May 21, 2009


Shostakovich: Symphony No. 15; Hamlet—Selections from the Incidental Music. Russian National Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Arensky: Piano Concerto in F minor; Fantasia on Russian Folksongs; To the Memory of Suvorov; Symphonic Scherzo. Konstantin Scherbakov, piano; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dmitry Yablonsky. Naxos. $8.99.

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Introduction to “Khovanshchina”; Borodin: Symphony No. 2; Polovtsian Dances from “Prince Igor”; Shostakovich: The Golden Age—Dance. Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.

     There is so much that is thrilling and expansive in Russian music – and some new recordings find additional depths even in familiar works. Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra can always be counted on for a big sound, precise playing and wonderful attention to detail, and all these characteristics are on display in the new PentaTone SACD of Shostakovich’s final and very peculiar symphony. This is a work in which echoes of other composers’ music – and of Shostakovich’s own earlier creations – alternate with passages of eeriness that borders on grotesquerie (and sometimes step over the border). Pletnev’s precision and fine attention to detail serve this music particularly well, rendering it understandable as an end-of-life summation whose structure makes logical sense even if some of its elements remain quixotic. The Mahlerian way in which individual orchestral voices emerge is especially well done here, with Alexander Gotgelf’s solo cello particularly good. Paired with the symphony are, in effect, a series of encores: 10 short excerpts from the incidental music to Hamlet that Shostakovich wrote in 1932, plus a Gigue from 1954 tossed in between the Lullaby and Requiem – apparently simply because Pletnev thinks it sounds good there, which it does. These brief pieces are minor Shostakovich, and make a good counterpart to the serious whimsicality of his last symphony.

     The music of Anton Arensky (1861-1906) on a new Naxos CD is all rather minor, and the CD itself is so brief (49 minutes) that it seems a once-over-lightly for a composer whose life was cut short by tuberculosis before his 45th birthday. Arensky wrote only two works for piano and orchestra, of which the later one -- Fantasia on Russian Folksongs – is the more interesting. This 1899 rhapsody contrasts a warmly expressive song with a more martial one in a tightly knit work that is more nationalistic than most of Arensky’s output. Konstantin Scherbakov plays the piece with enthusiasm that he also lavishes on the earlier Piano Concerto – which, however, does not repay his attentions as well. The concerto is rather disjointed, never quite finding its emotional center – certainly not in the superficialities of the slow movement. The finale, in 5/4 time (a meter that Arensky particularly liked), is the most interesting movement. The other works on this CD are a fairly late march (from 1900) commemorating the centenary of a Russian general and an unpublished and meandering scherzo that is likely a student work. The march is adequately martial and celebratory, but there is nothing particularly memorable about it, and the scherzo is simply disjointed. Dmitry Yablonsky leads the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra with skill in all these works, but the CD gets a (+++) rating rather than a higher one simply because the music itself is not especially distinguished.

     Whether Sir Simon Rattle’s December 31, 2007 performances of Mussorgsky, Borodin and Shostakovich deserve a (++++) or (+++) rating will depend on one’s interest in the addition of visuals to a recording. Certainly there is plenty of enthusiasm at this New Year’s Eve concert, with Rattle in fine form and active podium manner and the audience highly receptive to what is a sort of “Russia’s greatest hits” program; and certainly the Berlin Philharmonic plays with its usual strength and with fine balance among sections. But the interpretations themselves are more celebratory than insightful, with each work offered as a display piece rather than one with much to say. This is particularly unfortunate in the case of Borodin’s Symphony No. 2, which has more depth and less surface glitter than anything else on the DVD. Rattle goes through the motions of bringing out its big tunes and sweeping vistas, but the overall feeling is of a symphony performed rather than one interpreted. And of course the DVD is, like all visualizations of classical concerts, dependent on the specific shots and camera angles chosen by the TV director (Elisabeth Malzer). These can sometimes add to the listening experience (closeups of musicians focusing intently on the music, for example) and sometimes detract from it (as in shots of Rattle or the whole orchestra at times when a listener might prefer to see individual performers or sections). Lovers of Russian music will have heard all the works here innumerable times, but those who enjoy seeing as well as hearing a performance may well find this one especially festive, if not overly profound.

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