Notes and Editorial Reviews
Cello Concerto No. 1. Symphony No. 9.
Baba-Yaga. The Musical Snuff Box. Kikimora. The Enchanted Lake. Ballade
Gerard Schwarz, cond; Lynn Harrell (vc); Seattle SO
ARTEK 0056 (79:56)
With the vast number and wide diversity of period-instrument recordings being released, it has become more or less common practice, and expected, for the instruments used to be identified. The current recording of Shostakovich’s First Cello
Concerto does not, of course, feature a period-instrument performance, but Artek has taken the need to know in such matters to new levels. Not only are we informed on the back cover that Lynn Harrell performs the Shostakovich concerto on a 2008 cello by Christopher Dungey with a c.1850 bow by Parisian maker Paul Simon, but additionally that his instrument is strung with Pirastro Passione & Olive strings and that his bow is rosined with rosin by Andrea—a nice advertising plug, no doubt, for the string and rosin makers. Too bad that no one bothered to check this against Harrell’s biographical sketch given inside the booklet—clearly written prior to and with no knowledge of the current performance—which states that “Mr. Harrell plays a 1720 Montagnana.”
While details about instruments, bow, strings, and rosin may be of passing interest, the proof of the pudding, as they say, if you will forgive the cliché, is in the tasting; and readers, I suspect, will be more interested in how Harrell fares against some very formidable competition in this score. Before proceeding, however, one other inconsistency needs to be addressed, though this one is not of Artek’s making. If you happen to be checking ArkivMusic for this release, you will find it listed (as of this writing in August 2011, at any rate) as a two-disc set. I can assure you that this is not the case. Though it’s a generously filled disc just shy of 80 minutes’ duration, there is one and only one CD in the jewel case.
Another point to be made is that if you’re perusing ArkivMusic’s listings for this concerto you will find that this is not Lynn Harrell’s first recording of the work. Thus, among the competition is his own 1986 Decca/London version with Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. That recording was made shortly after Haitink and the Concertgebouw had completed their still highly regarded Shostakovich symphony cycle, so they were well attuned and responsive to the composer’s music. Harrell paired the Shostakovich with Bloch’s
in a very effective and satisfying performance that made up for what I felt were his shortcomings in the concerto.
For me, Harrell’s earlier reading of the Shostakovich seemed to miss some of the composer’s characteristic irony and bitterness that were captured so well by Rostropovich on a number of occasions, as well as by Mischa Maisky with Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon, and more recently by one of my favorite cellists, Daniel M?ller-Schott, with the late Yakov Kreizberg and the Bavarian RSO on Orfeo. But I have to say that I was also extremely impressed by the young Korean cellist Ha-Na Chang’s EMI recording with Antonio Pappano and the LSO. I had the pleasure of hearing her live in a performance of the Elgar concerto with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra about a year ago, and she absolutely took my breath away.
In a review of another Harrell CD (possibly elsewhere in this issue) featuring works by C. P. E. Bach, Haydn, and Boccherini, I note that the cellist is getting on in years and may not be as technically secure as he once was. That album, though on a different label, appears to have been made around the same time as this one, in 2011, and comparing the photos of Harrell from both releases—white-haired and white-bearded—I have to draw the same conclusion here.
Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony are hardly inexperienced when it comes to the music of Shostakovich, having produced a number of excellent recordings of the composer’s works. But the concerto requires a soloist who can negotiate the score’s technical difficulties with a bit more aplomb than Harrell seems capable of managing at this point in his career. The orchestra performs magnificently under Schwarz, and Artek’s recording has tremendous presence and impact, but most noticeable in Harrell’s valiant reading are some bow articulation issues in the first movement’s tricky rhythmic passages and some increasingly labored playing toward the end of the third-movement cadenza’s gathering gallop. Still, I don’t wish to overemphasize the deficits. This is quite an accomplishment for the 68-year-old Harrell and over the years, I think, his interpretation of the piece has matured to a point where he does a better job of projecting Shostakovich’s personal idiom in this new recording than he did 25 years before with Haitink. Fans of the cellist and of this concerto needn’t hesitate, but I’m not saying that Harrell and Schwarz score over other classic and recent accounts.
If you came to Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony only after hearing the eight that preceded it, you wouldn’t necessarily guess it to be by the same composer. It’s short (only the Second is shorter), pithy, lightweight in feeling—though it calls upon an impressive battery of percussion instruments and a full complement of wind and brass—and a bit comical in ways that Shostakovich’s music often isn’t. The score, intended to celebrate Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany, was completed in August 1945. But it turned out to be something quite different from what Shostakovich had promised, which was a large-scale symphonic work for chorus, soloists, and orchestra. It was a disappointment to its Soviet critics, who deemed it too frivolous for the significance of the occasion—“playful, filigree-trimmed trifles,” one writer called it.
Schwarz has previously recorded Shostakovich’s Fifth, Eighth, and 13th Symphonies, but only Nos. 5 and 8 with his Seattle forces. No. 13 is with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Not all critics share my opinion of Schwarz, but I’ve always liked his work, and I think this performance of Shostakovich’s Ninth is a fine one. The orchestra is in top form, alert to the first movement’s martinet-like character that is so reminiscent in places of Prokofiev’s score to
, and the wind and brass sections deliver razor-sharp on-point playing in the Presto scherzo. Of course, if you happen to have Sony’s midline pairing of Shostakovich’s Fifth and Ninth Symphonies with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, you already have an excellent Ninth plus what may be the greatest recording ever of the Fifth, the conductor’s and orchestra’s 1959 Boston Symphony Hall version recorded shortly after their triumphant Moscow performance.
There are currently just over 80 recordings listed for the music of Anatole Liadov (1855–1914), but if you consider that the five pieces on this disc account for almost all of them, you would likely conclude that either he didn’t write very much or that if he did, a large portion of it is woefully neglected. If you concluded the former, you’d be correct. Liadov didn’t compose a whole lot, and most of what he did write took the form of miniatures for piano. Whether it was due to laziness or indolence, as some have claimed, or he simply lacked self-confidence in his own talent, he never completed a large-scale work. If he had, it would be
name as composer of
, not Stravinsky’s, since it was Liadov to whom Diaghilev originally turned to write the score.
Children’s bedtime stories in Russia were more likely to give the little ones nightmares than sweet dreams.
are both hideous, frightening creatures. The former, an evil spirit that lives behind the stove or in the cellar of the house she haunts, whistles and screeches at night, bringing death to all who see her spinning her flax. Baba-Yaga, a haggish witch who cannibalizes little kiddies, flies around on a giant pestle (forget the broomstick), which she presumably uses to triurate her tasty meals of tiny tots. These are the subjects of Liadov’s ever-popular fairytales for orchestra. Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony may not give us quite as many chills as Neeme Järvi and the LSO on Chandos, but they’re still quite fright-worthy.
All in all, minor caveats notwithstanding, a recommended release.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Baba-Yaga, Op. 56 by Anatole Liadov
Seattle Symphony Orchestra
Written: ?1891-?1904; Russia
Kikimora, Op. 63 by Anatole Liadov
Seattle Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1909; Russia
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