February 15, 2007

(++++) THE STRINGS LESS PLAYED

Shostakovich: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Sergey Khachatryan, violin; Orchestre National de France conducted by Kurt Masur. Naïve. $16.99.

Saint-Saëns: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2; Suite for Cello and Piano. Maria Kliegel, cello; François-Joël Thiollier, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

      There are gems to be found in the less-known works of well-known composers – and if many of them turn out to be only semi-precious gems, they still sparkle, all the more so for their relatively infrequent performances.

      None of the pieces on these CDs is heard particularly often. The first Shostakovich Violin Concerto is the most likely to turn up in concert, but its prodigious technical difficulties and the lack of super-virtuoso opportunities for the violin soloist – who must play like the dickens despite the work’s structure more as a symphony than a traditional concerto – have limited its appeal. In fact, Shostakovich himself did not find concertos particularly appealing: among his 150-plus works, there are only six, including two each for violin, cello and piano. The comparative rarity of performances of the violin concertos makes Sergey Khachatryan’s excellent readings all the more welcome. The first concerto’s structure will be familiar to anyone who knows Shostakovich’s typical approach to symphonies: moderately paced first movement, scherzo, slow movement and quick finale. Dating to 1947-8 and written for David Oistrakh, this A minor work ranges from a chamber-music feeling to contemplative sections to a sardonic finale that sounds at times like folk music gone mad. Khachatryan’s playing is exemplary throughout: he follows the work’s changing moods with near-intuitive grace and style, as Kurt Masur and the Orchestre National de France provide effective backup and support.

      Written 20 years later than the first concerto and also intended for Oistrakh, the second concerto, in C-sharp minor (an unusual key for such a work), is more classically conceived than the earlier work. It is in the traditional three movements, has a spare and sad feeling, and includes some self-quotations, to which Shostakovich became prone in his later works. Khachatryan takes a very different approach to this concerto than to the first one, allowing the music to breathe more deeply and attain a level of melancholy that does not approach the tumultuous sounds of the first concerto. The result is a very effective performance of a work that, although interesting, is not quite at the pinnacle of Shostakovich’s creativity.

      In the case of Saint-Saëns’ concertos, it is the five for piano and the first of the two for cello with which the composer is most closely identified. In general, Saint-Saëns’ chamber music involving strings gets less attention than it deserves (although still more than his works for two pianos and piano four hands). Maria Kliegel and François-Joël Thiollier make a strong case for the two cello sonatas and the early five-movement suite – although the skill of the playing does not disguise the fact that these works, for all their pleasantries, are not among the composer’s most inspired. The first sonata, in C minor, dates to 1872 and actually has little that is pleasant to offer. It was written at a time of personal turmoil for the composer and national trouble for France: Napoleon III and his entire army had been captured by Prussia at the Battle of Sedan in 1870. The sonata is interesting for its focus on the lower tones of both cello and piano. The second sonata, in F major, is much later, written in 1905, and has a four-movement structure that includes a scherzo with variations (an unusual and interesting movement), a highly lyrical slow movement, and a bright and brisk finale. It has been denigrated when compared with the first sonata – much as the second cello concerto has been deemed inferior to the first – but Kliegel and Thiollier make a very strong case for this later work, especially the great beauty of the slow Romanza.

      The cello-piano suite is the earliest piece here, dating to 1862, and is generally light and pleasant. Saint-Saëns includes a touch of a waltz, some hints of Spanish music, a slow movement of moderate intensity, and a fugal finale – nothing in great depth, but everything skillfully constructed. Kliegel and Thiollier give the work its full due: it is by no means great music; but, like the cello sonatas, it is effective when well played and deserves to be heard more often.

1 comment:

  1. Although I greatly enjoy relaxing to classical music on the radio, I have not started a collection nor particularly followed details of individual composers. Still, I have heard of Shostakovich, of course, and find Infodad's view of "the sparkle of less-known works" quite appealing.

    Thank you very much!

    ReplyDelete