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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Sonata for Violin and Piano, op 134 (1968) [32:36]
Unfinished Sonata for Violin and Piano (1945) [5:03]
Andantino from String Quartet No. 4, op 83 (arr. Violin & piano by Dmitri Tsyganov) (early-mid 1960s) [6:50]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Symphony of Psalms (arr. piano duet by Dmitri Shostakovich, c. 1930) [19:15]
Gaetano BRAGA (1829-1907)
La Serenata – A Walachian Legend (Andante con moto) (transcr. soprano, mezzo-soprano, violin, & piano by Dmitri Shostakovich, 1972) [5:08]
Sasha Rozhdestvensky (violin); Jeremy Menuhin (piano); Mookie Menuhin (piano secondo); Ilona Domnich (soprano); Alexandra Sherman (mezzo)
rec. 8-11 January 2015 Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, Cobham, Surrey, UK.

Imagine that some kind soul has sent you a surprise package labeled “Shostakovich.” You should be delighted, because inside you will find a peculiar but quite satisfying musical mix. Here is one famous work, the Violin Sonata, op 134, and another unfinished Violin Sonata from 1945. Here are also three arrangements: an Andantino from the Fourth String Quartet, a vocal Serenade by Gaetano Braga, and a duo piano version of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. The excellent performances are built around pianist Jeremy Menuhin and violinist Sasha Rozhdestvensky, who remind us of the power of musical genes.

The Op. 134 Violin Sonata is often described as “forbidding,” but this sounds too much like a warning, as if listening might be harmful to one’s health. The piece is on the bleak side, but certainly not inaccessible. It is written in the spare and stony manner of late Shostakovich. Rozhdestvestny’s powerful playing underscores the sense that the music somehow bears witness, perhaps to oppression, perhaps to the difficulty of living life. He often produces a rather rich and throaty sound, although he can turn icy along with the demands of the score. There is some magic in the last movement. I compared this performance to a well-received recording by Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov (Harmonia Mundi HMC902104). Faust and Melnikov perhaps favor the head, Rozhdestvensky and Menuhin the heart. Both are exciting.

The beauties of the 1945 Violin Sonata make one wonder why Shostakovich stopped after the double exposition to the first movement. Perhaps it would have been too long a work, as Richard Whitehouse suggests in his notes. Perhaps Shostakovich put it aside for a more urgent commission, never to pick it up again. A little waltz at the opening becomes something much more serious and driving, in a style resembling the Piano Trio, op 67. Shostakovich did not waste his effort, reusing some of this material in his Tenth Symphony.

The Andantino from the Fourth String Quartet is pensive and a little haunting. If you can make Shostakovich’s string quartets into symphonies, then why not shrink them as well? This is not Shostakovich’s arrangement, but one by Dmitri Tsyganov, leader of the Beethoven Quartet, which premiered most of Shostakovich’s string quartets. The reduction turns an introspective slow movement into a nostalgic salon piece.

The Serenata is a hoot. This Italian song by Gaetano Braga figures in the plot of Chekhov’s short story, ‘The Black Monk’. Shostakovich planned to use the story for an opera in 1972. He did not get very far with the opera, but left us his arrangement of this lush, romantic song, so much at odds with the stern violin sonata of 1968.

Shostakovich admired Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms so much that he prepared a piano duet version when the work was still new. Shostakovich thought well enough of his transcription that, according to Robert Craft, he offered a copy to Stravinsky when the older composer returned to Russia in 1962. The Symphony of Psalms is a close kin to Oedipus Rex, with which it shares a cerebral, distancing, and ritualistic aesthetic. This reduction was probably never intended for public performance, and it cannot capture the power of the original. One misses the unbroken, liquid sound of the choir, which in Philippe Herreweghe’s recording (Pentatone Classics PTC 5186349), floats serenely above a spikey accompaniment. The second movement fugue is more effective, and the final Alleluia bangs out quite nicely. Shostakovich’s duo-piano version brings some clarity to musical relationships, even as it gives up Stravinsky’s piquant orchestration. Here it joins other provocative examples of pianized Stravinsky: Apollo, Firebird, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring. Are you the kind of listener who already has more than one recording of the Symphony of Psalms? If so, you may find much pleasure in this fine performance. If you are not already in thrall to the music, this version probably might seem more puzzling than revelatory.

Richard Kraus



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