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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Chant Funèbre (Funeral Song), Op. 5 [9:15]
The Firebird, (Suite 1919) [20:42]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 12 in D minor, Op. 112 'The Year 1917' [39:25]
Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien/Cornelius Meister
rec. live, 17 October 2017 (Shostakovich), 15 February 2018 (Stravinsky); Konzerthaus, Vienna
CAPRICCIO C5352 [69:22]

The Chant Funèbre of 1909, rediscovered only in 2015, was a memorial piece for Stravinsky’s teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. It here gets the third recording that I know of, following the world premiere on disc from Chailly on Decca (2017), and one from Gustavo Gimeno on Pentatone (2018). Unsurprisingly for a piece which has no performing tradition, they don’t agree on timing. Chailly took 10:30, Gimeno stretched that to 12:32, while Meister here goes the other way, with a time of 9:14. This might have been occasioned by the live performance needing to sound right in the space the orchestra was in, but on disc it is not especially to its benefit, and I preferred Gimeno’s more broadly processional doloroso. But this Viennese performance is still a viable alternative, as it does not feel especially rushed, and there is at least a sense of lamentation. It could even be argued that a ‘”funeral song” should proceed at a pace which could notionally at least be sung.

The opening of Chant Funèbre recalls that of the Firebird, which follows on the disc. I do not suppose that this music is a staple of the Vienna Radio Symphony, but they play it very well. The rapid string figuration and darting wind solos are not all quite immaculate in the Firebird’s opening dance – the tempo is quite swift - yet pretty impressive generally for a live rendition, and overall this is an enjoyable account. The Princesses’ Round is exquisite, led by a fine oboe, and continued by some warm string playing. Kastchei begins his infernal dance with a terrific wallop from the bass drum, and has some mighty violent ff accents. After that the Berceuse is pure balm from the bassoon opening onwards, a lullaby fit to charm away any evil spirits and lead us into the fairyland finale, which swells majestically through to the resplendent brass in the coda. There are many very good accounts of this short 1919 suite, and this is another one.

Shostakovich’s 12th has the reputation of being the weakest of his 15 symphonies, and is not often recorded outside complete cycles of all of them, and rarely heard in concert. But here it is in a concert performance from Vienna in October 2017, a century after the momentous event it commemorates, and no doubt programmed in recognition of that anniversary. It is much better than that reputation I am sure, and the idea, often repeated, that it was an attempt to placate Party bosses with a populist work, seems unconvincing. It is difficult to imagine such an artist writing a work in which he did not believe at some profound level, and he was in hot water again with No.13 written just the following year, so was not that keen on placating anybody.

Timings here are central ones, certainly in relation to two other conductors who should know something about that. Thus Meister’s 39:25 is comparable to Mravinsky – who conducted the 1961 premiere – and who took 39:08 in his 1984 live version, and not far from Maxim Shostakovich’s 41:05 in his Prague cycle. More importantly, Cornelius Meister, recently named Conductor of the Year by Opus Klassik, the German classical music awards body, sounds as if he believes in every bar of this symphony. His orchestra – he has been the Vienna RSO’s Principal Conductor since 2010 - play superbly for him. The very opening Moderato shows off the burnished glow the string band possesses, and the woodwinds shine in the ensuing allegro, which Meister builds to a swift climax – he is well tuned to the typical way the composer can generate tension so swiftly. From the rattle of the snare drum entry we know we are in Shostakovich’s graphic, even filmic, mode for Revolutionary Petrograd, as the movement’s title tells us. The RSO here are nearly as agitated and bloodcurdling as Mravinsky’s Leningrad Philharmonic itself.

The slow movement begins with a shadowy oscillating string motif, much like that which accompanies Pimen, the monk-chronicler in Boris Godunov. Such motifs become common in late Shostakovich, not least in the quartets, a manner called “Pimenovsky” by Soviet musicologists who felt they implied the composer too was a chronicler of his times. The performance captures this narrative mood well, via the chant motif to the portentous trombone solo near the end. The brief scherzo also generates waves of excitement swiftly and deftly, and the RSO are very adroit in handling its teeming inventions – or rather its transformations, since the material is much as before. Indeed, as the work consists of four linked movements, sharing much the same material, the conductor basically must shape a single forty-minute continuous structure, so Meister’s operatic experience really tells here, as we are swept up in the unfolding drama right thorough to the hollow – or real? – triumph of the blazing final coda. Clearly no-one told Meister and his players they were playing a “weak” symphony.

The recorded sound is extremely fine - exciting, present and realistic, with very well defined bass, and a wide but not exaggerated dynamic range. There is still plenty of life in 16-bit stereo it seems. The audience is largely undetectable throughout, one tiny cough in the Firebird finale apart. The booklet’s brief notes are informative enough. If this programme appeals, the performances won’t disappoint. But I would think this release will be specially valuable for someone looking to be persuaded that the absurdly under-rated 12th Symphony of Shostakovich really could be worth another hearing.

Roy Westbrook


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