Saturday, May 23, 2015

Shostakovich: Cantatas Estonian Concert Choir, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi (Erato)

Shostakovich's The Sun Shines over our Motherland and The Song of the Forests are seldom heard, for good reason. Both were written in the aftermath of the 1948 Zhdanov Decree, when the composer, along with Prokofiev and Khachaturian, was officially condemned for alleged "formalism". Shostakovich was sacked from his teaching post in Leningrad and survived by churning out film scores and "official" works, such as this pair of cantatas. The Tenth Symphony and Violin Concerto No. 1 were wisely hidden in the composer's bottom drawer, only emerging after Stalin's death. Paavo Järvi's recent decision to perform and record them in Estonia with their original words intact caused an understandable outcry; Järvi recalling that “everybody who sat in that audience probably had somebody close who died in Stalin's gulags. So when they heard the texts which glorified the communists, that must have been a nightmare.” The words, by hack poet Yevgeniy Dolmatovsky, aren't included in the booklet, the Shostakovich Estate feeling that including them would be too provocative.

This is an awful lot to get your head round before you've even started listening. Shostakovich was a master craftsman, and both pieces are impeccably constructed and neatly scored; this composer's typically dark orchestral sound noticeably brighter than usual. The seven-movement Song of the Forests is musically more varied, with the Narva Boys Choir outstanding in the fourth movement. There's a rousing fugal finale – which feels rather less uplifting when you read that Shostakovich retreated to his hotel room straight after the premiere and hit the vodka bottle. The Sun Shines over our Motherland has a grotesque, overblown close which would presumably go down well in Pyongyang. Not the sort of music you'd want to return to often, but these are fabulously assured readings, in ripe sound. As a welcome palate cleanser, Järvi also includes Shostakovich's The Execution of Stepan Razin. This bleak, savage work for bass, chorus and orchestra sets a poem by Yevtushenko, whose words had previously formed the basis of the great 13th Symphony. It's tremendous, angry stuff, magnificently sung by bass Alexei Tanovitski. No texts, but translations can be easily found online.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Gramophone: Shostakovich No.7
Edward Seckerson

"Järvi and his engineers offer ruthless clarity and precision, exposing a rogue E flat clarinet with a flash of the theme at one point (never heard that before) and lacerating flutter-tongued trumpets as the shock and awe peaks."

A great review from Gramophone Magazine about our recording 'Shostakovich No.7' featuring Paavo Järvi and Russian National orchestra. This review can be found on May issue of the magazine.

If a conductor and orchestra can get the opening right (and it's amazing how many sacrifice momentum to grandeur) then the chances are that the rest of this momentous piece will fall into place. Paavo Järvi and the Russian National Orchestra do just that. They are full of promise in the opening bars: bracing, upbeat, rhytmic, in truth about as optimistic as Shostakovich ever gets. And, as the music relaxes into a premature sense of well-being, the quality of the orchestral playing is self-evident-beautiful woodwind and string alternations, coolly accomplished. Then, against the barely audible rattle of side drum, something wicked this way comes: namely that pernicious theme.

It never ceases to amaze me how the daring musical metaphor at the heart of this first movement for so long negatively coloured opinions of the rest of the piece. The point of it was roundly missed as the tune which might have set Stalin's toe tapping underwent its terrifying Boléro-like mutations. Järvi and his engineers offer ruthless clarity and precision, exposing a rogue E flat clarinet with a flash of the theme at one point (never heard that before) and lacerating flutter-tongued trumpets as the shock and awe peaks. Shostakovich's instruments of choice for desolation - the bass clarinet and bassoon - express the numbness and loss with real eloquence.

It may be sacrilege to say that at times one wishes the Russian National Orchestra were less refined and more redolent of Russian orchestras of days gone by - but there is no denying the excellence of the playing. The ghostly dance that is the Scherzo is subtly coloured in the return with harp and fluttery flutes atmospherically underpinning the spookiest of bass clarinet solos. And there is pellucid beauty in the slow movement, where the strings spin out a passage of genuine heartbreak from their stark recitative.

So while I'm not sure I would go for Järvi over Petrenko and RLPO among more current recordings (I also have vivid memories of Bernstein and the Chicago Symphony on DG), the atmosphere of a real event is there, you might even say written into the piece. That long, slow, defiant, inexorable build to the coda is as gripping here as it always is - and, as the opening theme returns in hard-won triumph (that's why it is so important that its vaultingly optimistic character is properly established at the start), there is that thrilling tenuto in the trumpets lifting mind, body, and spirit into the final pages