08 January 2009

Four Firsts, Compared

Shostakovich Symphony № 1 in F Minor, Opus 10

López-Cobos, Cincinnati: Excellently played, and there is a cleanness and transparency (both in the sonics and the performance) which is part of what, for me, means excitement (so long as the music itself is exciting, of course). This was the recording by which I first got well acquainted with the piece. I don't believe that this means that it's the recording to which I expect all subsequent recordings to sound similar . . . but it has always felt to me a faithful and stimulating account of the score, and its merits have held up well as I have listened to other recordings.

Ancerl, Cz Phil: Good sound, though slightly dated (a bit more so than a number of other Ancerl Gold Edition recordings I've heard). Nothing fatal, only there are moments (such as the measure of divided basses / divided celli / divided firsts and seconds, five bars before the Allegro molto of the last movement) one dreams of such an account of the piece favored by the sonic advantages of the López-Cobos, for instance. Something I should mention, which I have gotten used to discounting in favor of other benefits of these Ancerl & al. recordings of the Cz Phil: the flavor of the winds is a bit different, there's often a little more 'flexibility' in some of the woodwinds (not reaching the degree to be called a warble), and there are times when the brass tone is not so solid as I tend, what?, to be used to, or to prefer, or whatever; nonetheless, overall and 95% of the time, the tone is good, and certainly markedly better than some vintage Russian orchestra recordings I have heard, e.g.

The second movement is especially interesting. The opening Allegro is nicely driven, just half a notch perhaps faster than in the López-Cobos, but very excitingly 'locked in' and not a runaway train. It seems to be something of a liberty (though Ancerl makes it work) but he takes the Meno mosso (where the flutes start in the repeated perfect fifths) a bit under tempo — it feels almost eighty-ish to the quarter, rather than the 100 marked. But the contrast to the opening material, the return to the first theme in the slower tempo, and the subsequent accelerando back to Tempo I, are all very nice.

Should say here that both López-Cobos and Ancerl start that accelerando a few bars before it is notated in the score; they both make it fit the character.

Barshai, WDR: First off the sound environment is more resonant than in any of the other recordings I've heard. That does not make any of these others less 'warm', but there are quite a few points in the Barshai where things get muddy, to the disadvantage of a very nicely colored score (the eight-part string choir measure I mentioned above, for instance, hardly seems like an event here).

As with the Presto of the Ninth Symphony in the same set, there are half a dozen places, perhaps, where things don't sound together, or under control, or either, and given the cloudy acoustics, there's a bit more mush than I like. A particularly 'fuzzy' moment — at a point where you really don't want fuzz — is five bars before the end of the piece. The four-bar tutti sustained chord has just cut off, and the trumpets, trombones, tuba and side drum come in; the brass seem all together enough, but they and the side drum don't quite match.

(These is by no means a general problem; the synchronization of the two clarinets, strings and cymbals at the Allegro molto of the last movement is above reproach, for instance.)

One instance of particularly mourning the 'cloud': the piano trills in octaves accompanying the horn solo in a Meno mosso section of the last movement get sort of swallowed up.

Oh! And peculiarly, of these four recordings, Barshai is the only one to rush the Lento.

Bernstein, CSO: In many ways a powerful reading, partly just because of the sound of the band and the quality of the recording. There are a couple of characterizations which seem a shade unorthodox on Bernstein's part (perhaps a bit more like Mahler — or even, a bit more like the Fourth or Seventh Symphony — than like Shostakovich the Wunderkind at the Leningrad Conservatory) but they carry off well, all the same. The march-like tune in the first theme group of the first movement (clarinet solo against low strings beating time) is a little more ponderous and menacing, than like a "Symphony-Grotesque"; and Lenny gives the waltzing second theme an expanded, nigh-unto-fin-de-siècle lilt, which is unlike any other reading I've heard in this piece.

Bernstein makes more of the tutti sections of this predominantly chamber-textured symphony than the other three in my mini-survey, but the effect is organic, never excessive. This is one of those Bernstein interpretations (like the Sibelius Sixth with the NY Phil) which, if I cannot quite endorse some of the decisions in principle, the performance itself is justification enough.

This was a survey I undertook in March of 2007 . . . and I should add remarks on the Maksim Shostakovich (Prague Symphony) and Kondrashin (Moscow Phil) recordings.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Karl, you also ought to listen to Skrowaczewski's account (Halle Orchestra, Halle CD HLL 7506). He led the San Diegans in my first live experience of the score, and I "imprinted" on it (or it on me) instantly.