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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Twenty Four Preludes, Op.34 (1933 arr. string orchestra, G. Korchmar, 1990) [35:34]
String Quartet No.8, Op. 110 (1960 arr. string orchestra) [23:49]
Dogma Chamber Orchestra/Mikhail Gurewitsch (concertmaster)
rec. Sendesaal, Bremen, Germany, dates not given
BERTHOLD RECORDS AUD9121830 SACD [59:25]

This release was received with a healthy dose of ambivalence by Steve Arloff (see review), and commentary elsewhere has also remarked on the loss if intensity of the string quartet music when translated to string orchestra. I have nothing against arrangements of this sort, though with Shostakovich’s piano sonorities always nagging away at the back of one’s mind it can take a while to accept the string version of the Twenty Four Preludes, Op.34.
 
There are a few reasons for struggling with this Op. 34. There are some fast and energetic preludes of course, but there is a preponderance of rather slow tempi chosen, making the already more elegiac strings approach the dirge-like at times. Andante seems to become Adagio, and Moderato increasingly meno mosso in the first few preludes. The Sendesaal in Bremen is ideal for piano but this recording is a touch on the dry side for a larger ensemble, and the gloss you might have hoped for in the collective string sound isn’t the strongest aspect of this recording. This is however compensated for with bags of detail and a high degree of realism, especially in an SACD set-up. There is a fair bit of bite in the more rhythmic preludes, but real teeth-clenching dynamic impact isn’t quite achieved. Tuning can also be a bit suspect here and there, for instance with the double bass in the fourteenth prelude Adagio.
 
Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement of the String Quartet No. 8 is justifiably popular, and excellent recordings can be had from the likes of The Moscow Soloists and Yuri Bashmet (see review). The dogma chamber orchestra doesn’t credit an arranger, and the booklet only mentions that their version “is very close to the original and was simply augmented by the inclusion of a double bass.” I have to presume that this is therefore not Barshai, who does create some fuller string orchestra textures through occasional divisi or dividing of sections to add counterweight to the original notes. This is a decent enough performance, but neither preferable to Bashmet or indeed the best of the quartet versions around, of which my recommendations would be the Fitzwilliam Quartet on Decca, or perhaps the Hagen Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon (see review). The dogma chamber orchestra performs well, but I don’t feel the threat of dark clouds, that sense of oppressively gritty fear and angst which the best recordings can give. Yes, there is excitement and plenty of emotion both high-octane and deeply wrought, but the character of the music for me is a leap further. I know this music can make me glad not to be living in Soviet Russia in Shostakovich’s time, and the gravitational pull of this performance isn’t strong enough to make me feel trapped in that world.
 
With its distinctive packaging the dogma chamber orchestra is tapping into comparable territory as the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, though in my experience the latter would seem to have a stronger case for your investment at the moment. I’ve enjoyed hearing this release and am reluctant to dismiss it out of hand, but I’m afraid it does fall squarely into the ‘non-essential’ category.
 
Dominy Clements