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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Twenty Four Preludes, Op.34 (arr. string orchestra, G. Korchmar, 1990) [35:34]
String Quartet No.8, Op. 110 (arr. string orchestra) [23:49]
Dogma Chamber Orchestra/Mikhail Gurewitsch (concertmaster)
rec. Sendesaal, Bremen, Germany, dates not given
AUDIOMAX AUD 9121830 SACD [59:25]

I’m always in two minds when I come across arrangements; I ask myself not only whether it works but whether it offers any other insights into the music. When it comes to Shostakovich can there be any improvements on perfection since that’s how I view most of his output.
 
The 24 Preludes, written in two short months (30 December 1932 to 2 March 1933) were arranged in 1990 for string orchestra from the original piano works, by Grigory Korchmar, Professor of composition at St. Petersburg State Conservatory and Professor of the Department of Music Education at the Herzen State Pedagogical University.  Interestingly he has also made some arrangements of orchestral works by Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius for piano. I was unaware that there was such a version of the preludes so I listened with special interest. Richard Whitehouse in the liner-notes to the original version for piano (Konstantin Scherbakov on Naxos 8.555781) says that with the Preludes Shostakovich’s desire to shock had been transmuted to become a desire to entertain. Playing that disc it was easy to understand what he meant; there is a wistful and at times playful nature to many of the pieces which a piano is supremely able to project. This is achieved while creating an intimate atmosphere and speaking directly to the listener all of which I find a string orchestra has greater difficulty achieving. I’m not stating categorically that such arrangements shouldn’t be made in the first place. A recent disc I reviewed had some of these preludes transcribed for the unusual combination of flute or piccolo and marimba which I felt on that occasion added a new dimension. However, the results are quite different from the original and have to be seen in that way; it becomes a totally new experience when listening, and at the end of the day nothing beats the original version.
 
The same attitude on my part comes into play with the arrangement for string orchestra of Shostakovich’s 8th string quartet. This was made by Rudolf Barshai - strangely unaccredited on this disc. Reading a review on a website of a disc of Barshai’s arrangements and referring to the one made of the first string quartet the reviewer said “... if like the others, it tells us nothing essentially new about the music, it does make the music available to a wider range of players”. One can’t argue with the final point but if it tells us nothing new about the music one is left with the question ‘what was the point?’ I recognise the fact that Shostakovich himself sanctioned Barshai making the arrangements in the first place but I often wonder whether that was simply due to his friendship with Barshai and his modesty and general good-natured responses to his fellow musicians, despite some well known exceptions. It is true that the biting nature of the eighth string quartet still comes through in the string orchestra arrangement but 16 orchestral members cannot create the same stark nature achieved by four musicians. Something is lost to me at any rate. In a previous review of the same arrangement, that time by the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, I said ‘There is no doubt that the chamber symphony is a powerful work of great poignancy and if you come to it without knowing the quartet or are able to discount it while listening then it is certainly hugely impressive. However, if you do know the quartet then you cannot fail to agree that the stark nature the four instruments create gives the music a far greater atmosphere of desolation, horror, anguish’. I went on to add that it is a perfect example of less is more. I stand by that opinion despite the fact that the account presented is as good as the previously mentioned disc and the arrangements of the preludes were also well played and made interesting listening.
 
Anyone who would like to hear what a different sound can be created by the arranging of piano pieces and a string quartet for a small string orchestra will find this disc worth a listen.  

Steve Arloff  


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