Dmitri Shostakovich: Violin Sonata in G major, op.134
Sebastian Bohren, Igor Karško / Camerata Zürich

Media Received for Reviewing

4.5-star rating

2021-04-21 — Original posting



Table of contents


Introduction

In an earlier posting, I have done a quick review of two recordings of the Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major, op.134, which the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) completed in 1968, on the occasion of the 60th birthday of David Oistrakh (1908 – 1974). The latter is also the dedicatee of the sonata. He premiered the sonata in 1969, in Moscow.

I received another recording of this violin sonata, featuring the Swiss violinist Sebastian Bohren (*1987), living in Zurich. I have written about Sebastian Bohren in reports from concerts in Zurich, on 2015-10-13, and more recently, in Lucerne, on 2018-09-13—for details on Bohren’s biography see these. For several years, Sebastian Bohren also was a member of the Stradivari Quartet. I have commented on a concert of that ensemble, in Zurich, on 2018-09-09. Sebastian Bohren plays the 1761 violin “Ex-Wannamaker Hart” by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711 – 1786).


The CD

Shostakovich, Violin Sonata op.134 — Sebastian Bohren (Booklet cover)

Shostakovich: Violin Sonata in G major, op.134,
arranged for violin, percussion and string orchestra (live recording)

Sebastian Bohren
Igor Karško / Camerata Zürich

Sony Music G010003984125M (3 tracks, stereo); ℗ / © 2018; Booklet: 10 pp. en/de
Amazon ASIN: B07H8QK5L7

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I don’t need to re-introduce the composition—I have already given some comments and links to external information in my earlier posting. The sonata comes in three movements:

  1. Andante
  2. Allegretto
  3. Largo — Andante — Largo

The Arrangement for Violin, Percussion and String Orchestra

This, however, isn’t quite the music that I discussed in the previous posting: Sebastian Bohren plays the Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major, op.134 in an arrangement for violin, percussion and string orchestra by Mikhail Tsinman, with a percussion setting by Andrey Pushkarev (*1974, Ukraine). Sebastian Bohren is not alone with his performance of this arrangement: the violinist Gidon Kremer (*1947) has also performed and recorded it.

According to the booklet (PDF), the arrangement stands in a tradition of notable orchestral versions of chamber music works by Dmitri Shostakovich, some with explicit permission by the composer. Such works include

Orchestral vs. Original Versions?

Why?

In parts (especially in the first movement), Shostakovich’s violin sonata is a prime example of the composer’s “austere”, late style. The Viola Sonata op.147 apparently falls into the same “bucket”. With this, the idea of “enriching” a composition through a larger instrumental setting is certainly understandable. One should keep in mind, though, that this alters not just the sound of the music, but the very nature of the composition:

  • There is a shift in the relative weight of solo vs. accompaniment (in sonatas with piano, obviously)
  • In the case of sonatas (string instrument and piano), the string orchestra implies vast differences in articulation, often also in the tempo, etc.
  • The transition from piano accompaniment to orchestra overall may (and very likely does) come with substantial alterations to the character of the piece.
  • The austere style in Shostakovich’s late compositions is not “accidental”. Of course the composer did not do this to deter the inexperienced listener. Rather, the austerity in these works reflects the composer’s “state of mind”, hence is an integral part of what he wanted to express with his music. “Filling that void” (in parts) defeats this inherent property of these compositions.
  • On the other hand, this may indeed render such compositions more accessible to a general audience. Who could oppose to helping the acceptance of Shostakovich’s works?

Justified?

One could say that the last point justifies the alteration of Shostakovich’s composition as indicated in the first three points above. However, in my personal opinion, this should only happen under the provision that the alteration (third-party arrangement) is made very clear in concert announcements, leaflets, media booklets (i.e., not just in some small print).

True, arrangements are not unusual, and certainly not “illegal”, even if the composer were to disagree. After all, this has been common practice for centuries in the past. As outlined, it can even help promoting a composer’s work. However, in my view, ideally, one should announce such arrangements as “(Arranger), arrangement of the (work) by (composer) for (new instrumentation)“. This way, not only does the arranger get the recognition (s)he deserves, but it is immediately clear that this is not the composer’s original version. And it might motivate listeners also to look for the composer’s original version!

The Arrangement of Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata in G major, op.134

In this recording, the piano part is performed by a string orchestra (the Camerata Zürich, consisting of 5 + 4 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos, double bass) and percussion (drum, snare drum, cymbals, tamtam, etc.). The concertmaster is the Slovak violinist Igor Karško (*1969). With the above restrictions / alterations in the arrangement, it seems inappropriate to compare the orchestral arrangement with Shostakovich’s original version. However, if the original version is available, even such an “inappropriate” comparison—with all its limitations—is still adding value to the listening experience.

“Competitive” Recordings

As mentioned, I have three recordings of the original version of the sonata:

For a brief comparison of these three recordings see my earlier posting. Here, I’m just showing the CD information:

Recording with Lydia Mordkovich & Clifford Benson (1990)

Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Schnittke: Violin Sonatas — Mordkovich; CD cover

Sergei Prokofiev: Sonata in D for solo violin, op.115; Sonata in C for two violins, op.56
Dmitri Shostakovich: Sonata for violin and piano in G major, op.134
Alfred Schnittke: Praeludium in Memoriam D. Shostakovich

Lydia Mordkovich, Emma Young, violin; Clifford Benson, piano

Chandos — Chan 8988 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 1991; Booklet: 16 pp., en/de/fr

Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Schnittke: Violin Sonatas — Mordkovich; CD, UPC-A barcode
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Recording with Ilya Gringolts & Gilles Vonsattel (2015)

Shostakovich: Violin Sonata op.134, Piano Trios — Ilya Gringolts, Daniel Haefliger, Gilles Vonsattel; CD cover

Dmitri Shostakovich: Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major, op.134
Piano Trio No.1 in C minor, op.8 (1923); Piano Trio No.2 in E minor, op.67 (1944)

Ilya Gringolts, violin; Gilles Vonsattel, piano
Daniel Haefliger, cello

Claves Records 50-1817 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2017; Booklet: 19 pp. fr/en

Shostakovich: Violin Sonata op.134, Piano Trios — Ilya Gringolts, Daniel Haefliger, Gilles Vonsattel; CD, EAN-13 barcode
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Recording with Isabelle Faust & Alexander Melnikov (2011)

Shostakovich: piano concertos, violin sonata — Melnikov, Faust (CD cover)

Dmitri Shostakovich: Sonata for violin and piano in G major, op.134
Piano Concertos No.1 in C minor, op.35, No.2 in F major op.102
Isabelle Faust, violin; Alexander Melnikov, piano; Jeroen Berwaerts, trumpet
Teodor Currentzis / Mahler Chamber Orchestra

harmonia mundi France 902104 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2012; Booklet: 32 pp. fr/en/de

Shostakovich: piano concertos, violin sonata — Melnikov, Faust (CD, EAN-13 barcode)
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Comments on Sebastian Bohren’s Recording of the Sonata Transcription

I obviously can’t discuss a recording of the transcribed sonata without also referring to Shostakovich’s original version. However, I don’t want to reiterate the discussion of the three recordings above that I posted a while ago, and updated recently.

Dmitri Shostakovich: Violin Sonata, op.134 — Timings
Dmitri Shostakovich: Violin Sonata, op.134 — Timings

I. Andante

The above timing comparison is fairly consistent, especially for the first two movements. Indeed, in the Andante, the orchestral transcription remains close to Shostakovich’s original in the strings, the percussion “ingredients” are discreet, mostly inconspicuous. Sebastian Bohren’s performance is excellent: clean, clear, with a vibrato that is non-intrusive, often even without any noticeable vibration at all. This fits and suits the spirit of the movement, the atmosphere of a “seeking” soul, wandering in forlornness.

Imagination?

The key difference to the recordings with the original version of the sonata is not in the interpretation of the solo part, but in the atmosphere created by the soundsphere of the accompaniment. First and foremost, the arrangement causes a shift from the violin part (which in the original clearly is at the center) towards the accompaniment. The character is similar, the orchestra inherently adds more colors, and it seems more prone to evoke pictures in the listener’s imagination.

In my personal view, the original leaves that almost entirely to the listener. To me, therefore, the original is a better fit to what I see as the character of the movement, in which to me the feelings of forlornness, darkness, hopelessness dominate. With this, I don’t mean to say that I dislike the transcription—quite to the contrary. It’s just different music, and to some degree music beyond Shostakovich’s original intent. Even if Shostakovich had approved the transcription.
★★★★★

II. Allegretto

About the solo part first: I would describe Sebastian Bohren’s interpretation as (ideal) compromise between Ilya Gringolts’ radically expressive, if not sometimes brutal approach, and Isabelle Faust’s interpretation, which puts more emphasis on clarity in execution, maybe instrumental perfection. Isabelle Faust is not neglecting the coarse, rough side of the violin part, though.

Also Sebastian Bohren retains the coarse, wild character of the movement: his playing leaves little, if anything to wish for. However, with the stronger “competition” from the colorful, much richer, more colorful orchestral accompaniment changes the focus towards the orchestra.

Compared to the original version with piano accompaniment, it probably requires a much bigger effort on the part of the soloist to “persist” next to the orchestra. In this movement, it also is evident that the latter is not as agile (especially when building up to the virtuosic climax) as a piano. At least in direct comparison (e.g.: with Ilya Gringolts & Gilles Vonsattel), the arrangement appears to lack some drive and momentum. However, this is compensated by the added richness in the orchestral soundscape.
★★★★

III. Largo — Andante — Largo

From the point-of-view of timing / tempo alone, the last movement is where the orchestral arrangement deviates the most from the performances with piano. Clearly, already the pounding double-beats in the opening impose a heavier, slower pace. However, there are also aspects where the transcription “beats” Shostakovich’s original. One example is after the long pizzicato solo early in the movement, a piano cannot produce the touching, peaceful intimacy of the subsequent duo with a solo viola (Hannes Bärtschi, later joined by other voices) in the transcription: simply beautiful! It is the serene mood in this opening Largo which already makes the transcription a valuable, highly enriching experience!

Andante, Cadenza

The serene, lucid, transfigured, sometimes also playful atmosphere persists into the central Andante. And here, the build-up does not lead into the overwhelming dissonant “weight”, the temporary “war zone” in the piano version: rather, I feel growing intensity through polyphonic density—not unlike (but more complex than) the one in the Große Fuge in B♭ major, op.133 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827).

This leads into the ravishingly beautiful solo cadenza, and into the transfigured, unearthly serenity of the closing Largo. The dissonances in the final bars are mere reminiscences of conflicts in a distant past.
★★★★★


Conclusions

Overall, how do Tsinman / Pushkarev’s adaptation for orchestra and Sebastian Bohren’s performance match up to the original composition by Dmitri Shostakovich and its top recordings? As for the performance, Sebastian Bohren is up there with the top-class violinists performing this sonata. Maybe not with Isabelle Faust’s instrumental perfection, and not featuring Ilya Gringolt’s radical (if not occasionally brutal) directness, but an excellent performance nevertheless.

About the orchestral arrangement: the differences to the original version for piano and violin are substantial. Not in terms of the notes & harmonies, but in the character of the soundscape. This forbids a 1:1 comparison. For the first two movements, I would state that I look a the two options as separate, but valid options, whereby Shostakovich’s original feels more stringent, more direct, more radical (exemplified in the interpretation by Ilya Gringolts and Gilles Vonsattel).

It really is the last movement which makes the arrangement and this recording an outstanding achievement in its own right: a beautiful, intensely touching movement which in many ways surpasses Shostakovich’s original.


Acknowledgement

I was kindly offered the download files for this recording by Krystian Nowakowski, NO-TE e.U.—back in September 2018. Apologies for this review taking so long: I was overwhelmed by concert critiques…


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