SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 4. RACHMANINOff Piano Concerto No. 1. RIMSKY-KORSAKOV Russian Easter Festival Overture • Gennady Rozhdestvensky, cond; Victoria Postnikova (pn); BBC SO • MEDICI ARTS 3085278 (DVD: 109: 00)
I confess to never before having seen a film of Gennady Rozhdestvensky (b. 1931) conducting. So I was struck, though not surprised, to find that the architect of a large body of intenseRead more and driven yet clean recordings, especially of Russian repertoire, is a man of cool elegance and spare motion. This is a conductor who eschews all flamboyance and, like his older contemporary, Herbert Blomstedt (b. 1927), resembles an accountant more than a stereotypical conductor, all the while generating performances of stunning architecture and rhythmic alertness.
These performances were taken from concerts at the Proms in two successive years, the Rimsky and Rachmaninoff pieces broadcast on August 31, 1979, and the Shostakovich Symphony a year earlier, September 9, 1978. I first noticed Rozhdestvensky’s outsized baton, its length seeming especially overextended in the context of its operator’s sparing gestures. The reading of the Russian Easter Festival Overture is as lovingly shaped as it is understated. It won’t excite viewers through any excess of kinetic energy, but then it has always struck me that such an approach does not work well with this piece. The BBC orchestra plays with remarkable clarity and breadth.
Rachmaninoff’s First Concerto has not been over-exposed to the extent of its next two companions, though it has received more than its share of recordings, often as part of complete cycles of all four (or five, with the Paganini Variations) of the composer’s concertos on CD. After doing a quick check, I could find no other competition for this particular concerto on DVD. So it is particularly welcome to encounter a film of the work as firmly realized as this one. Postnikova clearly comes from the Russian tradition of emphasizing muscularity over accuracy. That’s okay, though; Richter shares some of those qualities, particularly in his live recordings. But there is also an apt clarity in her phrasing that makes a strong case for this work as one of the most subtle of the cycle. It doesn’t pull at the heartstrings the way the Second Concerto does, and hers is an especially Apollonian account of the score.
For most viewers and collectors, I suspect that the primary draw of this film will be Rozhdestvensky’s riveting performance of Shostakovich’s 1936 Fourth Symphony, a work he has recorded several times and which he himself edited for the complete edition of Shostakovich’s works. A scan of my various sources also turned up no competition in video format for the work. Indeed, apart from the ubiquitous Fifth, the composer’s symphonies have been filmed surprisingly rarely. This performance is mesmerizing. The work remains one of the most puzzling and controversial items in Shostakovich’s œuvre, calling down on his head the opprobrium that forced him to recant his artistic “pessimism” and causing him to write the Fifth Symphony by way of “apology.” Many have felt that it is one of his bleakest works, but the puzzlement comes from the fact that none of the movements are particularly monolithic in their attitude. Wry scherzo textures rub shoulders with Mahlerian funeral marches. What I find especially gripping about this film is that the normally poker-faced Rozhdestvensky reacts to the fleeting ironies of the work with equally fleeting, laughing smiles, shifting into the sudden outbursts of funereal gloom with grim but controlled intensity. However, his way with the end of the work is what will sear itself into the minds of most viewers. About 10 minutes before the end, he carefully sets down his long baton and conducts with his hands. As the music dies away, his gestures grow smaller and more delicate, so that by the end, he is conducting with his fingertips and barely perceptible nods of his head. The final chord is cut off with a tiny circular motion in his pinkies. Such sparing gestures underscore a kind of nihilistic dismissal of grand gesture that seems perfectly matched to the music. The glistening moments are indeed fleeting, dashed off with an almost contemptuous shrug, and the sparse percussion figures seem to be met by a sneer of disgust at their very bleakness.
The films are remasterings of videotaped originals. As such, the sound is unimpressively two-dimensional and dim, at least compared to modern orchestral recordings, the picture often grainy. Camerawork reflects the conservative approach typical of orchestral films in the 1970s. The camera is most intently focused on the conductor, quite welcome for those viewers most interested in following his conception and communication style. But there are the requisite cut-away shots to soloists and even a few judicious over-the-shoulder shots at the music, particularly well timed in the case of the celesta solo in the closing bars of the last movement. Highly recommended.
Symphony no 4 in C minor, Op. 43by Dmitri Shostakovich Conductor:
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century Written: 1935-1936; USSR Date of Recording: 1978 Venue: London, England
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
authenic Russian classicsSeptember 27, 2012By BURTON A JONES, JR. (Manvel, TX)See All My Reviews"One of the finest Russian conductors with a real feel for the music. The Rimsky-Korsakov is beautiful. The Rachmaninov displays sensitive communication with the pianist, Viktoia Postnikova, Rozhdestvensky's wife, whom I have not heard of before. Makes one wonder why this concerto is so neglected. As for the Shostakovich, it is well played,but not one of my favorites. Still, two out of three is not bad. If you like Russian music, you should get much pleasure from these classic performances."Report Abuse