L’âme Russe
NAÏVE V5271 [76:22 + 62:20 + 70:23 + 65:51]

Disc One
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition orch. Ravel (1874, 1922) [33:32]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony no.4 in F minor, op.36 (1877) [42:40]
Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse/Tugan Sokhiev
rec. Halle aux Grains, Toulouse, France, July 2006
Originally released as V5068 [76:22]

L’âme Russe is French for ‘The Russian Soul’. This four disc set is designed to demonstrate this with the works of seven composers spanning 1839-1975. I’d say it pretty much achieves that with the choice of composers and repertoire.

The first disc comprises two works so well known that my first reaction on seeing it was “here we go again”. An unfair reaction maybe, but simply caused by the thought that, what can be said anew about such core works; such cornerstones of Russian music. I like being taught a lesson – it’s good for me and this disc taught me a very salutary one: listen first then make your comments! Listening to this disc was like discovering the music for the first time; it was as the current vernacular has it: ‘jaw-droppingly’ fantastic. It’s a disc that would help explain to the sceptical what a difference a conductor can make in shaping a piece, and an orchestra, into his way of reading things. It was interesting, therefore, to read the article in the accompanying booklet about the conductor of these two works, Tugan Sokhiev. It’s entitled ‘Love at first sight’ and in it Olivier Bellamy tries to explain the magical effect this young man has had upon the orchestra and the music it plays. He writes that defining a great conductor is difficult, and that musicians tend to categorise them as: “those who make them play, those who let them play, and those who stop them playing” and that the orchestra “are grateful to the first, despise the second, and detest the third”. However, he goes on, what if there were another breed who “play with the orchestra?” who “are so musical that orchestras follow them as one man. Those who can change the sound of the orchestra with a single glance because they ‘are’ music and transform everything they touch into music. Tugan Sokhiev belongs to this highly exclusive club of geniuses of the baton, who galvanise orchestras and electrify listeners”. I was listening to this disc in the car as I drove around town and before I’d read the article. I can honestly say it nearly blew me out of the car; what will it do to me I thought when I play it on ‘proper’ equipment. Well, words fail me! So what has he done with the music to make me feel this way? He has taken an orchestra that as a collective hails from the sunny south of France and made it sound Russian – to me at least, and the effect is literally hair-raising. I shan’t dwell on the origins of “pictures” as it’s often affectionately known, other than reminding ourselves that it was written in homage - even, so the article intimates, possibly dictated by the guilt that Mussorgsky felt at not appreciating the symptoms of the illness that affected his friend Viktor Hartmann, when the composer saw him for the last time, and which killed him shortly afterwards. Hartmann was a painter whose works were subject to an exhibition seven months after his death and it was these, and some others be Hartmann, that inspired Mussorgsky’s composition. The quality of the trumpet playing at the very outset is a foretaste of what is to come. The brass playing generally is quite simply superlative and the recording incredibly well made so that no instrument is left in any “muddy” sound, but is beautifully singled out. Just listen out for the xylophone 35 seconds in and the accompanying strings sliding and you’ll hear what I mean. Sokhiev creates a chilling atmosphere right from the very first notes. Even the pauses are telling and just long enough. I could go into raptures at every turn but will ration myself to some examples of the fantastic architecture Sokhiev builds within the piece. It’s so clear that he knows exactly what he wants and, as important, how to achieve it. I’ve never heard the Promenade sound as magisterial as it does in track 5 after its frightening first appearance. The beautiful horn work is very evident in track 7 Bydlo (oxen), and their lumbering gait is perfectly described. The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks is rendered a truly humorous piece with wonderful playing from the woodwind section and the slightly distorted penultimate note is so telling – brilliant! - I don’t think I’ve ever noticed it before. The Marketplace at Limoges is made to sound particularly busy, not to say frantic with people bustling everywhere. Here light-heartedness swiftly segues into a sombre and icy mood with a depiction of the catacombs leading straight into Cum mortuis in lingua mortua: With the dead in the language of the dead. This swiftly leads into a portrayal of the witch of Russian folklore Baba Yaga in The hut on Fowls’ legs in a really effective representation of horror. This gives away abruptly to the final painting, The Great Gate of Kiev in a rendition which is thrilling in its description of imperial majesty. There’s some fabulous playing from all sections of the orchestra and the bell sounds come over in the closing moments with especial clarity. What a wonderful conductor of Russian opera classics he must be! I’ve often felt in recent years that the recordings I own are rather lacklustre and I seek the original piano version for a better idea of what Mussorgsky meant. This version has reawakened my enjoyment and has left me very thankful that Ravel made his orchestration. When it’s in the hands of someone like Sokhiev it becomes a work of equal value to the original and on its own terms.

The second work on the disc is Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony of 1877. It’s more than just well represented in the catalogue, but once again this recording thrilled me with a sound as fresh as when I first heard it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it better played. The opening notes superbly played on massed horns announce something special to come. Then 90 seconds in we are transported to an imperial dance floor and gorgeous gowns mingling with the uniforms of officers – this is the image it conjures for me. There was a time when I didn’t like Tchaikovsky – I considered him “too romantic” for me – ah well! However, it is interpretations like this which change such opinions. This is not simply going through the musical motions, no mere playing of the notes; this is an interpretation that shows total insight, thorough understanding and love of everything on the page and a sharing of this amongst all involved. Romantic? Well, yes, but heard through the filter of this conductor it is a great deal more than that. It is full of heartfelt emotion, of anguish, of love; in short it is full of life. This first movement is a scene-setter and the promise of even greater things. This is underlined by the horns closing the first circle. A lone oboe opens the second movement with a few plucked strings for company and the melody is picked up by the whole string section. That most lush and gorgeously plaintive theme is introduced; sadness expressed in the most beautiful of ways and with a facility for which Tchaikovsky was so justifiably renowned. This is obviously music that runs through Sokhiev’s very veins and it shows in every note resulting in a performance that is surely destined to become a benchmark recording. The contrast between the end of the second movement and the beginning of the third couldn’t be greater. The pizzicato strings sound as fresh as they possibly could and the humour is intensified with the woodwind and brass joining in. The final movement begins with a grandeur that is as superb as it is beautiful. The strains of a well known Russian folksong interweave into the very fabric of the music. The ideas are treated lightly and seriously by turns, growing in intensity then subsiding into a more melancholy treatment. Things become restless with blaring brass subduing the strings. The culmination of the movement and of the symphony begins around seven minutes in. The final statement is magnificently made and rounds off a truly towering performance of glittering perfection. To quote from the article once again “Were it not for the natural discretion on both sides of the partnership, one might swear that he (Sokhiev) is saying to the musicians ‘I love you’ when he lifts his arm, and they reply ‘And we love you too’ when they lower theirs”. Hear, hear!

Disc Two
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Sonata no.3 in F sharp minor [18:04]
Sonata no.9 op.68 Black Mass [9:19]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Sonata no.8 in B flat major [29:59]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Prelude no.4 in D major [4:58]
Grigory Sokolov (piano)
rec. live 26 March 1988 (Scriabin) and 15 March 1984 (Prokofiev) St Petersburg Philharmonia
2 June 1988 (Rachmaninov) Glinka Chapel, St Petersburg
Originally released as OP 30386 [62:20]

What a contrast we have in disc two of this four disc set: solo piano music after orchestral pyrotechnics. That said, we have similarly white hot performances by another Russian master craftsman. These are fabulous live performances; Sokolov rarely enters the recording studio, greatly preferring the spontaneity of live concerts. The three composers represented here are particular favourites of the pianist and it certainly shows. The Scriabin sonatas are wonderful examples of this mystic composer’s work whose other-worldly, ethereal music is imbued with tons of soul and so fits the remit of this collection very closely. Sonata no.3 is, in fact, entitled “États d’âme” (States of the soul) and Scriabin provided a programme to explain it describing a soul that is “wild and free” rushing “passionately into pain and strife”, then finding a “temporary rest” though the torment is simultaneously hinted at. Then the soul “drifts on a sea of gentle and melancholic feelings: love, sadness, vague desires, indefinable thoughts imbued with a ghost-like charm” and, finally the soul “struggles and fights ecstatically. From the very depths of its being, there arises the powerful voice of the Man-God, whose victory song rings out triumphantly. But still too weak, at the very moment when it reaches the summit, it falls, stricken, into the abyss of nothingness”. It’s enough to make you exhausted by the time the sonata comes to an end. Everything described is given musical life and the description certainly aids understanding and, as a result, enjoyment, coupled with Sokolov’s brilliant performance which is a real tour de force. Despite being influenced by Chopin and Liszt certainly Scriabin was ahead of his time and that struck me very forcefully listening to this again. I tried to imagine hearing this for the first time in 1898, a full fifteen years before The Rite of Spring. While it’s true that there are plenty of “uncomplicated” romantic sounding moments, particularly in the second movement, the whole is very ‘avant-garde’ for a nineteenth century work. Brahms had died only the previous year – what would be have made of it I wonder. The short one movement work which carries the title “Black Mass”, which a friend bestowed on it, was written in 1913. It is music that is full of mystery and torment. When you read about Scriabin’s life and beliefs you can understand why his works sound so full of disturbed feelings. An interest in metaphysics had considerable influence on his music. In one unpublished notebook he famously declared “I am God”. Sokolov clearly “inhabits” Scriabin’s world while he plays. Hearing him do so is a real experience, unlike listening to other piano works. The end of this work comes quite abruptly as the music fades away as if it were a wisp of smoke spiralling upwards into the atmosphere from an extinguished cigarette. So intense were the feelings expressed during the work that this ending is almost a relief.

Written over thirty years later Prokofiev’s Eighth sonata shows influence from Scriabin whom Prokofiev much admired - as did Rachmaninov and many others. At almost thirty minutes this is a huge work which must put considerable strain on a pianist in terms of interpretation of something so large in concept. It is, however, very typical of Prokofiev and is easily identified as his; it couldn’t be confused with another composer’s work. The first movement is almost fifteen minutes long and while it begins gently enough it soon erupts into a storm of violent sounds. The second movement brings sweet release from these turbulent feelings with a real sense of inner calm. The finale is a proclamation of the human spirit which triumphs against all adversity and is a wonderful statement with which to end a great work. It is played by Sokolov with commitment, aplomb and sheer white-hot virtuosity.

The final work on this disc is Rachmaninov’s Prelude op.23 no.4 composed between 1901 and 1903. What a contrast both emotionally and musically with Scriabin and Prokofiev. There is no turbulence here and there are no spiky rhythms either, just a sublime little beauty. It’s a perfect way to end a disc that has been so full of sturm und drang. It is played with a delicacy perfect for its nature leaving one with a smile and a feeling of inner calm.

There is a mistake in the listed timings for this disc which says the fourth movement of Scriabin’s Third sonata is 3:37, whereas it is in fact 6:37 making the disc 62:20 not 60:06as listed (if the other timings are correct, otherwise it could be 63:20, or...!). There was also some background noise on my copy that I trust is not apparent on the rest of the run. What is notable is that even though the performances are all live there is only some obvious coughing in Prokofiev’s sonata – thank heavens!

Disc Three
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Violin Concerto no.1 in A minor, op.99 (op.77) (1947-1948) [38:27]
Violin Concerto no.2 in C sharp minor, op.129 (1967) [31:47]
Originally released as V5025 [70:23]

The third disc in this set is of Shostakovich’s two violin concertos, performed by Sergey Khachatryan which I have already reviewed for MusicWeb International some years ago so please see that review in which I made comparisons with Baiba Skride and Daniel Hope, whose recording I still consider among the best available and which remains in the memory long after hearing it. Nonetheless, including Khachatryan’s recording in the set does give another dimension to the ‘Russian soul’ and as such is a good choice.

Disc Four
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Sonata for cello and piano in D minor, op.40 [26:05]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Adagio op. 97 (from the ballet Cinderella) [4:56]
Sonata for cello and piano in C major, op.119 [22:59]
Ballade op.15 [11:51]
Sonia Wieder-Atherton (cello), Laurent Cabasso (piano)
rec. Large Hall of the Metz Arsenal, Metz, France, September 1992
Originally released as V4666 [65:51]

Shostakovich, it is said used his chamber music to give free vent to his innermost feelings, feelings which, for the most part he was prevented, or, at the very least, discouraged, from expressing in works written wearing what is commonly described as his “public face”. Therefore it is highly appropriate that this set should contain something from that corpus of compositions as a further example of “the Russian soul”, though I think that had I been charged with making the choice there are other works I’d have considered before choosing this one. That is by no means because I dislike it - far from it as I think it is a gorgeous piece, but because I think other works show his soul bared even more starkly, such as some of the string quartets or the violin or viola sonatas. That said this is a fine interpretation from two musicians I really don’t know at all. Having listened to the disc over and over again I regret not having come across them before as they make a duo who are absolutely at one with each other musically. This shows in some wonderfully nuanced playing that is never mannered or that sounds in any way artificial, but simply beautifully laid out in a performance that has you going back to it time and time again for pure enjoyment. Having said that I’d have chosen another work to represent Shostakovich’s “soul” the first movement of the cello sonata is not without its serious moments and the lovely theme that keeps insisting on its return is at least wistful if not sad. The second movement is just huge fun with Shostakovich showing his famous ability to write incredibly witty dance-like tunes. Here the two instruments appear to vie with each other to be funnier and requiring some clever bowing from the cellist that produces violin-like sounds that are both mischievous and extremely amusing. The pianist is called upon to play some wonderfully fast little passages making for an impression of two circus clowns doing their little routine while preparing for more serious things later. It is certainly more serious in the third movement which is as soulful as it gets here with the cello describing a sad and reflective melody while the piano is at first discreet, becoming a little more assertive halfway through. The finale again begins with our two clowns back with something light and knockabout to relieve the tension. The main theme is deliciously impish and had me imagining them attempting some tightrope walking with various degrees of success. Its conclusion doesn’t leave them feeling too embarrassed but rounds things off nicely. So, a sonata that is markedly divided in sentiment with plenty of pathos interspersed with two light and funny episodes. I listened to the other two versions I have of this to see which I considered brought it off best. On the one hand Timora Rosler on cello accompanied by Kara Würtz (on Brilliant Classics as part of the 27 cd boxed set of Shostakovich’s major works) are workmanlike and to adapt Morecambe & Wise “play all the right notes in the right order” but somehow there was a lack of real emotion coming through. My other version is of Daniil Shafran, accompanied by Shostakovich himself on piano. Obviously it is more than tempting to say that the composer must know what he wants because he knows what he meant. However, if that is true then sometimes other interpretations can add another dimension even the composer did not have in mind. We’re not talking big differences here but subtle changes in tempo at times or greater emphasis on certain notes or passages. This is what I think Laurent Cabasso brings to the work with a crispness lacking in Shostakovich’s own interpretation. I’m at pains to say it since in almost every way Shostakovich can do no wrong in my eyes; anyway it’s only my opinion. The same goes for Shafran versus Sonia Wieder-Atherton: her reading is more achingly soulful where it counts and funnier when necessary. I read an article by Stephen Isserlis discussing Shafran’s cello, an Amati which he played all his professional life from the age of 16. He pointed out that some said it hadn’t the power a cellist required when his career really takes off - Isserlis disagreed. Maybe that’s true but I felt that the cello wasn’t able to reach as low a register as Wieder-Atherton’s (or Rosler’s), something which I felt the work demanded. The recording made it sound rather sharp and dry. My impression as I finished listening to all three was that the review recording has the edge on the others for warmth, pace and general interpretation and I shall cherish it.

We now move on to Prokofiev and the Adagio from Cinderella op.97a. What a lovely piece it is with an absolutely charming and delightful main theme from the piano echoed on the cello. This is one of those pieces that can really find a life of its own outside the work they’re taken from; not a ‘bleeding chunk’ then but more of a sparkling gem. The Sonata in C major, op.119 was one of the fruits of advice given Prokofiev by a young Mstislav Rostropovich on writing for the cello, and dedicated to the musician Lev Atovmian. It was given its first performance privately on 18 September 1949 by Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter. The first movement marked Andante grave is certainly serious in nature with echoes of folksong wrapped in a mysterious cloak of rather melancholic and otherworldly sounds. The second movement begins brightly with a tune sounding very much like a children’s marching song giving way to a more soulful theme that comes full circle to the children’s song again. The third and final movement, Allegro ma non troppo begins cheerfully enough and then reprises themes from the beginning of the work. A number of variations are included in a very lyrical and emotionally satisfying movement to conclude a great sonata. The very last work on this disc and in this collection is Prokofiev’s Ballade, op.15 which includes a theme from the first movement of a work he wrote for violin and piano in 1902 at the age of 11, but which has not survived. It is a beautifully romantic-sounding piece and, like the other two works, carries plenty of immediately recognisable Prokofievan ‘signatures’. It is again, like them, devoid of much of Prokofiev’s characteristic ‘spiky’, rather more avant-garde, rhythms. Again these three works are effortlessly performed by these two musical ‘soul mates’ and they make the best case possible for them. I shall definitely be looking for their other recordings; I’m loath to let this go but I must move on to the next review - if only as Kurt Weill wrote in ‘The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny’ it were instead to ‘the next whisky bar’ – but work first - pleasure later!

To sum up this collection I think it does “everything it says on the tin” in showing a glimpse of the ‘Russian Soul’ in music with some well chosen repertoire in first class performances of real quality. These present the music in the most favourable of lights and help me listen to works I thought I knew with a new and more critical ear discovering fresh aural benchmarks in several cases for which I am truly grateful. If this is repertoire any collector has yet to acquire then go for it. Even allowing for better individual recordings of the Shostakovich violin concertos, this is a set worth having.

Steve Arloff

A set worth having.