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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Concerto for Piano, trumpet & String Orchestra No.1 Op.35 in C minor (1933) [21:29]
Piano Concerto No.2 Op.102 in F major (1957) [18:11]
Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor Op.77 (1948) [38:25]
Violin Concerto No.2 in C sharp minor Op.129 (1967) [32:47]
Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat Op.107 (1959) [28:19]
Cello Concerto No.2 Op.126 (1966) [37:17]
Lukas Geniušas (piano: 1), Dmitry Masleyev (piano: 2), Sergey Dogadin (violin: 1), Pavel Milyukov (violin: 2), Alexander Buzlov (cello: 1), Alexander Ramm (cello: 2)
Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Sladkovsky
rec. 2016, Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia
MELODIYA MELCD1002465 [3 CDs: 176:31]

When recently reviewing a solidly respectable set of Stravinsky ballets, I found myself asking the perennial question; do we need another collection of this repertoire? In that instance the answer was a regretful no - the proverbial "good but no cigar". With ferocious competition from stellar soloists, orchestras and conductors in all six concerti, the same question has to be asked of this set. Especially since the performers are not exactly household names outside of the Russian Federation. But the answer this time is a resounding and rather wonderful yes! Why? - simply because there is a continuity and profoundly convincing insight into Shostakovich's musical and spiritual world that is utterly compelling.

Consider something else; the catalogue is full to bursting with recordings of all six works either in single disc pairings or collected 'sets' - DG, Warner/EMI, Brilliant Classics, Decca to name but four of the latter. However, none of these sets offer a modern or coherent vision from a core group of the same artists recorded over a concentrated period of time. All the sets mentioned above are collations of different orchestras, conductors and recording dates. The only other set that seems to offer the same conductor/orchestra throughout appears to be the Blu-ray set of the complete symphonies and concerti from Gergiev and his Mariinsky orchestra. But this comes at a considerable price and does not appear to have been released in an audio/CD format. So on CD alone - rather remarkably - conductor Alexander Sladkovsky and his Tatarstan Symphony Orchestra seem to have the field to themselves. I have to say - even if the competition was more intense in terms of 'complete' surveys I think these new versions would hold up with the best. Sladkovsky is a name completely unknown to me, although I see that he has appeared on recent MW reviews with a well received group of Mahler Symphonies and a glowingly received group of piano concerti by Rachmaninov, Ravel and Gershwin. His orchestral colleagues on both those sets are, as here, the Tatarstan Symphony Orchestra and goodness me they are quite superb in Shostakovich. I hanker rather nostalgically after the raw power of Soviet ensembles and while there is none of that here, instead there is a legacy of intensity and dynamism that is absolutely right for this composer. Sladkovsky as well is utterly at home in this idiom - time and again his musical choices just feel right. Not always completely predictable or 'standard' - but they work. Allied to this - I really do feel there is a sense of continuity across all six works. Yes of course masterpieces such as these can and should be interpreted in a variety of ways but I have enjoyed greatly the way Sladkovsky manages to bind the early 1st piano concerto to the late sorrowing 2nd Cello concerto.

So if orchestra and conductor are very good indeed, how about the soloists? All six are young prize winners at the International Tchaikovsky competition(s) - and in most cases many other competitions too. The standard across all six is superlatively high - again as recorded here none of the players give anything to any more famous names from across the years. Again, I would not say that this or that performance displaces old favourites, but in every case they are strongly imagined, wholly convincing and valid interpretations. Before moving onto the individual performances, a quick word about the engineering/production. This, too, is hugely impressive - no recording venue is given - there is a neutrality to the sound that suggests a dedicated recording studio rather than a concert hall or church-type venue. The recording is quite close and unglamorous - the upper strings have a slight edge to their tone that sounds like an accurate representation of the section's sound and is wholly apt for this music - a great warm bed of string tone is not really what Shostakovich is about.

One big hurrah is that the engineering does not make a big issue of the prominent trumpet part in the 1st piano concerto or the horn part in the 1st cello concerto. Far too often - in the former concerto especially - the trumpet part is treated as some kind of solo part. Well, yes, it is in the sense that apart from the strings it is the only other instrument and the writing is quite demanding, but I am sure it is quite wrong for it to be recorded or performed as a concertante part. Worth noting that the Boosey score places the trumpet on the page where it would be as an orchestral instrument and that the work is titled "concerto for Piano & String Orchestra". Here the trumpet line is always audible but without being placed at the front of the orchestral mix. The liner names all the orchestral soloists and again they are superb. Trumpeter Dmitri Trubakov joins pianist Lukas Geniušas in one of the best versions of the acerbic 1st piano concerto that I have heard in recent years. Quite why this work was included in the Decca 'Jazz' album of Shostakovich I never quite understood, except as a poor marketing ploy. The piece has nothing to do with jazz at all - instead what we are given here is the remarkable neo-classical character of the work. Geniušas plays with exceptional clarity and articulation. At the same time there is a dry-eyed objectivity to the work in the outer movements that emphasises the po-faced humour of so much of Shostakovich's elusive personality. But just when you thought all emotion was being kept on a tight rein, Geniušas can build a cadenza of cathartic power. Likewise, Trubakov for all the bubbling good humour of the first movement then spins a poignantly beautiful lyrical line in the second movement . Here, Trubakov's tone hearkens back to the great players of the Soviet era. Also, in this movement you hear for the first time a characteristic of the accompaniment that Sladkovsky brings to all the concerti - he favours a truly hushed, almost etiolated quality to the string sound that makes the music sound fragile and almost vulnerable. When juxtaposed against the stamping, accent-heavy passages the same players produce elsewhere in the works, it makes for a very wide expressive range.

The lack of recording information makes it impossible to know how closely together the 2 piano concerti were recorded. Dmitry Masleyev in the 2nd concerto seems to have been given a slightly richer piano sound than Geniušas. Without doubt this 2nd concerto is the 'lightest' of the six and its genesis as a work for the composer's young son often can give it the feeling of being a 'youth' concerto much in the style of the delightful Kabalevsky concerti of that description. Masleyev's achievement is to make this into a more substantial work than it is usually credited. The outer movements again are given real power and momentum and for the first time we are introduced to the excellence of the Tatarstan wind and brass. A consistent joy is the bite and brio of the horn section individually and collectively. Sladkovsky is never fast in the sense of pushing through this music, but on the other hand he does like to maintain tempi that keep the music flowing. So the central Andante of this 2nd Concerto benefits greatly from being simply what it is - a beautifully unadorned melody - rather than trying to make it sound like Rachmaninov-lite. By not offering any other coupling this disc does not even break the 40 minute barrier but I think this is the right choice - to have included one of the concertante film excerpts or a piano chamber work would have broken the vision of this set and when the music making is of this quality then quantity becomes irrelevant.

Disc two focuses on the two violin concerti and all of the good opinions formed by disc one are maintained. All praise to the engineering for allowing the soloists to sit back in the orchestral writing. The liner note makes the astute comment that the 1st concerto can almost be considered as a "violin-symphony" so, yes, there are times when details of the solo writing are obscured in complexity of an orchestral tutti, but to my ear this adds to the sense of struggle in a very appropriate way. All four of the remaining concerti are 'bigger' than the two piano works and another virtue of Sladkovsky's direction starts to become apparent. He is very good indeed at building musical tension over extended paragraphs. This becomes very clear in the opening Nocturne of the 1st violin concerto and especially the remarkable Passacaglia which is placed third. This concerto was a work that Shostakovich wrote during the fallout from the infamous Zhadanov in the late 1940's and it was a work considered too personal/dangerous to be released, while Stalin was still alive. The presence of the DSCH motif that was to become - quite literally - the composer's musical signature is used for one of the first times and embodies his defiance and resolve. The soloist here is Sergei Dogadin and he brings to the work remarkable maturity allied to complete technical mastery. The second movement scherzo is not as 'demoniac' as some versions I have heard - Oistrakh with Maxim Shostakovich on EMI/Warner careens through the movement in 6:32 with gleefully manic playing - he is 20 seconds faster still in a hissy BBC Legends recording with Rohzdestvensky. Dogadin is a weightier 7:15 - possibly the only time in the entire set I find myself hankering after a different approach. But then the aforementioned Passacaglia is built with supreme skill - arguably Shostakovich's finest concerto movement. If I was not completely convinced by the central scherzo, the closing Burlesque is again brilliant. Quite how or why I am not sure, but Sladkovsky and Dogadin find a cossack dance-like quality in the music, which I must admit never having registered to this degree before. This is one of those wonderful movements with Shostakovich, where you are not quite sure if he is smiling or grimacing. I recently heard for the first time the very impressive recording of these 2 concerti by Sergey Khachatryan with Kurt Masur. This is stunning playing, but, interestingly, by playing this closing Burlesque substantially faster than Dogadin, quite a bit of the character of the music is lost. What remains is still mightily impressive, but somehow Dogadin/Sladkovsky find in their earthy stamping weight more than just exciting display - but that said Khachatryan is very exciting!

With an opus number of 129 the 2nd violin concerto is the last of the six concerti. By this time the youthful certainties of the 1st piano concerto are just a distant memory - it might be a critical cliché, but this music is death-haunted. Recently I reviewed an impressively somber version of this work, played by Linus Roth. I enjoyed Roth's performance very much - he takes a daringly unflinching and extended view of the work. Pavel Milyukov is more 'centrist' - if this work could ever be deemed to have such an interpretation - and again I am moved all over again by the genius of this work. Directly comparing the opening of these two contrasting interpretations is telling. My earlier point about the engineering of this Melodiya set avoiding the 'glamour' of some recordings comes into immediate play. Roth's accompanists on his SA-CD set are the excellent LSO, but I do find the sheer weight and richness of the recording in a church acoustic to somehow make the music more 'hearty' than perhaps the composer wanted. Sladkovsky deploys his preference for pared-back tone (the score marking after all is just mp) with the soloist entering p. Milyukov finds a fragile musing from which he and Sladkovsky then can build a perfectly paced implacable build over the work's opening pages. The joy of hearing this work as part of the entire set shows how Shostakovich developed his compositional traits, albeit with a change in emphasis across his entire working life. By this later concerto, the slabs of implacable brass/horn tone are set as shocking contrasts to lighter instrumental textures. This was something Shostakovich was experimenting with right back in his 1st Symphony, but by the late works the conflict between these extremes are more explicit, bleaker. This is where the edgy tone of the Tatarstan horns and the laser-like intensity of the wind soloists pays great dividends - even in this familiar music the juxtaposition of musical ideas shocks when played with this conviction.

All of which carries over again into the final disc of the two cello concerti. By the early 60's Shostakovich could explicitly build an entire work out of his DSCH motif and of course so it is with the 1st cello concerto. I doubt any player will ever supersede Rostropovitch's reference recordings - it would be foolish to try - but again this pair of new recordings are very impressive indeed. I could always do with as much contra-bassoon as the mixer will allow in No.1 and that is slightly lacking here. However, a perfectly balanced and suitably bravura horn solo part from Sergei Antonov and dynamic timpani playing makes up for that minor cavil. But, again, it is the sense of climaxes being inexorably built by both Sladkovsky and cellist Alexander Buzlov that lingers longest in the memory. Buzlov is excellent in the cadenza that links the pained musings of the 2nd movement Moderato to the closing Allegro con moto. Again Sladkovsky finds a stamping cossack feel that, once you hear it, seems obvious, but it notable in its absence in other performances.

Likewise in the set's final work. In many ways the 2nd Cello concerto is the Cinderella of these six works. My sense is that it is the most elusive of the group, but that is not to say it represents any kind of diminishment in quality. Interestingly it is also the second longest of the concerti with two substantial outer movements dwarfing a four minute central Allegretto. As an aside - did any composer ever use such terms as allegretto so often or so elusively? In that central movement the Tatastan woodwind have the pawky, eccentric character of the writing off to perfection, with the horns blaring in with disdainful irritation. For performers I think it is this structure that causes the greatest problem - the opening movement in particular can seem to meander with the sparse textures and gnomic musical phrases not as obviously appealing as in the other works. So huge credit again to Sladkovsky, here accompanying cellist Alexander Ramm, for making the music seem so inexorable and inevitable. Perhaps because of its underappreciated status, I am tempted to say this is the most impressive performance in this most impressive set. All the elements of formal control, individual and collective virtuosity and character and a sure-handed understanding of the motivations behind the music come together in one of the most impressive versions of this work I have ever heard. Although not the latest opus number, as previously mentioned, there is something wholly apposite about this set tickering off into a musical void with the bizarrely effective conclusion - Ramm making more of the pizzicato glissandi than I have heard before.

The set is presented rather attractively in a cardboard tri-fold arrangement with the booklet tucked into to front sleeve. The booklet comes in cyrillic and English only and includes detailed biographies and photographs of the artists as well as some astute information about the individual works . However, the translation is not the great glory of the set - my favourite line apropos the 1st piano concerto states; "he surrenders himself to the lyrical bits with gusto and confidently fugles[!?] the orchestra in the energetic motion of the finale". Answers on a postcard please .... But, that apart, this is a set of quite unexpectedly excellent quality. Every element of the music making and engineering is really first rate. So good in fact that it becomes a strong contender for one of my discs of the year. For a modern survey of Russian interpretations of these classic 20th Century Soviet concertos this is simply superb - bravo to all involved!

Nick Barnard



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