Recording of the Week, Shostakovich from Paavo Järvi’s Estonian Festival Orchestra
The proliferation of high-end international summer music festivals such as Verbier, Tanglewood, Aldeburgh and Lucerne has been a source of a great many outstanding recordings over the decades (one thinks of the many and varied treasures to come out of Aldeburgh, the late Claudio Abbado’s sublime Lucerne discography, and the wonderful Martha Argerich and Friends series from Lugano - now alas come to an end). This week Paavo Järvi’s Estonian Music Festival joins these distinguished ranks with an arresting debut recording of two contrasting works by Shostakovich: an arrangement of the unremittingly bleak Eighth String Quartet (perhaps the best-known of Shostakovich’s compositions in the genre) and the more optimistic but less frequently-performed Sixth Symphony, in which the composer sought to convey ‘the moods of spring, joy and youth’.
Though the recording was in fact made in high summer, the latter two qualities certainly burst forth with a vengeance on an album which exudes collegiality, al fresco zest and the sort of unbuttoned vitality that’s generated when musicians are in a sense ‘off-duty’ and revelling in the luxury of intensive immersion in a work for the sheer joy of it. Founded just six years ago, the Festival takes place each July in the Baltic coastal resort of Pärnu, where the Järvi family holidayed during the 1970s: the booklet includes a photograph of the young Paavo and his conductor father Neeme with Shostakovich there, and he writes emotively of the special atmosphere of a location which ‘embodies the history and spirit of the orchestra, my own family and Estonia as a whole’. Part of Järvi’s mission-statement is to bring Estonian players into contact with musicians from the West (he observes that it’s still relatively difficult for the twain to meet professionally), and though he’s clearly the musical as well as organisational driving-force behind the enterprise the prevailing atmosphere is of chamber-music on a grand scale rather than simply a calling-card from a slick new super-orchestra. (I’d be surprised if the Festival didn’t involve a healthy amount of the kind of late-night impromptu string quartet ‘jamming’ that was always one of my favourite aspects of these events in my days as a violinist!).
The Eighth String Quartet is famously one of Shostakovich’s darkest and most autobiographical works, citing material from Jewish folk-song, the First Cello Concerto, and the composer’s ill-fated opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk which the Communist Party newspaper Pravda (and possibly Stalin himself) notoriously denounced as ‘muddle instead of music’. It’s by no means uncommon to hear it ‘upcycled’ to incorporate a full string section, but Järvi and friends present the piece in a version (sanctioned by the composer) by Shostakovich’s close friend Abram Stasevich rather than in the standard arrangement by conductor and violinist Rudolf Barshai. Stasevich’s only major orchestrational tweak is to add timpani, but what a difference it makes: following the long elegiac introduction (which the Estonian strings despatch with such synergy that it almost feels like the work of single players, enhanced by engineering wizardry after the event), the first appearance of the timpani launches the ferocious Allegro molto like a starting-pistol, and the strings respond in kind with playing that’s so raw and percussive that you’d swear the musicians had switched instruments (or at least strings) since the sonorous opening of the work.
If the Estonian strings cover themselves in glory when holding the fort alone, their colleagues in the wind section are no less impressive in the Sixth Symphony, where the puckish, military-band-style writing in the last two movements bears the distinct whiff of Mahler at times: Shostakovich plays with some unusual combinations of sonorities here, and there’s especially striking work from the piccolo-player and contrabassoon (at one point in tandem!) as well as the trombones, who have a whale of a time with the deliciously vulgar writing in the finale.
An auspicious debut, then, which has whetted my appetite for more recordings from this remarkable cultural melting-pot as well as making me consider paying a visit to the beautifully bleak seaside-town where the magic happens. Pärnu’s summer tourism industry must be rubbing their hands in glee - as, at several points, was I.