Lev Konstantinovich KNIPPER (1898-1974)
Violin Concerto No.1 (1943) [39:15]
Symphony No.8 (1942) [27:19]
Mikhail Krutik (violin)
St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Titov
rec. St. Catherine Lutheran Church St. Petersburg, Russia, 1-2, 21-22 April 2009
Wartime Music - Vol.6
Five discs into the Northern Flowers “Wartime Music” Series and certain recurring characteristics are starting to appear. In essence this has been a rather disappointing collection. Certainly curiosity has been tweaked with music that is fascinating or baffling and at the very least worth investigating but the central weaknesses have been performances and recordings that are average at best. It is hard not to reach the conclusion that this is music that might be better served elsewhere.
Volume 6 with music from Lev Knipper proves to be more of the same. Knipper wrote a remarkable amount of music including some twenty symphonies, eight operas and ten concertos. Apart from a rather raucous recording of Symphony No.4 “Poem of the Komsomol Warrior” which I bought because of the Gliere Red Poppy coupling on Olympia I have not heard his music so did not know what to expect. From reading the liner-notes – more about them later – and an online article in the Daily Telegraph (December 5th 2008) under the headline; “Stalin planned to destroy Moscow if the Nazis moved in” we learn; “Booby-traps were laid in the orchestra pit of the Bolshoi theatre as well as around the Kremlin and Moscow's best known cathedrals. The Metropole and National hotels were also mined, as was the towering foreign ministry. Under the elaborate plan, ballerinas and circus acrobats were armed with grenades and pistols and ordered to assassinate German generals if they attempted to organise concerts and other celebrations upon taking the city. The composer Lev Knipper was charged with the responsibility of killing Hitler if he got the opportunity.” By all accounts he was an active Soviet secret police agent! Assuming that was known by his contemporaries at some level it makes you wonder how objective the criticism of commentators at the time dared to be.
As works written at much the same time they actually inhabit very different sound-worlds. The disc opens with the Violin Concerto No.1 of 1943. This is a big, dare one say rambling, work lasting nearly forty minutes and had a pretty stellar first performance in 1944 with the 19 year old Leonid Kogan accompanied by The USSR Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Alexander Gauk. I can imagine it being a far more compelling work in those circumstances. The soloist here is the associate concert master of the St Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra. He is a fine player but not in the Kogan class – but then how many players are? He is not helped by a recording that has him painfully close – literally every sniff clearly audible – and harshly lit which gives his instrument a less than pleasant tone. As a composer, on the basis of these two works, Knipper seems much more at ease writing lyrical passages. The opening of the concerto bodes well with plenty of brooding atmosphere and a questing sinuous solo line. This is then supplanted by a passage of quasi-fugato writing – the material clearly linked to and developed from the opening – but this is neither particularly interesting on structural grounds, or musically memorable. Without access to a score and lacking the familiarity that long acquaintance might give one the alternation between the slow sections and the fugato writing over the extended eighteen minute movement failed to engage me at all. This is due in part to the rather grey nature of the orchestration – curiously the coupling of the Symphony No.8 is much more interesting in purely orchestrational terms so I can only assume that it is down to some compositional choice the liner-notes do not make clear. As with other discs in this series matters are not helped by an interventionist engineer/producer who likes to zoom in on solo lines in the orchestral texture. Often the playing is perfectly reasonable and indeed the orchestra as a whole sounds less taxed on this disc than elsewhere. There are two extended cadenzas in this work and the one in the first movement does sound particularly hard and unforgiving. Credit to Mikhail Krutik for coping as well as he does here although even he is not able to join the chordal writing Knipper has conceived into something that has musical line and meaning – it just sounds like a jump from awkward chord to awkward chord. By some considerable way the slow movement – with its emphasis on line and melody again – is the most successful in the concerto. It seems to me to be a kind of latter day homage to the Canzonetta movement in the Tchaikovsky concerto; is it a coincidence that the proportions of the Knipper are so similar to the earlier work? Certainly this movement plays to the strengths of Knipper and the performance here has a good forward flow and Russian ardour at the climax. This central section is also the shortest – at eight minutes – and that serves the music well too. The thirteen minute Finale again outstays its welcome by the fact of its perfunctory musical material which is summed up by an ending as abrupt as it is unimpressive. I am at a loss to explain why this work should have left me so indifferent and unfortunately there is very little in the catalogue by him to compare. Both here and in the symphony there is a feeling of the cinematic at the climaxes with the music inhabiting the sound-world of Bernard Herrmann – when in pastiche mode – or Franz Waxman. Several times, at differing moments this music seemed to strive for the heroic perorations at the end of the Warsaw Concerto or even the Dream of Olwen;– perhaps that should be Olga in the circumstances.
But all is not lost, the accompanying Symphony No.8 is a far more interesting work. Everything about this piece works better. The form is individual and interesting – three well balanced slow movements of well-judged length cohere. By extension, the slower passages play to Knipper’s melodic strengths mentioned above. The orchestration – whilst not setting the universe alight or being anything particularly original – is far more interesting than anything the concerto offered. Lastly, although the charge of being rather ‘obvious’ and cinematic could be made here, the work seems to have engaged the composer on an emotional level much more than the concerto. Just letting the disc run on from the end of track 3 into the opening of track 4 will encapsulate exactly the transformation I am trying to describe. The opening of the Symphony is certainly easy on the ear in a generalised emotional way although the scrappy string playing undermines the impact as it has all too often on other discs in the series. Again I find the engineering here second rank at best – why are the strings gathered into the centre of the sound-stage with the harp and some percussion in sonic isolation to the left? It’s an unsubtle and crude choice by the production team. The disc suffers from some fairly unsubtle editing too where the absence of aural overhang from a previous passage indicates a ‘dry’ edit onto the new section – given the church location the acoustic is oddly un-atmospheric but there is enough present to make this kind of edit audible.
Knipper’s melodic shapes are not exactly unusual – lots of widely arched phrases screwing up the emotional tension - but it would be wrong to dismiss them on grounds of obviousness alone. Try 8:14 into track 4 which is the end of the first movement. After a rather shameless Wagner crib for the timps – interestingly doubled on contra-bassoon – I rather like the syncopating accompaniment in the low brass and the flowing upper string melody leading onto the “Olwen-ending”. If only it were better played. The central movement opens with an interesting instrumental effect – a kind of pastoral folksong initially scored for cor anglais and various clarinets before handing on to the strings. The wind and brass solos are rather lovely with hints of times past from an appealingly mournful horn; a highlight for sure. Again Knipper’s strength of writing flowing melody of easy and instant appeal is to the fore. In the more reflective central section string ensemble issues are quite a problem with a real sense of being musically tentative, at least one session short of security. There is a return of the gentle woodwind writing – again genuinely attractive both in content and execution before the movement subsides into a peaceful repose. My sense is that this is the most successful movement on the whole disc with Knipper leaving aside rhetoric and bombast and allowing his lyrical gift to express itself in its best unadorned light. The finale opens with more Wagner-esque motifs in low wind, timps and strings. Again there is a fusion of the heroic and folk-song elements. Quite a long time is spent ‘preparing’ so the music is strong on atmosphere while it lacks any real thematic exposition or development. The melodies there are seem to be leading to a dénouement that takes too long to arrive [5:55 track 6] and is rather a non-event when it does. The sense of accompanying a cinematic scene is hard to refute. The final three minutes reprise earlier ‘Olwen’ material in a rather predictable way and the work ends in a rather disappointingly obvious and banal manner lacking the sincerity of the central movement. Given Knipper’s predisposition to give his earlier symphonies titles the absence of one here or any defined programme is curious given the time and circumstance of its composition. Overall an interesting work if flawed.
I mentioned earlier that I would return to the liner-note. Another recurring feature of this series has been their extended and rather intractable notes. Valuable for sure in the biographical detail they supply – particularly here regarding Knipper with his curious childhood and family and his non-music work in the War. But I think ultimately a note like this does the music little service when they pretend that the music/composer in question is greater than it or he is and has been translated in such a convoluted manner. Hence we are told; “the composer impresses with his subtle thematic solutions where all intonations, tunes, and inner voices resonate and correlate with each other …” or “the composer sings a song of praise to beauty, moral courage, greatness of art, and humanism”. Am I just a cynic or was he doing all this between shifts for the NKVD? Come on now, Communism is over – a little more realism and a balanced assessment of his strengths and weaknesses moral and musical would be more valid. This liner reads likes a good old fashioned party manifesto! As with other discs in this series the main value is in presenting to the listening public music by composers whose names, let alone music, is little known. There are many finer symphonic works demanding the attention of curious listeners than this but I am glad to have had the chance to hear this.
Nick Barnard
I am glad to have had the chance to hear this. ... see Full Review