thoughtful, emotionally fleet and powerfully recorded
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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 77 (1947-48, rev. 1955) [38:31] Sofia GUBAIDULINA (b. 1931)
“In tempus praesens” Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (2007) [38:33]
Simone Lamsma (violin)
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/James Gaffigan (Shostakovich), Reinbert de Leeuw (Gubaidulina)
rec. 2016, Studio 5 Broadcasting Music Center, Hilversum (Shostakovich); 2011, Royal Concertgebouw, Amsterdam (Gubaidulina).
Reviewed in SACD stereo CHALLENGE CLASSICSCC72681 SACD [73:21]
Simone Lamsma has appeared before on the Challenge Classics label, and I greatly enjoyed her recital programme with pianist Robert Kulek (review). This pair of concertos is a weighty prospect. The BBC Radio 3 twitter feed recently registered a comment that Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto was too melancholy for morning listening, and Shostakovich himself waited until after Stalin’s death before retrieving it from the shelf and revising it to create the version we hear today.
This understandable move can be heard in the first movement, which is gives voice to the “tragic, even bitterly acidic lament” for the thousands who lost their lives under the Soviet regime in the 1940s. Jewish themes are interwoven into the musical material, Leo Samama suggesting in his booklet note that their incorporation here and into the Tenth Symphony might have been “to expunge the terror of Stalin from his system.” So yes, not easy listening for a sunny Sunday morning, but well worth being aware of.
This is a genuinely potent performance, the first movement filled with emotional depth, the contrasting Scherzo a sharp, almost panicky dance of death, the urgent rhythms of which propel us into a remarkable Passacaglia, “a masterpiece – mature, elegiac and highly lyrical.” Lyrical yes, but also full of dark drama that is fully exploited in this recording. The final movement Burlesque has a demonic feel, Lamsma digging deep into the strings of her Stradivarius, pitting her single violin against the forces massed behind her and, as with the Scherzo, propelling us with high-tensile nervous angst into a world of smoky industry and a society stained by fear.
As the dedicatee of this concerto, David Oistrakh’s recordings are an important reference, both the 1956 première (review) and the 1972 remake (review). Oistrakh’s impassioned performances are essential listening, but the balance and detail is better with this Challenge Classics release, as is the intonation within the orchestra. Christian Tetzlaff provides serious competition with the Helsinki Phiharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds on the Ondine label (review). To my ears the violin is a little too high in the balance here however, making that tussle between soloist and orchestra in the third and final movements an unequal battle, though there is no doubt that this is a very fine performance. Tetzlaff’s nuances are every bit the equal of Lamsma’s and the performance is as engaging emotionally. I do however like the more natural balance in the Dutch recording. Speaking of Dutch performances, the re-release of Jaap van Zweden’s recording on the Naxos label (review) also with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic is pretty gripping from the soloist’s point of view, but more anodyne as regards the orchestral part. They were a good band in 1994, but as you would hope they are better in 2016, and certainly more spectacularly recorded.
Sofia Gubaidulina’s “In tempus praesens” was written for Anne-Sophie Mutter and has been recorded by her on the Deutsche Grammophon label (review). I’ve not always felt empathy for all of Gubaidulina’s work but this is an exceptional score, summed up by Thea Derks in the booklet note as “a work of extreme contrasts in which very deep, infernal passages are juxtaposed with extremely high, celestial episodes.” Nothing is left to chance in the orchestration, with detail and depth still very much in evidence even at the most extreme climaxes - there’s no such thing as ‘peak level’ here, there always being a potential for more tension, greater explosiveness, higher teeth-clenching drama. The is another recording with Vadim Gluzman and the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Nott (review) but I don’t have this one to hand for comparison.
Choosing between versions in this case is rather more straightforward than with the Shostakovich. The Deutsche Grammophon engineers had a field day with this work and everything is up close and clear. You can feel the heat rising on Anne-Sophie Mutter’s violin strings, and the orchestral sections move up to meet her at every turn. This is music in which all of the brushstrokes deserve to be heard in technicolour, and Simone Lamsma and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic with their more natural but comparatively distant balance deliver a rather different effect. The inner textures are less apparent in this recording, and even with the volume turned up you won’t for instance hear as much of that harpsichord in the third minute and further along. Deutsche Grammophon is as artificial as anything as a recording but remains magnificent, particularly in the sheer obstinate mastery of the soloist. Simone Lamsma’s version is also excellent, and allowances with regard to the detail of sound can be made with this being a live recording, applause included. We hear page turns and one or two other mild ‘noises off’, but this remains a very fine production. For sheer impact I would go for Anne-Sophie Mutter, but Simona Lamsma and Reinbert de Leeuw deserve respect and attention, and taken in isolation without this comparison you will find this spectacular enough on its own terms, especially in SACD mode. If you prefer a more arms-length concert experience rather than a white-hot roller-coaster ride then this will do very nicely indeed.
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