Of the recent small-scale recording companies I have encountered since I began writing about CDs, the most interesting may well be Musical Concepts. This is due, in part, to the clarity of their mission statement, succinctly declared on their Web site:
Musical Concepts brings the music-listening public exceptional value with a select line of high-quality classical repertoire carefully chosen from the vast array of first class recordings from independent labels and artists. In addition to reissuing urgently worthy titles, Musical Concepts is also engaged in producing new repertoire with a new dimension.
In other words they supplement the production of new repertoire with the reissuing of “urgently worthy titles” that might otherwise fall into neglect. Many of those titles come from the massive vinyl libraries of Vox and Vanguard and include, among other things, a complete edition of all the Vanguard Classics recordings made by Alfred Deller.
I first discovered Musical Concepts (and wrote about them on my San Francisco site) through their release of one of my own most treasured vinyls, a recording on their alto label of the entire Opus 1 of Niccolò Paganini, the 24 caprices for solo violin, performed by Ruggiero Ricci. This was originally released on Vox in 1975, although my copy was on their subsequent budget Turnabout label. More recently, however, Musical Concepts has also begun to include reissues of recordings originally released as CDs. One of these is a splendid account of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 43 symphony in C minor (his fourth) with Rudolf Barshai conducting the WDR (West German Radio) Symphony Orchestra, a reissue of the second recording included in the Brilliant Classics eleven-CD box set of the complete symphonies. The recordings for this release were originally made at the Philharmonie in Köln (Cologne) in April and June of 1996.
1996 is a bit recent for a “vintage” recording; but, by virtue of Barshai’s background, it is a significant document. Barshai originally established his reputation as a violist. He was a founding member of the Borodin Quartet in 1945 (an ensemble that established themselves for their performances of Shostakovich’s string quartets); and he also performed in a string trio with violinist Leonid Kogan and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. He began his move to conducting when he founded the Moscow Chamber Orchestra in 1955; and with that ensemble he performed (with the composer’s approval) his own arrangement of Shostakovich’s Opus 110, the eighth string quartet in C minor, which is now known as the C minor chamber symphony, Opus 110a. Following his emigration to the West in 1977, he undertook a variety of performing commitments but also worked on a performing version of Gustav Mahler’s tenth symphony, released as a Brilliant Classics recording.
As I have previously observed, Mahler was one of Shostakovich’s favorite composers; and Opus 43 is often cited as the first work that reflects Mahler’s influence. There is thus much to be gained from a recording by a conductor whose understanding of Mahler can be matched by his intense personal working relationship with Shostakovich. Indeed, beyond the surface-level features of a sardonic “tone of voice” (one assumes that Shostakovich did not have to turn to Mahler to find this in his own voice), there is an almost outrageous boldness of dissonance that can possibly be traced back to the first movement of Mahler’s tenth, the movement from that symphony that Shostakovich most likely would have known when working on Opus 43.
Thus, one cannot underestimate the significance of the background knowledge that Barshai brought with him in preparing the WDR Symphony Orchestra for this recording. The result is always stimulating; and the dissonances are absolutely bone-chilling. As to the sardonic qualities, presumably, while working on this symphony, Shostakovich knew that trouble was brewing over the reception of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Whether he anticipated that this trouble would lead to his having to “voluntarily” withdraw the premiere of Opus 43 in conjunction with denunciation of the Communist Party can only be speculated, but Opus 43 is definitely not the work of an optimistic composer.
Earlier this year I wrote enthusiastically about the release of a recording of this symphony with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Two releases of this particular symphony in a single year is an embarrassment of riches, particularly for those fascinated by Shostakovich. However, for all the virtues of Salonen’s interpretation, this Barshai recording is based on an extensive foundation of personal experience; and Musical Concepts should be praised for keeping it in circulation.