September 27, 2007


Shostakovich: Symphony No. 15; Boris Chaykovsky: Variations for Orchestra. Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Kyrill Kondrashin. Profil. $16.99.

      It is rare indeed for a guest conductor to produce performances as finely worked, as understanding, as closely melded to an orchestra’s abilities as these. This CD is a live recording of Kyrill (or Kiril) Kondrashin’s final performance with Staatskapelle Dresden, on January 23, 1974, and it is a superb memorial to this excellent conductor as well as a testament to the power, balance and attention to detail of which this orchestra is capable. It is a testament to the audience’s quality, too: were it not for the applause at the end of each work, there would be no way to know that this was a live performance – much less one of a symphony whose extremely soft passages are among its most distinctive and important.

      Shostakovich’s final symphony is an odd one, omitting the vocal elements of his two previous symphonies; harking back in some ways to his earliest symphonic works; including bits of Mahler, Wagner and (surprisingly) Rossini; and emphasizing the quiet rather than the grandiose. Kondrashin seems to have both a visceral and a studied understanding of the work. The first movement’s soft, delicate, sardonic opening soon builds to a strong but transparent climax as quotations from Rossini’s William Tell Overture flicker by. The percussion is particularly good. The second movement opens in a chorale-like, sad but not deeply tragic mode, its quietude its most impressive feature – wonderfully communicated by the excellent analog recording and fine digital transfer. The brass is especially impressive as the movement becomes a funeral march. When climaxes do come, they are precisely played and overwhelming. Grotesqueries return in the brief third movement, where violins are more prominent than they have been before. And then comes the strange finale, the composer’s last symphonic movement. It grows from yet another quiet opening, as Wagner quotations (from Die Walküre and Tristan und Isolde) appear and metamorphose. The first half of the movement is mostly soft, drifting without direction, but eventually the music builds to a resounding climax – at the movement’s midpoint. This is a large and dissonant section – until snare drums, which so memorably increased in volume in the Symphony No. 7 (“Leningrad”), here decrease in volume and take the rest of the orchestra along. In the last part of this movement, Kondrashin seems particularly aware of the utter strangeness of this symphony, as the orchestration becomes very spare and the percussion eventually leads the audience to nowhere as the music simply disintegrates. This is a wonderful reading of a very, very unusual work.

      Boris Chaykovsky (whose name can also be transliterated “Tchaikovsky,” although he is not related to the famous 19th-century composer) wrote his Variations for Orchestra specifically for the 425th anniversary of the Dresden Staatskapelle – which this concert marked. This performance was the world premiere of this large-scale piece by Chaykovsky (1925-1996). The work is in some ways as virtuosic as Bartók’s much more famous Concerto for Orchestra – quite a workout for all sections. Chaykovsky creates an interesting structure: the variations occur before the theme is heard, essentially leading up to it through a series of musical hints in which different orchestral sections receive prominent treatment. The work opens almost inaudibly – the influence of Shostakovich, with whom Chaykovsky studied, is clear here – and then swells to what sounds like a “dawn” passage, after which instruments are added gradually (the very quiet pizzicato violins are a particularly nice touch). Only after about three minutes of this 17-minute work is the full orchestra heard, as bits and pieces of the theme slowly emerge. There are several reminiscences of Shostakovich, including string figurations, the angularity of some themes, and the contrast of drama and delicacy. As the thematic fragments gradually coalesce, the excitement builds – but unfortunately, when the theme finally emerges, it is not particularly inspired. The result is a piece that comes across as more clever than profound. Still, it is quite a showcase for Staatskapelle Dresden, which plays it wonderfully well; and Kondrashin manages to make this rather derivative work sound as impressive as it possibly can.

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