April 04, 2013


Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky. LPO. $16.99.

Ivan Karabits: Concertos for Orchestra Nos. 1-3; Valentin Silvestrov: Elegie; Abschiedsserenade. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirill Karabits. Naxos. $9.99.

Penderecki: Piano Concerto, “Resurrection”; Concerto for Flute and Chamber Orchestra. Barry Douglas, piano; Łukasz Długosz, flute; Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. Naxos. $9.99.

     It took 30 years for the London Philharmonic Orchestra to release, on its own label, the live performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky on October 30, 1983. At least some listeners will think it has been worth the wait. Rozhdestvensky is steeped in the traditions that Shostakovich uses and stretches almost past recognition in this symphony, and the performance – at a time when the Soviet Union still existed and Shostakovich himself had been dead for less than a decade – handles this World War II symphony effectively as a statement of bleakness, intensity, loss and frail but noticeable hope. The huge first movement, which here takes up 24 of the symphony’s 59 minutes, manages to be both episodic and carefully structured, its apparently little-related sections flowing one into the next in the clear service of Rozhdestvensky’s overall view of the symphony’s structure. Indeed, all the movements become part of the larger whole: there is a never-quite-celebratory second movement, and then the snide third movement, its sarcasm here somewhat downplayed, leads immediately into a particularly expansive and moving Largo that eventually merges into a finale that never quite makes up its mind whether to be lighthearted or dramatically unsettling. Rozhdestvensky lets the movements unfold naturally, but keeps close control over their flow, highlighting the ways in which Shostakovich united them – notably by recalling the climax of the first movement toward the conclusion of the whole symphony. The London Philharmonic in 1983 did not have the ideal sound for this music: greater snarl in the brass would have been better, along with lusher strings. But Rozhdestvensky’s careful marshaling of his forces and his close attentiveness to the symphony’s structural underpinnings make this a highly effective and emotionally compelling reading.

     A few years after Rozhdestvensky’s performance, in 1991, the Soviet Union imploded; and Ukraine, among other former portions of the USSR, became independent. Musical figures of consequence soon emerged in several of the former Soviet states, including Ivan Karabits (1945-2002) in Ukraine. However, Karabits’ three Concertos for Orchestra actually date to late Soviet times: No. 1, “Musical Gift to Kiev,” to 1980/81; No. 2 to 1986; and No. 3, “Lamentations,” to 1989. These are scarcely grand-form works in the mode of Bartók: the first and third are in two tied-together movements, the second in three similarly linked sections. Shostakovich is very much a presence in all three of these pieces, which also provide periodic hints of Mahler (who in turn influenced Shostakovich). The most interesting thing about the music is the way it combines its derivative elements with Ukrainian folk music, a rich source with which listeners may be familiar only through Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, the “Little Russian” (that being the 19th-century term for what is now Ukraine). Karabits’ son, Kirill Karabits, leads the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the three concertos with a sure sense of his father’s style and the music’s rhythmic attractions, although in truth, the works themselves are more of the “mildly interesting” variety than anything else – with the result that this CD gets a (+++) rating. Two shorter pieces complete the disc, both by Valentin Silvestrov (born 1937). Silvestrov’s Elegie (2002) for his countryman incorporates some sketches left unfinished by Karabits at his death, juxtaposing them with Silvestrov’s own music. Abschiedsserenade (2003) has, in two short movements, an appropriate tone of farewell and mourning, although it is somewhat on the formulaic side as a memorial piece. All the works on this CD are well-made but come across more as workmanlike than inspired – admirable enough but not especially memorable.

     Fans of the music of Krzysztof Penderecki will surely find the 2007 revision of his 2001/02 Piano Concerto memorable, especially in the performance by Barry Douglas, who first performed the revised version. Others may find this very large one-movement work somewhat overdone, as if Penderecki is channeling Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev – but picking up their tendency toward overstatement, particularly Rachmaninoff’s, without tapping into their respective wells of creativity. The “Resurrection” theme, based on a chorale, emerges gradually in this concerto, appearing full-fledged only at the climax, after more than 30 minutes of buildup. The concerto’s 10 sections, which in Lisztian mode merge one into the next, are generally well-contrasted, and Penderecki’s usual skill in orchestration is evident throughout. But the concerto as a whole is more a work of gestures than one with significant connections to listeners – the kind of piece that is interesting during performance but does not stay with a listener for very long afterwards. In some ways, the 1992 Flute Concerto, which uses far more modest forces, is the more interesting work on this (+++) CD. Here too are interconnected movements – five of them in this case – but despite the relatively small range of the flute when compared with the piano, the emotional range of this work seems wider; and even though this concerto’s chamber orchestra is significantly smaller than the ensemble in the piano work (which has a plethora of percussion, plus triple winds), the colors that Penderecki brings forth from his more-limited palette are somehow richer. The Piano Concerto is a more-indulgent work than the Flute Concerto, impressive but not ultimately gripping; the greater delicacy of the work for flute ends up giving it greater staying power after the performance is over.

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