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.
“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