Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH”


Sony Classical 19439809212

I first came to know these Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 (1950-1) in the recording by Keith Jarrett on ECM some years ago (1992). At the time I was not familiar with this post-Bach set of compositions (one might even call it a “meme”) written to showcase the newly codified “Well Tempered Tuning” but I was intrigued by Jarrett’s choices of repertoire. Not surprisingly, I immediately liked this gargantuan undertaking. I appreciated these pieces as listenable, stimulating musical compositions and a good choice of repertoire by the always interesting Mr. Jarrett. Many pianists have recorded this cycle of works though I can’t recall a recital of the entire set being performed live as occurs fairly frequently with the Bach cycles (he wrote two sets of 24 preludes and fugues in each of the 24 keys of the western musical scale).

Readers of this blog may recall my fawning over an earlier Levit release, a 3 disc set of piano variations containing Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” (1741), Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” (1819-23), and Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” (1975). I asserted that Sony, whose recording (1955) of Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations helped elevate that work into the popular repertoire, had at least implied that these three large sets of variations are musically on the same level of significance thus potentially elevating the Rzewski piece to the more mainstream repertory.

Now comes yet another 3 disc set from this fine Russian/German pianist who seems to be possessed of vision as well as virtuosity and interpretive skills. Levit is clearly comfortable with the “usual suspects”, the common repertoire of live piano recitals (Beethoven’s Sonatas, Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Liszt, etc.) but is clearly interested in expanding the general repertoire by discovering lesser known works that he finds deserve to be heard more often. A quick look at the pianists other releases reveals a similar pattern even in works of a less grand scale than those discussed in this essay.

Anselm Cybinski’s fine liner notes derive from his reading of history, Shostakovich’s and Stevenson’s biographies, and his conversations with Mr. Levit. Here he describes what Shostakovich was enduring in the years when he brought forth these compositions, post WWII, life in the repressive Stalinist regime, recent censure by said regime, and his attempts to be return from this censure and be allowed to have his works performed again. He relates the story of the then 21 year old Tatiana Nikolayeva who premiered this work and played it before the committee. He also sketches the impact of various historical events on Shostakovich and his music.

The preludes are described as emotional responses to these varied events, a sort of exorcising of the emotional turmoil these events had on the composer. He describes in these notes the contexts which clearly impact the pianist in his understanding and subsequent interpretation of this music, contexts which help the listener grasp the deeper levels of meaning inherent (or at least implied) in these works.

He does the same with the Stevenson work, itself a response to the sufferings of a fellow artist, a sort of artistic dialogue analogous to that of songwriters and other musicians who used their art to make a point (Lynyrd Skynyrd writing, “Sweet Home Alabama” in response to Neil Young’s, “Southern Man” or Leonard Bernstein’s performance of Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War” concurrently with the second inaugural concert for Richard Nixon as a political counterpoint are two such examples), not the same situations perhaps but artistic dialogues nonetheless.

Apparently Ronald Stevenson (1928-1915) wrote his gargantuan “Passacaglia on DSCH” in 1960 as a tribute to his fellow composer. There are many examples of Shostakovich using the German note spelling of “D”, “Es” (pronounced, “S”), “C”, “H” (German notation for “B”) all of which translates to the actual notes of D, E flat, C, B as a motif in his work so Stevenson’s use of it is quite apt.

This Passacaglia is a work which I had “known of” but never heard before hearing this recording. It is a marvelous work, not exactly easy listening but a very satisfying work which improves with subsequent hearings, revealing itself as a multi-layered masterpiece. And it is Levit’s vision that effectively gives this work, and the Shostakovich cycle a significant and, thanks again to Sony, a very large public nudge to get this music heard and played more often.

No doubt many reviewers will spend time comparing the various recordings of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues and the Stevenson Passacaglia. For the record I did a quick search and found four recordings of the Stevenson work and at least 12 complete recordings of the Shostakovich. However, for the purposes of this review I will leave discussion of the merits and shortcomings of the various interpretations to people better qualified than I. The takeaway I hope to share with my readers is, “Get this set and enjoy it” and to musicians and producers, “Pay attention to Igor Levit’s artistic radar”.

Jason Vieaux with the Escher Quartet


 

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Though this album was actually released a few months before the Sharon Isbin recording containing, purely by chance, two of the same guitar quintets is perhaps an indicator that these quintets are making their way into the active performing repertoire.  I’m not really interested in the differences between the two recordings but I am interested in hearing two of the finest guitarists working today finding the two works on their respective radars at more or less the same time.

The present disc with Jason Vieaux (whose fine work has been reviewed elsewhere in this blog) and the Escher Quartet begins (as Isbin’s does) with the inconceivably little known masterpiece, the Guitar Quintet Op. 148 (1950) of Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968).  The composer’s style sounds pretty much mid-century post romantic with a wealth of Spanish references.  The high romanticism of the quintet format (compare Schubert’s Trout Quintet, Brahms and Schumann’s Piano Quintets) is well served here in an incredibly engaging work which makes significant demands on the musicians but is musically very transparent to the listener.  It is a wonder that this piece is not better known and, for that matter, that the rest of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s output is not being explored in a big way.

The second work here also deserves more hearings.  Aaron Jay Kernis’ (1960- ) 100 Greatest Dance Hits is another piece which can be described as post romantic and audience friendly.  Kernis uses some extended techniques like using the instruments percussively at times but its basically a consonant melodic experience.  It’s scoring for guitar and string quartet keep the listener in basically the same sound world and, except for Kernis’ curious titlings, this is a guitar quintet in all but name.  And the use of dance forms is a tradition that goes back at least the baroque era.  Like the opening work, it is cast in four movements.

Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) is a prolific Italian composer who spent a great deal of creative life in Spain and, as a result, has incorporated Spanish rhythms and idioms into his work.  This contemporary of Mozart and Haydn shares a similar late classical style.  The last work here is another four movement Guitar Quintet (1793), the fourth of nine he wrote and probably the best known.  The only difference between this rendition and the one by Isbin and the Pacifica Quartet is the absence of castanets in the fandango last movement.  In fact that may be one of the hooks for completists who want to hear what it sounds like in its original version (both work very well).

The performances are all full of enthusiasm and seemingly easy virtuosity that one expects from musicians of this caliber.  If you are stumped as to which one of these to get I think the only reasonable answer is, of course, both.

 

 

The Ecstasy of Enjoyment: Sharon Isbin with the Pacifica Quartet


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Cedille CDR 9000 190

I was delighted to have had the opportunity to speak with guitarist Sharon Isbin (1956-) about this fine album.  She appeared to be in the midst of a queue of interviewers set up by her press corps but she came across as a confident, relaxed, and skilled interviewee and a gracious person with a palpable passion for music.  Listening to this latest release and having a more than passing interest in this fine musician it is a joy to see her getting recognition.

Originally from the Midwest, Isbin actually began her studies in Italy where her nuclear scientist father was working as a consultant.  Her studies in Varese, Italy began at age 9 with Aldo Minella.  She also counts among her teachers Andre Segovia, Alirio Diaz, and Oscar Ghiglia among her many teachers.

Most curiously she spent time studying Bach with none other than pianist Rosalyn Tureck during the time she was working on her landmark recording of the Bach Lute Suites.  Isbin stated, “I don’t play piano and Tureck doesn’t play guitar but I wanted her insights into the preparation of this music.”  Apparently this collaborative scholarship resulted in the publication (by G. Schirmer) of two of these suites originally written for lute.

As an academic, Isbin is all about research, fact checking, and collaboration and this clearly pays off as listeners will be delighted to find.  But she is also the founder of the Guitar Department at the venerable Julliard School, a department which this year celebrates 30 years hosting students from 20 countries and, this year, establishing a DMA in guitar performance.  Her first graduate, Australian guitarist Alberta Khoury, is the first recipient of this degree.

Asked about being THE musician to start the guitar department at Julliard she related that Segovia had proposed the idea some years ago and was rejected but that she was actually asked to start the department.  An example, perhaps, of the student transcending the teacher.

Isbin plays a great deal of guitar music but, unlike many in her field, she has shown interest and devotion to music of our time as well.  In fact she estimates having at least 80 scores and arrangements either commissioned by her or dedicated to her.  It was with her recording “American Landscapes” featuring concerti commissioned from Lukas Foss, John Corigliano, and Tan Dun that first brought this artist to this reviewer’s attention.  She is the recipient of three Grammys (and this album may very well earn her a fourth).

Regarding the present release, Isbin spoke of the process of preparation involved with this music.  The Pacifica Quartet had been in residence at the University of Chicago and this was the connection (Cedille is a Chicago based, Chicago friendly label) that allowed her collaboration to appear of this fine record label.

She also spoke of the serendipitous discovery of finding that the composer’s granddaughter, Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco, actually lived near her in New York.  They began discussions and Isbin was able to view and work directly with the manuscript of the Quintet which opens the disc.  Asked about the fact that this very quintet had been recorded about a year ago by Jason Vieaux, Isbin replied that it was pure coincidence but that this piece was considered by the composer to be his finest work of chamber music.

The Italian composer, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) was born in Italy but was forced to flee the Nazis and was able, with the sponsorship of Jascha Heifetz (then a recently minted citizen himself), to come to the United States in 1939 just before the outbreak of WWII.  In fact, his family suffered a similar indignity in 1492 when they were forced from their native Spain when the Alhambra Edict forced the expulsion of Jews from the country.  The composer’s curious hyphenated name, according to Isbin, resulted when a dying friend who had no progeny asked that the composer somehow incorporate his name.  This is both sweetly romantic and evocative of the sensitivities of the man himself.

The Guitar Quintet Op. 143 (1950) is a grand romantic and virtuosic work that deserves to be heard.  It is difficult to imagine an audience not being thrilled by this music.  It is cast in four movements like a classical work (allegro, andante, scherzo, finale).  From the beginning the listener is carried along by beautiful melodies and clever collaborations between the strings and the guitar.  Isbin related that superscriptions on the score saying, “Souvenir of Spain” gave the idea for the title of this album.

This is followed by one of the most recognizable guitar concertos, the Concerto in D Major for guitar and strings by Antonio Vivaldi written about 1730.  The original is written for lute and Isbin uses an edition for guitar by Emilio Pujol with gorgeous ornamentation consistent with late baroque practice added by the present performer.  This performance is with guitar, violin, viola, and cello (no second violin) but manages to make a big sound.  This work is a personal favorite and, unlike the other works on the album, extremely well known and loved by this reviewer.  My baseline favorite recording of this piece will probably always be Julian Bream’s performance on this RCA recording but Isbin’s scholarship provides a fascinating perspective on this work.  So basically I now have two favorite recordings.

Next up is the only piece on the album where the Pacifica Quartet plays without guitar.  Joaquin Turina (1882-1949) is more or less a contemporary of Castelnuovo-Tedesco.  Offered here is Oración del Torero Op. 34 (1925).  Curiously this work was written originally for four lutes or string quartet.  Only the quartet version seems to get much play though the lute version might be interesting as well.  This work, which translates into English as “Bullfighter’s Prayer” is essentially a miniature tone poem whose drama takes on almost cinematic dimensions in its just over 7 minutes.  The Pacifica Quartet does a potent job of delivering an engaging performance.  The Pacifica consists of Simin Ganatra, first violin; Austin Hartman, second violin; Mark Holloway, viola; and Brandon Vamos, cello.  They are based at Indiana University.

Last and certainly not least is another major Quintet by an Italian composer, Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805).  His dates make him a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, though he was born in Italy, many of his productive years were spent in Spain where he enjoyed royal patronage.  He was a prolific composer who has experienced a significant interest in the 20th century.

He wrote no less than 9 Quintets for guitar and string quartet and this one, in D Major G. 448 dates from about 1798 and is the best known of his works for this combination.  It has the rather unusual attribute of having a percussionist (one Eduardo Leandro) improvise on castanets and tambourine in the last movement, fandango.

The work is cast in three movements (pastorale, allegro, grave assai-fandango) and will remind the listener of Haydn, Mozart, and/or early Beethoven.  The music is both familiar and very entertaining.  The castanets do not appear to be included in the original score and one can find recordings without them but they really rock that last movement.

This is another triumph for Ms. Isbin and a feather in the caps of the Pacifica Quartet.  It is sonically spectacular album as well having employed the producer/engineer team of Judith Sherman and Bill Maylone.  They achieve a lucid and warm sound field with an appropriately dry resonance that makes for an intimate listening experience which reveals the details the musicians coax from the score.  Get this one, you’ll play it often.