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RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Maximilian STEINBERG (1883-1946)
Violin Concerto (1946) [31:32]
Symphony No. 4 Turksib (1933) [42:25]
Sergey Levitin (violin)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates
rec. June 2016, RSNO Centre, Glasgow. DUTTON CDLX7341 SACD [74:22]
Dutton have a garlanded track record for letting the world hear neglected or even otherwise forgotten treasures. Try for example the symphonies by Catoire and Blumenfeld and Maliszewski's Third Symphony and Piano Concerto. In this Steinberg disc there is no slackening of Dutton's grip on an admirable track record.
Maximilian Steinberg was born in Vilnius and moved to St Petersburg in 1901 to extend his studies. His music teachers included Liadov, Rimsky-Korsakov (soon to become his father-in-law) and Glazunov with whom he collaborated on the suite from Rimsky's opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. Other Rimsky-connected work include the Second Symphony "In memoriam Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov" (1909) and the Symphonic Prelude "In memoriam Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov" (1908). Steinberg would later be a teacher of Shostakovich. Steinberg completed his teacher's famous musical text-book.
The Steinberg catalogue includes just the one concerto (written in his last year), five symphonies, The Water Nymph (a cantata), a couple of ballets, two string quartets (1907, 1925), Heaven and Earth for voice and orchestra (after Byron) (1918) and Four Songs with Orchestra (after Rabindranath Tagore) (1924). There were also various short orchestral works some of which were recorded in the 1990s on two discs packed with world premiere recordings. DG and Neeme Järvi (review and DG 457 607-2 - the latter disc not reviewed here) were behind that project. Those occasional pieces included the Symphonic Overture on Revolutionary Songs, not that this made its way into the DG sessions. Steinberg's recently discovered Passion Week - in the stream of potently devotional a cappella choral works by Rachmaninov, Grechaninov and Bortnyansky - has had no fewer than two recordings (reviewreview).
The music on this disc finds and expresses its soul in the great Russian nationalist musical heritage. Here is a composer who does not kick against the legacy but works with its grain in both works … and in all the Steinberg works I have heard. Shostakovich and Prokofiev were rebels in comparison with Steinberg whose allegiance yields a sweet harvest of rewards in these two works.
The Violin Concerto despite having been written in Steinberg's last year shows no sign of degradation. The music sings richly - one can imagine this work appealing to Kogan and Oistrakh. Sergey Levitin - who must be congratulated on taking up and investing heavily in such a Cinderella - does not disappoint. He is also commandingly placed in the sound-picture. The music is stylistically between the Delius and Myaskovsky concertos in a lineage stretching back to the Tchaikovsky. It's full-on and its technical and pyrotechnical demands are not subservient to whole-hearted musicality. Levitin revels in the big solo cadenza placed in the centre of the plungingly and richly romantic first movement. The middle movement is inward and intense - a private prayer but one heavy-laden with pleading passion. It's rhapsodic but not loose or wandering. The brilliant finale is full of invention: an invincibly lively Allegretto laced with a liberal dash of exciting Central Asian dance; the sparks fly upwards. Levitin is no stranger to championing the unknown and has previously done inspired and time-costly work for Dutton for the concertos by Widor (CDLX7315) and Bortkiewicz (CDLX7323). I rather hope that he will at some point take an interest in the sorely neglected violin concerto by Janis Ivanovs.
The title of Steinberg's Fourth SymphonyTurksib refers to the Turkestan-Siberia railway - a huge achievement for the USSR. The continent-spanning project was - a standard-bearer for pan-Soviet ambitions - and formed the basis for an extended film documentary by Viktor Turin. That film has been reclaimed and renovated by the BFI - not that it uses Steinberg's score.
The Fourth Symphony was valiantly revived by the BBC on 10 November 1994. when Alexander Vedernikov was retained to conduct the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. This is how I came to know the symphony. A work that transcends the curiosity value of its inspirational origins, it's far more than the political poster-art its titles might suggest.
Dutton's splendid English-only liner-note by Guy Rickards - such a good choice of author - points out that the symphony is scored for a standard orchestra including triple woodwind, four percussionists and two harps. Each movement carries a title: I Across sands and mountains, II Rhapsody - Songs of the Past and the Present, III Guiding the Steel Road, IV Devil's Chariot. I am not sure how helpful the titles are to the music's travelling future but they certainly inject the expectation of local colour.
This 43-minute Symphony draws on Kazakh folk melodies - seeming to absorb them rather than presenting them as inviolate exhibits. This use of folk sources was made long before Prokofiev's Second Quartet and Myaskovsky's symphonies 23 and 26. By the way, the eleventh of Myaskovsky's symphonies is dedicated to Steinberg who seems to have had a weakness for folk material which was in political favour at the time. He also wrote a Symphony No. 5 Symphonic Rhapsody on Uzbek Themes (1942), In Armenia - Capriccio (1940) and Forward! - An heroic Uzbek Overture (1943).
The Symphony starts with the work's two longest movements. These add up to not far short of 28 minutes - twice the combined length of the last two movements. There's a brief defiant gesture - as if Steinberg is asserting "I am here!" - before sweetly brooding woodwind growls and purrs. The music takes its style from works such as Rimsky's Antar and Russian Easter Festival Overture as did the works of Lyapunov. The sense of pioneers, ever pressing forward to the horizon, beams out - indeed one whole section between 09:00-10:30 recalls Vaughan Williams' similarly countenanced Scott of the Antarctic film music from more than a decade later. A constant wandering figure unwinds towards the end and gradually unfurls. This it does amid what feels like an anthem to mountain peaks and precipitous cliffs before resolving into a concluding stomping dance.
The Lento non troppo offers more remission - a resting place. It too broods and meditates, being sweetly lit by distant tinkling and by swooning strings. Heresy I know, but for those who have no conscience about disentangling movements from their symphonic context this would work unassailably well as a free-standing evocation of distant desert kingdoms and oases. The enchantment changes complexion round about 06:00 where the defiant gesture that opened the first movement returns and is nobly developed.
The third movement - Allegro assai - whirls and scythes along with no tier of the orchestra spared. Its firefly progress across the work's shortest movement pitches without pause into a finale marked Moderato - allegro assai. This starts with noble trumpet oratory leading quickly into an accelerating and pattering folk-dance. Yates keeps the flame burning high and the tempo flightily engaged. The dancing writing links back to Rimsky and Borodin. Dutton's recording makes productive use of the label's accustomed spatial/microphone array in the RSNO centre - a venue they know well ... and it shows. Steinberg's way with the finale at 5:26 shows he has taken the locomotive origins to heart. Add this finale to the list of the world's railway music alongside the works of Richard Rodney Bennett, Moeran, Honegger and Ellis. The invention - but not the craft - flags towards the end. Even so, Steinberg keeps up the crashing and coruscating Russian grandeur. It's a piece that lacks neither pride nor confidence and ends in a luxuriantly populated crash that resounds across the hall and your loudspeakers.
This disc now leaves the way clear for completion of the Steinberg cycle of symphonies with a CD coupling symphonies 3 (1928) and 5 (1942). Dutton Epoch often appear blessedly committed to striking out in many new directions so there is no reason to expect that there will not be a CD from them coupling the missing symphonies. Perhaps others will oblige?
This disc will be snapped up by those who already have Järvi's DG CDs of the first two symphonies but it will also draw in Rimsky and Myaskovsky enthusiasts and those who have fallen for the charms of Bortkiewicz's two symphonies on Hyperion and earlier orchestral Duttons: Catoire, Blumenfeld, Bortkiewicz and Maliszewski.
As for this label, it deserves not only commercial success but some industry or artworld recognition for striking vitality and dazzling sparks from forgotten granite. Dutton should look in the direction of Yuri Shaporin's reputedly Borodin-like nationalist Symphony of the 1930s and of Ivan Dzerzhinsky's two piano concertos. The Shaporin seems to have done well in London in the 1930s under Albert Coates and if Party condemnation is anything to go by the apparently traditional Dzerzhinsky concertos should be a good proposition.
Ripe Russian nationalism nostalgically re-imagined well into the last century.