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Christopher Williams
Fanfare, May 2009

I confess to never before having seen a film of Gennady Rozhdestvensky (b. 1931) conducting. So I was struck, though not surprised, to find that the architect of a large body of intense and driven yet clean recordings, especially of Russian repertoire, is a man of cool elegance and spare motion. This is a conductor who eschews all flamboyance and, like his older contemporary, Herbert Blomstedt (b. 1927), resembles an accountant more than a stereotypical conductor, all the while generating performances of stunning architecture and rhythmic alertness.

These performances were taken from concerts at the Proms in two successive years, the Rimsky and Rachmaninoff pieces broadcast on August 31, 1979, and the Shostakovich Symphony a year earlier, September 9, 1978. I first noticed Rozhdestvensky’s outsized baton, its length seeming especially overextended in the context of its operator’s sparing gestures. The reading of the Russian Easter Festival Overture is as lovingly shaped as it is understated. It won’t excite viewers through any excess of kinetic energy, but then it has always struck me that such an approach does not work well with this piece. The BBC orchestra plays with remarkable clarity and breadth.

Rachmaninoff’s First Concerto has not been over-exposed to the extent of its next two companions, though it has received more than its share of recordings, often as part of complete cycles of all four (or five, with the Paganini Variations) of the composer’s concertos on CD. After doing a quick check, I could find no other competition for this particular concerto on DVD. So it is particularly welcome to encounter a film of the work as firmly realized as this one. Postnikova clearly comes from the Russian tradition of emphasizing muscularity over accuracy. That’s okay, though; Richter shares some of those qualities, particularly in his live recordings. But there is also an apt clarity in her phrasing that makes a strong case for this work as one of the most subtle of the cycle. It doesn’t pull at the heartstrings the way the Second Concerto does, and hers is an especially Apollonian account of the score.

For most viewers and collectors, I suspect that the primary draw of this film will be Rozhdestvensky’s riveting performance of Shostakovich’s 1936 Fourth Symphony, a work he has recorded several times and which he himself edited for the complete edition of Shostakovich’s works. A scan of my various sources also turned up no competition in video format for the work. Indeed, apart from the ubiquitous Fifth, the composer’s symphonies have been filmed surprisingly rarely. This performance is mesmerizing. The work remains one of the most puzzling and controversial items in Shostakovich’s œuvre, calling down on his head the opprobrium that forced him to recant his artistic “pessimism” and causing him to write the Fifth Symphony by way of “apology.” Many have felt that it is one of his bleakest works, but the puzzlement comes from the fact that none of the movements are particularly monolithic in their attitude. Wry scherzo textures rub shoulders with Mahlerian funeral marches. What I find especially gripping about this film is that the normally poker-faced Rozhdestvensky reacts to the fleeting ironies of the work with equally fleeting, laughing smiles, shifting into the sudden outbursts of funereal gloom with grim but controlled intensity. However, his way with the end of the work is what will sear itself into the minds of most viewers. About 10 minutes before the end, he carefully sets down his long baton and conducts with his hands. As the music dies away, his gestures grow smaller and more delicate, so that by the end, he is conducting with his fingertips and barely perceptible nods of his head. The final chord is cut off with a tiny circular motion in his pinkies. Such sparing gestures underscore a kind of nihilistic dismissal of grand gesture that seems perfectly matched to the music. The glistening moments are indeed fleeting, dashed off with an almost contemptuous shrug, and the sparse percussion figures seem to be met by a sneer of disgust at their very bleakness.

The films are remasterings of videotaped originals. As such, the sound is unimpressively two-dimensional and dim, at least compared to modern orchestral recordings, the picture often grainy. Camerawork reflects the conservative approach typical of orchestral films in the 1970s. The camera is most intently focused on the conductor, quite welcome for those viewers most interested in following his conception and communication style. But there are the requisite cut-away shots to soloists and even a few judicious over-the-shoulder shots at the music, particularly well timed in the case of the celesta solo in the closing bars of the last movement. Highly recommended.

Lawrence Hansen
American Record Guide, March 2009

Rozhdestvensky is a fascinating stage presence. Some conductors scowl at the orchestra and grunt and clench their fists—music making as a titanic, sometimes distracting thing (for the audience and perhaps for the orchestra, too). Rozhdestvensky smiles, he sways with the music, he makes clever gestures with his unusually long baton that I’ve never seen another conductor do—and the sound that comes from the orchestra mirrors them perfectly. I saw Rozhdestvensky with the Chicago Symphony back in the early 90s, and this brought back memories of those wonderful performances.

In the Russian Easter Overture Rozhdestvensky makes the BBC Symphony sound like a Russian orchestra, with deep, rich, sonorous brass and velvety yet incisive strings. He smiles, gives cues with the precision of a master painter, and sometimes just leans back and lets the orchestra play.

Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Concerto is performed with Rozhdestvensky’s wife, Viktoria Postnikova. They build as strong a case for this music as I’ve ever heard.

The main attraction here, of course, is the massive Shostakovich Fourth, one of the pieces Rozhdestvensky performed with the Chicago Symphony. I wish the Chicago recording reviewed elsewhere in this issue had been what we have here: a video documentation of a tremendous performance led by one of the composer’s most eloquent champions. Rozhdestvensky gives us a spectacular, powerful, virtuoso performance where none of Shostakovich’s often bizarre yet always highly expressive detail goes unexploited. He smiles less in this piece, though the faces he makes during the circus-music passages in III are perfect visual expressions of the music, and the orchestra responds to them with alacrity. The BBC Symphony doesn’t have the precision or sheer volume of the CSO, especially in the brass, and some listeners may be glad of it! In later years, by the time of his CSO appearances, Rozhdestvensky’s interpretations suffered from occasional “tempo bloat”, with key passages slowed down for rhetorical emphasis. But this is a powerful performance that builds in one massive, sweeping arc from the raucous march that opens the first movement to the Mahler-like middle movement and the volcanic peroration at the end of III, leading to a long, uneasy, unnerving unwinding into oblivion.

The experience is all the better for seeing the conductor and players interact. Rozhdestvensky doesn’t seem to guest conduct in the US anymore, so this may be your only chance to see him in action, at his prime. These were recorded for TV in 1978 (Rimsky and Rachmaninoff) and 1979 (Shostakovich) at the Promenade concerts in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall. The video quality is broadcast standard for the time (4:3)—certainly not close to high-definition and a little overexposed. The camera work is straightforward and varied but not fidgety, and the director usually has you looking where the action is. The sound is on par with a very good FM broadcast of the time, with a dynamic range so wide and natural that you don’t notice much that it’s monophonic.

Jeremy Nicholas
Classic FM, February 2009

This is a rare chance to witness a performance of Shostakovich's strangest symphony—the Fourth. Here (live from the 1978 BBC Proms), 63 minutes of apparently random ideas are welded together by this charismatic conductor. It's especially pleasing to watch how he controls the orchestra; I can't imagine a better introduction to this work. Here also is a fine account of Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Festival Overture and a disconcertingly fluffy Rachmaninov First Piano Concerto from Postnikova (both 1 979 Proms). Medici Arts's presentation is minimal: there's nothing on the artists; and the symphony demands a route map.

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3:18:35 PM, 3 July 2015
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