mon 20/05/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Aisha Orazbayeva | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Aisha Orazbayeva

Classical CDs Weekly: Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Aisha Orazbayeva

Russian orchestral music and a versatile violinist's response to lockdown

Aisha Orazbayeva


Rachmaninov in LucerneRachmaninoff in Lucerne – Rhapsody, Op. 43, Symphony No. 3 Behzod Abduraimov (piano), Luzerner Sinfonieorchester/James Gaffigan (Sony)

I’m the only person I know who rates Walton’s Symphony No. 2 as highly as his first, and I’m probably also out on a limb in enjoying Rachmaninov’s concise 3rd Symphony as much as its heftier predecessor. (Best not to get me started on the joys of his Piano Concerto No. 4.) Rachmaninov’s language continued to evolve in the 1930s: the big tunes are still there in abundance, married with a rhythmic punch and harmonic piquancy. Completed in 1936, the 3rd Symphony even contains a few nods towards Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. James Gaffigan’s recording with the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester looks back rather than forward, the searing first-movement climax eight minutes in recalling late Mahler. It’s an extraordinary passage, a howl so intense that you wonder how the music will pick itself up from the floor and start moving again. Yet, as with a similar moment in Tchaikovsky’s 6th, Rachmaninov does recover, Gaffigan giving the second subject’s reprise incredible warmth, his Lucerne strings singing out. The slow movement’s scherzo section is tightly controlled but exhilarating. Maybe I’d have preferred a tad more swagger in the finale’s main theme, but the tightness of the playing stops things becoming sluggish. The final minutes are nicely done: Gaffigan’s accelerando is well-handled, before a brusque but upbeat close.

The symphony was composed in Rachmaninov’s villa at Senar, on the shores of Lake Lucerne, an extravagant, modernist structure in Bauhaus style commissioned in the early 1930s. The costs involved prompted Rachmaninov to acknowledge the financial boost offered by his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. This disc’s main selling point is that pianist Behzod Abduraimov uses the composer’s own piano, donated by Steinway in 1934. Sony’s engineers have captured the instrument’s essence well; Abduraimov’s crisp, lively playing style is entirely right for the work. As with the symphony, there’s a boldness, an edge to Rachmaninov’s late style which gives the Rhapsody a unique flavour. The 18th variation isn’t over-egged, and the faster sections brim with wit and colour. As a bonus, Abduraimov throws in the little Opus 16 Lullaby. Packaging is superb, the disc housed in a covetable hardback book packed with photographs documenting the composer’s Swiss sojourn.

Shostakovich 11 StorgardsShostakovich: Symphony No. 11 ‘The Year 1905’ BBC Philharmonic/John Storgårds (Chandos)

Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony has been rehabilitated in recent decades. The Tenth’s depth and emotional complexity would be a hard act for any composer to follow, and when No. 11 appeared, superficially a cinematic potboiler commemorating a notorious atrocity in pre-revolutionary Russia, it was assumed by Shostakovich’s detractors that he’d taken a backward step. Appearances can be superficial though: Solomon Volkov’s problematic Testimony posits that the symphony is a comment on the failed Hungarian uprising of 1956, and the symphony has been seen as a musical attack on state oppression in general. Andris Nelsons’ recent Boston Symphony live recording boasts excellent playing and a cinematic sweep. John Storgårds’ BBC Philharmonic taped this disc after an acclaimed 2019 Proms performance. There’s a tautness, an edge to the music making, these musicians playing as if their lives depended on it. Shostakovich’s static opening movement chills, trumpet and horn outstanding in their cruelly exposed solos.

Storgårds lets rip in the scherzo’s ghastly massacre, the movement’s most moving moment coming straight after the guns have stopped: a lonely celeste chiming over imperceptible string trills. Baleful lower brass in the slow movement stand out, and there’s a magnificent cor anglais lament near the end of the finale. And what an ending this is, an ambivalent shriek, capped by chimes. Yevgeny Mravinsky’s first recording in 1959 used church bells, and Storgårds does the same, the set borrowed from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s percussion section ringing out for 10 seconds after the orchestra’s unison Gs have stopped. Superb Chandos sound too, and excellent notes from David Fanning.

Aisha Orazbayeva: Music for Violin Alone

Music for violin aloneThat so much music-making is being put online during lockdown shouldn’t hide the fact that we’re getting hours of world class music making for free at the click of a mouse. For many freelance musicians, the short term outlook is bleak indeed. Kazakh violinist Aisha Orazbayeva, formerly resident in London but now living in a remote village near Beziers, recorded her fourth solo album in a makeshift studio in early April, “both as a response to the loss of work and a way to be heard again”. The music on this disc spans three centuries and showcases Orazbayeva’s strengths: she’s unmatched in contemporary repertoire but can tackle solo Bach as well as anyone. The “Largo” from Bach’s Sonata No. 3 is included here, played with disarming grace; it's followed by Matteis’s contemporaneous Alia Fantasia, Orazbayeva’s flexibility of tempo making it far more than a simple display piece.

James Tenney’s KOAN shouldn’t work, but does in Orazbayeva’s hands; a nine-minute slow pitch ascent where we wait, excitedly, for each recognisable musical interval. Eight Whiskus by John Cage features silences between the phrases as compelling as the melodic material. Angharad Davies’s Circular Bowing Study is more elusive; I’m desperate to see as well as hear exactly what Orazbayeva is doing. The same goes for her self-penned Ring, where “broken harmonics of a string caught inside a ring” sound oddly human and vocal. Oliver Leith’s Blurry Wake is understated by comparison. New music needs brave advocates like Orazbayeva. Do her a favour and download this album.


Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters