KURKA: Julius Caesar, Symphonic Epilogue after Shakespeare, Op. 28. Symphony No. 2, Op. 24. Music for Orchestra, Op. 11. Serenade for Small Orchestra, Op. 25
Grant Park Orch/Carlos Kalmar, cond.
CEDILLE CDR 90000 077 (F) (DDD) TT: 64:00

SHOSTAKOVICH: Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 99. Symphony No. 6, Op. 54.
Elmar Oliveira, violinist; Seattle Symphony Orch/Gerard Schwarz, cond.
ARTEK AR 0017 (F) (DDD) TT: 69:06

Like Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920), the prodigiously gifted Robert Kurka (1921-57) died at the age of 35, his great promise established but leaving so much to be explored and deepened. Shockingly, he was not included in Nicolas Slonimsky’s edition of Baker-V until the 1971 Supplement; or Virgil Thomson’s 20th Century Composers: American Music Since 1910, or Kyle Gann’s more recent American Music in the 20th Century. In the LP era, Robert Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra recorded both the 1954 Serenade for Small Orchestra and 1953 Symphony No. 2 featured on this new disc, while Siegfried Landau led the Suite from Kurka’s only opera (produced posthumously in 1958), The Good Soldier Schweik, on Candide with the scrappy Westchester Symphony of New York. Because Schweik was scored without winds (a complete Chicago Opera Theater production from 2001can be heard on Cedille), the 6-movement Suite has had a couple of more recordings by wind ensembles in the CD era, usually paired with Kurt Weill’s Suite from The Three-Penny Opera. But it was an Albany Symphony recording of Symphony No. 2 under David Alan Miller, issued in 2003 (review), that revealed the drive, substance and sonic brilliance of the piece. Now we have Carlos Kalmar’s reading of June 2002 with Chicago’s summertime Grant Park Symphony Orchestra (the city’s second orchestra in quality, which also plays for Lyric Opera in the autumn and winter), less percussively dynamic in the first movement as well as 1:09 longer, but elsewhere Kalmar’s timings are within seconds of Miller’s, and face it, he has a larger and better orchestra at his disposal, although Cedille’s engineers in Chicago’s acoustically trashed Orchestra Hall don’t match the “Hybrid SACD” sound heard on Troy 591. They seem gain-wary, meaning you have to supply the necessary decibels to make the sound bloom to the extent possible.

However, where TROY 591 had works by Lopatnikoff, Helps and Virgil Thomson as well as Kurka’s Second Symphony, Cedille is all-Kurka with the bonus of two works never before recorded – the progressively gripping Julius Caesar, Symphonic Epilogue after Shakespeare written in 1955, and a brassy, bravura, single-movement Music for Orchestra from 1949 that never was played till Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra gave the first performance on June 27, 2003, after which the recording of it and the Serenade were made. It’s fitting that Chicago sponsors Kurka’s music since he was born and raised in Cicero, the small city abutting Chicago’s South Side that was Al Capone’s base of operations. There is more Kurka, furthermore, to be known, including a violin concerto. Let us hope, and meanwhile be grateful for what has been given so far with befitting panache.

The Shostakovich CD from Artek (based at Croton-on-Hudson, NY, and distributed by Albany Recordings) is a mixed bag, recorded in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall at different times although specific dates are missing – only “Benaroya Hall, 2003.” In fact, the Sixth Symphony was the first recording made after the new hall opened to great acclaim in September 1998: conductor Gerard Schwarz sent me a Dolby-C chrome cassette dubbed from the master tape that I still have. After hearing how harshly it had been remastered by Artek – blatantly loud, almost a libel of the orchestra’s tonal character – I played the cassette alternatively with the CD, using Nakamichi’s 1983 state-of-the-art “Dragon” deck. No question it is the same performance (at one time, after Delos and Seattle divorced, Naxos was mentioned as an outlet, coupled with Schwarz’s recording of The Execution of Stepan Razin, never issued although it was digitally taped for broadcast). The sad thing is that it’s a fine Shostakovich Sixth (or was), certainly preferable to Temirkanov or Polyanksy or Järvi or Wigglesworth among those of recent vintage, although I don’t know – but perhaps should – Mariss Janson’s Oslo version on EMI. Schwarz succeeds in sustaining the long opening Largo for nearly 21 minutes, with string playing that used to sound beautiful. The Seattle players were “up,”as well, for the ensuing Allegro and the antic Presto that concludes this enigmatic work.

As for Elmar Oliveira’s version of the First Violin Concerto, written in 1948 as Op. 77 but suppressed by the composer until Stalin was safely dead, then renumbered as Op. 99, it is technically spic-and-span and tonally on-the-spot but expressively empty if one has heard David Oistrakh, to whom the work was dedicated, and who recorded multiple versions. The US premiere with Mitropoulos conducting the NYPhil is in that orchestra’s 10-CD collection of “Historic Broadcast Recordings” (review), then was commercially recorded two days later and still available on Sony – almost as thrilling but not quite, if one has heard the broadcast. Oliveira is certainly more animated than Vladimir Spivokov on Capriccio (review) but I don’t hear depth of despair or much “soul” in this performance. Schwarz is more attuned to Shostakovich, but deserved (or should have asked for) a more temperamentally attuned soloist. However, Oliveira seems to be a crony, and big on the Artek roster. Recorded sound favors the fiddle, but otherwise is as coarse as the remastered Sixth Symphony. In a word, nyet.

R.D. (July 2004)