April 05, 2007


Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 9. Yakov Kreizberg conducting the Russian National Orchestra. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 2; Concert Fantasy. Konstantin Scherbakov, piano; Dmitry Yablonsky conducting the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

      The Russian National Orchestra, which is not even 20 years old, has vaulted into the forefront of the world’s great orchestras – as it amply demonstrates on its new SACD recording of Shostakovich symphonies. The playing is simply remarkable: no rhythmic or tempo change seems to hold any difficulty; attention to detail is outstanding; and every solo, however brief, is handled as if the player is performing a major concerto. Some credit surely goes to Yakov Kreizberg, whose vision of the Shostakovich Fifth and Ninth symphonies is realized so well here – but this orchestra plays with numerous conductors, and is silky-smooth and precise with every one of them. PentaTone’s superb SACD sound makes the quiet beauty of Shostakovich’s works as effective as their huge climaxes – and that is true whether the disk is played on standard CD equipment or (even better) on a multichannel system.

      None of the technical prowess of orchestra and engineers would matter if the performances were lesser ones, but these are stellar. The first movement of the Fifth is evenly and dramatically paced, building carefully to a climax and not sounding at all episodic; and the quiet ending is excellent. The second movement is a solo showcase – violin and flute are especially good – and the horn choir near the start is highly impressive as well. The third movement is heartfelt and warm, with a chamber-like feeling and level of real yearning that sound a bit like those of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Yet there is considerable expansiveness here, too – Kreizberg lets the movement unfold slowly and gracefully. The finale opens with more menace than triumphalism, with the initial section played rather quickly, making the quiet gloom at the movement’s center all the more effective. The sheer beauty of string tone is remarkable here. For the final third of the movement, Kreizberg starts at a moderate tempo that he then slows bit by bit, as if the forward pace is losing steam even as the sheer loudness of the music builds to a climax. The result is anything but an affirmation of the Soviet system – in line with current thinking that Shostakovich was subtly undermining the very arrangement that he sort to mollify with this work.

      As for the Ninth, it simply bubbles, especially in the sardonic first movement, featuring excellent solos and precise rhythms. The second movement, in contrast, seems almost arrhythmic, with a feeling of drift – and continuing impressive solo turns. The third movement flashes past with outstanding woodwind work complemented by bullfight-like trumpet calls neatly balanced against the snare drum – then subsides into the mournful Largo, whose dramatic brass flourishes here sound a bit like the Ravel/Moussorgsky “Catacombs” movement of Pictures at an Exhibition. The bassoon opening of the finale breaks the mood instantly, as the music shades into a sardonic march but never seems sure where it is going (perhaps indicating the uncertain future awaiting the post-World War II world). The orchestra’s intuitive understanding of the rhythmic and tempo changes is especially impressive here – and the bizarre final minute of music, which Kreizberg pushes at breakneck speed, is simply wonderful.

      The Tchaikovsky CD with the Russian Philharmonic – a fine orchestra, but not the equal of the Russian National – is more of a qualified success, despite the high quality of the performers. Konstantin Scherbakov is a substantial virtuoso, but sheer virtuosity is not all that Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 requires. Although significantly longer than the more-famous Concerto No. 1, the second concerto is a more introspective work. Scherbakov plays it as if it had been written by Liszt, producing a hugely exciting performance that misses the work’s emotional core. The highly dramatic opening makes the rapport between Scherbakov and conductor Dmitry Yablonsky immediately apparent, but Scherbakov does not so much play the music as attack it. His runs are almost frantically fast, the middle notes not always clear, and the expansiveness of the movement suffers as a result. The lovely slow theme introduced about halfway through, sounding like an anticipation of Rachmaninoff, is more relaxed, but its handling is unsubtle. The result is a breathtaking but largely soulless movement.

      The second movement of this concerto is one of Tchaikovsky’s most fascinating experiments: a miniature triple concerto in which the piano does not even appear for the first three-and-a-half minutes. With Andrey Kudryavtsev as violin soloist and Yablonsky himself on cello – he is a top-notch cellist – the movement unfolds with great beauty, but Scherbakov’s sound is more brittle than that of the strings. It is also hard to understand why a short segment at the end (less than a minute of music) is cut here – it is true that Tchaikovsky acceded to this and some other cuts (the movement was considered just too long and complex), but in this case that is like saying that Bruckner accepted bastardized versions of his symphonies. There is no longer any justification for cutting this movement – if indeed there ever was.

      The finale’s playfulness here becomes hard-driven intensity, resulting in a concerto wholly lacking in introspection – a (+++) performance despite the excellent playing.

      The unaccountably neglected Concert Fantasy, however, gets a solid (++++) reading. In this two-movement piece, Scherbakov relaxes, letting the music flow and its beauty emerge. There is a chamber-like quality to the first movement – marked “Quasi Rondo” although it is in sonata form – and more delicacy than Tchaikovsky’s piano-and-orchestra music usually possesses. The second movement, “Contrastes,” is a delight, with a gentle and moving opening that soon passes into unusual rhythms and unexpected uses of percussion, including a prominent tambourine. Scherbakov and Yablonsky here use their excellent cooperative abilities to keep the music flowing stylishly, producing a performance so good that it argues strongly for more-frequent programming of this work in the concert hall – that is, if it can be played as well as this.

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