Live review – Anna Vinnitskaya & CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla perform Shostakovich

Anna Vinnitskaya (piano, above), Jonathan Holland (trumpet), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 16 March 2019

Shostakovich
The Limpid Stream: Suite Op.39a (1935)
Piano Concerto no.1 in C minor Op.35 (1933)
Symphony no.5 in D minor Op.47 (1937)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Photo of Anna Vinnitskaya (c) Gela Megrelidze

With Birmingham Opera Company’s staging of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk having finished its run, an all-Shostakovich concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony was not just apposite but underlined the rapport between the orchestra and its music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

The programme centred on Shostakovich’s music before and after an infamous Pravda article irrevocably altered the composer’s evolution. Attacks on The Limpid Stream were admittedly gratuitous; this last of his ballets finds Shostakovich at his most accessible – as witnessed by the suite devised several years later. Starting with a suave Waltz (which found fame as title-music for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut), this continues with a vigorous Russian Dance then breezy Galop. The highlight is an Adagio whose soulful cello melody was eloquently rendered by Eduardo Vassallo. A deft pizzicato Polka was a rather inconclusive ending: the uproarious final dance (which follows-on almost continuously) would have made for a more decisive conclusion. No matter, this was still an engaging sequence and captivatingly played.

Shostakovich conceived his First Piano Concerto for his own pianism. Influences derive more from stage and screen than any earlier concertos, but its formal ingenuity is undeniable. Anna Vinnitskaya gauged ideally the first movement’s volatile tempo changes, while the Lento had poignancy and no mean vehemence at its climax; the ensuing intermezzo an upbeat to a finale whose high-jinx were teasingly held in check. Jonathan Holland was engaging in the obligato trumpet part, and the CBSO strings retained their articulation even in the hectic closing pages.

Whether or not an explicit response to that condemnatory Pravda article of January 1936, the Fifth Symphony is crucially important for moving the emphasis within Shostakovich’s output away from the theatrical. Nothing reinforces this more than the opening Moderato, with its individual take on sonata design that Gražinytė-Tyla handled with real assurance – keeping the exposition in motion with a fleeter than usual second subject, before eliding seamlessly into a purposeful development then an anguished reprise and desolate coda. The Scherzo had ironic wit without heaviness, whereas the slow movement impressed through its inevitability of progress towards a central episode of rapt inwardness; after which, the searing climax did not pre-empt the coda with its musing interplay of harp and celesta against suspended strings.

The finale offers the greatest challenges but Gražinytė-Tyla had its measure too, her fast yet never inflexible tempo for the surging initial stages segueing into the central episode with its heartfelt recall of earlier ideas then ethereal searching towards a crowning peroration. Neither wantonly triumphal nor turgidly defeatist, this was a thoughtful yet decisive conclusion to the overall emotional trajectory; maybe those searching trumpet dissonances could have sounded even more baleful, though a sense of coming through against the odds was never in doubt.

This was an impressive account of a symphony which has been much harder to interpret once its ultimate ‘message’ became a matter for debate. Gražinytė-Tyla provided no easy answers; instead, her presenting the work as a cohesive and integral whole was its own justification.

For further information on the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s 2018-19 season click here

Further listening

Unfortunately the concert was not recorded for broadcast, but you can hear a playlist of the pieces heard on Spotify below, including Anna Vinnitskaya‘s recording of the Shostakovich with Kremerata Baltica:

On record: Briggs Piano Trio – Hans Gál & Shostakovich: Piano Trios (Avie)

Briggs Piano Trio [David Juritz (violin), Kenneth Woods (cello), Sarah Beth Briggs (piano)]

Gál
Piano Trio in E major Op.18 (1923)
Variations über eine Wiener Heurigenmelodie Op.9 (1914)
Shostakovich
Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor Op.67 (1943)

Avie AV2390 [63’05”]

Recorded 11-13 March 2018 at Wyastone Leys, Monmouth
Producer/Engineer Simon Fox

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The reappraisal of Hans Gál (1890-1987) continues with his music for piano trio, performed by musicians who have been consistent advocates of the Austrian-born Scottish composer.

What’s the music like?

Both of Gal’s contributions emerged relatively early in his career, when he fast establishing a reputation in his native Vienna as composer and teacher. The Piano Trio is typical in terms of the subtle ingenuity Gál brings to this deceptively orthodox structure. Thus, the Tranquillo opening of the first movement alternates with faster material such that its underlying sonata design becomes cumulative in its formal cohesion. There follows a propulsive scherzo, itself contrasted with an insinuating trio, then a finale whose eloquent theme initiates a series of variations which deftly extends the music’s expressive range on the way to a headlong coda.

Lighter in tone, the Variations on a Viennese ‘Heurigen’ Melody itself wrests a surprisingly varied sequence from a ‘street tune’ whose evidently unprintable text is wittily evoked here.

It was almost inevitable, even so, that Gál’s works should be outfaced by the Second Piano Trio of Shostakovich. Inscribed to the memory of the composer’s friend and confidante Ivan Sollertinsky and inspired by reports of atrocities committed during the Nazi invasion, this may also have been influenced by his recent friendship with Mieczysław Weinberg in its drawing on Jewish folk inflections – particularly in a finale whose ‘dance of death’ material creates an inexorable momentum that is powerfully in evidence here. Nor is there any lack of conviction in the first movement’s gradual intensifying of motion, the scherzo’s sardonic gaiety then the Largo’s simmering pathos in this most direct of Shostakovich passacaglias. The work’s closing bars, too, are all of a piece with what before in their fateful resignation.

Does it all work?

Indeed. The Briggs Piano Trio is an excellent ensemble, and as at home with the methodical elaboration of the Gal as it is with the more intuitive unfolding of the Shostakovich. Earlier recordings of the former are outclassed by this new version, while that of the latter can rank among the finest of recent years. It helps that the sound has a combination of spaciousness and immediacy ideal for this difficult medium, with Kenneth Woods‘s own notes providing a succinct though informed overview to help set these pieces within their rightful context.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. If neither Gál work represents his earlier music at its finest (for which turn to his first two string quartets or the Second Symphony) they offer rewards aplenty, while the Shostakovich is a version to reckon with. Further releases by this group are keenly awaited.

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about the release on the Avie website, while the video below gives a preview of the disc:

Preview – Mieczysław Weinberg: Between East and West (University of Manchester)

The two decades since his death have seen Polish-born Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996, above) belatedly acknowledged as the leading Soviet composer of the generation after Shostakovich.

The year of his centenary is being launched with a four-day conference at the University of Manchester. Co-sponsored by the British Academy and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute Institute, Warsaw, it will feature presentations from a number of Weinberg specialists.

The conference is co-convened by Prof David Fanning (University of Manchester) and Dr Michelle Assay (Universite de Paris Sorbonne), whose study of Weinberg’s music is to be published by Toccata Press later this year.

Running parallel to the conference is a cycle of Weinberg’s string quartets, given over seven lunchtime and evening concerts by the Quatuor Danel, whose complete recording of these works (for CPO) forms the centrepiece of a now extensive Weinberg discography. You can listen to the six volumes of the Quatuor Danel cycle of Weinberg quartets on Spotify. Vol. 1 is listed below:

https://open.spotify.com/album/2K4IGwTals8fngqCE9bLc5?si=8eo6oNLwQOe41o-BcD46aAAlongside two recitals of instrumental pieces and songs, the whole event provides ample confirmation of Weinberg’s significance during a time when interest in his music has never been greater.

Between East and West will be held at the Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama, University of Manchester, starting this Thursday 24 January. Further information on the conference can be found here, while for more information on the Quatuor Danel cycle head here. Meanwhile to discover more on Weinberg himself, click on this link

On record: Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz / Mark Fitz-Gerald – Shostakovich: The Gadfly, The Counterplan (Naxos Film Music Classics)

Shostakovich The Gadfly, The Counterplan Bachchor MainzDeutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz / Mark Fitz-Gerald

Shostakovich
The Gadfly, Op.97 (1955) – complete original score (ed. Fitz-Gerald)
The Counterplan, Op. 33 (1932) – excerpts

Bachchor Mainz, Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz / Mark Fitz-Gerald

Naxos Film Music Classics 8.573747 [61’46”]
Producer Roland Kistner Engineers Bernd Nothnagel, Karl Haffner
Dates March 21st-24th, 2017 in Philharmonie, Ludwigshafen

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Mark Fitz-Gerald continues his pioneering series of Shostakovich film scores in their original orchestration with this disc of the composer’s music for The Gadfly, coupled with pieces that never made it to the final cut and excerpts from the most successful of his earlier film-scores.

What’s the music like?

Unlike that on the previous discs in this Naxos series (scores to New Babylon on 8.572824/5, Alone on 8.573747 and Girlfriends on 8.572138), the music for The Gadfly was very much a mainstream project for a composer struggling to find focus in the post-Stalin era. Alexander Faintzimmer’s adaptation of Ethel Voynich’s novel, essentially a romantic politicization of the Risorgimento among the mid-19th century Italian states, was a success with both Soviet officialdom and the public; while the 12-movemnet suite, as adapted by Lev Atovmian, has long been the most widely heard of Shostakovich’s film-derived scores. The present ‘urtext’ version was prepared and edited by Fitz-Gerald in conjunction with DSCH publishing house in Moscow and Paris (and has been published as Volume 138 of the New Complete Edition).

Despite its 29 individual cues averaging under two minutes, this sequence is (surprisingly?) cohesive in formal and expressive follow-through. Framed by the surging ‘Overture’ (track 1) and rhetorical ‘Finale (29), it follows the scenario closely. The famous ‘Romance’ is divided between the tracks ‘Youth’ and its reprise (4/25), with eloquent violin playing from Nikolaus Boewer, and its middle section is located elsewhere. Further highlights include the evocative ‘Dona nobis pacem’ (15) derived from Bach’s Mass in B minor, the infectious ‘Contredanse’ and ‘Galop’ for strings (19/20), and effervescent ‘Bazar’ (22) which became the well-known ‘Public Holiday’. Many of the other tracks are predominantly sombre or introspective, though the understated effectiveness of Shostakovich’s instrumentation offsets any risk of uniformity.

Also included are two organ cues excluded from the final score – including ‘Ave Maria’ (31), an ingenious reworking of a parody mass by Renaissance composer Antoine de Févin as was replaced by the Bach. The disc is completed by three excerpts from The Counterplan – made to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, whose intermingling of personal relationships with construction in Leningrad is best remembered for its ‘Song of the Counterplan’. This emerges towards the close (34) to round-off these excerpts in fine style.

Does it all work?

Indeed. Fitz-Gerald secures a lively response from his Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie forces, with the various guitar and mandolin solos idiomatically taken, while Elke Voelker’s organ contributions are recorded with necessary ambient space. Those who know The Gadfly from the suite will find these frequently stripped-down orchestrations of the original film-score an unexpected pleasure. The sound is unexceptionally fine (volume levels in louder items can sound a touch manipulated), while John Riley’s booklet notes are detailed and informative.

Is it recommended?

Yes. This is a welcome act of restoration for film-music almost entirely known in a version approved though not undertaken by the composer. Hopefully this series will be continued – a recording of the complete score for The Counterplan would be a worthwhile next instalment.

You can read more about this release on the Naxos website, while for more on Mark Fitz-Gerald, visit his

Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival Ensemble – Stravinsky, Ustvolskaya & Shostakovich

Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival Ensemble: Elena Bashkirova (piano, above), Marina Prudenskaya (soprano), Pascal Moragués (clarinet), Sergej Krylov (violin), Alexander Knyazev (cello)

Stravinsky Suite from The Soldier’s Tale (for violin, clarinet and piano) (1918-19)
Ustvolskaya Piano Sonata no.5
Shostakovich Seven Poems of Alexander Blok, Op.127 (1967)
Ustvolskaya Trio for clarinet, violin and piano (1849)
Shostakovich Piano Trio no.2 in E minor Op.67 (1944)

Wigmore Hall, London; Thursday 14 December 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

Pianist Elena Bashkirova founded the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival in 1998, and this celebration at the Wigmore Hall was part of a desire to continually expand the festival beyond Israel’s borders. Here we had a well-conceived program of Russian music, if a little unremitting in its darkly coloured focus.

It was especially gratifying to see the prominence given to Galina Ustvolskaya’s music. A pupil of Shostakovich, she has a small but potent legacy of works, which show a style already thinking well ahead of its time. In the first half of the concert we heard the Piano Sonata no.5, a remarkably concentrated piece of music lasting only half the 20 minutes it does on record. The suspicion was that Bashkirova did not follow some of the instructed repeats, or that her performance was simply much faster than those before it. Either way it left a powerful imprint, its refusal to budge from a central Db anchoring the music becoming a really strong musical device in spite of all the activity around it.

Arguably even more accomplished was the Trio for clarinet, violin and piano with which the concert’s second half began. This too left a lasting impression, thanks largely to the sensitivity with which Pascal Moragués and Sergej Krylov played the quiet music, and to the probing and penetrating tone of Bashkirova’s right hand. As Paul Griffiths’ booklet note pointed out, this music sounds more like late Shostakovich – but its composition date of 1949 shows just how originally Ustvolskaya was thinking.

From Shostakovich we heard two works, the late Seven Poems of Alexander Blok, Op.127, and the Piano Trio no.2 in E minor, Op.67. Both are hugely effective concert pieces, but it was the Blok poems that cut to the core at the end of the first half. Soprano Marina Prudenskaya, a late stand-in for Anna Samuil, got right to the heart of Blok’s verse, nowhere more so than in the savage destruction of Burya (The Storm). From this a wispy cello line emerged, Alexander Knyazev responding with a moving plaintive tone, after which the trio joined for the first time in accompanying Prudenskaya for the final song. It capped a tightly structured performance, the string players finding just the right tone if not always the exact intonation, while Bashkirova’s piano probed the lower reaches of the bass sound.

This was also the case in the Second Trio, which was occasionally a bit unkempt technically but which unerringly found the heart and focus of Shostakovich’s music. From the ghostly harmonics at the start, Krylov and Knyazev were clearly on the same emotional page, and with Bashkirova the three players achieved an impressive variety of volume and colour. Shostakovich’s powerplay scherzo and middle of the last movement were incredibly strong and lasting statements, but as ever with his music the greater meaning could be found in the moments of intimacy where the listener can hear a pin drop. The last movement thus became the focus of attention, music of sorrow, paranoia and anger – with just a little respite at the end.

The evening began with Stravinsky’s suite from A Soldier’s Tale, distilled into short movements for clarinet, violin and piano. Melodic and spiky, this performance was enjoyable and included just the right amount of humour, before taking a darker turn for the final Triumphal March of the Devil, where Krylov took over.

An excellent and thought provoking concert, particularly in the light of the various programmes marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution this year.

You can listen to the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below: