21 October 2015

CD REVIEW: Eviscerating the Eastern Bloc – DGG explores music by Witold Lutosławski (K. Zimerman; DGG 479 4518), Sergei Rachmaninov (D. Trifonov; DGG 479 4970), & Dmitri Shostakovich (BSO; DGG 479 5059)

IN REVIEW: Music by Witold Lutosławski (DGG 479 4518), Sergei Rachmaninov (DGG 479 4970), & Dmitri Shostakovich (DGG 479 5059)[1] WITOLD LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913 – 1994): Concerto for Piano and Orchestra / Koncert na fortepian i orkiestrę (1987 – 88) and Symphony No. 2 / II Symfonia (1965 – 67)—Krystian Zimerman, piano; Berliner Philharmoniker; Sir Simon Rattle, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ (Symphony) and under studio conditions (Piano Concerto) in Großer Saal, Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany, in September 2013; Deutsche Grammophon 479 4518; 1 CD, 52:22; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

[2] SERGEI RACHMANINOV (1873 – 1943): Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 43, and Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Opus 42, and DANIIL TRIFONOV (born 1991): RachmanianaDaniil Trifonov, piano; Philadelphia Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor [Recorded in Academy of Arts & Letters, New York City (Variations, Rachmaniana) and Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA (Rhapsody) in March 2015; Deutsche Grammophon 479 4970; 1 CD, 79:36; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

[3] DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 – 1975): Passacaglia (Interlude from Act II of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) and Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Opus 93—Boston Symphony Orchestra; Andris Nelsons, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in Symphony Hall, Boston, Massachusetts, in April 2015; Deutsche Grammophon 479 5059; 1 CD, 64:52; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

One of the particular wonders of music is the manner in which it provides panoramic views of the full spectra of peoples' cultural and social identities. From this vantage point, oblivious to politics and rhetoric, the intersections of cultural byways can be perceived with clarity. Contemplating the relationships among the 'roots' musics of different communities, kinships not always apparent to the eyes are revealed to the ears. From Scottish and Irish origins, for instance, Celtic musical traditions expanded to Spanish Galicia and thus to Argentina; to Brittany and thus to maritime Canada, Québec, Ontario, and modern Acadian Zydeco; to Appalachia and thus to contemporary Bluegrass, Country, and Southern Gospel. Pub musicians in Dublin, balladeers in Santiago de Compostela, bandoneonistas on the avenidas of Buenos Aires, fiddlers along the boulevards of Nantes, pipers on Cape Breton, Louisiana bayou bands, and banjo pickers in the Blue Ridge may have nothing in common to the eyes, but the ears detect in their differently-accented musical languages a mutual mother tongue. In many ways, this is also true of Classical Music, which in its purest form is itself essentially a 'roots' music that draws its lifeblood from the cultures that are its parents. However disparate their individual styles, there are in the works of Bach, Brahms, Bartók, and Barber, Chopin, Chou Wen-chung, and Mieko Shiomi more similarities that unite than differences that divide them. Aesthetically, this is also true of the music of Witold Lutosławski, Sergei Rachmaninov, and Dmitri Shostakovich, three very dissimilar composers whose careers nonetheless intersect at the crossroads of Twentieth-Century events and artistic innovations. New discs from Deutsche Grammophon dedicated to music by Lutoławski, Rachmaninov, and Shostakovich elucidate the depths of these composers' cultural identities with performances that provide encouraging glimpses of the continuing legacies of their work. The trials that Lutosławski, Rachmaninov, and Shostakovich faced as men are manifested in sometimes surprising ways in their music, and the artists involved with these discs, all of which engage the listener with sonics of excellence typical of Deutsche Grammophon, intertwine their own sensibilities with those of the composers to create performances that take root with equal durability whether heard along the Volga, the Danube, the Delaware, or the Charles.

Born in Warsaw in 1913, Witold Lutosławski came to composition as a student of mathematics, and, like Johann Sebastian Bach two centuries earlier, he often crafted scores in which mathematical formulae are, whether by conscious design or by intuitive inclination, the cornerstones of the music. Written for and premièred by him at the 1988 Salzburger Festspiele, pianist Krystian Zimerman here returns to Lutosławski's Piano Concerto with the backing of the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle, who has shown himself in performances of scores like Karol Szymanowski's opera Król Roger to possess an affinity for interpreting the music of Polish composers. The first-rate playing by the Berliner Philharmoniker, producing a leaner, more pointed sound under the British conductor's lead than during the tenure of Herbert von Karajan, comes as no surprise, but this is among Rattle's finest efforts on disc. Rattle's work before microphones has not been consistently distinguished, but his conducting of both the Piano Concerto and Lutosławski's Second Symphony, the latter recorded during live performances, is unerringly planned and executed. Rhythmic solidity, sometimes lacking in Rattle's conducting, is here omnipresent, and the conductor's firm grasp on the way in which Lutosławski's piquant harmonies propel both individual movements and works as a whole is commendable. Zimerman's approach to the Concerto has grown both darker and more gossamer in the twenty-seven years since he premièred and first recorded it. The dramatic sweep that permeates Zimerman's playing of the rhapsodic opening movement highlights Lutosławski's virtuosic writing, but the pianist now finds many moments of delicacy amidst the din. Pianist, conductor, and orchestra heighten the contrasts that shape the Presto – Poco meno mosso – Lento movement, not by over-accentuating the changes of tempo but by giving each of the evolving tempi its due, seeking within the music the logic of the progression. Zimerman makes the Largo an intimate monologue, its meandering thoughts united by the pianist's conscientious attention to the easily-overlooked flow of thematic material. Zimerman and Rattle collaborate in a performance of the Concerto's concluding Presto that crackles with energy and inspiration. Zimerman's response to a score of which he was the first interpreter has intensified without losing any of its crucial novelty, and he and his colleagues on this recording offer an account of the Concerto that both sounds utterly 'new' and verifies the score's eminent place in the piano's concert literature.

Rattle's and the Berliner Philharmoniker's performance of Lutosławski's Second Symphony is a model of a live recording. As sure as is Rattle's grip on the Piano Concerto, his pacing of the Symphony finds him on even more confident footing, virtually every detail of Lutosławski's music receiving from his stable but stirring advocacy attention and comprehension. In the first movement, Hésitant, the uncertainty that undulates beneath the treatment of subjects and countersubjects courses through every section of the orchestra, the conductor maintaining the pounding pulse of the piece without ignoring the quirky, quixotic twists in the unconventional exposition. The playing of the second movement, Direct, is no less definitive. Rattle achieves a mesmerizing equilibrium between electricity and emotionalism, and the Philharmoniker players follow his beat with implicit trust of both the music and their conductor's understanding of it. The Second Symphony is a challenging work that does not unveil its beauties to those who approach it nonchalantly, whether conductors, musicians, or listeners. In this performance, Rattle channels his still-volatile energy into a profound realization of the rhythmic and harmonic details of Lutosławski’s score. In the contexts of both the Piano Concerto and the Second Symphony, this disc is one of the finest recorded achievements of Rattle’s tenure at the helm of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

The Variations on a Theme by Paganini (Opus 43) constitute one of Sergei Rachmaninov's most enduringly popular scores and an instance in which familiarity is a result of near-universal recognition of quality. Premièred in 1934 with the composer at the piano, the work is a series of twenty-four widely-varying manipulations of the principal subject of Nicolò Paganini's Caprice No. 24 in A minor, regarded as one of the most technically demanding pieces in the solo violin repertoire. Rachmaninov was far from the only composer to discern the suitability of the Caprice's familiar theme for fanciful variation: composers ranging from Liszt and Brahms in the Nineteenth Century to Szymanowski and Lutosławski in the Twentieth employed Paganini's theme as a springboard for their individual creativity. None of them was more successful than Rachmaninov at identifying and then thoughtfully transforming the essence of Paganini's spritely melodic figurations into new guises, however, and few pianists have played Rachmaninov's Variations as affectionately as Daniil Trifonov. The young pianist, still only in his mid-twenties, has the great benefit in this recording of working with today's incarnation of the ensemble with which Rachmaninov introduced the Variations, The Philadelphia Orchestra. Even more integral to the tremendous success of this performance is the presence of Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the podium. His work in the world's opera houses has confirmed the jet-setting Québécois maestro to possess an exceptional natural aptitude for managing ensembles, and his conducting of the music of the still too-little-appreciated Florent Schmitt places him among the foremost exponents of Twentieth-Century repertory. In the context of this recording of Rachmaninov's Variations, he is an ideal partner for Trifonov, sharing the pianist's indisputable experience and youthful exuberance. Photographs and first-hand accounts portray Rachmaninov as a rather dour, Kafka-esque figure, but his music and especially his own performances of it—he recorded the Paganini Variations in RCA's Camden, New Jersey, studio not long after the work's first performance, but even more revealing are the piano rolls that he made in New York, characterfully playing his music for solo piano—disclose a keen wit. The same might be said of Trifonov's playing and Nézet-Séguin's conducting. The preparation, study, and concentration give way in performance to an appealing playfulness, seconded by the elastic playing of the Philadelphia musicians. Trifonov and Nézet-Séguin delve into the nuances of Rachmaninov’s variations with compelling intensity that never robs the performance of its inherent spontaneity. This combination of focus and fancy also characterizes Trifonov’s playing of the Opus 42 Variations on a Theme of Corelli. Here, too, the pianist employs subtlety and sweeping phrasing in equal measures, elucidating each variation’s individual shape and its logical position within the broader architecture of the Variations. It is not surprising that Trifonov plays his own homage to the composer whose music is of such significance to his career and artistic development, Rachmaniana, with fluidity and the unfettered imagination of absolute mastery, but the controlled expressivity of his performance of the piece recalls Rachmaninov's own precious piano rolls. As a composer, Trifonov pays tribute to Rachmaninov's style without engaging in piecemeal regurgitation of his idol's music, and as a pianist he honors himself and Rachmaninov by playing all of the music on this disc powerfully and poignantly. Trifonov, Nézet-Séguin, and Rachmaninov prove to be a serendipitous confederation. Perhaps, spurred by the extraordinary artistic success of this disc, Deutsche Grammophon will reunite them for recordings of the four Piano Concerti.

The cycle of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphonies by The Boston Symphony and Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons is among the lamentably few recent surveys of a composer's complete output in a specific genre that legitimately deserve to be recorded. Many are the ensembles that now play Shostakovich's symphonies, but few are those that play them with any degree of interpretive authority. Furthermore, there are few actions in Classical Music more dangerous on a plethora of musical and aesthetic levels than the anachronistic pursuit of programmatic contexts for individual scores, but the work of few artists has been more affected by an unique set of circumstances than was Shostakovich's music by the political climate in Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union. In the years between the start of World War II and the composer's death in 1975, Shostakovich endured virtually every conceivable manifestation of official Soviet espousal, rejection, and subsequent rehabilitation, his compositional output frequently caught in the crossfire of socio-political guerrilla warfare within the Communist Party. That Shostakovich's works in general are in many ways responses to this extra-musical meddling is inevitable, but full comprehension of the sentimental breadth of the music is jeopardized when focus is too narrowly applied solely to contemplation of its Soviet associations. The abiding marketing concept of Deutsche Grammophon's 'Under Stalin's Shadow' recording initiative notwithstanding, the central emphasis of the performance preserved on this disc is unmistakably on faithfully executing the demands of the score rather than miring the music in an explication of the societal circumstances of its genesis. Opening with the Passacaglia that serves as an evocative interlude in Act Two of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nelsons and the BSO players exhibit an unshakable concentration on uncovering the dramatic gestures within the music rather than regarding the music merely as accompaniment to social commentary. The impact of the boldness of Shostakovich's orchestrations is splendidly enhanced by the BSO's playing, the brass section in particular making a far finer impression than in the era of Erich Leinsdorf's directorship of the Symphony. The sprawling Moderato movement of the Tenth Symphony revels in the relative freedom that Shostakovich surely felt for the first time in his creative life in the wake of Stalin's death, and Nelsons's handle on the music never loosens in the twenty-six minutes of the movement's course. The string playing is superb throughout the performance, the musicians' intonation unfailingly secure, and the balances among both individual instruments and sections of the orchestra are continually marvelous. Nelsons draws sharp contrasts between the monumental first movement and the subsequent, smaller-scaled Allegro and Allegretto movements. In the second and third movements, the conductor's innate comprehension of Shostakovich's singular thematic development is of vital importance, and his rapport with the BSO musicians engenders profound but unexaggerated expressivity in passages in which less-prepared orchestras and less-insightful conductors are restricted to getting the notes and rhythms right. The pinnacle of this performance of the Tenth Symphony is the soulfully ambivalent reading of the final Andante – Allegro movement. It is perhaps hyperbole to suggest that this music was the forum in which Shostakovich excised some of the demons of Stalin and decades of Communist oppression, but the element of emancipation that resounds through the score—and, perhaps more significantly in this context, in this performance—is unmistakable. The Shostakovich discography contains admirable performances of the Tenth Symphony, but this recording is special. In it, the illumination provided by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Andris Nelsons seems to fully free Shostakovich's musical spirit from Stalin's shadow. Like the Lutosławski and Rachmaninov recordings, it is a disc that, in a sort of musical Socratic method, answers questions by asking new ones. Above all, it is a celebration of the unassailable resilience of music.