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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.54 (1939) [31:22]
Sinfonietta, Op.110b (String Quartet No.8, arr. for string orchestra and timpani by Abram Stasevich) [25:04]
Estonian Festival Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. 2016/17, Pärnu Concert Hall, Pärnu (Estonia). DDD.
ALPHA 389 [56:28]

We learn from a note by Paavo Järvi in the booklet that there’s a bit of a story behind this disc. He relates that Pärnu is “a quiet seaside resort on the Baltic cost, south of Tallinn”. Here the Järvi family would take their summer holidays each year when Paavo was growing up. This was the period of what he tellingly refers to as the [Soviet] “occupation” and a number of Soviet artists would visit Pärnu for their vacations, among them Shostakovich. In 1973 the ten-year-old Paavo and his father, Neeme, met Shostakovich at Pärnu and a photograph of that meeting is reproduced in the booklet.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Estonia regained its independence the Järvi family were able to return to their own country from the USA and Neeme Järvi established a conducting Masterclass Academy at Pärnu; in 2011 this expanded into a festival and at the same time the Estonian Festival Orchestra (EFO) came into being. The EFO consists of young Estonian musicians playing side-by-side with established musicians from around the world. This disc is the EFO’s debut recording and Paavo Järvi explains that the choice of Shostakovich’s music reflects the Soviet master’s links to Pärnu.

Järvi’s account of the Sixth symphony opens auspiciously; there’s fine sonority from the lower-range instruments as they intone the long, searching melody with which the work begins. Indeed, throughout the performance the playing of the EFO is very fine in all departments. I think Järvi paces this movement pretty well throughout, sustaining tension, which isn’t always easy, and also thrusting home the intense climaxes. One reason that it’s a challenge to sustain tension is the many episodes where the music is very sparse in texture, relying on one or two instruments to sustain the melodic argument over very spare accompaniment. In this respect the movement seems to me to prefigure the opening movement of the Eleventh symphony and Järvi’s performance often put me in mind of that later symphony. He and his orchestra evoke very well the glacial aspect of the music and at times I was put in mind of late Sibelius. I think Järvi paces and controls this movement intelligently and successfully. For a comparison I turned to the recording by Vasily Petrenko and the RLPO. I found much to admire in that performance when I reviewed it. However, I’ve come to think that Petrenko is perhaps too expansive in the first movement, which in his hands plays for 19:45. Järvi gives the music the time it needs to make its mark but his performance is just a bit more taut than Petrenko and, revealingly, his overall timing of 18:23 is pretty close to two other recordings I much admire: Bernard Haitink’s1983 Decca recording ,which plays for 17:47 (review), and Kurt Sanderling’s 1970 account with the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester, which takes 18:55.

The symphony is a curious construct in that the long, brooding Largo is then followed by two much shorter movements in quick tempo. Tart, agile woodwinds launch Järvi’s performance of the second movement, Allegro. Much of this movement is forceful, even strident, and the EFO projects the music very strongly. The following Presto movement is given a high-energy reading in which Shostakovich’s brash, sardonic writing is delivered with panache. Petrenko doesn’t quite match Järvi’s fleetness of foot here; furthermore, the sound on his recording has the orchestra rather more distanced than we experience in the Alpha recording; as a result the Petrenko performance doesn’t have as much of the essential bite in comparison with the Järvi performance.

I think that this Järvi performance of the Sixth is a pretty fine one. The conductor has the measure of the score and his orchestra really delivers. The engineers have captured the performance in a recording which has presence and impact.

The coupling is something of a curiosity. Many readers will know of the arrangement for string orchestra which Rudolf Barshai made of the Eighth String Quartet. I believe that this was done with the composer’s approval and, indeed, it’s referred to as Op 110a. Prior to receiving this disc I was unaware of the existence of a second arrangement of the quartet. This was made by Abram Stasevich, who Paavo Järvi describes as Shostakovich’s “trusted friend”. He adds that the orchestration was undertaken “with the composer’s personal blessing”. It’s noteworthy that Stasevich’s version was also allocated an opus number, Op 110b . Lacking a score of either this arrangement or the one by Barshai, I can’t say to what extent the respective arrangements for strings may differ from each other but the Stasevich version has one crucial point of difference: he adds a part for timpani, here played by Madis Metsamart, who is clearly a very accomplished timpanist. I find it intriguing that Shostakovich apparently sanctioned two arrangements of the same work. The Stasevich dates from 1961, a year after the harrowing quartet was unveiled in its original form. I don’t know when the Barshai arrangement was made: which came first?

I’ve heard the Barshai arrangement in a very fine performance indeed (review). There are gains and losses from arranging a string quartet for a larger body of strings. One loses the intimacy and, in the case of the Eighth Quartet at least – some of the astringency. On the other hand, a larger body of strings adds considerable weight and transforms what was almost a confessional work into a very public document. I have to say that I’m not sure that Stasevich’s addition of timpani achieves very much and in one respect I think it actually detracts. In the first, third and fifth movements of the work his use of the drums is extremely restrained. The timpani are much more prominent in the other two movements, both of which are in fast tempi and forceful in nature. My chief reservation concerns the fourth movement. Those who know the quartet will recall that the course of this movement is punctuated on many occasions by a graphic three-chord figure. On almost every occasion that this figure is heard Stasevich reinforces the strings with fortissimo timpani strokes. These add to the drama – though is such an addition needed any way? – but my concern is that the drum strokes render all-but inaudible the harmony of the chords. I think that’s a miscalculation. In any case, the strings of the EFO really don’t need any reinforcement. Their playing in the two quick movements has searing power. If anything, the strings are even more impressive in the subdued slow movements with which the work begins and ends. The performance of the opening Largo, very well shaped by Järvi, is oppressively brooding. The profound lament, permeated with the DSCH motto, that is the closing Largo is marvellously done here: Järvi and his players offer a searching account of the music. Despite my reservations over the use of the timpani in the arrangement, this is a fine performance and the use of a string orchestra brings a different dimension to one of Shostakovich’s most bleak and introverted works.

The playing time of this disc is a little on the parsimonious side, though the quality of the performances acts as a mitigating factor. The engineering is very good: in both works the music is reported truthfully. The booklet offers an essay by the conductor and a biography of him in four languages as well as a selection of colour photographs besides the black-and-white picture of Järvi and his father with Shostakovich to which I referred earlier. Järvi’s essay is valuable. However, it’s a pity that Alpha couldn’t have found room for a note about the music per se, which would be helpful to someone who buys this disc knowing little about one or both works.

Overall, though, this is a strong addition to the Shostakovich discography.

John Quinn

Previous review: Brian Wilson



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