October 30, 2014


Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar.” Alexander Vinogradov, bass; Men’s Voices of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and the Huddersfield Choral Society, and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos. $9.99.

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Christa Ludwig, contralto; Waldemar Kmentt, tenor; Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Carlos Kleiber. Wiener Symphoniker. $18.99.

Prokofiev: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2; Dreams—Symphonic Tableau. São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $9.99.

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet—Suite. Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Muti. CSO Resound. $14.99.

     The remarkable Shostakovich symphonic cycle led by Vasily Petrenko for Naxos comes to a superb close with the release of the absolutely first-rate performance of Symphony No. 13, a vocal work so tightly knit into symphonic form that it is nearly impossible to say at which point one shades into the other. Petrenko has consistently gotten a nearly Russian sound from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in this sequence, perhaps a touch lacking in deep lushness in the strings but otherwise a formidable competitor for the sounds of Russian-based orchestras, with piercing woodwinds, growling brass and an overall balance and feeling reflecting both the solemnity and the comedic aspects of Shostakovich’s music. In No. 13, known as “Babi Yar” for the poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko that is the basis of the first movement, Petrenko conducts a work that sounds like the sort of symphony Mussorgsky would have written if he had worked in the form. The rumbling, growling bass of Alexander Vinogradov and the full-throated men’s voices from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and the Huddersfield Choral Society produce, in their back-and-forth antiphonies and their combined power, a paean and challenge to the Russia of 1962, when this symphony was written and had its première. Petrenko paces the work magnificently, the expansiveness of the “Babi Yar” movement standing in striking contrast to the following scherzo on humor, and the three final movements, played attacca, building relentlessly from the drudgery of everyday Soviet life to an affirmation of individual power and accomplishment – a progression that still resonates deeply but that was surely very uncomfortable for Soviet authorities even in the comparative openness of Khrushchev’s rule. Petrenko does an excellent job of keeping the vocal elements in the forefront most of the time, while allowing the purely orchestral ones to weave in and out among the voices and enhance or comment upon the words. By the time the symphony fades into silence, looking forward as it does so to the conclusion of Shostakovich’s final symphony, No. 15, Petrenko has taken the full measure of this work and shown how much more it is than its “Babi Yar” title indicates. This is a triumphant conclusion to a Shostakovich cycle that has been absolutely top-notch throughout, giving the lie to the notion that only Russian orchestras can perform Shostakovich with all the understanding and gravitas he requires. Petrenko here establishes himself as a pre-eminent conductor of this composer’s works – a true master of their many moods.

     Even a masterful conductor can, however, sometimes fall shy of complete mastery of particular repertoire. The fascinatingly flawed Wiener Symphoniker performance of Carlos Kleiber conducting Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, on the orchestra’s own label, is a case in point and something of a cautionary tale. Kleiber (1930-2004) was a quirky, difficult and highly demanding conductor, indifferent or hostile to being seen on camera or recorded. A meticulous craftsman who depended on multiple rehearsals of even well-known music in order to craft performances whose sweep and detail were remarkably involving and revelatory, he was never a Mahler conductor, and in fact this 1967 live recording of Das Lied von der Erde lets listeners hear the one and only time Kleiber ever conducted Mahler’s music. The circumstances that brought this about, explained in the CD’s accompanying booklet, created a situation that was far from ideal for conductor or orchestra – or acoustically: the recording required considerable restoration before it could be released. It is therefore somewhat surprising that this CD is good enough to get a (+++) rating and is more than a historical curiosity – although it has value even on that basis. Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is in some significant ways a prototype for Shostakovich’s “Babi Yar,” with Mahler intermingling the lied tradition with that of the symphony and creating something tremendously powerful that combines elements of both. As in the much later Shostakovich work, Das Lied von der Erde has a vocal focus with interspersed instrumental material – the two more balanced in Mahler than in Shostakovich. Mahler’s music is more personal than Shostakovich’s: written after the grand Symphony No. 8, Das Lied von der Erde offers an intensity of individualism within which to explore the grandest themes of life and death. Kleiber was blessed with two outstanding soloists in Christa Ludwig and Waldemar Kmentt: their expressiveness, especially Ludwig’s, helps overcome Kleiber’s rather cool and distanced approach to the music. Kmentt delivers his drinking songs with a strong voice and considerable fervor, but it is the delicacy of Ludwig’s singing and her heartfelt handling of Der Abschied that are the high points of the performance. Kleiber asks less of the Wiener Symphoniker than the ensemble was capable of providing – being limited to four rehearsals certainly being one reason. The orchestra sounds too often as if it is going through the motions of playing a work it knows well: a sense of discovery, of seeking and extracting the full emotional impact of Das Lied von der Erde, is missing. This is a fine recording in many ways, but it is the performance of a mid-level conductor and orchestra, and that is not an apt description of either Kleiber or the Wiener Symphoniker. The presentation also has some oddities: the titles of the fourth and fifth movements are reversed on the back cover (although not in the booklet), and there are no texts provided. These matters make the release seem almost like a throwaway, and it deserves better – even if it is scarcely an ideal showcase for the excellence of this conductor and this orchestra.

     Marin Alsop’s Prokofiev cycle with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, on the other hand, is shaping up as a strong one for both the ensemble and the conductor. The third Naxos release in this series, after ones including Symphony No. 5 and the second, longer version of No. 4, gets a (++++) rating for showing Alsop’s considerable strength in the more-modernistic elements of Prokofiev’s music and for giving the orchestra a chance to show off its fine sectional balance. Symphony No. 1, the “Classical,” is bright, even ebullient here, with Alsop and the ensemble seeming to have genuine fun with most of the work – although, frustratingly, Alsop shows one of her weaknesses as a conductor when she tinkers with the brief third movement, the “Gavotta,” by turning it into an interlude of stops and starts rather than a piece flowing as smoothly as the rest of the symphony. Symphony No. 2, Prokofiev’s entry into the spirit of deliberate modernism, 1920s-Paris-style, is here as craggy and intense as can be, filled with a great deal of clatter and outright noise but retaining classical underpinnings structurally traceable to, of all things, Beethoven’s final piano sonata. Alsop likes the clangor here and never attempts to bring out what softness the music has – not that there is a great deal of it. This is unsubtle music, and Alsop seems quite comfortable with it, pulling great gouts of sound from the orchestra and eschewing any attempt at warmth. It is a very effective performance, although one that never attempts to look much beyond the raucous elements of the work. The short, early Dreams, written when Prokofiev was 19, is somewhat less effective here: this is a work of color and lyricism, considerably influenced by Scriabin, and while the orchestra plays it well, the work itself drifts and does not seem to have captured Alsop’s imagination. Still, it makes a nice contrast to the two symphonies: Alsop’s cycle is shaping up impressively.

     The symphonic elements of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet are clear throughout the ballet and the suite drawn from it, and Riccardo Muti emphasizes them in his performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the ensemble’s own CSO Resound label. Muti is generally more comfortable with the Romantic and neo-Romantic repertoire than Alsop is, but less adept with the more-modern-sounding elements of a score like this one. The result is a performance of mixed intensity and only occasional affability, its warmer elements brought out effectively but its more-dramatic ones, such as “Death of Tybalt,” somewhat lacking in force. Even in the more lyrical sections, the rhythms and forward thrust tend to be a bit flabby at times, as Muti dwells on some emotive sections while holding the overall progress of the music back. Individually, all these matters are mere details, and this recording gets a (+++) rating for its many fine elements and the first-rate orchestral playing. But this is not a wholly convincing performance, and unfortunately, the 49-minute Romeo and Juliet Suite is the only music on the disc – a highly unusual decision when working in a medium that can readily accommodate 80 minutes. This means that the suite is the only reason for purchasing the CD – and although there are certainly many pleasures in the recording, that will not be reason enough for listeners other than ones highly devoted to the Chicago Symphony and/or to Muti’s podium manner.

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