Christopher Breunig / Britten and Shostakovich. Rudolf Kempe and the BBC Symphony Orchestra

Internationally respected authority on classical music, Mr. Christopher Breunig returns to this site. First, a little about him:

Christopher trained and practiced as an architect, but over the years contributed music reviews to various publications, including the Sunday Times, Guardian and other specialist journals including International Piano and Classic Record Collector.

Britten and Shostakovich

It’s hardly the death of JFK, but I remember where I was when the BBC broadcast the May 1962 Coventry Cathedral premiere of Britten’s War Requiem: listening in Manchester (there to sit my RIBA finals) in a sunlit bed-and-breakfast room overlooking a rear car park. I had brought for company the superb Bang and Olufsen portable radio which doubled as a mono FM tuner in my hi-fi system for several years.

Decca’s iconic black-boxed SET recording, produced at Kingsway Hall by John Culshaw, was an obligatory purchase, but I have never decided whether the work is a masterpiece – as most commentators claim – or a faintly embarrassing mish-mash, with its Verdian writing for soprano and assorted Brittenish preoccupations.

It has, of course, the English–German–Russian soloists Britten wanted; and so far there’s only one alternative recording to touch it: the live version conducted by Giulini, on BBC Legends [BBCL 4046-2]. Now, issued on the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s own label [LPO–0010], there’s another concert performance which, if anything, makes the strongest case yet for the status of War Requiem.

Given at the Royal Festival Hall in May 2005 (with the Illinois soprano Christine Brewer, American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, Canadian baritone Gerald Finley and the LPO and Tiffin Boys’ Choirs), this is certainly one of the best things Kurt Masur has done with the LPO – far better than his earlier New York/Teldec recording.

Finley is outstanding; Brewer is better as her voice settles in the second half, but awkward in the high notes of the Sanctus; sadly, Griffey is much too lightweight and his accent (he sounds Welsh!) ill-suited to the gravitas of the texts. The sound balance is very good indeed.

Decca has now reissued the composer’s recording on CD for the third time [475 7511]; it includes a 55m bonus of fascinating session material: rehearsals and control-room discussions between Britten and Culshaw.

Rudolf Kempe and the BBC Symphony Orchestra

There are some extraordinary insights into Britten’s orchestral textures in a 1975 Fairfield Hall Croydon account of the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by another German interpreter, Rudolf Kempe. His artistry has been recognised by both Testament and BBC Legends, and this latest compilation [BBCL 4188-2] offers an alternative Haydn Symphony 104, the ‘London’, to Kempe’s 1956 Philharmonia mono [reissued on SBT 1273].

In his otherwise excellent note Alan Sanders suggests this warmer, indeed radiant, account with the BBC Symphony Orchestra is more ‘large-scale’ but that’s because outer-movement repeats are observed (tempi are virtually identical) and a wash of resonance has somewhere been added to the 1975 RFH tape.

Sanders argues that financial constraints limited Kempe’s programming with the RPO (which he inherited from Beecham); had he lived we would have heard more with the BBC SO. If no usable tape exists of his Shostakovich Eighth that is sad, but on this disc we have – in somewhat occluded mono, with a very close-miked piano part in the scherzo – a 1965 studio recording of the subversive First Symphony, brilliantly timed, humorous but with depth in the slow movement.

However, I suspect it’s the wildest of Britten ‘Storm’ interludes and an account of ‘Moonlight’ that’s surprisingly moving that will stick in the mind more. (Though the syncopations in ‘Sunday Morning’ almost come to grief at Kempe’s unusually fast tempo.) Perhaps I should add that there’s quite a strong ambient, or tape noise in these Interludes.

Jurowski, Svetlanov, Berglund and Bychkov

Vladimir Jurowski, who is to succeed Masur at the LPO, has made a provocative Pentatone coupling of Shostakovich’s Symphonies 1 and 6 with the Russian National Orchestra [PTC 5186 068]; he is currently its principal guest conductor. Pentatone Classics is committed to hybrid multi-channel releases making new recordings and remastering genuine quadraphonic tapes leased from Philips but never issued in that form.

Jurowski’s lyrical, even balletic account of the First Symphony underplays its rough humour; and – if that is possible – his attention to detail in the slow movement implies more than the score could possibly contain (Shostakovich was only 19). What you get in Kempe’s performance is a sense of just where the music is going; I don’t find this here. The coupled Sixth is again remarkable for the fine detail, the fine orchestral playing. The recorded sound is not ideally balanced or transparent – and, as ever, Pentatone’s notes are awful!

If Rostropovich with the London Symphony Orchestra has provided perhaps the lengthiest Shostakovich 8, a doggedly literal account some 3m longer than the norm, on LSO Live [LSO 0527], Svetlanov’s proves one of the most confrontational. BBC Legends has just issued his formidable 1979 Festival Hall performance, although its catalogue already includes the legendary 1960 Eighth given at that venue by Evgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic [BBCL 4002-2], when that great orchestra was making its Edinburgh and London debuts. (You can hear a high-spirited Britten Young Person’s Guide, given in the Usher Hall by Rozhdestvensky as part of that series, on BBCL 4184-2.)

At first hearing, Svetlanov seems to present everything mezzo-forte – even the pianissimos in the slow movement are full-bodied. Somehow he makes the LSO sound like a Russian orchestra, with a coarse edge to the brass and penetrating wind solos. He is abetted by the BBC engineers, evidently opting for ample miking and a wide spread soundstage. This adds to the rhythmically tight phrasing; the intensity never lets up.

My preference rather lies with another recent Pentatone disc [PTC 5186 084], produced with a gratifyingly wide dynamic range, with the RNO conducted this time by Paavo Berglund, whose old EMI recording of the ‘Leningrad’, good though it was, hardly prepared one for this listening experience. He conducts the Eighth with a kind of ‘super-objectivity’, to which the Russian players fully respond, which never sounds cold or disinterested – essential listening if you admired the conductor’s Sibelius, live with the COE.

Shostakovich depicts in his Symphony 11, ‘The Year 1905’, the brutally quashed uprising at the Winter Palace, but is thought to have been prompted as much by the 1956 Hungarian parallel under Soviet forces. In the fourth SACD issue of a comparatively infrequently played work (and the only one not recorded live), Semyon Bychkov with his WDR Orchestra [Avie AV 2062] presents a far warmer palette than Mikhail Pletnev with the RNO [Pentatone PTC 5186 076], which perhaps works less well in the frozen wastes of the opening scene.

On the other hand the immediacy of tolling bells in the ‘Tocsin’ finale in this supremely well balanced WDR recording could be a deciding factor; and Bychkov, though not spurred by the adrenalin of a live performance, is outstanding in the fugato and concluding section of ‘9th January’. Pletnev’s Brussels recording, released in May, has a somewhat distant stage perspective.

Christopher Breunig

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