Yesterday I praised Musical Concepts for their mission to reissue “urgently worthy titles,” providing, as a case in point, the revival of a recording of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 43 symphony in C minor (his fourth) with Rudolf Barshai conduction the WDR (West German Radio) Symphony Orchestra. This was a studio recording based on sessions in Köln (Cologne) in 1996. Today I would like to consider another recent reissue, this time taken from recordings made during a recital in Freiburg in June of 1985.
This recital featured the (still relatively young) violist Yuri Bashmet, accompanied by the far more seasoned pianist Sviatoslav Richter, one of those great “dynamic duo” recitals of the twentieth century, bringing together highly-informed interpreters from two generations. The program featured three twentieth-century composers with Benjamin Britten occupying the central position (probably just before the intermission) with his “Lachrymae: Reflections on a song of Dowland,” composed in 1950 for William Primrose (and later arranged for viola and string orchestra in 1976). This rather unorthodox approach to variations form followed the first viola sonata in Paul Hindemith’s Opus 11 collection of sonatas for violin, viola, and cello composed between 1917 and 1918, a sonata particularly distinguished for having both its second and final movements in variations form. The intermission was followed by a composer to whom Britten felt particularly close, Dmitri Shostakovich, represented by his Opus 147 sonata, his last completed work.
I have to confess that this is one of those occasions in which I know all of these compositions better through recitals I have attended, rather than through recordings. Indeed, by my records, I have heard both the Britten and Shostakovich selections twice and have been exposed to a fair amount of useful background information by several of the performers. I therefore wish to dispense with one minor quibble very quickly, which is that the booklet notes provided by Julian Haylock, written in 1987, run the entire gamut from inadequate to inaccurate. This is decidedly music for the serious listener with an inquisitive streak, but that streak will have to be satisfied by spending some productive time with Google!
I was also a bit jarred by the relatively rapid transition from the Britten to the Shostakovich in the recording, particularly since the intensity of the Britten needs to be relieved by the break of an intermission. That intensity owes much to Britten’s approach to variation, which is to deconstruct the theme, explore the pieces, and only really recognize the source at the conclusion. (He would apply this technique again to Dowland in 1963 with his “Nocturnal after John Dowland” for solo guitar.) To further complicate the structure, “Lachrymae” is actually based on two Dowland songs, primarily “If My Complaints Could Passions Move,” introduced at the beginning, but also “Flow My Tears,” which is actually the source for Dowland’s “Lachrymae” theme.
While Britten’s jigsaw-puzzle approach to variation is cerebrally fascinating, the listener should not feel obliged to concentrate on the puzzle itself. As is the case with “Nocturnal,” each “variation” may be regarded as a mood piece unto itself, making the entirety of “Lachrymae” a “reflective” journey through different expressive approaches to Dowland. This seems to be the priority that both Bashmet and Richter (who was a frequent visitor to Britten’s Aldeburgh festival) gave to their interpretation. Both viola and piano bring rich rhetorical perspectives to their respective parts; and, when things “come together” in a coda that finally reveals the “Dowland sound,” Bashmet and Richter settle into Britten’s “sense of an ending” with a calm resignation whose emotional connotations come across as “beyond tears.”
They bring similar connotations to their Shostakovich performance, particularly where the final movement is concerned. Not only was this Shostakovich’s last composition, but also fate contrived that he sent the completed manuscript to his publisher just days before his death on August 9, 1975. As I recently suggested in “examining” a performance of this sonata, this is music of Shostakovich confronting his own mortality. Part of that confrontation involves one last gesture of appropriation that involves not only his own fugue subject from the last of the Opus 87 collection of preludes and fugues but also the opening movement theme (if you can actually call it that) from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 27, Number 2 in C-sharp minor, the “Sonata quasi una Fantasia” (sonata almost a fantasia) best known as the “Moonlight.” In Shostakovich’s appropriation, however, this has less too do with the moonlight and more to do with the darkness broken by any light, a darkness that he now recognized as inevitable and perhaps even welcome.
In this context the Hindemith sonata establishes a “double connection” to what will follow, the sophisticated variations pointing to Britten and the opening “Fantasie” movement pointing to Shostakovich pointing to Beethoven. Nevertheless, this sonata has its own uniquely expressive voice, which is realized through the energetic interpretation provided by both Bashmet and Richter. Much of Hindemith’s theoretical work was directed at the pedagogy of performance, and the diversity of his sonatas indicate his seriousness of purpose. However, they also indicate that the results of pedagogical intentions should be enjoyable to perform and should admit of expressive interpretation (a precept that Hindemith shared with Johann Sebastian Bach). The listener can sense the extent to which both Bashmet and Richter took pleasure in approaching this sonata, making the music far more than dry pedagogy and introducing the entire recital as an imaginative exercise in programming.