WORKS: Symphony No. 5; Songs and Dances of Death
PERFORMER: Anatoly Kotcherga (bass)Berlin PO/Claudio Abbado
CATALOGUE NO: SK 66276 DDD
Concerned more with a homogeneous overview than detailed perspective, Abbado’s Tchaikovsky comes from concert performances given in the Berlin Philharmonie during February 1994. Impressive in places (the slow movement boasts a solo horn of mesmerically liquid tone), but otherwise too routine to capture either imagination or emotions – witness an indifferent Valse and an anticlimactically brisk coda to the finale. More interesting, and memorable, is the coupling – Shostakovich’s 1962 orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. Abbado has long been an admirer of this artfully understated transcription, and in Kotcherga he has a soloist of formidable power and eloquence, whose depth of characterisation and range of vocal nuance come straight out of the old Russian tradition of Mussorgsky singing. Not to be missed.
Recorded in September 1993 in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire, home to so many legendary performances and recordings of the past, Polyansky’s Pathétique is disappointing: on the one hand gravity-laden, on the other disruptively perfunctory. What’s most needed is a sense of ongoing structure, of vitality (the 5/4 waltz doesn’t so much limp as fall over, while the march wallows far too long in quicksand), of theatrical timing and natural climax. There’s plenty of deliberated ‘event’, sometimes beautifully unfolded (the second subject and coda of the first movement, the long, suffering paragraphs, the gasping death, of the finale) yet with little apparent connection. A relentlessly oppressive, low-frequency dominated, sound balance – close yet distant, without much physical sensation of space or air, lacking clarity in the middle and muffled in brass attack – doesn’t help. Ates Orga