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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Violin concerto 1 in A minor, Op.77 [39:29] a
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854–1928) Violin concerto, Die Wanderung einer Seele [11:41] b
Baiba Skride (violin)
a Munich Philharmonic/Mikko Frank (conductor)
b Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Marek Janowski (conductor)
rec. live, Philharmonie, Munich, 16-18 April 2004 (Shostakovich), Berlin, 25 August 2004 (Janáček). DDD.

SONY CLASSICAL 82876731462 [52:41]
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Alternative versions – Shostakovich:

D. Oistrakh/Philharmonia/Evgeni Svetlanov; Live 1962 (BBC Legends BBCL4060-2)
D. Oistrakh/New Philharmonia/Maxim Shostakovich; 1972 (EMI 5 86841 2)
Victor Tretyakov/USSR State SO/Yuri Temirkanov; Live 1981 (Revelation RV10108)
Lydia Mordkovitch/Royal Scottish N O/Neeme Järvi; 1989 (Chandos CHAN8820)
Dimitry Sitkovetsky/BBCSO/Andrew Davis; 1990 (Virgin 759601-2)
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg/LSO/Maxim Shostakovich; 1992 (EMI CDC7 54314-2)
Maxim Vengerov/LSO/Mstislav Rostropovich; 1994 (Teldec 92256)
Ilya Kaler/Polish National Radio SO/Antoni Wit; 1997 (Naxos 8 550814)
Ilya Gringolts/Israel PO/Itzhak Perlman; 2002 (DG 471 616-2GH)
Hilary Hahn/Oslo PO/Hugh Wolff; 2003 (Sony SK89921)
Sarah Chang/Berlin PO/Simon Rattle, 2006 (EMI 0946 3 46053 2)
Daniel Hope/BBC SO/Maxim Shostakovich; 2006 (Warner 2564-62546-2)
Alternative version – Janáček:

Thomas Zehetmair/Philharmonia/Heinz Holliger; 1991 (Warner Apex 0927-40812-2)

In December 2005 I was fortunate enough to review two discs released by Sony Classical featuring violinist Baiba Skride in solo (review ) and concerto (review) repertoire. The fact that neither of them made it onto my Discs of the Year list had more to with the timing of their arrival and the compilation of the list than the artistic quality of the performances themselves. Given the life of a reviewer, we are forever moving on to the next release or concert to write about, Skride’s first discs remain among the few from last year I regularly revisit.

My review of the concerto disc ended with the remarks:

With a second concerto disc (Shostakovich 1st and Janáček) already released in Germany, Sony would do well to release it internationally soon. […] It looks as if we might have a serious artist on our hands. The first two discs certainly make it seem so.

So at last to Shostakovich’s first concerto - the third version to appear in recent months - and something about the many rivals Baiba Skride faces. David Oistrakh, the work’s dedicatee, commented that "the score calls for considerable emotional in intellectual involvement on the interpreter’s part". The selected list - given in date order - heading this review leaves one with a variety of attempts at meeting the challenge Oistrakh makes plain, and each version has something to offer the listener.

The concerto is generally approached in one of two ways: as an experience of extremities from beginning to end, unafraid to release great torrents of wrath when required, or, alternatively, as a slow burning work whose power and force is cumulative. That the same work can indeed be interpreted in two such different ways says much for the strength and inventiveness of the writing itself.

Leading the charge for the ‘torrents of wrath’ view is David Oistrakh. Understandably he will still be the non-pareil for some in the solo part: David Wright claimed in his review of the BBC Legends performance that, "It has never been played like this in my hearing." Also stating for good measure, "If you don't respond to this, you need professional help!" Alright so the last remark was made specifically in relation to the second concerto, but is just as applicable to the recording as a whole, and the studio recording - the last Oistrakh made - under the direction of the composer’s son, Maxim. Indeed, his three recordings of the work show that the fire that burns within the notes remains undimmed as a special cause to champion, with the last recording featuring impassioned playing by the BBCSO and British firebrand Daniel Hope. That said, I regret the short lifespan enjoyed by the version with Salerno-Sonnenberg; at the time of its appearance I had great hopes for her.

Other adherents to this view include Ilya Kaler on Naxos, and decent though he is the Polish orchestra let him down slightly when placed alongside other versions. Gringolts comes across as a real loose cannon, but he has ideas of his own within the music, but paradoxically it is the violinist-turned-conductor presiding over his recording that shows weakness when it comes to leading his orchestra. Much more in control are Mordkovitch/Neeme Järvi on Chandos, Tretyakov/Temirkanov (if one can find their reading somewhere), and the version until recently I would have said approached the significance of Oistrakh’s: Vengerov/Rostropovich on Teldec.

The ‘cumulative effect’ view of the piece is less often expounded on disc. Sitkovetsky/Davis do so to decent ends, but they are easily bettered by Hilary Hahn, who also sees off another of the latest contenders, Sarah Chang, whose reading suffers at the hands of Rattle’s tempi. Chang also can seem somewhat reticent to get between the notes, and no matter how far one plays the cumulative power game, there comes a time when every soloist must get serious and rise to the music’s formidable challenges.

None of these accusations can be laid at the door of Baiba Skride as she joins the fray. It’s not as if following the path less travelled will absent her from comparisons with soloists that take the other route. Her tone is admirably secure - on a par with that of Vengerov or Oistrakh to my ears. Her intonation is precise; more so than Tretyakov’s for example, and it’s worth remembering that both artists are recorded in live performances. Were it not for the spontaneous applause at the end of Skride’s reading, one might on first audition think this a studio recording. That it is only underlines the standard of genuine music-making we have here.

The opening Nocturne is, of course, far from restful night music though it does possess a dream-like quality. Skride and Frank play the music as if it might be restful for the most part, yet they are fully aware that it is not. Menace, though rarely openly stated, is always present and one senses that it lurks thinly veiled within every phrase. The Scherzo is similarly cast in several key respects to form a pair to the Nocturne, but its chief effect is to caricature grotesquely the musical lines. Without ever sinking to mere tongue-in-cheek circus humour, Frank leads a totally assured Munich Philharmonic in a reading that maintains the seriousness throughout, much to the benefit of the music. There are times however that he does not quite plumb the emotional depths body and soul as does Maxim Shostakovich, but then few could claim such intimate connection as him with this music.

The third movement Passacaglia/Andante is imbued with its full measure of suffering by Skride. She takes the music by the scruff of the neck in an iron grip – and keeps this up throughout the ensuing classically cast variations. The contradictions inherent in Shostakovich’s writing are wonderfully realised. But little could prepare one for the sheer devastation that awaits in the lengthy adjoining cadenza – and few play it so absorbingly as here. It gives one a chance to get a close-up view of Skride’s formidable technique and fully appreciate the beauty of her tone even though she plays some of the blackest music imaginable. Such a contradiction might not have been thought fully out of place by the composer. The recording itself helps, catching her within a forwardly placed ‘spotlight’, rather in the manner found on many Perlman discs.

The final movement Burlesque is a hell-for-leather ride upon some depraved fairground ride of the imagination. The concerto’s span arches from nocturne to nightmare. All caution is forgotten, except that caution was never present in this reading. One understands just why Shostakovich was accused of "formalistic aberration, subjectivism and the denial of socialist realism" following the Leningrad premiere of the work. More importantly, this performance makes you feel it too. With the longed for unleashing of power finally realised what a mix of emotions swell around! Here is perhaps the final contradiction to be found in Shostakovich - I found it also when seeing Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk recently: the music dictates that one might be ready to abruptly curtail life immediately it finishes, yet any good performance leaves feelings of joy despite the bleak thoughts. A great performance leaves one elated, and Skride’s definitely does that for me.

In his review of the Janáček concerto played by Thomas Zehetmair Colin Clarke put his finger on the heart of the matter in commenting that:

The Janáček is in fact a fragment, heard here in a completion by Leoš Faltus and Miloš Štedru, first performed in 1988 at Brno; another completion by Bretislav Bakala exists. Its total duration is less than twelve minutes and yet it contains Janáček's world in microcosm, including some beautiful moments along the way: the woodwind solos around 3 minutes in are a breath of fresh air and the frequent bitter-sweet harmonies are most affecting.

Skride employs the same completion of the work as Zehetmair, I find it hard to work up much enthusiasm for the piece given its obviously fragmentary nature: just as it gets going, it ends. Ultimately, because of this, despite committed and idiomatic advocacy from Skride, orchestra and conductor, I feel slightly deflated by the experience, particularly as it comes after the white-hot Shostakovich.

So what’s my view of Baiba Skride now? She is a serious artist no question, and whilst some artists politely ask their audiences to listen Baiba Skride demands their total attention. I regret that her concerts so far seem limited to the continent - although that’s not a bad excuse for a trip, if one needs one - and compensation can be found in her recordings. One request of my own I don’t think is out of order: more please, and soon!

Evan Dickerson



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