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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Violin Concerto No 1 in A minor Op 77 (Op 99) (1947-48) [40:22]
Sonata for Violin & Piano Op 134 (1968) [31:30]
Ruth Palmer (Violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Benjamin Wallfisch (Conductor)
Alexei Grynyuk (piano)
Rec. 23 & 24 March 2006 at Henry Wood Hall, London (Concerto) and 6 & 7 May 2006, The Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, U.K. (Sonata)
A People's Music [30:48]
A film by Tim Meara
QUARTZ QTZ2045 [71:52]
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This CD and DVD set features recordings by one of the UK’s outstanding young violinists, Ruth Palmer, of two major works for the violin by Dmitri Shostakovich. The booklet notes contain some of Ruth Palmer’s personal responses to the two works, but for in-depth descriptions, historical facts and analyses readers will have to look elsewhere. She does put the works nicely into the context of Shostakovich’s life, but in many ways this is very much the ‘debut recording’ and the notes make sure we are told all about Ruth Palmer’s career to the present day.
Shostakovich’s first Violin Concerto is an excellent showcase for a good soloist, with the solo violin being almost constantly engaged, and Shostakovich making no apologies for any potential fragility for the instrument over an entire symphonic orchestra. Palmer shows herself more than capable of pitting her powerful tone against the massed forces of the Philharmonia in the Scherzo, and Benjamin Wallfisch pulls no punches at any point in the proceedings. Take the opening of the Passacaglia movement, with full tympani thwacks and brass unleashed. My principal comparison was another soloist’s move onto the international stage. De-railed only by his own ambitions as a conductor, Jaap van Zweden recorded this concerto with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic conducted by Edo de Waart in 1996 (BMG Classics), appearing on the cover in cool shades and looking ready to take on Nigel Kennedy – picture disc and all. The orchestra, while pungent and characterful, doesn’t quite match the eloquence of the Philharmonia, but as a soloist he digs deep, and carries more of a message in this most moving of movements. This is one point at which the balance is pushed a little in the new recording, and Ruth Palmer vanishes under a duvet of violins more than once. This no doubt reflects the realities of a concert-hall performance, but straining to hear the soloist is a distracting activity. I had to make the comparison during that incredible cadenza as well. Palmer is forceful and dynamic, but I agree more with Van Zweden’s broader approach, building more emphatically to climaxes and really taking the pp dynamics to a whisper.
I don’t wish to carp about details. This is really a very fine performance, and with such a superb recording A/B comparisons are always going to be a subjective toss-up. What I do wish to avoid is becoming swept up in the hype which the best press quotes seem keen to propagate. Ruth Palmer is a wonderful violinist to be sure, but what might be the differences in 15 years time I wonder?  
Moving on to the later Violin Sonata I took Shlomo Mintz and Viktoria Postnikova’s 1992 Erato CD as comparison. Having become used to this duo’s more ongoing flow, I was at first less than overwhelmed by Palmer’s opening. Her approach seems to be ‘old man suffering’ rather than ‘old man poking at old age with a stick’, and both players miss out on some of the wit hidden in the darkness of the first movement as a result. Mintz’s throaty violin sound in the opening of the Allegretto impresses, and Palmer is deeply searching as well, though not quite equalling the sheer violence of Mintz and Postnikova, who always was quite a lady on stage – even her page turning has a punishing imperiousness to it!
Again, we have here a superbly recorded and marvellous performance, but not in any way a ‘definitive’ one. Take the pizzicati which follow the dramatic opening of the final Largo of the sonata. Mintz, with the advantage of a huge concert hall, nonetheless projects with subtle vibrato and changes of colour, and when the material opens out there is a true blossoming of the violin sound, supported by that passacaglia-like piano accompaniment. Palmer is good, but that opening is just a little rounder and more polite, the pizzicatos a little less lively sounding – elliptical and expressive, but without quite that sense of unambiguous direction that you get with Mintz. Her double-stopping is immaculate however, and on its own terms this performance is as involving and probing as one could wish for. The music is excellent and I must say Alexei Grynyuk is a true find as an accompanist: it’s only that last ounce of narrative quality I think I’m missing. Maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s a British thing, something she admits herself in the film. She would certainly be the ambassador for all of that languishing non-Prom U.K. concerto repertoire.
Now we’ve heard the music, let’s watch the documentary film by Tim Meara, A People’s Music, in which Ruth travels to Russia to find out more about the origins of the music and to discover what led Shostakovich to write these two works. I should probably have done this the other way around, but wanting to stay objective about a sound recording and waiting for ‘Eastenders’ to finish amounts to much of the same thing in this day and age. In fact, this is a nicely made, compact summary of Ruth’s impressions and experiences in Russia, learning from Dr Felix Andrievsky (listen out for the story of ‘the two mouses’!) and from breathing the same air as Shostakovich. Filmed in black and white, there are the same red accents and lettering as the booklet design highlighting important landmarks, so that there is a fine sense of design and unity about the whole thing. Presented with some occasionally exotic choreography, we get a good sense of some of the psychology behind the music, as well as the more familiar historical references. It’s not perfect of course: there is a lot of comment on the Concerto in the early part of the film followed by musical quotes from the Sonata, which is a little disconcerting, and you might find yourself wanting the editing to be just a little less busy at times. I’ve probably become too used to those well-padded BBC documentaries, for which this would have filled at least one hour. The wintry Russian imagery is of course stunning, and we get a look inside the concert hall where the concerto was first performed by David Oistrakh, the St. Petersburg Conservatoire, Shostakovich’s Dachau – there is a lot of ground covered in a short space of time, and this is a very worthwhile accompaniment to the CD, making one listen to it with new ears.
So, do I need to start again and revise my comments about the CD? Well, it wouldn’t be the objective thing to do, and this is after all a subjective review. All I can say is that this on the whole is an excellent release, and no-one investing in it will be disappointed. Ruth Palmer has youth both on her side and, to a certain extent against her. She will undoubtedly bring greater depths and heights to this kind of repertoire in the future. Her technical achievement is nonetheless remarkable, and these recordings and performances are indeed stunning. Put them up against the alternatives in your own collection, learn some things you’d never realised before, and then make up your own mind….

Dominy Clements


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