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ARENSKY: Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky; TCHAIKOVSKY: Serenade in C Major for Strings; SHOSTAKOVICH: Chamber Symphony – New Moscow Ch. Orch./ Igor Shukow – Telos

ARENSKY: Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky, Op. 35a; TCHAIKOVSKY: Serenade in C Major for Strings, Op. 48; SHOSTAKOVICH: Chamber Symphony in C Minor, Op. 110a – New Moscow Chamber Orchestra/ Igor Shukow – Telos Music TLS 176, 77:71 (9/12/14) [Distr. by Naxos] ****: 

Igor Shukow (b. 1936), piano student of Emil Gilels and Heinrich Neuhaus, had enjoyed an independent career as a soloist before he established the New Moscow Chamber Orchestra in 1983, which was disbanded in 1994. Telos provides no recording dates for these performances, but they are designated as “live recordings.”

Anton Arensky set a song, “Legend,” Op. 54, No. 5 by Tchaikovsky, as a source of inspiration for the second movement of his First String Quartet, Op. 35 in 1893, later expanding the instrumentation in 1894.  After having imparted the theme to the full strings, Arensky proceeds to seven variations, of which the third utilizes flowing sixteenth notes that soon dissipate into a dialogue between violas and cellos.  The Andante episode proffers Arensky’s own capacity for sweet melody. The ensuing Allegro con spirito propels expressive leaps in the manner of a grand balletic scene, to yield an Andante con moto based on a melancholy implementation of the triad, expressive of valediction. Arensky exploits harmonics to reintroduce the original melody as the coda, now having become a chorale’s bidding goodbye – ritardando – to the master. Shukow’s nicely etched performance has maintained a dignified luxurious tone throughout.

Tchaikovsky’s 1880 Serenade for Strings in C expresses the composer’s unconditional reverence for Mozart, though in the last movement it concedes to Tchaikovsky’s Russian roots by quoting from two folk songs, “On the Green Meadow” and “Under the Green Apple Tree,” respectively. Tchaikovsky himself described the piece as “something between a symphony and a string quintet,” also stipulating, “the larger the string orchestra, the more the composer’s intentions will be realized.”  Shukow does not try to out-size Yevgeny Mravinsky in this performance, maintaining a broad, symphonic sound that never sacrifices immediate intimacy.  The polyphony of the opening movement’s Allegro moderato section enjoys a shimmering clarity of lines.

A leisurely gait defines the G Major Valse movement, lingering on the chordal progressions before easing, diminuendo, into the original lilt.  Some lovely contrasts in texture ensue between the high violins and low basses. The exquisite control in this movement will remind connoisseurs of the classic renditions by Koussevitzky and Furtwaengler.  The inspired Elegia in D Major constitutes the heart of the work, a wringing expression of Tchaikovsky’s potent lyricism, “out of my own inner impulses,” as he put it in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck.  The initial drone of the last movement gathers lush harmonies into its contours, soon dispensing the rhythm that well conveys a Cossack dance, Allegro con spirito.  The plucked string imitate a balalaika band over which the folk song gathers fervent momentum. Shukow insists on searing attacks and illuminated stretti in the course of this convincing reading, which ends cyclically, with the first movement’s melancholy opening once more resonating before its final merger into Russian dynamics that prove so compelling.

Violist and conductor Rudolf Barshai (1924-2010) of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra received from Dmitri Shostakovich “authorization” to transcribe the Eighth String Quartet (1960) for full string orchestra. The tragic C Minor of the work has often gleaned the epithet, “Dresden Quartet,” to commemorate that city’s destruction during WW II by saturation bombing. With shifts into E Major and E Minor, the work becomes increasingly autobiographical, quoting – often in anguish – from diverse opera in the Shostakovich canon.  The four-note motto – or fate – theme proves an anagram on the composer’s name.

Structurally, the work absorbs influences from both Beethoven and Bartok, even quoting germs from late Beethoven quartets. The G Minor Allegretto presents an eerie waltz that Liszt might enjoy, but it soon divides into dark counterpoint that quotes the Cello Concerto No. 1.  The cellos lead to the C-sharp Minor Largo, a sad recollection of one of Lenin’s favorite songs, “Exhausted by the hardships of prison,” that simultaneously cites Lady Macbeth of Mtensk.  The atmosphere of the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony spreads forth, and we have heard muted recollections of the Tchaikovsky Pathetique Symphony.  The final polyphonic Largo parallels Bartok’s use of mesto as a designation of personal despair. For all of the popularity accorded this powerful work, it still communicates a kind of musical suicide note, given the morbid conditions of the composer’s life at the time.  Shukow have allotted the mordant energy and commitment the music requires and deserves.

—Gary Lemco

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