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A Hauntingly Relevant New Shostakovich Concert Recording From the London Philharmonic

Dmitri Shostakovich would find no small irony in that one of the most chilling recent recordings of his Symphony No. 11 would be released by a British orchestra during the (hopefully short) reign of the most brutally repressive regime in that nation’s history. The composer titled the symphony 1905, to commemorate the massacre of over two hundred unarmed Russian protestors by Tsarist militia in the St. Petersburg city square that year. In reality, it’s a requiem for the victims of Stalin’s genocide and possibly the martyrs of the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary The gold standard for recent recordings remains the Mariinsky Orchestra’s 2012 performance under Valery Gergiev. But this one – by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski and streaming at Spotify – is also stunningly vivid.

This undated live performance from London’s now-shuttered Royal Festival Hall doesn’t have quite the dynamic range of the Mariinsky recording, and if anything, it’s more hushed in places. But it’s hardly any less haunting. In Jurowski’s hands, this comes across as more of a series of grisly memories than any kind of linear narrative.

As the morose first movement slowly rises from a doomed predawn ambience, the foreshadowing leaves no doubt that these brave souls don’t have a prayer. Faintly hopeful twin flutes and a solemn solitary oboe give voice to variations on a sturdy worker’s song, which immediately grows more and more defeated over a grimly looming backdrop. Could this be an indictment of Stalin’s bastardization of Marxist ideology, maybe? Meanwhile, the sentries’ trumpets are lurking and don’t hesitate to make their presence known. Jurowski’s resoluteness in maintaining a vast, distant expanse behind them enhances the impact considerably.

Forces mass on each side as a standoff develops in the second movement, lustrously drifting and swirling strings against marching brass hitting a cruelly heroic peak. Are those furtive, muted pizzicato strings going to succeed? Or is the bronzed return of the suicidal opening theme the real portent here? By now, we know where all this is going. Shostakovich doesn’t even acknowledge Stalin by giving him as much as a simple tune: the massacre itself is all drums and cymbal crashes.

But this isn’t half over yet. The contrast between the almost inaudible, massed basses and violins behind the funereal chimes as the smoke clears (and those sentries with their trumpets, who just refuse to shut up) is viscerally intense. The third movement’s long dirge of a folk song, its muted, syncopated bassline and macabre low brass quietly remind the listener to grasp the consequences of this horror. Shostakovich wants us never to forget that fascists don’t just kill once: they do it again and again until we get rid of them.

A slightly different view emerges in the conclusion: amid its richly grim textures, some of these freedom fighters seem considerably more adrenalized and disciplined than what we’ve seen earlier on. In 2021, we will need such energy and discipline as we resist the enticements behind the lockdowners’ genocidal agenda: we can have our orchestras and concerts again, if only we take their needle of death. Obviously, if we do, there won’t be any orchestras left by then anyway.

Like many symphonic ensembles these days in parts of the world which haven’t yet broken free of the lockdown, the London Philharmonic have been releasing a steady stream of archival live recordings and this is one of their very best, reason to keep a close eye on what else they may have in the vault for us.

March 8, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Revisiting a Couple of Familiar Beethoven Favorites

How tragic that more than 75% of last year’s planned Beethoven 250 celebrations were all cancelled by the lockdowners. In anticipation of the festivities, innumerable artists and orchestras had recorded an immense amount of Beethoven. One predictably confident, majestic concert recording that inadvertently foreshadowed the glut of live albums that would be dumped on the web less than a year after it was released is the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s versions of two of the composer’s greatest hits, the Eroica Symphony and Symphony No. 5, streaming at Spotify. Kurt Masur leads the ensemble in these lustrous performances. This is a view from the back of the hall, individual voices distinct over a backdrop that’s often rather muted and wafts in, with production values approximating the comfortable integral quality of a vinyl record.

Even if you know these works by heart, it’s always fun to revisit them to see what surprises a particular conductor or orchestra can throw at you. This recording is particularly romantic, and Romantic as well. The first movement of the Eroica is as sleek as it is gusty, with pillowy exchanges between woodwinds over hushed ambience, but also precise, almost pointillistically leaping strings.

Eager, budding suspense and a graceful courtship ensue in movement two: this is a particularly suave interpretation. Movement three seems a little fast, yet it’s also remarkably plush. And those horns are announcing a fox hunt, aren’t they!

Masur brings the lush/stormy dichotomy into even clearer focus in the concluding movement, although he doesn’t let the conversations between winds and strings go to waste. As far as gearshifting for The Fifth Symphony, there isn’t much, even though emotionally it’s often 180 degrees the opposite. Masur obviously decided to opt for elegance this time out as well, in lieu of rampaging intensity or fullscale goth gloom in the opening movement.

This blog’s favorite version is a field recording made at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park in June of 2011, where the Knights played the symphony with uninhibited passion against a background of tree frogs and passing airplanes while bats divebombed the crowd. Still, Masur’s attention to detail in this one is welcome – the presence of the bass section in the first movement is especially rewarding.

Masur works top-to-bottom dynamics here even more than in the Eroica, particularly in the starry moments of the second movement and ominous portents of the third. The matter-of-fact bittersweetness in both really shines through as well. The finale brings the whole album full circle, the brightness and delicacy of the high strings just enough to bob up over the waves before a remarkably methodical, even restrained coda.

January 20, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shoot Out the Lights With a Rarity From the London Philharmonic Orchestra

Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic raised some eyebrows last year when they resurrected Richard Strauss’ rarely performed Symphonia Domestica. The composer conducted the world premiere in New York in 1904, to bad reviews, and soon afterward essentially disowned it. And that’s too bad. In typical Strauss fashion, it’s vast and meticulously detailed. As a portrait of marital angst, it’s not the classical music precursor to Richard and Linda Thompson’s iconic Shoot Out the Lights, but there are many similarities. There’s a brave recent live recording with Zubin Mehta leading the London Philharmonic Orchestra, streaming at Spotify, that may make classical fans reconsider this vivid, cinematic, slyly humorous and persistently cynical symphony.

Meant to be performed as a single contiguous movement, right off the bat there’s a uh-oh motif as the husband and wife get into a pre-dinner spat, riffs leaping from far corners of the orchestra. It seems that they’re “doing it for the kid,” as the cliche goes. There’s a proto-Woody Allen sensibility to much of this, a quintessentially cosmopolitan couple in distress. Tenderness and shrill combative swells joust for centerstage as Mehta leads the ensemble upward to an uneasy grandeur, the strings receding with an aching vibrato as gentleness returns: the baby wakes up. And then the fight hits fever pitch.

The wounded theme in the third “movement” is where Mehta and the orchestra hold the music in check, to masterful effect: as the program notes indicate, this is tears before bedtime. Even the poor kid’s dreams afterward are turbulent, as the winds bubbling amid dreamy strings give way to a towering heroic tableau.

From there, there’s the usual Strauss sturm und drang, themes intermingled meticulously, the whole group including the percussion section busting springs if not strings. Is the oboe theme afterward a concession to an afterglow, or an ominous portent? It would seem the latter, the orchestra’s lustre notwithstanding.

The horror movie motives return and lurk beneath the next morning’s bustle as its bellicose proportions grow gargantuan…and all of a sudden the clouds clear, with an almost prayerful violin theme. It’s here where the composer loses the thread: the majestry and triumph of the conclusion comes across as strained and farfetched, no matter how many devious false endings Mehta gives the audience to smile at.

Maybe to sweeten the pot – and bring a few converts into the fold – the album also includes a live performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. For Mehta and the orchestra, there’s plenty of life left in this old warhorse. His direction is finely detailed and on the slow side in the first movement, ingenue versus murderous dictator as their famous, ersatz Middle Eastern cat-and-mouse game gets underway. Violinist Henrik Hochschild’s silken legato is a persistent high point.

Contrasts, suspense and warlike foreshadowing are in welcome hi-definition throughout the second movement, up to a fierce conclusion. Scheherazade’s travelers’ tales and bedtime stories are especially lush and on the muted side in the third movement, pierced by puckish, precise winds. Orchestras love to play this because everyone gets involved, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s harmonies, particularly in the brass and swirling strings of the concluding movement, are so imaginative and colorful. In the end, love conquers all. As it has to, ultimately, for the world to survive. Have you reminded your loved ones not to take the needle of death this year?

January 1, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Counterintuitive, Macabre Rachmaninoff?

The live recording of Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Rachmaninoiff’s legendary Symphony No. 1 is hardly a definitive performance…but the album’s opening number is, What a treat it was to discover their version of The Isle of the Dead, streaming at Spotify. It’s astonishingly energetic, dynamic and vivid. Most orchestras play it very close to the vest, as they might do with, say, Death and Transfiguration. Yet Jurowski’s take on it is a revelation, unfolding layer upon layer of color so often subsumed in moody armospherics in interpretations by other ensembles.

You can almost feel the strain and the reach of the ferryman’s oars as the low strings dig into the macabre opening theme, in restless 5/4 time. The swirl of the woodwinds as the sway rises to a stormy crescendo is just as sharply defined. Likewise, the descent to distant bass and a lone horn in the distance after the deluge subsides.

There’s great timbral richness as the brass joinis the cellos in the angst-ridden, stairstepping crescendo of the second movement. The subtle echo effects of cellos against a lone horn amid the waves are just as meticulously focused. Taken as an integral work, this is a clinic in how to build a haunting tableau from the simplest ideas: Twin Peaks, Russian style, 1909

For something approaching the ur-text of the Symphony No. 1, try Leonard Slatkin’s recording with the St. Louis Symphony. That one’s a confident tour of the young composer’s brash, sometimes uproariously funny symphonic debut  – which was played exactly once, viciously panned by the critics and only resurrected after the composer’s death. This one’s a little ragged in places – the chase scene in the first movement, for instance – and yet, there’s a certain charm and poignancy in that all-too-human frailty. And it’s an audacious piece of music: name another symphony where the composer uses a slur as a main theme! Diehard Rachmaninovians will probably want to hear this as a point of comparison, but there are other options for those seeking to relish it for the first time.

July 24, 2019 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment