BT Shostakovich

0 of 5 stars

Chamber Symphony in C minor Op.110a (arr. Barshai from String Quartet No.8)
Concerto in C minor for piano, trumpet and strings, Op.35
Two pieces for string octet, Op.11

Sophia Rahman (piano)
John Wallace (trumpet)
BT Scottish Ensemble
Clio Gould (director/violin)

Recorded March 1998 at City Halls, Glasgow

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: September 2002

In the year that the BT Scottish Ensemble made its Prom debut, it is good to review a fairly recent disc that shows off the best qualities of this small group; especially to ram home the notion that London simply attracts the best musicians is pure nonsense. The BT Scottish Ensemble is clearly worth travelling to hear.

This CD reflects the Janus-like facets of Shostakovich’s work – the irrepressible and perhaps frivolous shenanigans of the concerto, written for himself to play, and the harrowing, intense string quartet, here given in Rudolf Barshai’s expanded string version. Any qualms that this is not echt-Shostakovich can be quashed immediately; Barshai worked on this adaptation (and subsequently those of the third, fourth and tenth quartets) with the knowledge and co-operation of the composer, who even suggested the title of Chamber Symphony.

Barshai’s own recordings of all four opuses, 73a, 83a, 110a and 118a, with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe for DG, were made with middle-strength forces (3 double basses, 5 cellos, 6 violas, 8 second violins, 10 firsts), whereas Clio Gould’s forces in total just 11. The immediate advantage is the retention of Shostakovich’s intimacy and, especially for a conductorless ensemble, the sense of collective responsibility. For some the attack of the middle movements might lack a bit of weight, but the recording’s natural acoustic sonorously accommodates the sombre opening and closing as well as the more agitated outbursts.

The Piano Concerto with its Rossinian quips comes as light relief.Curiously (and no disrespect to Sophia Rahman), the trumpet soloist is the star name: John Wallace, effortlessly conjuring up Shostakovich the clown. Bright and clear, Rahman negotiates the solo part with admirable nimbleness, and again it is the responsive chamber-like qualities of the music-making that come to the fore. The trumpet may be a touch too loud for the acoustic.

The two string octet works are from Shostakovich’s student days. The Prelude may be difficult to immediately identify him – the solo Bachian lines and the building of chords seem more Germanic – although the Scherzo offers more clues, even though its frenetic opening suddenly reverts to the slow vein of the Prelude, with descending glissandi that foreshadow, by some 60 years, Schnittke!

This is a well-played, worthwhile and intelligently planned disc that may, unfortunately, pass people by. Regrettably the notes mention virtually nothing about the genesis of the string orchestra version of the Eighth Quartet – Barshai’s name is simply annotated in the title tracking. Also, barely a mention is made of the quartet’s composition while Shostakovich was in Dresden in 1960, seemingly affected by the destruction and victims of war and fascism (the counter-claims in Volkov’s book “Testimony” – about it being a commentary on the soviet system – are better elaborated). This is important because it explains the cover photograph – an appalling scene of the allied bombers’ handiwork that ruined Dresden (I am writing this after seeing footage of the recent flooding in the city, causing massive damage to the lovingly restored buildings). Such a cover-picture is at odds with the witty nature of the concerto. I can’t help thinking it will have put off a number of purchasers who would derive much pleasure from this varied disc. I’m not advocating the BT Scottish Ensemble in wet T-shirt poses, rather something that reflects this CD’s wide appeal on the crowded shelves of your local store.

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