Modern and Contemporary
Shostakovich – Complete Symphonies and Concertos
Orchestra and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre; Valery Gergiev
ArtHaus Musik/Mariinsky Theatre 107552
(4 Blu-Ray video discs, 100-page Hardcover book, etc.)
These performances took place in the Salle Pleyel, Paris in 2013 and 2014 where they were recorded in concert by a co-production of the Mariinsky Theatre, Mezzo, Euro Media France and France Télévisions.
It seems to me that music of Shostakovich is more popular now than in past decades. I wonder why. Conductor Arturo Toscanini was asked why he didn’t conduct the music of Bruckner. ”It doesn’t beat with my heart,” was his reported answer. I understand that and I wonder if Shostakovich’s popularity now is the corollary. Perhaps the music of Shostakovich is in tune with us more now than in generations gone by. It really doesn’t matter why, but today more people are attracted to the late composer and want to hear more of his music…symphonies, concertos and sonatas.
The above set was released last year and a couple of weeks ago I relented and got myself a copy. I am more than delighted with the whole production, performances, camera work and audio. One thing about the audio: there is a choice of playback, PCM or DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0. The PCM sound is rather disappointingly compressed, clearly for broadcast. The DTS-HD format offers the highest resolution and dynamics, most audible in the percussion. Gergiev prefaces each performance with a short talk on the work. There is also a film A Man of Many Faces, a documentary that explores the composer’s life and work, his triumphs and travails, with much archival footage and an interview with Gergiev.
As for the performances themselves, both symphonies and concertos, there was no “listen to us” impression; they were there for Shostakovich. In the Eighth, my favourite symphony, the earnest perfection of ensemble proves that this orchestra, in this repertoire with this conductor, is probably untouchable. Gergiev was immobilized after the music evaporated. The audience felt it too, as the applause burst out a long 38 seconds after the last note had died away. An extremely moving experience for all. The answer to the usual question about the tempi in the last movement of the Fifth is that he wastes no time.
The exuberant performances of the six concertos are a generous bonus, with Gautier Capuçon and Mario Brunello (cello), Daniil Trifonov and Denis Matsuev (piano), Timur Martynov (trumpet), Vadim Repin and Alena Baeva (violin). The outstanding vocal soloists in the Fourteenth Symphony are Veronika Dzhioeva (soprano) and Mikhail Petrenko (bass).
As a footnote to these performances, there is a synergy between an orchestra working with its resident conductor (unless they hate him or her, as sometimes happens).They are of one mind, so to speak. Audiences try to decode Gergiev’s unusual gestures… the fluttering fingers, for example. The orchestra knows. We have no need to figure it out, although the fluttering fingers is pretty obvious.
On this disc young Indonesian pianist Cicilia Yudha, now based in the United States, spotlights the familiar names of Robert Casadesus (1899-1972) and Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013). Best known as a virtuoso pianist, Casadesus was also a prolific composer represented here by the Sonata No.3 Op.44 and the Toccata Op.40. These deft works are somewhat reminiscent of Ravel and Milhaud. The Sonata’s slow movement is both craftsmanly and touching, but in the outer movements as well as in the sparkly perpetual-motion Toccata there is too much piano-exercise and white-note-only writing. Cicilia Yudha certainly demonstrates fleet fingers, variety of articulation and an ear for clarity suited to the French school of Casadesus.
The early Blackbird and Along the Waves: Six Little Pieces of Dutilleux are also finely rendered. Dutilleux’s great Sonata for Piano (1947/48) is a different case, one of mastery of harmony and large-scale form with expressive ideas realized in depth. It seems to me that Yudha is too careful with tempo and accentuation in the opening Allegro con moto. Anne Queffélec’s more robust, occasionally almost frantic version on Virgin Classics is preferable; it is surprising that even at fast tempos Dutilleux’s complex harmonies sound and proceed well. Things improve greatly in the second movement, where Yudha’s command of sonority comes to the fore and she projects a mysterious sense of unseen presence. In the final variations she rises to the occasion with power and virtuosity.
This disc’s high-calibre performances and production make it a fitting tribute to Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis’ introductory notes state that his Harp Concerto (1956, rev. 1968) “pushed the harp out of its box and gave us the kind of indelible, substantive composition that makes or breaks a solo career like mine.” In broken-chord dance rhythms of the first movement, resonant glissandi of the second and tuneful melodies of the third, the Argentinean composer consistently finds striking, effective gestures for the instrument. Soloist Kondonassis plays with confidence: her rhythms have bite and liveliness, her flourishes atmosphere and grandeur, all in effective partnership with the Raphael Jiménez-led Oberlin Orchestra.
Pampeana No.1 (1947) for violin and piano dates from a period when Ginastera was influenced by Aaron Copland to integrate folk and modernist elements. Violinist Gil Shaham plays the opening soliloquy with intensity and virtuosity, in alternation with pianist Orli Shaham’s lower-pitched chords emulating guitar strumming; the whole suggests the Argentinean pampas’ wide open spaces. In later exciting dance sections, ensemble between violin and piano is ideal. Shaham is equally effective in the more familiar Danzas Argentinas (1937) for piano. The Sonata for Guitar (1976), the most advanced work included, comes after the composer’s move to Switzerland. Ginastera allows the guitar to resonate with well-chosen tonal material and a variety of percussive effects. Challenging to play yet mastered convincingly by guitarist Jason Vieaux, I enjoyed this work thoroughly.
For most of his notable career American composer and electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick (b. 1933) has employed his signature methodology of live electronically processed scored acoustic instrumental and/or vocal parts, and later, interactive computer music systems.
Subotnick has also been an important actor in many of the significant technological milestones in the commercialization of electroacoustic music. A prime example is his early Silver Apples of the Moon (Nonesuch LP 1967). Produced using the Electric Music Box, Don Buchla’s analogue modular voltage-controlled synthesizer and tape-manipulated sounds, it is considered the first electronic work commissioned by a record company. In it, the composer challenged academic avant-gardists by including sections with metric, regular rhythms. More significantly, he aimed to render a musical composition for which the performance was the recording, reflecting the spirit of Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 phrase “the medium is the message.” The album sold very well internationally and was highly influential: it was a touchstone of my own first experiments in tape and electronic music.
Recorded in a studio between 1981 and 1985 the music for Subotnick’s Music for the Double Life of Amphibians continued his fruitful commercial relationship with the Nonesuch label. This skillfully remastered current Wergo CD is part of a series dedicated to Subotnick’s recorded oeuvre. Each of the seven movements form part of a larger symphonic poem, and the resulting dramatically compelling music successfully treads over several genre lines. It seamlessly combines modernist chamber music – superbly performed by cellist Joel Krosnick in the outstanding Axolotl, as well as by the Juilliard Quartet and by the soprano Joan La Barbara – with (1980s) state-of-the-art studio electronics.
The album strongly affirms the composer’s modernist lineage. It also reminds us of his street cred in the development of 20th-century electroacoustic music’s creation, performance, studio recording and commercial release.
On his recent electroacoustic CD Espaces tautologiques, composer James O’Callaghan takes us down the rabbit hole into a visceral, endogenous acousmatic wonderland. Although tautologies can be defined as needless repetitions, for O’Callaghan, they instead may be an ironic unifying premise for his vagabond auditory adventures, or append extra significance to compositional procedures such as varied repetition, imitation and augmentation. The first three pieces form a triptych that “imagine[s] the sounding bodies of instruments as resonant spaces.” They contain crisp, natural and remodelled recordings of passages through remote instrumental spaces, and at times it feels as though the listener is situated inside the instrument. From the rim to the spine of a piano (Objects-Interiors), an acoustic guitar and toy piano (Bodies-Soundings), or the surfaces and recesses of instruments in a string quartet (Empties-Impetus), each piece celebrates the percussions and resonances of a similar, colourful palette of instrumental and digital treatments.
O’Callaghan demonstrates fluency with standard techniques of electroacoustic music, but it’s the impetus of the philosophical aspects that takes the pieces to their most compelling territories. The last piece, Isomorphic, is a particularly captivating jaunt through protractions of carefully ordered squealing, chattering textures. While the work shifts from one archetype to another, it’s coherently driven by consecutive, playful morphological relationships that extend from one sound to the next, despite differences of sound source and context. By virtue of the gesture, contour, pitch and timbral coherence of his materials, O’Callaghan proposes contrasting ways to consider the ornithological chirps, industrial doors and ambient environments. They can be heard as a perpetual flow, in which all sounds are related as one, or as a duality in which the listener simultaneously compares the ongoing profile similarities of the sounds with their wildly differing origins.
Rouse is the most recent to hold the composer-in-residence position at the New York Philharmonic, and this new disc is his capstone project. It is actually the latest chapter in a decades-long relationship between composer and orchestra; the Phil premiered, along with many other of his works, Rouse’s Pulitzer Prize-winning trombone concerto in 1993. Owing to these years of collaboration, this disc achieves an all-too-uncommon thing: music born from an understanding shared equally by conductor, orchestra and living composer.
Just as these three have found common ground, so has Rouse found common ground between the conceptual and the visceral. The harmonic language of Odna Zhizn, for instance, is tightly controlled and generated using a “code.” If these words conjure up frightening images of angular serialist lines, however, fear not: “code” here refers not to forbidding pre-compositional matrices, but to the age-old tradition of encoding a loved one’s name into the score by way of note names.
“Odna Zhizn” means “life” in Russian and Russian influences loom large here. Symphony No.3 is heavily indebted to Prokofiev’s Symphony No.2, his symphony of “iron and steel.” If Prokofiev’s was the churning foundry, then Rouse’s is its smoldering remains, brooding and charred. As for his Symphony No.4’s “code,” Rouse cites Tchaikovsky: “Asked whether listeners would devise the…meaning of his Pathétique Symphony, Tchaikovsky famously replied, ‘Let them guess.’”
This disc’s grand and unified vision is not to be missed.