December 09, 2010


Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos. $8.99.

Schmidt: Symphony No. 4; Variations on a Hussar’s Song. Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vassily Sinaisky. Naxos. $8.99.

Dvořák: Symphony No. 6; Nocturne; Scherzo Capriccioso. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $8.99.

     Vasily Petrenko’s latest entry in his Shostakovich cycle for Naxos is at the same high level as his previous ones of Nos. 5 and 9, No. 8 and No. 11 – which is to say a very high level indeed. Petrenko has managed to turn the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic into, if not exactly a deep-throated Russian ensemble, an orchestra that thoroughly understands Shostakovich’s music and performs it with depth, grandeur and appreciation. Symphony No. 10, written in 1953, is a complex and difficult work, filled with personal elements (including the very prominent D-S-C-H motto representing the composer’s initials) but also clearly striving to depict societal concerns in the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin – and doing so in such a way as to avoid having the composer again run afoul of the censors and apparatchiks (who did not know quite what to make of this symphony). The huge first movement is not so much dark as bleak, having a little of the flavor of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 4 even though constructed on entirely different principles and a different scale. The thoughtfulness of some themes is contrasted with the deliberate dullness of others, and when it seems there will be some rhythmic uplift, as in a waltz-like treatment of the second theme, the composer quickly snuffs any sense of bounce or joviality. Petrenko paces this movement broadly, bringing out its internal contrasts – and contradictions – to very fine effect. Then he throws everything at the second movement, which is one of Shostakovich’s shortest at barely four minutes but also one of the composer’s most intense – violent, explosive, dramatic and very tense. And then come the third and fourth movements, in both of which the D-S-C-H motto is featured and in one of which (the fourth) it is played against the notes E-A-E-D-A, representing a pianist with whom Shostakovich had an intense correspondence during the symphony’s composition. The exact personal meanings of the uses of these mottos are impossible to fathom and, in truth, unnecessary to know, since Petrenko makes the symphony work so well on a purely musical level – quite independently of any personal subtext. The changing rhythms and tempos, the orchestration that ranges from oboe and bassoon solos to clattering percussion that requires three players, the themes that emerge and combine, conflict and subside, and then emerge again – Petrenko pays attention to all these elements, and the orchestra explores them with style and sensitivity, producing a highly impressive reading of a work whose depths remain difficult, if not impossible, to plumb.

     The emotions of Franz Schmidt’s Symphony No. 4 are more on the surface but no less intense. This is Schmidt’s most personal and most anguished symphony, written in 1933 as a requiem for his daughter, Emma, who died in childbirth the year before. Schmidt was a careful and controlled composer, more comfortable crafting finely honed works that did not delve too deeply into emotions than in creating intensely heartfelt ones. In this symphony, there is less of the anguish that the composer must have felt than there would be in a work by a composer more comfortable wearing his heart on his proverbial sleeve – Rachmaninoff, say. The symphony is nevertheless an impressive work that has more genuine depth of feeling than Schmidt’s other three. The second movement, in particular, begins with a solo cello and continues with muffled, funereal drums, producing an impression of genuine sorrow and mourning. Vassily Sinaisky and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra play the work as effectively as they played Schmidt’s other symphonies on earlier Naxos releases, making it as passionate and emotive as Schmidt was capable of being. And the symphony’s darkness – which emerges despite its nominal key of C Major – is well contrasted with Variations on a Hussar’s Song, a very well-structured work that shows Schmidt in more comfortable territory both because it is less overtly emotional and because the composer was a master of the variation form. Written in 1930 and lasting nearly half an hour, this piece features an elaborate structure that includes a fugato and elements that have the sound of a scherzo, a fantasy and some straightforward thematic repetitions. It is skillfully orchestrated and well-wrought throughout, making no attempt at profundity and needing none to come across effectively.

     The effectiveness of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 is of another, and higher, order, but unfortunately not in the new recording by Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony. Alsop and her orchestra have already turned in respectable but not very idiomatic or particularly perceptive recordings of Dvořák’s Symphonies Nos. 7, 8 and 9 for Naxos, and are well on their way to producing a complete cycle of the composer’s symphonies. That being so, it is a shame that Alsop has not paid more attention to Dvořák’s unique melodic gifts and the warmth and flow that make his works stand out when they are well played. The first three movements of this live performance are straightforward; there is nothing special in them, and the third-movement furiant lacks any particular Czech character. The finale is something of a mess, opening with a rhythm so flabby that it seems Alsop was not quite sure how she wanted the movement to go – an impression compounded as she speeds it up, then slows it down, before finally settling into a moderate tempo that fits the overall mediocrity of the interpretation. The Baltimore Symphony plays gamely throughout – this is a very fine orchestra and an under-appreciated one – but Alsop is simply out of her depth in Dvořák’s music, or perhaps not very interested in it (but then why do a cycle of his symphonies?). The CD gets a (+++) rating, which is slightly on the generous side, in part because the filler items are well handled. The Nocturne (a string-orchestra arrangement of a movement from the composer’s String Quartet No. 4) is the high point of the disc: the Baltimore Symphony’s strings glow with warmth, and Alsop lets the music unfold naturally. It is the orchestra’s brass that is at its best in the Scherzo Capriccioso, which sounds very fine in its faster sections – but which drags in slower parts, because Alsop takes them so slowly that any sense of forward motion nearly disappears. Alsop is well thought of in modern, American and modern American music, but this CD is further evidence that she is simply not very comfortable in conducting more-standard repertoire and, in particular, brings nothing new to Romantic works.

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