Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Shostakovich: Ballet Suites; Film Music (Maxim Shostakovich)

Shostakovich: Ballet Suites Nos.1 - 3 (arr. Atovmyan); Suites from the ballets The Golden Age and The Bolt; Suites from the film music for Zoya and Pirogov
Bolshoi Theater Chorus and Orchestra/Maxim Shostakovich
Veneziya CDVE 04350 | Stereo ADD (2 CDs)
MP3 @ 320 kbps | WAV+CUE (no scans included)

"The apple doesn't fall far from the tree"--or so the old saying goes. But what becomes of the apple when it languishes in the shadow of the tree? Being groomed to take over the family business is difficult enough. But never is it more difficult when the family business is headed by a patriarch who enjoys great fame and popularity. Just ask Soulima Stravinsky. Some--like the Bach boys or Johann Strauss, Jr.--are able to thrive and sometimes even outstrip their father in popularity and talent. Others are less lucky, consigned to being the Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozarts of the world. Some are able to make a distinguished name for themselves. Perhaps not matching the father in talent or ability, but still able to make a valuable contribution to the world. Maxim Shostakovich is one such musician.

During his youth, Maxim was a freewheeling sort who enjoyed going to parties and imbibing of spirits. Not the sort to dedicate himself singlemindedly to the family craft as was the wont of father Dmitri, Maxim was more comfortable hanging out with friends and listening to the latest American jazz--and a new musical genre known as "rock". Dmitri wasn't very pleased with this at all. Dmitri would complain to his friend, Isaak Glikman, over Maxim's eccentric behavior; his "vulgar" taste in music. Maxim's teachers and fellow students at the Moscow Conservatory weren't exactly brimming with praise for young Maxim. Rumors swirled at the Conservatory over Maxim's talent; how he passed his exams merely because of who his father was. There might be some truth to that. After all, the piano part for the Piano Concerto No.2 or the Concertino for Two Pianos--both pieces written expressly for Maxim--aren't exactly knuckle-busting, virtuoso showpieces.

In the end, it was as a conductor that he would make his fame. He would study under Nikolai Anosov, the father of Gennady Rozhdestvensky. According to the reminiscences of people who knew both Dmitri and his son, Maxim barely passed his final exams, and even then only through the reputation of his surname. Soon after graduating, Maxim was hired by the USSR Symphony Orchestra as one of its guest conductors. At the USSR Symphony, Maxim began applying himself harder and began to take his career seriously. He eventually earned the praise of his father for his fine performances of Mahler's symphonies. Maxim was eventually entrusted with the first performance of his father's Symphony No.15--and he was equal to the task. His Melodiya recording of the symphony, still unavialble on CD today (but easily obtainable thanks to Maready's transfer over at his High Pony Tail Blog), is still the one to beat. Maxim would go on to make some good recordings of his father's music--including a powerful and bracing interpretation of the Symphony No.5. He even recorded works by other composers, including Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and his father's friend, Weinberg. Since his defection to the west in 1981, Maxim has made a solid reputation for himself as an interpreter of his father's music. His recent Supraphon cycle of Dmitri's symphonies was very satisfying, with some knock-out performances of Symphonies Nos.1, 6, 9, and 15. At his best, Maxim is an unfussy conductor of his father's music. Never one to dawdle over certain passages or pull taffy with tempi, Maxim's interpretations are clear and direct. Much, I like to think, how his father would've wanted it.

This 2 CD set of Shostakovich's Ballet Suites and film music is a treasure. If you have yet to hear the Ballet Suites, do give this a listen. This is Shostakovich at his most genial and witty. Much credit must be given to the man who compiled and arranged these suites: Levon Atovmyan. Atovmyan is the man responsible for not only arranging these ballet Suites. He also arranged most of Shostakovich's film scores into concert suites. As much as I love Shostakovich's original work, these Atovmyan arrangements are even better. Much of the material used in the Ballet Suites was salvaged from one of Shostakovich's most unipsired works, the ballet The Limpid Stream. Comparing the original ballet numbers against Atovmyan's versions makes for some interesting listening. Atovmyan was able to polish to very pretty gleam material that was uncharacteristically opaque and bland for Shostakovich. Aside from producing more sparkling orchestrations, Atovmyan modified much of his material extensively, transposing and rearranging works as he saw fit. Listening to Shostakovich's originals, this was no small task for Atovmyan. Shostakovich himself took note and approved of Atovmyan's arrangements.

The suites from the ballets The Golden Age and The Bolt are Shostakovich's own original work. These suites need no introduction as they are very well known to concert audiences. Some curious modification of the orchestration is audible in the Polka from The Golden Age. But the music's goofy humor still shines through.

Shostakovich's love/hate relationship with writing music for film is well known. But listening to these brilliant film suites, one could hardly tell that he rarely enjoyed his work in film. Shostakovich's film music is gaining wider acceptance these days and rightfully so. This is the composer at his crowd pleasing best: bright orchestrations, beautiful melodies, evocative moods, and his trademark wit abound here. Especially lovely is the waltz from the film Pirogov. Also a stunning piece is the swirling, perpetuum mobile scherzo from that same film. In a way, these film scores, while not Shostakovich at his most daring or profound, show of some of the most appealing aspects of his musicianship. Many another composer would have settled for just phoning-in a bland soundtrack. But Shostakovich, despite his misgivings about film work, treated his tasks with total professionalism, producing music of great vibrancy and color.

This recording of his father's ballet and film music has some of the best qualities that Maxim brings to his father's music. It is clear-cut, propulsive, but without ever feeling pushed. He simply lets the music flow from him, all the while keeping the music's corners nicely starched. Granted, this isn't music that requires extraordinary depth from a performer or taxing virtuosity from an orchestra. While some may prefer a little more nuance in these pieces, Maxim's directness is very enjoyable. Fans of the old Soviet orchestras will find much to enjoy here. The brass vibrato on these recordings is as wide as the old Soviet Union itself. The Russian players' ensemble is also a bit unruly, but they make ample amends with their sheer panache.

This set from the Russian label Veneziya is sadly unavialable in America and, I believe, Western Europe. Veneziya's transfers are no-nonsense transfers that--for better or worse--replicate with fidelity the eccentric engineering of the original Melodiya tapes. Climaxes can be painful to listen as the sound tends to break up at those points.

For sheer beauty of sound and ensemble, Neeme Järvi's classic Chandos recordings of the Ballet Suites are a must have. But for the collector and Shostakovich enthusiast, there is much here to enjoy. A very fascinating document of warts-and-all Soviet era music making.

Maxim Shostakovich interviewing his father; rehearsing for the premiere of his father's Symphony No.15.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Why, hello there!

Welcome to my new blog. It has been awhile, yes. But enough of that--here we are again. I'll be updating this site about once a week. I may upload some of my old stuff in lossless in the future. But the next few things I have ready will be new. Hope you all enjoy this new blog.

By the way, my girl is coming back sometime in December. So expect a hiatus in updating between mid December and late January. I'll be uploading something next week that should make a lot of people happy. It certainly made me happy to finally obtain it. See you all soon! :3