘Scherzo’ evinces a coursing energy and caustic dissonance that points unerringly to those works immediately following it. What a pity the intended fugue never progressed beyond the sketch stage, though the work as stands remains testament to the ‘confidence of youth’ and the Oberton’s charged reading assuredly takes no prisoners.

Does it all work?

As a programme, undoubtedly. The repertoire for string octet and double string quartet is a select yet significant one, and the Oberton is evidently on a mission to convey this in both performance and recording. Hopefully, this release will be the start of a project as could do worse than to couple each double quartet by Spohr with those octets of Mendelssohn, Gade, Svendsen and Enescu. Moreover, the logistics involved in bringing together eight musicians based around Western and Central Europe will hopefully not limit their live music-making.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The SACD sound has exemplary definition if almost too great an immediacy in more demonstrative passages, while the booklet notes are succinctly informative. Strongly recommended, with the hope further releases from this ensemble will not be long in coming.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Presto website

Read

You can read more about the Oberton String Quartet at their website

LSO: Always Playing – Rachmaninov, Shostakovich & Balakirev tonight at 7pm

Tonight’s London Symphony Orchestra concert promises a trio of Russian treats. Firstly Seong-Jin Cho is the soloist in Rachmaninov‘s Piano Concerto no.2 – surely one of the best-loved of all piano concertos. Following this is another Russian work with piano, Balakirev‘s Islamey – only this time in the orchestral arrangement by the Italian composer Alfredo Casella. An exotic piece, it is a travelogue inspired by a visit to the Caucasus.

Following this we have the chance to marvel at the prodigious Symphony no.1 by the teenage Shostakovich. His graduation piece, it shows already the hallmarks that were to distinguish him as an exceptional symphonist in the 20th century.

Gianandrea Noseda, currently in the midst of a Shostakovich symphony cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra for their LSO Live label, conducts this performance from March 2019, which you can watch on the orchestra’s YouTube channel from 7pm tonight here:

Live review – Vilde Frang, CBSO / Kazuki Yamada: Shostakovich Violin Concerto no.1 & Respighi’s Roman Trilogy

Vilde Frang (violin, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 19 February 2020

Shostakovich Violin Concerto no.1 in A minor Op.77 (1947-8)
Respighi Feste romane (1928); Fontane di Roma (1916); Pini di Roma (1924)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Spending parts of their careers under two of the most potent dictatorships this past century, Shostakovich and Respighi might not appear to have much else in common – so all credit to Kazuki Yamada for making the juxtaposition work so effectively for this evening’s concert.

Never planned as a symphony, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto is the most symphonic of his six concertante works and responded accordingly to Vilde Frang’s long-breathed while highly involving approach – whether in the introspective probing of the Nocturne (Graham Sibley deftly lucid in the obligato tuba part) or folk-infused fervency of the Scherzo, then a Passacaglia of wrenching eloquence; its speculative postlude giving rise to a cadenza whose cumulative impetus was carried over into the final Burlesque with its irresistible high-jinx then sprint towards the end where soloist and orchestra very nearly finished in sync. Typical, moreover, of this most self-effacing among present-day virtuosi that Frang evidently had no intention of providing an encore – so completely was her performance its own justification.

Hard to imagine the mature Shostakovich setting much store by the orchestral pyrotechnics of Respighi’s Roman Triptych – yet these heady evocations of time and place in the Eternal City remain audience pleasers of a high order, especially when scheduled as this ‘triple whammy’.

Beginning with Roman Festivals might risk premature overkill, but Yamada brought out the ceremonial fervour of Il Giubileo as surely as the teasing playfulness of L’Ottobrata with its journeying forth and amorous encounters. Yamada’s unbridled enthusiasm rather got the better of him in the imposing if unruly climax of Circences, while the CBSO sounded just slightly inhibited during the all-out celebrations of La Befana – its melee of colliding tunes and textures lacking the subtlety that Respighi instils into even his most uproarious passages.

As the late Gerald Larner pointed out, Fountains of Rome pre-dates the incipient era of Italian grandiloquence. Yamada allowed full rein to the effervescent joy of Triton at Morning, then dazzling majesty of Trevi at Midday – its prolonged evanescence hanging as if suspended in Symphony Hall’s ambience. The outer evocations felt less successful, Valle Giulia at Dawn too passive to be alluring and Villa Medici at Sunset lacking pathos (an offstage bell might have helped), yet the delicacy and suppleness of their melodic lines could hardly be gainsaid.

On to Pines of Rome and Yamada was again at his most perceptive in those central episodes – Near a Catacomb yielding a baleful anguish (offstage trumpet judged to perfection), then At the Janiculum bringing rapture without coyness and a closing string tremolo hardly less exquisite than the nightingale above it. Of the Villa Borghese seemed almost too fractious to be exhilarating, but while Yamada set slightly too rapid a tempo for On the Appian Way, the final peroration (organ and additional brass right on cue) was nothing if not resplendent.

Not a triptych for all occasions but a feast of scintillating sonority and one to which the CBSO responded with panache. Principal guest Yamada returns on Sunday afternoon at the helm of the CBSO Youth Orchestra for a varied programme that closes with Elgar’s First Symphony.

Further listening

Here is a Spotify playlist of music from the concert. The CBSO have not recorded these works before but these are fine alternatives:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/37OgPsGcfpJR1qGTmFWdDw?si=KiceQpncQIW_GVwDskulFw

Further information on the next CBSO concert with Kazuki Yamada as described by Richard can be found at the CBSO website

In concert – Peter Donohoe, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski: Foulds ‘Dynamic Triptych’ & Shostakovich Symphony no.11

Peter Donohoe (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (above)

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Wednesday 11 December 2019

Foulds Dynamic Triptych (1929)
Shostakovich Symphony no.11 in G minor Op.103 The Year 1905 (1957)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here, though you may wish to skip the interval of Shostakovich’s String Quartet no.8 for continuity.

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Isle of Noises series has attracted – for me at least – some unfair criticism in recent days of the works included in its remit. Granted, the choices are all English, but the composers look beyond these shores with a willingness seemingly out of kilter with the current political climate.

John Foulds is a case in point; a composer who spent the final five years of his life in India before a tragic early death to cholera. Not only did he live in India but he actively explored its musical systems, looking to see how he could incorporate his discoveries and influences into the framework of classical music.

The Dynamic Triptych is a striking example of successful integration. Completed in 1929, its musical language is well beyond its years. In the first movement Foulds becomes obsessed with a modal scale, repeating it over and over rather like Scriabin would do with towers of chords based on intervals of a fourth. The task of playing the modal scales often fell in this performance to the muscular piano part, played with great authority by Peter Donohoe (above). The pianist has spent a great deal of time with this work, recording it with Sakari Oramo and the CBSO in 2006. He led a highly spirited performance, yet despite his brilliant passagework and percussive interventions in the fast music the soul of the work lay in the slow movement.

Here the strings’ quarter tones, beautifully played, brought added mystery to the picture when dressed with evocative percussion, adding to music already in the grip of a poignant sense of loss. Piano and orchestra regrouped for a finale that galloped ahead, Foulds letting the music off the leash to explore more far-flung tonal areas, before a silvery waltz theme was introduced to complement the quickstep. Both fused for a bold and dramatic finale, capping a well-received performance. This was forward looking music of English origin, and not in a 12-tone style either! The LPO should be praised for its inclusion and Vladimir Jurowski, who conducted with characteristic sensitivity, will hopefully explore more of Foulds’ colourful scores in the future.

The colours vanished dramatically after the interval for the opening pages of Shostakovich’s Symphony no.11. This performance took on added poignancy with a dedication from Jurowski to Mariss Jansons, sadly departed the previous weekend at the age of 76. Jansons was guest conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 1992 to 1997, and he grew up in St Petersburg, on close personal terms with Shostakovich. The Eleventh Symphony, depicting the slaughter of protestors in the city as part of the Russian Revolution in January 1905, could not have been closer to home.

What a performance it was. For an hour we barely moved as Shostakovich’s first-hand account of the action took hold in vivid, cinematic detail. The icy Palace Square of the city could not have been colder in Jurowski’s hands, with ominous timpani rolls signalling tragedy all too early on. When it came, in the second movement, the massacre was delivered by music of uncompromising and stunning power, the proud brass chorale ultimately shut down by deafening percussion before the door slammed shut. Suddenly the square was silent, save for the strings’ icy tendrils which extended once again towards the audience, noticeably holding its collective breath.

The London Philharmonic were absolutely superb. With 22 cellos and basses playing as one, digging in to the ice as though their lives depended on it, the performance was on sure foundations, above which we had special woodwind contributions, with cor anglais (Sue Bohling) and bass clarinet (Paul Richards) just two of several exceptional solos. The percussionists, a vital cog in the Shostakovich machine, judged their contributions ideally too, with sharp snare drum retorts complemented by rolling bass drum and gong.

Still the tension remained, through an elegiac slow movement where the violas’ melody could not have been more poignantly played by David Quiggle and his section. The dedication to Jansons felt most intense here, and the players were given due acknowledgement by Jurowski in their well-deserved curtain call. Yet despite the deeply personal aspect of the performance there were even sharper parallels with the political climate of today, reminding listeners of the protests in Hong Kong and the forthcoming UK election, not to mention the disinformation, code and discrimination that permeate today’s society at every turn.

This account lived and breathed all of those dreadful things, and as the performance reached its shattering climax with tolling bells, Shostakovich was communicating with ever more piercing clarity. It may not be his most accomplished symphony but the Eleventh is one of his most descriptive and emotive. As Jurowski held the score aloft afterwards it was clear he felt the same – and I for one left reeling at the impact of a memorable performance.

Further listening

This Spotify playlist gives recordings of the Eleventh Symphony from Mariss Jansons himself, conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Peter Donohoe with the CBSO under Sakari Oramo in the John Foulds Dynamic Triptych:

You can read a tribute to Mariss Jansons on the London Philharmonic Orchestra website

On record – Shostakovich: The Bedbug; Love and Hate (Naxos)

Shostakovich
The Bedbug Op.19 – complete incidental music (1929)
Love and Hate Op.38 – complete film-score (1935)

Mannheim Opera Chorus / Dani Juris; Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz / Mark Fitz-Gerald

Naxos 8.574100 [58’54”]

Russian transliterations and English translations included
Producer Roland Kistner
Engineer Bernd Nothnagel

Recorded 18-21 February 2019 at Philharmonie, Ludwigshafen, Germany

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Naxos continues its ground-breaking traversal of the film and theatre music by Shostakovich with this coupling of scores long unheard as originally conceived, thanks in part to the work of Mark Fitz-Gerald in having reconstructed these from extant sketches and soundtracks.

What’s the music like?

Shostakovich’s earliest theatre score was for The Bedbug, a scatological comedy by the ill-fated Vladimir Mayakovsky whose two parts were set in the then-present and 50 years later in 1979. The main items include several astringent dance numbers audibly akin to Stravinsky and Weill, while others were recycled for later dramatic projects (most notably the Wedding Scene [track 6] which soon became the Overture to Erwin Dressel’s opera Armer Columbus), with resourceful usage of such instruments as saxophone, mandolin and musical-saw. An air of sardonic detachment pervades this music which doubtless contributed to the production’s brief theatrical run and its subsequent oblivion, but the confidence and panache with which Shostakovich acquits himself can hardly be gainsaid. Although the parodying of such Soviet archetypes as firemen and pioneers soon became taboo in a Soviet Union beholden to Stalin, the experience gained served the composer well in subsequent ballets and revues, so making the present score a significant harbinger for what was to follow over the ensuing five years.

That said, it is the score for Love and Hate that leaves the stronger impression here. Directed by Albert Gendelshtein, this one of several films resulting from Soviet-German cooperation in the interwar period and which ceased in 1937 when the gulf between Stalin’s and Hitler’s ‘socialism’ became unbridgeable. In its quirkily compelling amalgam of post-expressionist and socio-realist elements, this film is more than mere historical curio – as Shostakovich’s music makes plain in an expressive directness evident from the outset. Most notable in this respect is the song How Long Will My Heart Ache and Moan?, initially allotted to mezzo and female chorus [track 19], and a series of searchingly descriptive pieces as culminates in the surging intensity of The Funeral [track 33]. It is at such junctures that the more elegiac aspect of the Fifth Symphony (two years hence) comes into focus, making one regret that no suite was previously compiled. Maybe this will now prove possible given the score’s timely availability, so enabling a vital link in its composer’s evolution to be properly appreciated.

Does it all work?

Yes, not least owing to the insight of Fitz-Gerald’s realizations with regard to those missing or fragmentary sections – where he captures the Shostakovich spirit in full measure – as also to the commitment of the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz in realizing the often wilful while always arresting nature of the composer’s inspirations. Forward but not unduly immediate sound, with extensive annotations by Fitz-Gerald, musicologist Gerard McBurney and Soviet cinema authority John Leman Riley, further enhance the attractions of this release.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, and it is to be hoped Fitz-Gerald will be continuing his exploration of this one facet of Shostakovich’s output as is still inadequately covered in terms of publication or recording. Several of the composer film and theatre scores from the 1930s still await such rehabilitation.

Stream

Buy

For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple formats visit the Naxos website, with an article on the recording here