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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1976)
Violin Sonata Op.134 (1968) (arr. violin, percussion and string orchestra by Michail Zinman and Andrei Pushkarev (2005)) [32:31]
Viola Sonata Op.147 (1975) (arr. viola and string orchestra by Vladimir Mendelssohn (1991-92)) [35:46]
Gidon Kremer (violin); Yuri Bashmet (viola); Andrei Pushkarev (percussion); Kremerata Baltica/Gidon Kremer
rec. live, Great Hall of the Conservatory, Moscow (Violin Sonata); Grand Hall of the Philharmonia, St. Petersburg (Viola Sonata), October 2005
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 6196 [68:17]

The business of expanding and contracting scores by Shostakovich seems quite a healthy one. We’ve had string quartets made into chamber concertos, Symphony no.15 reduced to a quintet (DG 449 966-2, also with Kremer), and now the two great, late sonatas for violin and viola having been blown up into concertos with accompaniment by string orchestra and percussion. Knowing and loving these pieces as I do in their original form, I wasn’t prepared to be instantly wowed by the concept or the execution – Kremer, Bashmet and Baltica were always going to have to convince me, one way or another.
This world premiere recording of this orchestrated Violin Sonata announces itself with one of Shostakovich’s most open and sparing musical statements. With the piano substituted for strings one has to get used to the difference – the lack of attack, however gentle, which gives the piano that wandering, searching quality against the solo violin. Zinman’s strings are given some sostenuto flexibility, imitating the sustaining pedal on a piano. I miss the contrast between the sustained solo line and independently meandering piano, but with the ear adjusting we are soon permitted some variety, with subtle touches of the triangle, and some gentle rhythmic emphasis through pizzicato in the lower strings. It didn’t take long: about halfway and I was already forgetting my mental A/B comparisons of the different versions. There will always be a moment where recognition and expectation becomes transplanted, and in the end the only danger is losing sight of the origins of such a work.
Opinions will differ, but whatever your own personal conclusions, there can be no doubting the musical commitment of the Kremerata Baltica. Gidon Kremer is of course a master in this music, defining the material in narrative terms, moving us with chilling tears or urging us into action with passionate passagework or rhythmic grit. The orchestra is a fairly sizeable line-up, but never sounds unwieldy in this piece. The second Allegretto movement has some superb touches in the orchestration, with repeated pizzicato chords highlighted by a tuned woodblock, and other important moments similarly emphasised. There is no over-egging of the pudding however, and the percussion is always servant to the music. The final Largo has grand gestures which suit orchestral treatment well. Again, my ear wanted those probing piano notes which arrive to support the solo violin’s pizzicati, but pizzicato lower strings in the orchestra will do as well, and the subsequent passacaglia variations build nicely. Simple string writing and restrained playing throw up unexpectedly classical sounding chorale-like moments – if it wasn’t Shostakovich it would be Frank Martin. A beautifully atmospheric world is created to which you will want to return – guaranteed. With the return of the passacaglia after the soloist’s cadenza my only concern was that it might be too triumphant. The empty soulfulness which Shostakovich preserves throughout this piece soon returns however, as the grand theme deflates and withdraws – introverted to the end.
Shostakovich’s last work, the Viola Sonata Op.147, has fewer pianistic associations for me, but even so in the opening I found myself occasionally disorientated by notes which sustain rather than decay, and which emanate rather than chime. I found myself missing the percussion as well, and you realise what a clarifying effect it can have with judicious use. There is a fair bit of low scrubbing going on which doesn’t necessarily advance the cause of arrangements of this kind. The second Allegretto movement fares better, with some of the sharp, sardonic Shostakovich wit becoming even more folk-like in a number of telling passages. There are also some remarkable col legno effects, and an almost invisible celesta part which adds some interesting colour, without allowing it the true Shostakovich loneliness which it might have gained from some more imaginative exposure. The final movement is and emotionally draining journey, and the already funereal mood is made even more lugubrious with strings. The celesta is granted some more substance by contributing to the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ paraphrase, and the sense of dissolution is absolute, through the final C major chord and beyond.     
The booklet notes by David Fanning have little to say on the subject of the arrangements, going over the origins and content of each piece pretty much as if there was nothing really special going on. We are told that the original arrangement of the Violin Sonata was made by violinist Michail Zinman for his own use in 2005, with the percussion parts being added later by Andrei Pushkarev. The Viola Sonata arrangement by Rumanian-born violinist-composer Vladimir Mendelssohn was completed in 1991. The logic of pairing these two arrangements is clear, and indeed makes for a fascinating and worthwhile coupling. The Violin Sonata arrangement is the star discovery for me however, creating entirely new perspectives on an already mighty masterpiece. These are live recordings, though you probably wouldn’t guess it without being told. There are one or two very minor ‘noises off’ in Op.147, but with such extended and quiet music one would hardly expect otherwise. The detail in the recording is very good, and the playing is beyond exemplary. I’m not about to throw away my Shlomo Mintz-Viktoria Postnikova recording of these pieces (Erato), but this recording casts a fascinating new chiaroscuro on some of Shostakovich’s most personal statements.
Dominy Clements   


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