SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major; SCRIABIN: Piano Concerto in f-sharp; DVORAK: Sym. Variations – Paul Badura-Skoda, p./ Polish Radio Sym. Orch./ Charles Mackerras – Pristine Audio

Charles Mackerras makes his Pristine debut with a concert appearance in Scotland with the Polish Radio Orchestra.

SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major, Op. 70; SCRIABIN: Piano Concerto in f-sharp minor, Op. 20; DVORAK: Symphonic Variations, Op. 78 – Paul Badura-Skoda, p./ Polish Radio Sym. Orch./ Charles Mackerras – Pristine Audio PASC 487, 74:47 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****: 

I had the privilege of meeting Sir Charles Mackerras (1925-2010) and his wife in Atlanta after a symphony concert. Mackerras’ fine recording of Handel’s Messiah for EMI having piqued my interest in a conductor of such nice proportions and instrumental balances, I felt no less curiosity about his having studied with one of my idols, Vaclav Talich. “We tried to convince Talich to leave Czechoslovakia,” urged Mackerras, “but by 1960 his health issues had become manifest and was simply too late.” The present disc from Pristine comes from the Edinburgh Festival (27 August 1962, in stereo), from a BBC transcription of a second concert by the Polish Radio Orchestra unissued in the United Kingdom but pressed onto vinyl for US broadcast.  The piano solo for the rare Scriabin Concerto, Viennese Paul Badura-Skoda (b. 1927), performs a work derivative of Chopin but already rife with those post-Romantic idiosyncracies that define Scriabin’s especial vision.

The concert begins with a skittishly energetic reading of the Shostakovich Ninth Symphony (1945), a composition that had purported to be a “victory symphony” for the Soviet war effort, but instead frolics and capers with ironic and madcap humor.  The Polish Radio woodwinds appear in sparkling form throughout this brief but incisive musical exercise, which often reduces its sonorous forces to chamber music sensibilities. Besides adhering to strict Classical sonata-form, the mocking first movement Allegro sports a vivacious trombone part that gallops with saucy slapstick. Mackerras gives due weight to the second movement Moderato, an uneasy waltz via the clarinet entry, but whose interrupted beat posits darker suggestions. The Presto third movement begins a triptych of uninterrupted movements with its acid brass parts and some dark intimations that lead to Mussorgsky references in the ensuing Largo. Here, a bassoon solo – almost a concertante part – leads to troubled riffs from the trombone and tuba, the cymbals underlining the drama. He bassoon introduces the saucy tune of the Allegretto – Allegro finale, a lyrical dance that contains disturbed, even manic, martial elements.  By the final pages, Mackerras has his ensemble in full tilt, shaking an ironic fist at those official Soviet sanctions that lamented the composer’s “failure” to produce a ninth symphony on a scale with that of a certain German’s choral work.

The 1896 Piano Concerto by Scriabin eschews any Romantic clamor and bravura for an intimate, melancholy introspection, akin to both Chopin and Schumann. Badura-Skoda and Mackerras combine for woven tapestry of sound rather than bombast and histrionics a la Tchaikovsky. The first movement Allegro appears highly decorative, fixating on the piano sound against woodwinds and blurred string harmonies in large pedal points. When the orchestra cuts loose, the sound effect becomes rhapsodic and languorous.  The principals apply ardent energies throughout, and the Neapolitan coda has a triumphant character even in dark explosiveness. The lyrical Andante exploits the key center, f-sharp, in its major (Lisztian) capacity for blue victory set among muted strings. The chorale serves as a basis for a series of mercurial variations, some of which gain a spritely momentum. The woven character of the piano-orchestral fabric becomes mesmeric, likely as the composer intended.  The sonata-rondo Allegretto moderato finale sports a plastic gait and modulates between f-sharp minor and its relative A Major: recall the Mozart Concerto No. 23. How often does this glittery music invoke the affect of a Chopin improvisation or a Liszt rhapsody!

Dvorak’s 1877 Symphonic Variations have held me in thrall ever since I auditioned the famed Sir Thomas Beecham recording. Dvorak wrote the piece for a benefit concert meant to raise funds for a new church in Prague. Dvorak took as his main theme the C Major version of his own song for male chorus, “The Fiddler.”  The factor of the Lydian mode plays a role in the harmonic modulations Dvorak evolves, along with some askew metric divisions of seven versus six bars. Dvorak presents us 28 variations that remain in C for the most part; but at variation 18, the route becomes more circuitous, with some digressions into B-flat in major and minor modes. Mackerras opens the score rather somberly and as a possible adumbration of dire events; but the music happily averts any sense of impending doom. It often strikes our ears how utterly ‘Brahmsian’ the scoring becomes, except for the clearly Slavonic impulses, when the lively fugue transforms into a spectacular Bohemian polka. Variation 8 features a lovely violin solo, while No. 9 has an intimacy of a woodland nocturne. The Variation 14 quite embraces some epic gestures that soon cavort into country music. No. 19 sounds as if it could have inspired Elgar. The Polish Radio brass section can play as suavely as they can intone heroics. In sum, this concert has presented us a conductor with a natural aptitude for color and dynamics whose passion for Slavonic music would become legend.  The sound quality, potent enough it seems in its original incarnation, required from Mr. Andrew Rose, in his own words, “unusually minimal” interventions.

—Gary Lemco

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