Shostakovich: Chamber Symphony (CD review)

Also Schnittke: Concerto for Piano and Strings. Constantine Orbelian, pianist and conductor; Moscow Chamber Orchestra. Delos DE 3259.

This disc prepares you for the unyielding material it contains by declaring on the cover, "Dedicated to Victims of War and Terror." Conductor Constantine Orbelian's grandparents were victims of such injustices in Stalinist Russia before the Second World War, so the program material he selected has special meaning for him.

Soviet Russian conductor and violinist Rudolf Barshai transcribed the Chamber Symphony from the String Quartet No. 8 by Soviet composer and pianist Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). Shostakovich wrote the Quartet in 1960 and dedicated it "To the Memory of Victims of War and Fascism." Today, of course, we may read into it, "victims of war, fascism, and Stalinist Communism." At the time, however, Shostakovich felt very depressed at being forced to join the Communist Party. Some musical historians say that the composer's personal despair is what gives the piece its edge, its pain, and its emotional depth.

The outer movements reflect a pensive solemnity and gloom, while the inner movements project an intense fierceness and anxiety. Certainly, Orbelian emphasizes the work's subjective aspects throughout, painting a vivid, harsh, even brutal picture of dark times, unrelieved by any happy or triumphant ending.

Constantine Orbelian
Following up the Chamber Symphony with Alfred Schnittke's Piano Concerto, performed by Orbelian himself on piano, works as the mitigation we seek after the stormy despondency of Shostakovich. Built as a series of variations that come and go, some of them religious in nature, the Piano Concerto produces the effect of mild spiritual elation and inner questions and answers by its end.

The Moscow Chamber Orchestra recorded both pieces on the vast sound stage of Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, CA, March, 2000. Delos recording engineer John Eargle miked the works for later mastering to discrete surround sound, but he optimized the present recording for Dolby Pro-Logic playback or ordinary two-channel stereo.

The sound is quite large, possibly because of the size of the venue, moderately distanced as always from this source, and again only moderately well detailed. At first, the sound appears somewhat dark and muted, but in the Piano Concerto especially, one can hear the notes die away smoothly in the extreme high frequencies. Perhaps it's that there is a degree of density about the sonics that makes everything seem a touch less transparent than it could be. It is not an unrealistic sound, however; in fact, it's the sound one can hear in most auditoriums around the world. It just isn't what we hear too often on disc, and it comes as a pleasant surprise. As far as concerns the surround element, it does not emerge as a serious consideration one way or the other in the two-channel format to which I listened. There is a agreeable ambient bloom that does fair justice to the music. And it is the music that counts.

Of its kind, the program is powerful, and Orbelian and his forces play it with urgency.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa