April 16, 2009


Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11, “The Year 1905.” Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos. $8.99.

Bach: Mass in B Minor. Les Musciens de Louvre-Grenoble conducted by Marc Minkowski. Naïve. $27.99 (2 CDs).

Britten: Double Concerto for Violin and Viola; Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge; Les Illuminations. Pieter Schoeman, violin; Alexander Zemtsov, viola; Sally Matthews, soprano; London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. LPO. $16.99.

     A conductor starting a Shostakovich cycle would, in conventional thinking, begin either with Symphony No. 1 (perhaps paired with No. 9), or with the well-known Symphony No. 5. Not Vasily Petrenko. The first volume of his Shostakovich cycle is Symphony No. 11, a commemoration of the 1905 “Bloody Sunday” massacre of demonstrators by Czarist forces – and a four-movement, hour-long work that is played straight through, with each of the first three movements leading directly into the succeeding one. This is quite a gamble by Petrenko, which makes its success all the more impressive. For this is an outstanding performance in which the symphony rises far above its propaganda value (its primary use to the Soviet regime under which it was composed). This is a work of high drama, and while its full effect requires understanding the events on which it is based, it is emotionally involving from start to finish in Petrenko’s interpretation even for listeners unfamiliar with the history it interprets. Petrenko is now principal conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and if he cannot quite make it sound like a lush Russian orchestra, he can certainly get the players to bring out every bit of Shostakovich’s percussive intensity (the timpani are excellent), the juxtapositions of consonance and dissonance, the long line of the revolutionary song “You Fell as Victims” on which the third movement is based, and the multiple thematic transformations that drive this symphony. The high drama of this work, its brass-driven intensity, its (admittedly somewhat overdone) emotionalism, and its powerful conclusion filled with bell strokes add up in Petrenko’s performance to a viscerally involving experience that will certainly whet listeners’ appetites for the conductor’s next Shostakovich symphonic disc.

     Marc Minkowski’s handling of Bach’s B Minor Mass is in its own way as dramatic as Petrenko’s tackling of Shostakovich. This is Minkowski’s first Bach recording, and it is highly successful with an approach that is very unusual: the soloists are also the chorus. Minkowski has assembled 10 young vocalists: sopranos Lucy Crowe, Joanne Lunn and Julia Lezhneva; mezzo-soprano Blandine Staskiewicz; contralto Nathalie Stutzmann; countertenor Terry Wey; tenors Colin Balzer and Markus Brutscher; baritone Christian Immler; and bass Luca Tittoto. He has then had them sing all of the mass, solo portions as individuals and choral portions as a group. A number of scholars believe this is how the B Minor Mass would originally have been performed; Minkowski agrees with them. But this is by no means a universal opinion, and performances today almost always use a separate chorus, thereby avoiding strain on the soloists. Minkowski’s approach works brilliantly – a huge argument in its favor. Hearing the same voices individually and as part of a group adds to the cohesion of the mass, and surely the singers themselves came to a greater understanding of the music and the meaning of the work through the need to learn and perform the whole thing rather than just certain parts of it. The singing itself is excellent, even if it is not always quite as polished as it is in performances featuring experienced soloists with a separate chorus; and the work comes across, from a listener’s perspective, as more tightly knit and thoroughly integrated than it does when soloists and chorus are kept separate. Add in beautiful, carefully controlled, idiomatic playing by Les Musciens de Louvre-Grenoble, and you have a B Minor Mass that is outstanding on multiple levels.

     The boldness of Vladimir Jurowski’s new Britten CD with the London Philharmonic Orchestra is at a somewhat lesser level, but it is there nevertheless. This is an all-Britten CD devoted exclusively to early works by the composer, only one of which -- Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge – is very frequently heard. The CD is made up of two live performances, the Double Concerto for Violin and Viola dating to December 2006 and the other two works to April 2008. The Double Concerto, edited by Colin Matthews (Britten left only a short score, albeit with detailed markings as to his planned but never realized orchestration), gets a thoughtful and effective performance here, with Pieter Schoeman and Alexander Zemtsov emphasizing emotional connection – as if the second movement’s designation as “Rhapsody” pervaded all three movements. In contrast, the Bridge Variations are bright, intense and thoroughly engaging, their quicksilver mood changes zipping past again and again until the final fugue gives them an appealing stateliness and grandeur. Les Illuminations is another sort of work altogether, with Sally Matthews singing Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry with a sound that is sometimes sensuous, sometimes intense, sometimes deliberately harsh – a virtuosic interpretation of a complex work in which Jurowski provides excellent backup that supports Matthews’ vocals while complementing and deepening their effect. It would be a risk to combine this much early Britten in a single concert, and perhaps it is one to put it all together on a single CD as well – but if so, it is a risk worth taking, and one that Jurowski has assumed quite successfully.

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