Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Shostakovich Symphony No. 2 in B major, Op. 14, 'To October'

A strange beast, this one. This 'symphony' is a short single movement work (my recording is just under 19 minutes), composed to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution. It starts with a quiet, gradual emergence from nothingness, with no obvious thematic material, building up a mass of sound, and then progressing into a fast, scherzo-like dash. Here there are some more recognisable Shostakovich features - high shrill woodwind, and a rising solo violin line. The music gradually slows, leading to the entrance of the chorus, men first, in a setting of a poem by Alexander Bezymensky, praising Lenin and the revolution. This is now like a completely different piece of music - less experimental, no longer abstract, and much more obviously tonal. Ultimately this juxtaposition just doesn't really work. Shostakovich tries to link the two sections with two rising surges from the orchestra towards the end, like shortened summaries of the opening. Audiences at the time didn't know what to make of it, and even Shostakovich later acknowledged the work's shortcomings. Still, he was still only 20, and there are signs even here of some of his stylistic traits that would develop in time. 

My recording is from a live performance in 1996 at the Royal Festival Hall, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir, and is conducted by Mark Elder. It was released with the BBC Music Magazine (Volume V No. 2). Nothing wrong with the performance as far as I can tell, but I get the feeling they are not entirely convinced by the work either. Interestingly, the rest of the disc contains the much more substantial 'Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution', Op. 74, by Prokofiev. This is pretty crazy, with gunfire, passages for an accordion band, and a speaker complete with megaphone! Clearly much more programmatic than the Shostakovich symphony, it is as a result more successful in terms of the subject matter. Yet it was still too daring, and was not actually performed until 1966, thirteen years after Prokofiev's death. I haven't been able to confirm whether it was actually banned, or whether Prokofiev just realised it was too risky to publish - I'd be interested to find out, if anyone knows. There are lots of folk inspired themes, and similarities to his Alexander Nevsky score, which was composed the following year. This would certainly be a fun piece to sing sometime!

Shostakovich. Symphony No. 2. BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Geoffrey Mitchell Choir, Mark Elder. 1996. Compact disc. BBC MM50.

Britten - War Requiem, Op. 66

Coventy Cathedral
 Royal Festival Hall
 Sunday 25 Mar 2012 7:30pm

 Lorin Maazel

 Nancy Gustafson
 Mark Padmore
 Matthias Goerne

 Philharmonia Orchestra
 Philharmonia Chorus
 Philharmonia Voices
 Tiffin Boys Choir     

I very much enjoyed joining the Philharmonia Chorus to sing in this performance of the War Requiem, and was reminded what a spectacular piece of music it is. The final duet, the setting of Wilfred Owen's 'Strange Meeting' between two dead enemy soldiers, is spine-chilling, and as a consequence the 'In paradisum' that follows is so unsettling and disturbing - no reassurance of heavenly peace here.

In terms of the performance, here are the reviews.

The Guardian (Martin Kettle) ««««

The Times (Geoff Brown) «««
(You'll need a subscription to view the Times review.  He mentioned 'a heart beating in the warm blend of the Philharmonia Choir (sic), the Philharmonia Voices and the pristine piping of the Tiffin Boy's Choir', and talked of the 'anguish in Mark Padmore's tenor').


Thursday, 22 March 2012

Shostakovich, Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10

Nijinsky as Petrushka
As graduation pieces go, this is pretty impressive!  Shostakovich finished composing his first symphony at age 19, graduating from the St Petersburg Conservatory, and it is definitely a work of youthful energy and confidence.  Yet here there are definite hallmarks of his work to come, most evident in the second scherzo movement - the racing, helter-skelter rhythms, and the use of the piano with its octave runs and glissandi.   In the first movement, I can definitely hear the 'circusization' that was a major fashion in Soviet cinema and theatre at the time, and many have commented on the connections with Stravinsky's Petrushka.  Apparently, Shostakovich was also working as a pianist in several silent cinemas at the time.  I also hear Strauss here - Till Eulenspiegel, and Don Juan.  It is definitely a playful movement, but there is also a dark edge to it too.  The rhythm of the second subject, in 3/4 time, but with barely a discernible downbeat from the melody in the flute, followed by the clarinet, and pizzicato offbeats in the strings, adds to the unsettling feeling.  The third, slow movement suddenly shows us real depth of feeling from such a young man - here we are in the world of Mahler and Wagner (he even quotes Siegfried).  He also uses heavily divided strings here, as he did in the first movement - there are 7 solo violin parts, 4 solo violas and three solo cellos for the closing dozen bars.  Again, there is a dark uneasiness here - and there is no break before the final movement, introduced by a drum roll, followed by menacing slow theme from the woodwind, underpinned by anxious, staggering starts from the strings.  Here I also heard some Schoenberg - a definite whiff of Verklärte Nacht, I thought.  So overall, lots of influences, understandable in a young, graduating student, but definitely some Shostakovich features here already.  

And the recording?  Well, I really enjoyed this - Mariss Jansons with the Berlin Philharmonic, recorded in 1994.  It felt very incisive, and had just the right amount of that youthful energy, whilst at the same time picking out those darker moments, and communicating the emotion of the slow movement well too.  I did however find their performance of the Concerto for Piano, Trumpet & Strings in C minor, Op.35, which follows on my disc a little sluggish, only really picking up the necessary energy at the end of the final movement.  I think Jansons' recording of the symphony is now only available as a complete symphonies set anyway.

Shostakovich.  Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10 , Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings in C minor, Op. 35. Berlin Philharmonic, Mariss Jansons. 1995. Compact disc. EMI Classics 7243 5 55361 2 9.

So, onto Symphony No. 2 - if one can call it a symphony.... More of that later.

Any thoughts on Symphony No. 1 would be gratefully received.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

In anticipation of performing Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13, 'Babi Yar' with Brighton Festival Chorus, and the Philharmonia Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy in the Brighton Festival (Wednesday 23 May), I thought I would spend some time reacquainting myself with this composer. I first came across him at the age of about 14 or 15, when in my youth orchestra, the Stockport Youth Orchestra, we were presented with the challenge of the Fifth Symphony. Whilst it is probably the most popular and accessible of his symphonies, it was still daunting, and not like anything else I had played up to that point - thanks to conductor Xenophon Kelsey, MBE (yes, that is his name!) for his imagination and confidence to encourage young players in such repertoire. I progressed from there to listen to other symphonies, and to the equally popular piano concertos. The string quartets came later, but that's about as far as I've got really. I have a copy of Chandos' release of the Cello Concertos performed by Enrico Dindo with Gianandrea Noseda and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra on my review pile for my column in GScene - more to follow on that. 

So, I thought I'd work through my recordings of the symphonies - and being me, I'll have to do that in order! My recording of the first symphony is from 1994, with Mariss Jansons conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. Not a bad place to start....

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

LPO in Brighton

The London Philharmonic Orchestra 

Conductor – Fabien Gabel

Violin – Fanny Clamagirand

Weber – Oberon Overture
Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto
Vaughan Williams – The Lark Ascending
Sibelius – Symphony No. 5

Saturday 17 March 2012, Brighton Dome.
Sunday 25 March 2012, Congress Theatre, Eastbourne.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra were back in Brighton this weekend with an enjoyable programme, including two concerto works for the violin.  They repeat the same programme next Sunday over in Eastbourne.

Now in her late twenties, French violinist Fanny Clamagirand is already a veteran performer on the international stage, and has won many awards and plaudits for her recording of the Saint-Saëns Violin Concertos.  This made it all the more surprising that she performed both the Mendelssohn and the Vaughan Williams with music.  Whilst I suspect this is more of a security blanket than a necessity (although she did follow the score very closely in the last movement of the Mendelssohn), it is a shame, as it did slightly get in the way of her communication with both the orchestra and the audience.  However, her performances of both works were highly accomplished, and she showed admirable sensitivity and restraint with some beautiful pianissimo playing – a slight shame that the orchestra, under the direction of Fabien Gabel, did not always match this dynamic, verging on drowning out the soloist once or twice.  Conversely, the last movement of the Mendelssohn could have done with an injection of a little more energy and power.  Not always secure in intonation at the very top of the fingerboard, she nevertheless nailed the rising figurations in The Lark Ascending, captivating the audience once again with her lightness of touch.  A very talented performer, perhaps just not fully at home in this repertoire.  

The orchestra preceded the Mendelssohn with a rather workaday rendition of Weber’s Oberon Overture.  Once into their stride, this was enjoyable enough, but the ensemble was a little scrappy to start with.  It was only in the final work of the programme, Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, that there was a sense of real engagement and enjoyment in their playing.  The Sibelius is still very much core repertoire, but there is just that bit more for orchestral players to get their teeth into here, and it showed.  Fabien Gabel equally seemed more at home here, and their combined energy levels lifted appropriately as the symphony progressed towards its triumphant finale. The final six hammer-blow chords were dashed off rather cursorily for my liking, but otherwise, this was a great performance. 

(see this review in GScene magazine)

Welcome to Classical Notes

Music has always been my passion in life.  I enjoy listening to many types of music, both recorded and live, and I also love to perform music, mostly as a choral singer.  I have been writing about the music I hear and perform for some time now, and this seems like a great way to build on that, and get feedback from others with similar interests.  

So I plan to post my reviews of recordings and concerts, and thoughts about music that I discover. The emphasis will be on western classical repertoire, but I'm open to many genres of music, so I expect I'll reflect that from time to time here too.

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