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CD: Divine Art

Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat, Op. 107 (1959) [28:46]
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 (1937) [55:33]
Jonathan Ayling (cello)
London Shostakovich Orchestra/Christopher Cox
rec. live, St. Cyprian's Church, London, May 2004
DUNELM RECORDS DRD0227 [28:46 + 55:33]

Experience Classicsonline

The London Shostakovich Orchestra was founded in 1999; according to the note in the booklet, it "exists to provide the opportunity for serious musicians to rehearse and perform symphonic repertoire to a high standard and draws its membership mainly from the London amateur musical community." Thus, it's an enterprise analogous to Colorado MahlerFest in the U.S., which annually forges an orchestra from a similar variety of professionals and devoted amateurs.
Bearing that in mind, these musicians' achievement in these performances, which affirm their enthusiasm and commitment, is considerable. Conductor Christopher Cox, who has trained at University College London and at Guildhall, clearly understands the requirements of the style and has transmitted them to his players. The phrases with irregular meters - with which the cello concerto is more than usually beset - emerge with a clear shape and sense of destination. In the concerto's Moderato slow movement, the woodwinds taper their crescendo alertly and cleanly at 7:59. Cox's approach to the symphony's first movement is sustained and spacious, to the point of insecurity - note, after 2:48, how the players want to edge the accompanying chords forward - but, once the conductor gets things going, he actually achieves a heroic breadth. Full-bodied string tone helps sustain the music's long line, though at the cost of a piano or two. Cox begins the finale at a similarly broad tempo, but acknowledges the terraced accelerations the composer prescribes, and the movement reaches what most listeners would call "normal tempo" soon enough.
The soloist in the concerto, Jonathan Ayling - a member of the London Philharmonic - produces a rich, dusky tone in the low range. He knows how to reserve and manipulate the vibrato to enhance expression, notably in the clean lines of the Moderato, for example; and he renders the legato phrases of the Cadenza with a beautiful lyrical intensity. As recorded in concert here, he suffers some small mishaps in the Moderato: a few clumsy shifts; some dicey chromatic harmonics at 9:04 and again some phrases later, although the immediately preceding ones are spot-on; and an outright misreading of the first C as an E at 9:57. On the other hand, when the orchestra loses the pulse of the finale at 0:50, after the woodwind scale, it's Ayling who, by dint of alert musicianship, quickly adjusts.
As with any group of players of mixed abilities, one must accept playing and ensemble that occasionally veers, or lurches, below professional standards. The high violins, usually though not uniformly accurate, sound careful and unglamorous. The massed strings' resonance at full volume comes at the cost of a few smudgy attacks and blunted arrivals; the tone becomes diffuse in quieter passages. The orchestra's principal horn sounds good when he plays out - and is surprisingly secure at 4:37 of the symphony - but suffers numerous passing burbles and patches of rough tone. The woodwinds sometimes lag behind the beat; in the concerto, the bassoons conspicuously flub the exposed attack at 6:29 of the Moderato.
Nervousness and fatigue take an audible toll, to the point where a single 'cello makes not one, but two, false entrances before 0:53 of the symphony's finale! The trumpets also start falling behind at 3:30, at the height of that movement's activity, getting things unstuck briefly; and the low reed chords at about 8:45 are wheezy and uncertain.
The booklet spends some time explaining the difficulties of recording in performance, and apologizing for the possible presence of traffic and aircraft noises, as well as the usual noises from the audience. They really needn't have worried. There's the odd click here and there, and a few coughs and thuds from the house, noticeably while Cox is trying to get the symphony's first movement going - nothing out of the ordinary for a concert recording. The sound reproduces with excellent depth, clarity, and dynamic range, though the woodwind choir seems disfavored - just a bit distanced - in the mix-down.
It's hard not to admire the work on display here. The London Shostakovich Orchestra certainly deserves praise for fostering interest in the composer; this is a useful document of the ensemble, and I'm sure these performances were enjoyable in concert: Cox's account of the symphony, despite its problems, is more gripping than the comparably broad renderings by Maxim Shostakovich (Collins) and Skrowaczewski (IMP). But it's hard to recommend this issue as a "basic library" choice, or even a supplement.
Stephen Francis Vasta 

see also review of concerto on Dunelm DRD0233 by Ian Milnes





















































































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