RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 – 1975)
Sonata for Cello and Piano Op.40 (1934) [27:12]
Sonata for Cello and Piano Op.147 (1975) [31:25]
Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat Op.107 (1959) [29:35]
Cello Concerto No.2 Op.126 (1966) [32:44]
Viviane Spanoghe (cello); André de Groote (piano)
Sofia Soloists Symphony Orchestra/Emil Tabakov
rec. Sofia, Bulgaria April 1984 (concertos); Concert Hall of the Royal Conservatory of Music – Liège, Belgium, July 1992 (Sonata Op.40); Concert Hall of the Royal Conservatory of Music Brussels, December 2008 (Sonata Op.147)
TALENT DOM 3810 12-13 [58:37 + 62:19]
At first sight this pair of discs would seem to promise little. A soloist who is not exactly an international name, paired with Eastern Bloc orchestra (well the concerto recordings are from 1985 so the epithet fits) and with the recordings spanning twenty-four years would not appear to bode well for a coherent and compelling musical argument. Yet this is exactly what we get. Before I spotted the widely spaced recording dates my listening notes had highlighted the unanimity and cogency of cellist Viviane Spanoghe’s approach. So three cheers to her for consistency of her vision and to the company Talent for releasing these performances in a single package. I don’t think that I have seen the four major Shostakovich cello works coupled together like this – it works tremendously well. The last work is, of course, Daniil Shafran’s transcription of Shostakovich final Opus the Sonata for Viola which did not receive it’s premiere until after the composer’s death. Talking of Shafran, I recently reviewed for this site an excellent remastering of one of his several versions of the Cello Sonata ‘proper’ which was quite superb. So Spanoghe is up against stern competition yet she emerges with great distinction. Hers is a very different approach from Shafran. This is a performance which shows the debt Shostakovich owed to more traditional Western models. Is does not have the biting cynicism of Shafran – gleeful malice is how I described part of his recording. Instead Spanoghe emphasises the intense lyricism of much of the work. The grief of the third movement is transformed in something less overtly tear-laden. Not that I would want to be without Shafran’s account but this is equally valid if not as idiomatic. But where Spanoghe scores heavily – as mentioned above is the way this work is placed in her vision of Shostakovich’s creative life. Having the four pieces together like this allowed me to listen to them in order of composition. Listening in that way to these particular performances proved to be a compelling and moving experience as they are almost biographical in the way they mark the arc of Shostakovich’s life and work. The early sonata dates from 1934 and so for all its foreboding it was written when Shostakovich’s star was rising in the Soviet firmament. By the time of the Cello Concerto No.1 of 1959 he had survived the Stalinist purges but the music of this marvellous concerto is an odd amalgam of defiant individualism (obsessing as it does on a variant of his DSCH motto) and sour sorrow. Death haunts the Cello Concerto No.2 of 1966 which continues into the frozen final Viola Sonata which in its final echoes of the Beethoven Moonlight Sonata finds some kind of acceptance if not tranquillity.
The biographical power of this extraordinary journey is superbly defined by Spanoghe and her collaborators. Pianist André de Groote is an exceptional partner. Sixteen years separate the recordings of the two sonatas but again continuity is the key. The producer has brought the piano quite forward on the sound stage but the balance is convincing. Try the beginning of the Op.147 sonata. Spanoghe’s tone is bleached and exhausted and de Groote tiptoes around this fragile failing creature. Yet the sudden outburst as the movement progresses is arrestingly passionate. Don’t get me wrong – Spanoghe is not the technically most polished player you will ever hear in these works. Far from it – there are moments in each work when clearly her (still considerable) technique is tested to the limit. All have instances of suspect intonation and fractional loss of control. Yet in works as intensely autobiographical as these this human fallibility adds to the narrative. I also enjoy the way she sacrifices safety and caution for the greater good of projecting her vision. What an oddly elusive work this late sonata is, full of allusions and illusions as so much of Shostakovich’s later music is. I have never read an absolutely convincing explanation for these ‘backward glances’. The 2nd movement Allegretto feels like a combination of a kind of heavy footed Cossack dance in a ballroom – a fusion of the clumsy and the refined. Yet contradictions both musical and ideological lie at the heart of Shostakovich’s greatness. I do know the late sonata in its original form but I have to say that this version has impacted on my consciousness far more than the original. Shafran in his transcription has made few registrational changes but where they are it allows the guttural gruffness to impact to great effect. Also, by leaving much of the high passage work at the original pitch it adds to the technical complexity of the work for the player and in some tangible way increases the ‘theatre’ of the work. Additionally, in that range the cello’s voice cuts through textures in a way the viola cannot hope to replicate. Conversely it could be argued that other passages benefit from the more muted intimate musings of the alto voice. I find the final movement of this sonata extraordinarily powerful. The allusions to the Beethoven Moonlight Sonata are barely veiled but the choice if baffling. Shostakovich’s admiration for the older composer is well documented but why choose such an ‘obvious’ work to pay homage? Obviously knowing that this was his last completed opus adds to the poignancy but it remains a magnificent work. The finale (CD 1 track 7) is a fourteen minute Adagio. After an initial sad solo musing from the cello, the piano enters with a figuration so well known from the Beethoven. It is not a direct quote as Shostakovich did in his Symphony No.15 of Rossini and Wagner but there is little attempt to hide the kinship. Spanoghe sings the melody line with superb checked emotional conviction only the occasional double stopping causing momentary technical discomfort. De Groote’s piano playing is serene and resonant. As the movement progresses the music gradually moves away from the Beethovenian source – perhaps the final severing of ties and walking out toward the unknown region where – to quote Whitman – “when the ties loosen, all but the ties eternal, Time and Space, nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds bounding us”. Pure fancy on my behalf of course but that is the image this music conjures. There is a final motivic return to the Beethoven before the music is pared away and with a gentle rocking figure the piece fades into eternity. An extraordinary moment of acceptance and peace. As I said I find this performance to be so sincere, so compelling in the musical choices the performers make that I would trade a hundred more technical failings to hear it.
I have yet to say anything about the two extraordinary concertos the two sonatas frame. The Cello Concerto No.1 is probably the most popular 20th Century Cello concerto along with the Elgar. Spanoghe proves to be as wholly convincing and committed in this work as she is in the Sonatas. This is too great a work to say any single performance is definitive but to ignore the Rostropovich recordings would be brave indeed. Spanoghe is not his technical equal but again her choices are excellent. Generally tempi fall well within the average range but I hear Spanoghe’s identification and commitment to the work in every bar. And in this she is helped greatly by the playing of the Sofia Soloists Symphony Orchestra under conductor Emil Tabakov. This title sounds suspiciously like a pick-up recording orchestra – indeed I can’t find them listed on the web anywhere else (a cursory search I must admit) but then again so was the National Philharmonic Orchestra in the UK and what amazing recordings they made! The orchestra are superb, full of character and actually rather well recorded. In both concertos they make the most of Shostakovich’s quirky scoring. Try the very opening of the 1st Concerto. I’m not sure on disc that I have heard the riotous duet between the piccolo and the pawky contra-bassoon register so well. Indeed through this disc the woodwind characterisation is first rate. Likewise, the strings are willing to give the work all the venomous attack it often demands. Some might find the prominent horn part not quite to their taste. It is not of the old iron-curtain school of horn playing but neither is it Western-mellow either. To be honest I would rather have more rasp from the pair of horns in the 2nd Concerto where they have a sequence of manic chasing roulades but that is a question of taste and degree – there is nothing ‘wrong’ with the playing here. Even by Shostakovich’s standard the ending of the 2nd Concerto is highly individual. I seem to remember reading elsewhere it was a musical representation of the machines in the hospital keeping him alive after a heart attack. I’ve no idea if that is true but it certainly tickers and clicks away into the distance before a final ‘I’m still here!’ rasp from the soloist. Spanoghe plays the cadenzas in both concertos with total identification and utter abandonment to the music. Again there are technical wobbles but I love it Quite why the 2nd concerto has never attained anything like the popularity of the 1st is down to the more elusive nature of its musical moods – the 1st contains some of the most assertive and confident music Shostakovich ever wrote – certainly in the outer movements at least.
So I come back to my initial assertion that this programme works far better than it has any right to! All of the credit for that must surely lie with Viviane Spanoghe and the pure continuity and conviction of her musical vision. Clearly she is well aided on this journey – and a journey it really is – by her collaborators and discreetly high quality engineering. The continuity and balance achieved between three venues and 24 years (oh yes and 2 different cellos too – the 1670 Rugeri used for the Sonatas disc is gorgeous) is little short of remarkable. I’ve heard sessions recorded on consecutive days with more changeable balance issues! Credit for this would seem to lie with one Ronald Dom who has production credits for each session. I see his name is also the CD number so perhaps he has a particular link to this artist and this is a licensed release. One tiny blot – a brief and fairly useless liner note from which we learn that “Shostakovich is[?] the only Soviet composer of his generation to achieve international recognition”. A tad tough on Khachaturian, Kabalevsky, and Prokofiev to name but three!
Many thanks to Talent/Ronald Dom for re-releasing(?) these recordings – music making as it should surely be; powerful, humane and utterly compelling.