passes. There are young adults today too young to remember the Cold War; they
were still toddlers when the Soviet
Union dissolved. Ever fewer are alive to bear personal witness to the worst
events of twentieth century European history. Ever fewer
are alive who can bring that horrible, authoritative experience
to the interpretation of the music inspired by those events.
As they retire or pass on, new generations, for whom these
events are material in history books, take on the task of
keeping it alive. This is done by interpreting the music
anew, finding new connections and new resonances in a new
era; recognizing the contributions of past interpreters, while
struggling not to work completely under their shadow.
music of Stalin’s Soviet Union
is clearly entering this new phase. None is more emblematic
of that time and place, nor more central to the struggle over
reinterpretation, than that of Shostakovich. Which way will
it go? One school of thought says that Shostakovich’s music
is universal music; it speaks of struggles within the human
spirit, and between individuals and the society they find
themselves in. Or, speaking strictly in musical terms, that
his music is one compelling way of moving forward with the
tradition of the symphony, string quartet, concerto, and other
forms worked out by the canonical composers from Haydn to
Mahler. In both of these senses of integration into the classical
tradition, regarding Shostakovich’s symphonies, Bernstein
paved the way, and we’ve seen no equal since. Interestingly,
more progress on this road has been made with regard to the
string quartets, the Emersons’ recordings being the exemplar.
other approach may be called “preservationist”: try to recreate
for the listener the time and place of the original performances.
Historically informed practice for Shostakovich—which isn’t
an idea, or a label, I’m putting out there facetiously. After
all, The Gulag Archipelago gets much of its power from
the specificity, the verisimilitude, that Solzhenitsyn creates
through his use of style and detail. If we want to tell a
story about Guantanamo, we need to write another book.
In the same spirit, the story of Shostakovich’s symphonies
can be told as Kondrashin and Mravinsky told them, perhaps
in better sound.
can try to do some of both at the same time, but it’s tricky.
I believe that Polyanksky’s efforts in this vein mostly succeed,
but legions of reviewers have disagreed. What one cannot
do is be indecisive, integrationist for the first section,
then preservationist the second. This, I’m afraid, is what
Jordania tries to do in his recording of the eighth symphony,
and that switching back and forth kills this performance as
a contender for consideration.
with the beginning, the adagio, Jordania’s goal is atmosphere.
He paints, moderately effectively, a dreamy soundscape. About
eleven minutes in, when things need to sound ominous, if they
don’t already, Jordania is unable to change gears in time.
The soft-edgedness kills the impact of the thundering brass
as much as the queasy dance of the strings. By about sixteen
minutes in, the orchestration achieves some clarity and focus,
but by then the point is lost. The Russian Federal Orchestra
doesn’t help. It sounds as if they can’t muster the power
or unity of ensemble to bring off the end of the adagio non
troppo. The brass seem almost puny, outgunned by the percussion.
could analyze the remaining three movements in similar fashion.
There are good points: the string ensemble is spot on at certain
essential points, such as the beginning of the allegretto,
and then the brass come in and sound like they might keep
up. Five good minutes, then the strings start to sound weak.
The brass intonation goes bad. The percussion beats them
into the ground. Tempos recede into foggy indeterminacy.
Festive Overture pretty well plays itself. In Jordania’s
hands, as in nearly everyone else’s, it’s a fun little romp.
sound quality is not bad, but it’s not what we’ve come to
expect from recent issues. For instance, Barshai’s cycle
on Brilliant Classics, or Wigglesworth’s ongoing efforts on
BIS, are sonically superior. The sound on Angelok1 is thin
and boxy, reminiscent of a lot of mid-1980s digital recordings.
this is to be the beginning of a cycle of Shostakovich symphony
recordings, it’s not off to a very promising start. We need
better interpretations of this music for the twenty-first
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