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A Subtly Dynamic, Individualistic Live Recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7,

For the last few years, the London Symphony Orchestra under Gianandrea Noseda have been releasing live recordings of the complete Shostakovich symphonic cycle, with frequently transcendent results.

Their performance of Symphony No. 4 is as savage and venomous as the composer could have possibly wanted. Their live album with No. 10 is among the most grimly picturesque in recent memory (it’s packaged as a twofer with an aptly deadpan, witheringly cynical version of No. 9).

Interestingly, Noseda’s take on Symphony No. 7, recorded on December 5, 2019 and streaming at Spotify, is much more sleek. Fans of more rugged versions, as Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra have dug into in recent years, may find this lightweight, possibly superficial. But if you love Shostakovich, you may hear things here that you won’t elsewhere.

The backstory is both grim and colorful. The score was smuggled out on microfilm on an American warship; the New York Philharmonic’s North American premiere helped solidify the composer’s reputation here. Back in Stalingrad, in the early days of the siege, Shostakovich joined his local volunteer fire department, but eventually fled the city before the eventual Soviet victory. The party line at the time was that this was more or less a straight-up narrative, Shostakovich’s 1812 Overture. But as we know, he had both barrels aimed at Stalin in just about everything he wrote. Noseda and the orchestra bring to life a lot more here beyond those two general plotlines.

What Noseda has done is to dial up a vast dynamic range that errs on the side of caution. There are moments where the orchestra are no more than a whisper, The first movement here comes across as more of a “what happened to my city” tableau, most notably via Daniel Jemison’s poignantly reflective oboe solo toward the end. For New Yorkers in particular (and until recently, Londoners), this carries enormous if quiet emotional resonance. The dialogue between blithe flute and chuffing cellos is muted, but Noseda uses that as a springboard to wring irresistible humor from the oboe/bassoon conversation immediately afterward. And it doesn’t seem snarky, although that seems more of a possibility in the Gershwinesque fugue that follows.

Noseda finally brings out the artillery for a strange pageant of a march, more of a war movie than an actual war and an interpretation that the cinephile composer probably would have loved. One plausible interpretation that’s been widely promoted over the years is that the theme is a paraphrase of a song from one of Hitler’s favorite operas.

The string section takes over the distant drum riffage in the second movement, Olivier Stankiewicz’s plaintive oboe bringing back a visceral sense of absence and loss. From there we get one of Shostakovich’s signature danses macabres, executed with considerable grace, then a return to wistfulness with the exchanges between harp and bassoon.

Hypnotically circling brass and warmly enveloping woodwinds almost subsume the persistent, bellicose rhythm deep beneath the third movement: this is where it would have been most beneficial for Noseda to pump up the volume a little. But the eerie chromatic theme afterward – which the composer recycled for maximum horror in his String Quartet No. 8 – makes a grisly contrast. Similarly, sotto-voce Romantic escapism gives way to a more sober, windswept, wintry reality.

Noseda and the orchestra finally raise that dichotomy to an efficiently robust if not overwhelming angst in the final movement, up to a surgically spiraling mountainscape straight out of Moussorgsky. In the dream sequence that follows, the drums of war slow to halfspeed and the intruders seem to slink off without much fanfare. The heroic coda is so straightforward that it’s suspicious.

An Insightful, Powerful New Recording of Harrowingly Relevant Shostakovich String Quartets

While classical musicians are expected to be able to play anything put in front of them, there’s no denying that harrowing emotional content makes it more difficult. So when a string quartet decides to record Shostakovich’s haunting String Quartet No. 8 – arguably the greatest and most relevant string quartet ever written – it’s worth checking out. Classical fans know the backstory well: the composer, fearing for his life as he was being pressured to join the Soviet communist party, decided to go for broke and write his own obituary. As protest music, it is unsurpassed for sheer horror…and for sheer bravery.

How does the Novus Quartet’s new recording – streaming at Spotify – stack up against the other fearless ensembles who’ve tackled it? They play this one in very high definition. For example, right from the first of the innumerable instances where the composer writes his own initials into the piece, the hazy overtones are front and center, especially from Wonhae Lee’s cello. Violinists Jaeyoung Kim and Young-Uk Kim slowly work a somber interchange alongside violist Kyuhyun Kim over elegaic cello drones as the first movement journeys to the grave.

The chase scene in the second movement, the KGB in frantic pursuit, has as much jagged menace as anyone could want, through fleeting references to some of the composer’s other works. Likewise, the sudden crescendos in the gleefully tiptoeing danse macabre of movement three are sharply executed. Movement four is the creepy scene where the death squad comes knocking, in this case done with a bit of restraint that underscores the sense of terror. At a time when big pharma, their puppets in government and law enforcement are waging war against majority populations who won’t take the kill shot, there’s never been a better time to take inspiration from Shostakovich’s insight into how fascists work.

The movement’s conclusion sets up the relentlessly drifting, especially lustrous mournfulness of the quartet’s last movement. The Emerson and Jerusalem Quartets have put out more distantly ominous, and arguably more suspenseful recordings, but this one is strong and needs to be heard as widely as possible, given the state of the world right now.

The Novus Quartet open the album with Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 3, which he wrote in 1945, hot on the heels of his crushingly cynical Symphony No. 9. In view of that work’s less-than-triumphant response to Soviet victory in World War II, this comes across as more serious and straightforward – although Shostakovich’s unsurpassed sense of irony is everywhere.

The group tackle the first movement, a Bartokian, reharmonized folk dance, with a visceral starkness, the babushkas at the local market surveying the damage with an energy that’s more wary than weary. From there, the ensemble waste no time in developing a sense of foreboding in the briskly waltzing second movement. Is the tiptoeing, balletesque interlude that follows an evocation of hope and renewal, or a typical Shostakovich caricature of the face of evil? Considering the brisk, pouncing, driving rhythms, chase sequences and witchy coda of the third movement, it would seem the latter.

The quartet let the pall linger in the fourth movement: Kyuhyun Kim’s righteously indignant viola out in front of the solemnity packs a wallop. The group return to an emphatic rusticity in lieu of courtly grace in the final movement’s dance sequence. The war may be over, but the dynamics that fueled it are still there, the composer seems to remind us. These insightful performances deserve an encore from the rest of the Shostakovich catalog.

Don Davis’ Relentless, Harrowing Matrix Score Finally Available on Vinyl

If reissuing classic film soundtracks on vinyl is a meme, it’s long overdue. One auspicious development is the recent release of Don Davis‘ complete music from The Matrix, just out as a triple vinyl record and streaming at Spotify. Much of the score is very still, with tense highs from the strings and occasionally the cymbals. Suspense is everything, until in a split second something goes haywire, or trouble looms and then explodes, often triggering frenetic bouts of activity. Themes or riffs burst into the sonic picture, only to be cut off mid-phrase. Several of the interludes are especially fleeting, under the one-minute mark.

Big swells and striking, loopy phrasing are recurrent tropes: Philip Glass’ film work appears to be a big influence. An anvil rhythm returns as a foreshadowing device. While the overall sense of terror seldom lifts, Davis’ sense of humor occasionally percolates to the surface, whether in a galloping gamelanesque interlude, or a ridiculously blithe passage for solo harp. One of the tracks is titled Switches Brew. A steady, pulsing theme, Switch Works Her Boa gets frantically fleshed out as Switch Woks Her Boar.

There are also a couple of smartly chosen references to a fugitive riff from Shostakovich’s macabre String Quartet No. 8. The last disc is where Davis gets the orchestra’s brass to dig in hard throughout a long series of stormy, bellicose passages. Taken as a microtonally-tinged stand-alone suite for orchestra and occasional keyboards, this is as entertaining as it is forward-looking – which dovetails with the sensibility of the film.

The 50 Best Albums of 2021

The 50 Best Albums of 2021

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 4 was his prophetic cautionary tale. He wrote it in 1934. By then, Stalin’s genocidal regime had already reached holocaust proportions. Hitler’s was in its early stages.

In 1946, Vaughan Williams took several themes from that symphony and built his Symphony No. 6 around them. It was his big “I told you so” moment. Together, the violence and gloom never lift throughout the London Symphony Orchestra‘s recording of those two symphonies. It was the one album that was on loop here more than any other one this year.

Antonio Pappano led this resolute ensemble in a fierce, cataclysmic performance of No. 6 on March 12, 2020. As of today, this remains the final orchestral concert recording made in the UK when it was a free country. In a stroke of serendipity, the album opens with Pappano and the orchestra playing Symphony No. 4, recorded in concert on another pivotal date in British history, Election Day, 2019. None of this is easy listening, but if you can handle it, it’s impossible to turn away from. And as a parable of what happens when we fail to recognize evil for what it is, it’s never been more relevant. That’s why it’s New York Music Daily’s pick for best album of 2021.

Otherwise, 2021 might be the weirdest year in history for recorded music. What you see here underscores artists’ resourcefulness and resilience in the face of the most crushing odds. What you don’t see here speaks to how so many styles of music have been completely decimated over the past twenty-one months.

Those who’ve followed the annual best-of-the-year lists here will notice that for the first time, an unusual number of the streaming links here – click on each album title below for full-length audio – are not at Bandcamp or Soundcloud, but at Spotify. That’s because there’s less rock music on this list than at any other time in this blog’s ten-year history. Without tour money to finance recordings, most rock artists haven’t been able to make them. What’s left is a crazy mix of jazz records whose release dates were put on ice by totalitarian lockdowns, some classical albums financed largely by government and nonprofit money, along with the usual sounds from around the world.

The best rock record of the year – which could just as easily be categorized as soul or blues – was Van Morrison‘s cynically titled Latest Record Project No. 1. This mammoth double album is somewhat subtler than the series of protest songs he released at the end of 2020, but it’s just as fearless. A rotating cast of musicians provide a purist, inspired backdrop and Morrison, who never loses his sense of humor, is at the top of his game as lyricist and charismatic frontman. That it took a 75-year-old icon from the 60s to release the most rousing call for freedom released in 2021 does not speak well for younger generations.

Beyond the next ten or so records on this list – the rest of the creme de la creme of 2021 – everything here is in completely random order, irrespective of when it was officially released, or when it was reviewed here. Click on the album title for streaming audio; click on artist names for their webpages. There are hours and hours of pleasure and solace here; you might want to bookmark this page.

Jordi Savall/Le Concert Des Nations – Beethoven Revolution: Symphonies 1 a 5
Beethoven’s first five symphonies recorded with stunning intimacy and detail, closer to how they would have been performed in the composer’s time. Comparing any of the other albums on this list to this magnum opus is a bit of a stretch.

The Boston Symphony OrchestraShostakovich: Symphnies No 1, 11 and 15
A mammoth, impassioned new live recording that also includes Rudolf Barshai’s string orchestra arrangement of Shostakovich’s harrowing, antifascist String Quartet No. 8.

Rafael Gintoli and the Siberian State Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Argentine composer Alicia Terzian’s Violin Concerto and Three Pieces for Strings
Two of the most foundational and most otherworldly microtonal classical works

The London Symphony OrchestraShostakovich Symphonies, No. 9 and No. 10 
Withering sarcasm, vast expanses and furtive chases brought to life in two hauntingly electric concerts from 2018 and 2020 right before the lockdown

The Minguet Quartett and the Lucerne Academy OrchestraKonstantia Gourzi: Anájikon
Gorgeous, poignant Greek and Middle Eastern classical themes which also feature violist Nils Mönkemeyer and pianist William Youn

Ward White – The Tender Age
Parlor pop, psychedelia, janglerock and more on the most menacing album of the year, from the polymath LA tunesmith and multi-instrumentalist

Mostly AutumnGraveyard Star
The most epic, relevant rock album written during the lockdown, an anguished but guardedly hopeful mix of towering, resolute, epic anthems and more delicate Britfolk-inspired themes

Derrick Gardner & the Big Dig! BandStill I Rise
Pummeling, hard-swinging big band jazz from this mighty trombone-led ensemble

Bence Vas’ Big Band –  Overture et. al
Organ-driven big band jazz has seldom been this orchestral or toweringly haunting

Sana NaganoSmashing Humans
A dystopic sci-fi-themed suite set to a blend of savage guitar, violin and a taut rhythm section, with a surprise ending

Tiffany NgDark Matters: Carillon Music of Stephen Rush
The most unselfconsciously beautiful album on this list is built around a paradigm-shifting suite from the late 80s, rich with overtones and otherworldly ringing textures

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard L.W.
The astonishingly prolific Australian psychedelic band’s most deeply Middle Eastern-inspired album

The Catalyst QuartetUncovered Vol. 1 – Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
An inspired classical ensemble revisit the ruggedly individualistic, Balkan and Dvorak-inspired black classical composer from the late 19th century

The London Philharmonic OrchestraDmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11
A vividly desolate, elegaic requiem for the millions murdered by the genocidal Stalin regime

The Malta Philharmonic OrchestraContemporary Colours
Colorful, often Middle Eastern-tinged works by contemporary Maltese composers including Albert Garzia, Alexander Vella Gregory, Veronique Vella, Christopher Muscat and Mariella Cassar-Cordina

The Armoires – Incognito
An audacious stunt – releasing a wildly eclectic series of singles under tongue-in-cheek, fictitious bandnames like October Surprise – resulted in the band’s most diverse and lyrically rich record

Erkin Cavus and Reentko Dirks –  Istanbul 1900 
Plaintive, broodingly evocative microtonal acoustic guitar instrumentals inspired by urban neighborhoods now gone forever

Bare Wire SonOff Black 
Multi-instrumentalist Olin Janusz’s bleak dirges built around journal entries by mothers who lost their sons in World War I

Katla – Allt þetta helvítis myrkur (All This Hellacious Darkness) 
Austere Icelandic folk and grimly ornate metal epics

VolurDeath Cult 
A searing blend of black metal, Nordic folk and psychedelic 70s art-rock from the violin-and-bass-driven trio.

Michael SmallParallax View Original Soundtrack
The creepy, ultra-noir, furtively orchestrated score to Alan Pakula’s 1974 political assassination thriller hasn’t been available as a stand-alone recording til now. Not online, although the film is available on VOD

FortidWorld Serpent
Forlorn cinematics, Viking stampedes and rapidfire chromatics throughout this dystopic metal masterwork

The Pocket Gods – Another Day I Cross It Off My Bedroom Wall
The most surreal lockdown-themed album released to date, a witheringly cynical, satirical, sometimes unexpectedly poignant mix of styles from these snarky British pop polymaths

Patricia KopatchinskajaSchoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire
Pianist Joonas Ahonen and an inspired ensemble join the colorful violinist in a wild version of the iconic loony puppet’s tale, along with a collection of biting miniatures

Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond Ride the Cyclone original soundtrack
No style of music is off limits to this duo’s merciless satire: American and foreign hip-hop, circus rock, corny G-rated Lawrence Welk church-parlor pop and much more

Fanfare CiocarliaIt Wasn’t Hard to Love You 
Explosive, rat-a-tat minor-key dancefloor jams from one of the world’s most electrifying Balkan brass bands

James McMurtryThe Horses and the Hounds
Doomed American troops in Afghanistan, aging drunks and lovers defying the odds, and cautionary tales of all kinds from one of the alltime great Americana storytellers

Katayoun GoudarziThis Pale
Poignant, often plaintive ghazal settings of classic Rumi poems from this nuanced, crystalline-voiced Iranian singer and bandleader

BesarabiaAnimal Republic
Fiery, serpentine flamenco, Middle Eastern, Balkan and Romany dance tunes

The ReducersLive: New York City 2005
An incendiary, whirlwind 40-minute set of cynical, catchy punk and pub rock from late in the legendary New England band’s career

The Academy Blues Project The Neon Grotto
Slyly lyrical, shapeshifting jamband rock with influences as diverse as the Grateful Dead, Steely Dan, Supertramp, P-Funk and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis.

Changing ModesWax World
Brooding, desolate lockdown reflections, shapeshifting art-rock and slashingly cynical, psychedelic harmony-pop from one of New York’s best bands from the past decade or so

Carola Ortiz – Pecata Beata
Whirlwind, shapeshifting, flamenco-inspired songs from the Catalan singer and clarinetist

Lia Sampai – Amagatalls de Llum
Disarmingly intimate, strikingly imagistic, fearlessly political songs from this individualistic Catalan songwriter

Gabriel AlegriaSocial Distancing
A chillingly allusive, insightful Afro-Peruvian jazz album exploring the fateful first year of the lockdown

Sam Llanas  – Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels
Haunting Nashville gothic, countrypolitan and Americana tunesmithing by the agelessly soulful former frontman of heartland rock legends the BoDeans. Not available online, but there are several tracks on Llanas’ more recent concert video 

Şahan ArzruniAlan Hovhaness: Select Piano Compositions
A fascinatingly diverse, sometimes minimalistic, sometimes rapturous world premiere recording of rare works by the arguably greatest American classical composer of alltime

Satoko Fujii – Piano Music
Extended-technique inside-the-piano sonics spun through a bunch of effects for one of the year’s trippiest, most hauntingly enveloping albums

DictaphoneGoats & Distortions 5
Darkly cinematic, dub-inspired, bass clarinet-driven sounds that expands on the group’s exploration of what they call “morbid instruments.”

Matthew Shipp – Codebreaker
Eerie close harmonies percolate through the legendary jazz pianist’s diverse, highly improvisational latest album

Frank KimbroughAncestors 
The late, great jazz pianist’s saturnine swan song, with an inspired, unorthodox trio

Opium MoonNight + Day
Rapturous, hypnotic Indian and Middle Eastern-tinged themes and variations on this vast double album

Menahan Street BandThe Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band
Oldschool soul instrumentals with a dark psychedelic streak

Jovica Ivanović and the Ukrainian Chamber OrchestraPiazzolla and Galliano
Majestic accordion concertos by the iconic Argentine bandoneonist and also by the great Richard Galliano

Greg Loughman – RE: Connection 
A vivid, cinematic jazz suite reflecting on the disastrous effects of the lockdown, but ultimately offering a message of hope

CanLive in Brighton 1975
Sprawling, smoky sometimes twenty-minute instrumental jams from the legendary German band at their psychedelic peak

The Shining TonguesMilk of God
Moody, gothic-tinged folk-rock and art-rock from the surviving members of the Infinite Three

The Colorist Orchestra and Howe GelbNot on the Map 
A lavish mix of dusky, sweepingly orchestrated art-rock and southwestern gothic from one of the guys who invented the style

Langan Frost & Wane – their first album
Trippy, Mediterranean-tinged retro 60s sunshine pop and psychedelic folk

Willie NileThe Day The Earth Stood Still
Stomping, surreal, allusively lyrical lockdown-era powerpop anthems and some surprising detours into slinky, funky, psychedelic sounds

Becca Stevens and the Secret Triotheir debut collaboration
Art-rock songwriter and Balkan/Armenian traditional band team up for spare, crepuscular magic

Metal! Live in Bahrain Vol. 2
Thrash, death metal and post-Metallica sounds from Persian Gulf bands Hellionight, Ryth, Necrosin and Lunacyst

An Iconic Horror Film For the Ears

What better to kick off this year’s annual October-long Halloween celebration of dark music than one of the alltime great horror movies for the ears? Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 4 in 1936, when he first earned the wrath of Josef Stalin for daring to create interesting and relevant music that didn’t glorify the genocidal Soviet regime.

Sound familiar?

Censorship and totalitarianism existed long before the lockdown, the needle of death, Facebook and Google. The Leningrad Symphony Orchestra was pressured not to premiere the symphony, which wouldn’t see the light of day until 1961. The composer reputedly called it his favorite.

As political satire, it’s one of the most withering pieces of music ever written. It’s a mashup of Stravinsky, Tschaikovsky, Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King and Schoenberg, but more venomously political than anything any of those composers ever wrote. There’s a spellbinding live recording by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, streaming at Spotify, that you should hear if you can handle savagely troubled music right now.

This particular album is taken from two concerts at the Barbican in November 2018. Noseda’s dynamics are vast and dramatic to the extreme, as they should be. Whether explosive, or shuddering with horror, or ruthlessly parodying Stalin’s campy pageantry, the orchestra are a force of nature.

The first movement comes in with a shriek, a pulsing post-Sacre du Printemps dance of death and all kinds of foreshadowing of how Shostakovich would expand on this kind of phantasmagoria, far more politically. All the strongman themes in Shostakovich’s symphonies, from the third on, are phony: he never lets a tyrant, whether Stalin or Krushchev, off the hook.

Coy cartoons suddenly appear livesize and lethal. This is a cautionary tale, the composer telling us not to take our eye off the ball, or else. A rite of the dead of winter, intertwined with terrified individual voices, rises to a vicious crescendo. The first of many references to Anitra’s Dance, the Grieg theme, appears. Concertmaster Roman Sinovic and bassoonist Rachel Gough become plaintive and persistent witnesses to history.

Movement two is nothing less than an indictment, a sometimes ghostly, pervasively anxious waltz wafting in and out, the ruthlessness of the regime baring its fangs to a terrorized citizenry. The concluding third movement begins too casual to be true, as the orchestra calmly allude to another macabre Russian classic, Moussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. The chase scene early on doesn’t have quite the horror of the KGB pursuit theme in Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, but it’s close.

The ensemble offer a twisted parody of a Germanic minuet as a spitball at the entitled Russian collaborator classes, Noseda getting maximum cynical gossipy fervor out of the strings. Stormtroopers gather and wreak havoc, the orchestra building a devastatingly phantasmagorical parody of Tschaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Clashes of ideologies, musical and otherwise, grow more combatively surreal. The seemingly ineluctable, gruesome march out doesn’t get to fade down without a series of accusatory ghosts.

As with all of Shostakovich, there are innumerable other details that could take up ten more pages to chronicle: buckle up for this carnival of dead souls. The London Symphony Orchestra’s ongoing series of live albums comprise some incredible performances and this might be the very best of recent years.

Powerful Words From a Brave Violinist

A heated public hearing in front of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors two days ago offers a capsule view of where this country is going: back toward freedom and normalcy, at warp speed. Scroll down to the middle of the page at Zerohedge for the video of nonstop testimony from a stunningly diverse bunch of average Americans, both native-born citizens and immigrants, who have suddenly found themselves on the front lines of the freedom movement.

The most inspiring moment of the entire daylong hearing is at 5:28:00 when Pacific Symphony violinist Bridget Dolkas takes the podium: “Around the country and the world, I see concerts, museums, and events being weaponized to coerce humanity to go along with the totalitarian agenda of forced injections and digital passports….When government uses the expression of the human soul against the very people it represents, we can see the conflicts of interest. We do not consent…Dmitri Shostakovich, one of the preeminent composers of the 20th century, saw this all too well. He dedicated his Eighth String Quartet to the victims of totalitarianism. We will not forget history and we do not consent.”

With that, she reaches for her phone and then plays a recording of that chilling “KBG knock at the door” riff, as she describes it.

Then at 5:32:00, San Diego mom Suzie Williams Zellers – who handcrafts prosthetics for US soldiers maimed in combat – testifies to the power of waking up as citizens. ‘What type of mother would I be if I did not stand up for my children? My children and I can no longer deal with California’s political theatre and the masks…children learn through laughter and play, at preschool and an elementary age. Children need to see faces, take off the masks, end the political theatre.”

With California Governor Gavin “Nuisance” Newsom scheduled to be recalled on September 14, the Covid-industrial complex’s lethal injection campaign there is dead in the water, although as you can see from the video, its enablers in public office are desperate to keep the vaxist agenda from going completely off the rails. Words of wisdom for everybody in New York after the Cuomo regime officially ends on the 24th.

Some good news: a group of Staten Island restaurants and gyms are suing to overturn New York City’s unconstitutional medical “passport” apartheid. There’s also a protest against mandatory injections at City Hall here at 4 PM on Aug 25.

An Electrifying Debut Album by Cellist John-Henry Crawford

Cellist John-Henry Crawford obviously wanted to make a splash with his debut album, Dialogo, streaming at Spotify.. First he tackles an old Germanic warhorse, then a cruelly challenging solo sonata and closes with prime Shostakovich. And he leaves a mark with each piece.

Brahms’ Sonata for Piano and Cello No. 2 in F Major, Op. 99 may be a pleasant if unmemorable work, but Crawford goes deep under the hood and finds innumerable ways to hold the listener’s attention. He airs out his vaunted technique in Ligeti’s Sonata for Solo Cello And Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor, Op. 40 is as sardonic and vibrant as anyone could want.

Right out of the gate in the first movement of the Brahms, Crawford explores the fullness of his range, with a stark, stygian resonance on the lows and contrasting airiness in the highs. His use of vibrato is intuitive and varied, depending on the phrase: he tends to be sparing with it, eschewing full-blown High Romantic drama. Meanwhile, pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion matches that dynamic attack, from distant glimmer to the occasional insistent peak.

There’s a welcome spareness to the second movement, from both cellist and pianist. Yet Crawford’s versatile attack in the pizzicato sections, from a stomp to a whisper, are attention-grabbing to say the least. The two really dig into movement three: this is far more of a boisterous country waltz than tiresome Viennese high-society gala. They close it out with a finely detailed wariness and wistfulness: if only others would play it that way more often.

Crawford’s approach to Ligeti’s completely different, elegaic Sonata for Solo Cello is similar in that dynamic contrasts and shifts are every bit as finely honed, and striking when a sudden, troubled moment appears. The steadiness of the first movement harks appropriately back to Bach; the chase scenes of the second are less furtive than simply breathtaking.

The duo close out the album with Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor, Op. 40. It’s the composer putting an acerbic modernist edge on his early Romantic influences, with a vividly lyricism. The first movement shifts between a rather nostalgic glimmer to more enigmatic insistence, aching crescendos and a stunning move to a mutedly stalking theme out of a poignantly resonant passage.

The elegantly off-center dervish dance of a second movement is pure fun: Crawford’s harmonic glissandos are hilarious (and brutally tough to play). The third’s slow, broodingly upward drift from minimalism to an increasingly wary pavane and back is otherworldly and unselfconsciously affecting. The two wind up the sonata, and the album, with a gremlinish playfulness, trading off breathlessly between torrential streams of notes and an irresistibly wry jauntiness. It’s reason to look forward to whatever else these two choose to do together – and let’s hope they will.

Savagely Brilliant Shostakovich Symphonies From the London Symphony Orchestra

In a time when global tyranny and repression have reached levels of terror not seen since the Middle Ages, it makes sense to revisit two great antifascist works from a composer who narrowly managed to survive under one of the world’s most evil regimes. Only Dmitri Shostakovich’s popularity saved him from the fate so many of his friends suffered under Stalin. Fortuituously, maestro Ginandrea Noseda and the London Symphony Orchestra have just released a live album of two completely different but equally relevant Shostakovich symphonies, No. 9 and No. 10, streaming at Spotify. The former is from 2018, the latter from performances at the Barbican in January and February of 2020, just a few weeks before music there was banned by the Boris Johnson regime.

During his lifetime, Shostakovich explained away the savage irony, caricatures and stricken horror in his music as reflecting on the evil of the Tsarist regime, even though it was clear that he was taking shots at Stalin and then Krushchev. Symphony No. 9 is an oddball, the only one of its kind in the composer’s repertoire. It’s a goofy little piece of music whose sarcasm is almost completely deadpan. It’s impossible to imagine a more dispassionate celebration.

Written ostensibly in tribute to the Soviet victory over the Nazis, the blithe little flourishes of the first movement seem to ask, “So we aren’t going to find out if life under Hitler would be any better than it was under Stalin? It couldn’t be any worse.” Ultimately, history would validate that gruesome premise. Noseda leads the orchestra through a very individualistic interpretation, muting the turbulent undercurrent and practically turning it into a concerto for flute and violin.

The conductor takes the second movement slowly, letting the brooding reflection of Juliana Koch’s oboe speak for the weariness of millions of Russians. This depleted, exhausted waltz really drags. Then in the third movement Noseda really picks up the phony pageantry, a familiar trope in the Shostakovich playbook: trumpeter Philip Cobb’s facsimile of a martial Russian victory riff is a hoot.

But it doesn’t last. Timothy Jones’ sotto-voce, lightly vibrato-laden horn brings back the sullen atmosphere in movement four. The sober oboe introduction to the conclusion foreshadows a familiar, troubled hook from Symphony No. 10. The coda is appropriately rote, a whole nation bustling through the motions.

No. 10 might be the greatest symphony ever written: Noseda and the ensemble go deep into its innumerable layers for gravitas and historical impact. Grounded in the low strings, the vast expanse of pain and anguish in the first movement is visceral, a requiem for the victims of Stalin’s reign of terror. Noseda’s choice to mute the flickers of hope against hope, as a pulsing sway grows more and more harrowing, is an apt template for the rest of the recording.

The furtive chase scene of the second movement gains coldly sleek momentum as it morphs into a danse macabre: holocausts throughout history are always carefully orchestrated. Movement three, in contrast, seems especially restrained in its most desolate moments, setting up the iconic, eerily syncopated, Scheherezade-like theme at the center.. Individually voices of mourning rise over a grim hush in the fourth movement: that brief, bubbly respite may only be a coded message to the composer’s girlfriend at the time, and it isn’t long before it becomes a completely different kind of pursuit theme.

Ultimately, Shostakovich’s best-known symphonies are cautionary tales. Look what happened in my country, he tells us. Don’t let this happen in yours. How crushingly ironic that an orchestra from the UK – sufffering under one of the most sadistic totalitarian regimes in the world at the moment – would be responsible for such deeply insightful performances.

A Hauntingly Relevant New Shostakovich Concert Recording From the London Philharmonic

Dmitri Shostakovich would find no small irony in that one of the most chilling recent recordings of his Symphony No. 11 would be released by a British orchestra during the (hopefully short) reign of the most brutally repressive regime in that nation’s history. The composer titled the symphony 1905, to commemorate the massacre of over two hundred unarmed Russian protestors by Tsarist militia in the St. Petersburg city square that year. In reality, it’s a requiem for the victims of Stalin’s genocide and possibly the martyrs of the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary The gold standard for recent recordings remains the Mariinsky Orchestra’s 2012 performance under Valery Gergiev. But this one – by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski and streaming at Spotify – is also stunningly vivid.

This undated live performance from London’s now-shuttered Royal Festival Hall doesn’t have quite the dynamic range of the Mariinsky recording, and if anything, it’s more hushed in places. But it’s hardly any less haunting. In Jurowski’s hands, this comes across as more of a series of grisly memories than any kind of linear narrative.

As the morose first movement slowly rises from a doomed predawn ambience, the foreshadowing leaves no doubt that these brave souls don’t have a prayer. Faintly hopeful twin flutes and a solemn solitary oboe give voice to variations on a sturdy worker’s song, which immediately grows more and more defeated over a grimly looming backdrop. Could this be an indictment of Stalin’s bastardization of Marxist ideology, maybe? Meanwhile, the sentries’ trumpets are lurking and don’t hesitate to make their presence known. Jurowski’s resoluteness in maintaining a vast, distant expanse behind them enhances the impact considerably.

Forces mass on each side as a standoff develops in the second movement, lustrously drifting and swirling strings against marching brass hitting a cruelly heroic peak. Are those furtive, muted pizzicato strings going to succeed? Or is the bronzed return of the suicidal opening theme the real portent here? By now, we know where all this is going. Shostakovich doesn’t even acknowledge Stalin by giving him as much as a simple tune: the massacre itself is all drums and cymbal crashes.

But this isn’t half over yet. The contrast between the almost inaudible, massed basses and violins behind the funereal chimes as the smoke clears (and those sentries with their trumpets, who just refuse to shut up) is viscerally intense. The third movement’s long dirge of a folk song, its muted, syncopated bassline and macabre low brass quietly remind the listener to grasp the consequences of this horror. Shostakovich wants us never to forget that fascists don’t just kill once: they do it again and again until we get rid of them.

A slightly different view emerges in the conclusion: amid its richly grim textures, some of these freedom fighters seem considerably more adrenalized and disciplined than what we’ve seen earlier on. In 2021, we will need such energy and discipline as we resist the enticements behind the lockdowners’ genocidal agenda: we can have our orchestras and concerts again, if only we take their needle of death. Obviously, if we do, there won’t be any orchestras left by then anyway.

Like many symphonic ensembles these days in parts of the world which haven’t yet broken free of the lockdown, the London Philharmonic have been releasing a steady stream of archival live recordings and this is one of their very best, reason to keep a close eye on what else they may have in the vault for us.

The Dragon Quartet Tackle a Harrowing, Transgressive Masterpiece and Other Russian Works

Today it’s time to salute transgression, and freedom fighters, and one of the most harrowing pieces of music ever written.

Is it transgressive for a Chinese string quartet to play play popular and less popular but underated Russian repertoire? That probably depends on who you ask, and where you ask that question.

The Dragon Quartet – violinists Ning Feng and Wang Xiaomao, violist Zheng Wenxiao and cellist Qin Liwei – released their second album in the spring of last year. It’s streaming at Spotify; the centerpiece is Shostakovich’s chillingly immortal String Quartet No. 8. Having outlived Stalin, who had murdered so many of his friends, the composer wrote this piece in less than a week, fearing that he might not live to finish it since the tyrant’s successor, Krushchev, had gone on the warpath against artists again. If you know classical music, you undoubtedly know this one, where the composer inserts his initials thousands of times into the score (in German). If you don’t, you are in for a treat.

The slow, sheer despondency of the first movement is an especially severe contrast with the haggard chase scene (and sarcastic Wagner quotes) in the second. The dynamics of the marionettish dance of death in the third enhance the relentlessly sinister quality, particularly its ghostly swirls.

The fourth movement is where the gestapo knock on the door, one of the most iconic sequences in all of classical music. The quartet really dig into the lushness and desperation that follows: Ning’s muted lines as hope runs out pack a wallop, quietly, as does the resonance of the conclusion and Qin’s stark, solemn cello.

Mieczyslaw (Moishe) Weinberg was for several years Shostakovich’s neighbor and drinking buddy, and a vastly underrated, wildly prolific composer. He’d escaped the Holocaust only to be jailed by Stalin: although Shostakovich advocated for him, it was Stalin’s death that saved his life. Here the group play his String Quartet No. 2, which he wrote in 1945. It makes a good segue.

Ning soars uneasily over moody, sometimes insistent lows, with the group supplying vividly aching low/high contrasts as the piece gets underway. They give the second movement a fin-de-siecle, Debussy-esque wistfulness but also a marching cynicism and then flurry vigorously yet very warily through the third. The melodies hypnotically circling over the ghostly backdrop of the fourth movement are another higlight of the album. The group find a melancholy song without words and then get their hands dirty with the bracing round-robin counterpoint of the concluding movement.

Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 is an attractive piece of music, played expertly and thoughtfully, but it’s not going to blow you away like Shostakovich. It’s a love song to Borodin’s wife that ends as the happy couple go on a brisk stroll together. Before that there’s clever, Haydn-influenced counterpoint and shadowing, old world pensiveness, some stately waltzing, balletesque grace, and hummingbird-like speed from Feng when the conclusion calls for it.