Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony for Strings, Op. 118a (arr. Barshai, after String Quartet No. 10, 1964) [26:08]
Chamber Symphony, Op. 49a (arr. Barshai, after String Quartet No. 1, 1938) [15:59]
Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a (arr. Barshai, after String Quartet No. 8, 1960) [21:56]
Rotterdam Chamber Orchestra/Conrad van Alphen
rec. Studio 5, Miziekcentrum van de Omroep, Hilversum
TALENT DOM 2929 72 [64:03]
The performance of string chamber music with multiple players per part has ample precedent, especially in larger-framed pieces that require more players in the first place. Mendelssohn's Octet and Wagner's Siegfried-Idyll are established repertoire standards in "expanded" performance. Otto Klemperer recorded one of the great Mozart serenades with such forces, while the supposed purist Toscanini played and recorded Beethoven's Septet for strings and winds with a larger ensemble of his NBC Symphony strings.
The practice of doubling parts in string quartet music, however, remains suspect in some quarters. The unstated goal of such "expanded" performances is, presumably, to access a wider range of expression than is available within the chamber framework. The underlying premise - that "more" is, ipso facto, "better" - doesn't necessarily apply to music, but neither does it preclude getting a good result. Certainly this appears to have been conductor Rudolf Barshai's purpose in arranging a number of Shostakovich's knotty string quartets as "chamber symphonies" and "string symphonies". The present disc gathers three of those arrangements.
Barshai's transcriptions are most effective where the music incorporates overtly "symphonic" musical gestures. In the Allegretto furioso movement of the Symphony for Strings, the violent lower-string chords and subsequent whirling figurations above - the latter recalling the finale of the Fifth Symphony - pack more punch in this larger-scaled realization. So does the sudden outburst of tone and vigorous activity in the Allegro molto of Opus 110a. The Allegro finale of Op 49a begins playfully, but the imposing sound of massed cellos and basses - the latter absent in the original quartet - conjure an increasing sense of foreboding.
In some places, Barshai retains a solo string distribution. Sometimes, it's simple discretion: some of those passages might be difficult to negotiate successfully with a larger number of players although the use of multiple players per part is more forgiving in the octaves at the start of Opus 110a's fourth movement. Other such passages gain in emotional power from the contrast with the fuller sonorities elsewhere. The latter is certainly true at the start of the Adagio of the Symphony for Strings; paradoxically, as the remaining sectional players join in, the expressive effect is neutralized! Similarly, the solo strands at 1:20 of Opus 110a gradually expand into a full-throated arrival at 3:40, at which point the edgy, sidling chromatics slide into more nearly diatonic harmony - the tone thus clarifying the structure.
Here and there, for those familiar with the originals, the orchestral format brings losses as well as gains. In the second movement of Opus 49a, the haunting sparseness of the widely spaced textures - the sort of thing so easily realized in a quartet - is dissipated in the resonance of the additional instruments. And, at 6:25 in the finale of the Symphony for Strings, with subsidiary parts moving against the more sustained theme, definition is less clear than in a good quartet performance, although everything "sounds".
The questionable moments can't be blamed on the Rotterdam Chamber Orchestra's committed performances. The players take the composer's metric irregularities in stride, and shape broad phrases with assurance, even in the slow movements. There are patches of dry articulation here and there, but elsewhere the sonority is warm and polished, particularly from the lower instruments. The climax at 2:04 of the second Moderato in Op. 49a elicits an impassioned outpouring of bass tone. The cellos dig into the low legato phrases of the first movement with a dusky depth. The unanimity of musical intent is a tribute to the players as well as to conductor Conrad van Alphen.
I enjoyed the vivid, pleasantly ambient recorded sound, the effect of which in the Allegretto of Opus 110a is strikingly directional.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.
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