C1815. CHRISTOPHER KEENE Cond. Syracuse S.O.: Symphony #10 in e (Shostakovitch), Live Performance, 1984; Symphonie de Psaumes (Stravinsky), Live Performance, 1981. (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-1056. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“This is Volume 5 in the series of releases that Yves-St. Laurent is devoting to the art of conductor Christopher Keene. Here we have a pairing of works by 20th-century Russian composers - one an immigrant to America, of course - with starkly contrasting compositional styles and emotional moods.
The Shostakovich 10th is to my mind one of the two greatest symphonies composed after Mahler, the other being the (oft-maligned) Penderecki Symphony #2 that marked the Polish composer’s turn from sonorism back to traditional tonality. Those two works share a strong similarity in their powerfully bleak, grim outlooks, though Shostakovich lightens the mood of his symphony somewhat (albeit not completely) in its ironic, bustling finale. The 10th is dominated by its first movement, over 20 minutes long and almost half the length of the entire work, which presents in abstract musical terms an absolutely harrowing depiction of the psychological terrors of a totalitarian society. In it the composer successively introduces three themes and then contrapuntally combines them in various configurations in an unrelenting, brutal climax that lasts a good four minutes, leaving the exhausted listener feeling as if he has just been steamrolled over by an entire brigade of T-34 tanks. The brief four-minute scherzo that follows, a blistering, whirling sonic hurricane, is famously supposed to be Shostakovich’s coded portrait of Stalin. The mostly introspective third movement presents as its second theme, introduced by the French horn, a melancholic melody that was a private love-note from Shostakovich to Elmira Nazirova, an Azerbaijani music pupil with whom he maintained a Platonic relationship; the melody spells out her first name in musical notation. The finale opens slowly with a bleak hopelessness that recalls the first movement, but then shifts in its faster main section to a cheeky melody, first introduced on the flute, against which the brass plays the composer’s personal D-S-C-H motto as an insistent counterpoint. While more upbeat in mood, the underlying mood is one of gritty determination to persevere rather than buoyant optimism.
I have a strict general criterion for a successful performance of this work: the first movement must be played at a rock-steady tempo throughout, with a duration roughly between 22 and 23 minutes. Played any slower, it drags and loses necessary momentum; played any faster, it forfeits power; if significant tempo shifts are interjected, the trajectory of implacable momentum is disrupted. (The live performance with Leopold Stokowski and the Chicago Symphony from 1966, highly regarded by some, is for me an absolute atrocity that completely misunderstands the work and ruins it with bizarre changes in speeds. On the other hand Karajan, a conductor for whom I have respect but seldom enthusiasm, was one of the work’s great proponents, particularly in his live 1968 account with the Berlin Philharmonic in Moscow released by Melodiya.) Mravinsky, whose live 1976 performance with the Leningrad Philharmonic is my desert-island benchmark for this work, is one of the very few conductors who knows how to make subtle tempo adjustments that do not mar the movement’s inexorable progression. Keene is another, and he accomplishes that by a very simple, sensible, economical means: he begins the movement more slowly than the norm, and very gradually increases the tempo up to and into the great extended climax, before receding again for the desolate coda. This follows the arch structure of the movement as a whole, and thus the 24:24 timing does not seem a second too long. The scherzo is played with its accustomed fury, and the Allegretto that constitutes the work’s slow movement with needed tenderness. The finale is the one part that is less effective; Keene takes a somewhat slower tempo in its main allegro section than the norm, bringing in the movement at 14:20 rather than a more typical 11 to 13 minutes, and his rhythms are a tad foursquare as a result. He makes it work, but I kept finding myself wishing for a little more pedal to the metal.
Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms can be a tough sell; even by his standards, the score is one of his most austere Neoclassical works. The composer’s own recording seems to remain the standard by which others are measured. Compared to Stravinsky’s own account, this one is competent but lacks myriad qualities realized by the composer: transparency, lightness, rhythmic snap, and (shades of Poulenc!) even a certain insouciance paired with genuine devotional fervor. In short, acquire this for the Shostakovich, and accept the Stravinsky as a passable filler. As usual, St. Laurent provides only a tray card with tracks, timings, and photos.”
- James A. Altena, FANFARE
“It is rare for an American orchestra to record Shostakovich’s powerful, wrenching Symphony #10, although it was one of the works Eugene Ormandy brought to prominence in his Shostakovich series from Philadelphia. Narrow the search down to an American orchestra led by an American conductor, and then Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony are the only other example in print besides this new release with Christopher Keene leading the Syracuse Symphony. Setting a famous conductor and prominent orchestra against a nearly forgotten conductor and now defunct orchestra seems like no contest, but the reality is very different.
St. Laurent Studio has already issued a splendid Shostakovich Eighth from Keene (reviewed in FANFARE 44:2), so I was prepared for something special. I’ll refer readers to that review for details about Keene’s career. Although best known for his rise at the New York City Opera, where he eventually became general director, and mourned for dying tragically young of AIDS in 1995 when he was 48, Keene’s talent has been seriously underrated. He showed his best in Syracuse where he led the Syracuse Symphony for a decade until 1985.
The full range of his abilities is exhibited here. The Shostakovich performance came quite late in his tenure, which helps account for the obvious bond between conductor and orchestra (an all-professional ensemble, by the way). Keene’s supple sense of phrasing is communicated to the musicians and the listener. The Tenth Symphony is relentlessly under a gloomy sky, a mode that was one of Shostakovich’s strengths. The first movement is as sorrowfully elegiac as the first movements of the Sixth and Eighth Symphonies, and even lacking the depth of a premier orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan (DG), the Syracuse Symphony strings and woodwinds play eloquently.
Just as satisfying is Keene’s biting sarcasm in the brief, furious Scherzo, taken to be a jab at the recently deceased and long-hated Stalin. The first two movements of the Tenth are the easiest to connect with, while the concluding two, being quiet and at times unassuming, are the most difficult for a conductor to make sense of. You cannot name their prevailing mood (an ambiguity they have in common with the last two movements of the Eighth Symphony). But Shostakovich doesn’t trail off into melancholy. The last few minutes employ his DSCH musical signature in a merry, ‘I’m still here’ mood. It is proof of Keene’s sympathy for the composer that he evokes so much feeling from the woodwind soloists in the Allegretto and successfully brings out the dancing-on-a-grave merriment in the final Allegro. Other versions surpass this one for power and virtuosity, but it can hold its head high for emotional authenticity, variety, and strong communication with the listener.
The pairing is Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms from 1981, another austere work that I’ve always found a bit grim, even in the concluding’ Laudate Dominum’. But ritual and austerity are continuing threads in Stravinsky’s religious settings, which can have a numbing quality until you give yourself over to the idiom, which is more about Christ and the saints as medieval Byzantine icons than living presences. (Bernstein’s CHICHESTER PSALMS, which I take to be an overt homage to Symphony of Psalms, can’t help being warm-hearted and emotional like its creator.)
Keene’s reading brings out the music’s emotional possibilities in a warm, generous way. This might have displeased the composer, but I am reminded of Simon Rattle and the Berliners taking the same tack. All three movements are invested with feeling, culminating in the joy emanating from the third movement, and the chorus from Syracuse University is well up to the challenge, singing with real expression and excellent intonation. This is a good place to mention that as remastered by Yves St-Laurent, the recorded sound in both works is vivid and satisfying. (I was jarred only once, by too-close miking of the concertmaster’s solo in the Shostakovich.)
I have no hesitancy warmly recommending this latest installment in St. Laurent Studio’s ongoing Keene series. The generous timing allows for inclusion of the luminous Stravinsky, which is a very notable reading. The Shostakovich Tenth perhaps isn’t quite as gripping all the way through, but it too is a fine commemorative tribute to one of America’s genuine conducting talents - Keene is long overdue in receiving the respect he deserves.”
- Huntley Dent, FANFARE