The Soviet Experience, Vol. 2
Quartets by Shostakovich and Prokofiev
Sometimes a string quartet cycle is just a string quartet cycle. But on other occasions, it’s an incitement to something much bigger. In Chicago in 2010, the Pacifica String Quartet’s planned survey of the complete Shostakovich Quartets ended up sparking a citywide 16-month festival called “The Soviet Arts Experience,” bringing together 26 organizations, from big players like the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the University of Chicago, to smaller groups spanning the disciplines of music, art, theater, film, and dance. From the vantage point of Boston, a city where arts organizations often seem sadly immune to the collaborative spirit, ambitious festivals like this one seem to glitter like a mirage, at once beautiful, inviting, and bizarrely out of reach.
Fortunately, Chicago’s festival is still bearing fruit, as the Pacifica’s Shostakovich cycle slowly finds its way to disc. Recently out is this robust second volume devoted to the Quartets Nos. 1-4. The Pacifica previously tackled, to deserved acclaim, the complete quartets of Elliott Carter, and it’s hard to imagine a more rigorous musical boot camp for any chamber ensemble. These Shostakovich works have been recorded elsewhere with greater expressionist fury, and with a deeper (and bleaker) sense of how this music reflects the fathomless tragedy behind the Soviet experiment. But rarely do they come across with form and content so organically integrated, and with playing that exudes this wedding of youthful electricity and interpretive insight.
By turns thrilling, anguished, and sublime, Shostakovich’s cycle of 15 Quartets stands distinctly as an artist’s private testimony, a kind of intimate landscape set apart from the monumental public grandeur of the composer’s 15 Symphonies. (This premise also informs Wendy Lesser’s fine recent book on the quartets, “Music for Silenced Voices.”) Here, the Pacifica offers a duly hard-hitting account of the epochal war-shadowed Third Quartet, lending weight to a reminiscence from violist Fyodor Druzhinin quoted in the liner notes. After a private performance at Shostakovich’s home, Druzhinin recalled the notoriously inscrutable composer for once dropping all of his masks and sitting silently, “like a wounded bird, tears streaming down his face.”
For listeners already acquainted with these works, the Pacifica’s probing and sensitive account of the more overlooked Second Quartet may prove the revelation on this release. Happily, something of the Chicago festival’s wide-angle lens has also slipped into this recording project, as the Pacifica has been mixing other contemporary works into the Shostakovich brew. The current release features Prokofiev’s well-known String Quartet No. 2, written, like most of the other music here, in the 1940s. Even more valuably, the first volume of this set included Miaskovsky’s Quartet No. 13 — a piece riveting enough to make you wonder where it’s been hiding.
SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphonies Nos. 2
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko, conductor
The seventh entry in Vasily Petrenko’s outstanding sequence of Shostakovich symphonies pairs two works that stand at opposing poles of Shostakovich’s creative life but present similar interpretive puzzles. The Second Symphony, written to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution, begins with music as modernistic as anything Shostakovich ever wrote but ends in a bombastic choral setting of Leninist agitprop poetry. The Fifteenth Symphony, the composer’s last, swerves from an almost giddy sense of play to death-haunted musings to a bleak serenity; along the way Shostakovich mixes in enigmatic allusions to Rossini and Wagner. In both pieces, esteem for the music sits alongside bafflement at what these pieces mean, and what they say about the composer’s elusive inner life.
The performances contain no such enigmas. Petrenko, who conducted the Boston Symphony in a terrific performance of the Shostakovich Tenth in 2009, and the Liverpool orchestra give accounts of both works that teem with energy and fresh insights. Petrenko is especially good at reconciling the two sides of the Second Symphony, making as convincing a case as can be made for it. In the Fifteenth he takes the childhood innocence out of the first movement and instead makes it sound brooding and sinister — it’s a dark but deeply compelling vision of the piece. The orchestra’s lower brass are especially impressive. This cycle is shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory.
HOLST: “The Planets”
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Bernard Herrmann, conductor
(Decca Eloquence, 2 CDs)
This is the best performance of Gustav Host's “The Planets” I have heard — and no, “Bernard Herrmann” is not a typo for “Bernard Haitink.” The recording came out on LP in 1970, as a Decca Phase 4 recording, and I’ve been waiting for the CD release since CDs were invented.
It’s not the best played “Planets” ever, or the best recorded. But it may be the slowest and most expansive. Everything has not only weight but also thought. “Mars” achieves juggernaut status via logic rather than speed, with a touch of hysteria from the podium, as befits the composer of the film scores for “Vertigo,” “Psycho,” and “Obsession.” “Venus” is lush and sensual, “Mercury” thoughtful as well as volatile. The big hymn tune in the middle of “Jupiter” just keeps getting bigger; by the end it’s almost tragic.
The second disc of this bargain-priced set offers shorter Holst works from a variety of conductors and ensembles. The highlight is Sir Adrian Boult’s somber, implacable, 1961 traversal of “Egdon Heath,” Holst’s 1927 tribute to the protagonist of Thomas Hardy’s “The Return of the Native.” The novel’s first chapter, a description of Egdon, is titled “A Face on Which Time Makes But Little Impression,” and that sums up Boult’s reading, which is direct and full of activity yet somehow timeless. “The Perfect Fool,” “A Moorside Suite,” “St. Paul's Suite,” “A Fugal Concerto,” and the Opus 28 Suites for Wind Ensemble round out this welcome release.