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La Mer Ticciati
Cantatas for Soprano
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Michail Jurowski in Gohrisch Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 – 1975)
Chamber Symphony in C minor, Op. 110a (after String Quartet No. 8, orch. Barshai) [22:12] Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten [9:10] Mieczyslaw WEINBERG (1919 – 1996)
Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, Op. 47 No. 1 [12:12] Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH
From Jewish Folk Poetry, Op. 79a [22:19]
Evelina Dobračeva (soprano)
Marina Prudenskaya (contralto)
Vsevolod Grivnov (tenor)
Staatskapelle Dresden/Michail Jurowski
rec. live, International Shostakovich Days Gohrisch: 11 September 2010 (Chamber Symphony), 29 September 2013 (Cantus), 30 September 2012 (Rhapsody, From Jewish Folk Poetry)
Texts for From Jewish Folk Poetry in German and English enclosed BERLIN CLASSICS 0300935BC [66:31]
Gohrisch is a spa some forty kilometres south-east of Dresden in the part of Germany known as Saxon Switzerland. In the summer of 1960 Dmitri Shostakovich visited Gohrisch, when the film Five Days and Five Nights was made in and around Dresden. Shostakovich was contracted to compose the soundtrack music for the film, but when he saw the still ruined city – terror bombed by the allied forces towards the end of the war – he was so taken aback by what he saw and probably remembered his home town Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and the terrible siege in an earlier phase of the war, that he was unable to compose anything for the film. Instead he wrote his eighth string quartet as a kind of autobiographical portrait in three days. This was the only work he composed outside the Soviet Union and it has become one of his most frequently performed compositions. His friend Rudolf Barshai later transcribed it for string orchestra, in that shape known as Chamber Symphony in C minor Op. 110a. It should be added that having finished the string quartet Shostakovich could set to work on the film music, which carries the adjacent opus number, 111.
He returned to Ghorisch a dozen years later, then accompanied by his wife. By then he was already seriously ill and he died just three years later. But he came back a third time, to stay forever. Exactly fifty years after his first visit, the square in central Gohrisch was named after him and now there is a bronze bust of him in the square. Later that year, in September 2010, the first Shostakovich Festival was held in Gohrisch. It has now become an established annual event, although it is now held in the spring. There is no concert hall in Gohrisch, but there is a barn with good acoustics and the recording of the Chamber Symphony on this disc was made there during the first festival year. The other works were recorded in a concert tent – also an unusual venue for classical music.
The chamber symphony/string quartet is in five movements, following each other attacca. The opening Largo begins with Shostakovich’s musical signature, the four notes D-E flat-C-B, which in the German nomenclature becomes D-Es-C-H, i.e. his first name initial followed by the first three letters of his family name. This motive appears in all five movements and ties them together to an unbreakable unit. The motive appears in several of his most important compositions as an indication that this music comes from the heart.
Whether in the quartet version or the orchestral version this is utterly touching music. The greatest difference is that with a larger body of strings there is a lot more weight to the music, but also sometimes the sound is smoothed out, where the quartet version is more clear-cut. In the orchestral version the powerful opening grabs the listener by the throat, while the solo violin’s lamentation gives an impression of a human being feeling exposed and vulnerable. The Allegro molto, aggressive and rhythmically intense, gives the impression of resistance, while the Allegretto in ¾-time is an ironic Danse Macabre, typically Shostakovich but in the end a sigh of resignation. The two last movements, both marked Largo like the opening, only confirms the hopelessness, up to the final morendo. It is all very touching and the strings of the Staatskapelle Dresden plays with both power and refinement.
Whether the work is a personal lament from Shostakovich over his own situation or a general attitude to war is a moot point. The score is dedicated “to the victims of fascism and the war”, which his son Maxim interprets as the victims of totalitarianism at large, while his daughter Galina thought that the dedication was forced on him by the Soviet authorities and that it was a pure personal lament. He had recently had the first signs of the muscular disease that would in due time lead to his death. According to a friend he was contemplating suicide.
Personal on another level is Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. Pärt had greatly admired Britten, but being fenced in in Estonia, behind the Iron Curtain during the Soviet regime, he never got the opportunity to meet him. Britten passed away in December 1976, a little more than a year after Shostakovich, and Pärt composed his Cantus the next year for strings and a bell. Not until 1980 was he allowed to emigrate to Austria. The short Cantus is a canon, an early example of his tintinnabuli style. It is both simple and complicated and has become one of his most performed works. The sole bell is pitched in A and the repeated use of it can be seen as a funeral bell. It starts almost inaudibly and after a gradual rise to a climax at fff it returns to the opening ppp. The playing by the Dresden strings is highly accomplished and the only thing one could question is the tempo. According to the score the basic tempo is crotchet=112-120, which should give a total timing of ca 6 minutes. Neeme Järvi’s BIS-recording with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, which I’ve always regarded as authoritative, also clocks in at 6:38, while Jurowski takes 9:10 – a fairly big difference no doubt.
The Polish born Mieczyslaw Weinberg was of Jewish origin and at the outbreak of WW2 he fled from Poland, but not to the West. Instead he settled in the Soviet Union, while his parents and his younger sister stayed and perished in a concentration camp. He met Shostakovich and they became good friends. A very prolific composer he wrote among a lot of other things 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, six piano sonatas, music for more than 40 film scores and seven operas. The Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes is quite early, from 1949, and is a melodic and rhythmically fresh and exciting piece. The vitality is well caught in this recording and the audience reactions are immediate and enthusiastic.
Roughly contemporaneous with the Weinberg rhapsody is Shostakovich’s song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, which was composed between 1 August and 24 October 1948, after the composer was denunciated in the Zhdanov decree, which attracted much attention. Shostakovich’s low status at the time plus the official anti-Semitism made it impossible to perform the cycle in public, and it was not until 1955 it was officially premiered with the composer at the piano and with Nina L'vovna Dorliak, the still famous Zara Dolukhanova and Alec Maslennikov as soloists. The version for small orchestra, which is recorded here, also seems to be from the same year but it wasn’t performed until 1964.
In general terms this is music that should appeal to a wide audience. The texts – translated from Yiddish to Russian – are often melancholy and mirror the exposed situation for the Jewish people through the centuries, but Shostakovich dresses them in attractive garb and rather simple accompaniments. Fussy Mummy and Auntie (tr. 9) is charming, elegant and melodious, Lullaby (tr. 10) is a contralto solo, beautiful but sad. A Song of Poverty (tr. 14) is lively and burlesque, while Winter (tr. 15) depicts the season beautifully but the chill is tangible. Rhythms are essential in the melodious The Good Life (tr. 16), in A Girl’s Song (tr. 17) the atmosphere is folksong like and the outgoing and rhythmical Happiness (tr. 18) brings the cycle to a distinctive full stop. The contralto Marina Prudenskaya in Zara Dolukhanova’s part is excellent, and tenor Vsevolod Grivnov is also very good, while the soprano’s tone becomes too acidulous in the upper register.
It is good that this Shostakovich Festival – which since 2012 also focuses on Weinberg – becomes known also on records. Hopefully there is more in the archives of Berlin Classics. If the repertoire is attractive this disc is well worth closer acquaintance.