Comparative listening- Don’t mess with Bobby.

It’s Bobby Schumann week on planet Earth, and all the nations of this blue planet are gathering their energies and chanting “Bobby, Bobby, Bobby” in honor of his 200th birthday.

I’m celebrating the week by book-ending the week with performances of the Cello and Violin concertos. Schumann seems in many ways to be sinned against more than almost any other major composer- what is it about his voice that again and again leads performers and listeners to take short-cuts in getting to know and to understand his music?

Schumann had one of the most sophisticated, unique and distinct voices of any composer. His music spans a huge range of expressive characters, from dreamy introspection to learned severity to naïve exuberance. Understanding his choices is not always a quick process, but I can honestly say that I can scarcely think of a choice in any of his music that doesn’t prove to be the right one on careful reflection.

Of course, one of the most frequently repeated, and completely wrong-headed, criticisms of Schumann is that he was somehow an inept or unimaginative orchestrator. I remember buying Lynn Harrell’s recording of the Schumann as a teenager and reading in the liner notes by one Lionel Salter that “Schumann wrote his concerto rapidly within a fortnight: it is true that the solo part is not very grateful to play, and that he solved the question of balance by allotting a markedly subordinate role to the orchestra (in fact, the accusation of “drabness” in the orchestral color led Shostakovich to re-score the work)”

Hmmm….

First, having just played it, I want to go on record as saying that it is tremendously challenging but absolutely wonderful to play- it has everything for the cellist, from lyrical passages that are unmatched in the repertoire to pure virtuoso writing to keep the fingers busy. You get to seduce, sing, cry, scream, bellow, scamper, sigh, roar and laugh through the instrument. What could be more grateful?

But, this question of Shostakovich’s re-orchestration has haunted me for over 20 years since I read about it. On the one hand, Shostakovich is my hero. On the other hand, I think the Schumann Cello Concerto is a perfect piece, and flawlessly orchestrated, full of the most original and subtle touches of color. I couldn’t imagine an improvement on Schumann’s own work, but everyone knows  and agrees that Shostakovich was a great orchestrator- even those who dislike his music.

Finally, 2 years ago I was conducting the Schumann and a member of the orchestra brought in a sketchy looking Russian disk of the Shostakovich orchestration of Bobby’s Cello Concerto. At last, I had the chance to hear what one genius could do to improve the work of another.

Not much, it turns out.

In fact, the expression “does more harm than good” would come to mind if, in fact, it did any good anywhere in the piece.

I’ll settle on “does more harm.”

Now, two caveats before we proceed…. First, this recording is pretty bad- the orchestra doesn’t even make a very good case for the existence or orchestras, let alone for the existence of this arrangement. Second, although the disc clearly claims to be the Shosty orchestration, I still haven’t gotten my hands on a score, so it could be Krennikhov or someone like that.

First, Salter’s comment that Schumann didn’t give the orchestra enough to do while the soloist is playing isn’t really addressed in this orchestration. Most of the big, bad and insane changes are in the tuttis and interjections between soloist and orchestra.

But the real point is that this orchestration shows again and again that the arranger didn’t understand the piece on many, many levels. Take the first orchestral tutti- it’s quite short, but feels like it covers a huge amount of ground as it carries the narrative from the agitation of the first subject to the tender introspection of the second. Shostakovich sexes up the orchestration by passing the tune around from section to section, changing every few bars, which destroys the sense of this tutti as a single passionate and long-breathed epic outpouring and instead creates a sense of a distracted and impatient child as he jumps from wind choir to strings.  The winds sound so much less passionate in the melody in DS’s version than the violins do in RS’s

First Tutti- DSCH

First Tutti- RS.

Note that while Schumann’s orchestration is less varied, with the melody staying primarily in the first violins, the whole tutti sounds like a single unit, and the countermelodies in the low strings are heard as more equally important, where in the Shostakovich, only the top melodic line is really treated with any care or interest. One sounds like film music, the other like art music, one pleases the ear (sort of) the other shakes the soul.

The next solo section emerges from delicate reverie into a moment genuine virtuoso triumph- an outpouring of confidence that is immediately shattered by the second orchestral tutti. In Schumann’s original, this tutti alternates between claustrophobic agitation with the triplets in the violas and second violins to violent explosions of anguish in the whole orchestra. It is music that applies incredible psychic and emotional pressure. Shostakovich gives the triplets to the clarinets, which sounds simply comical and grotesque. Then, he goes beyond re-orchestration into re-composition, adding ludicrous Rimsky-Korsokov-esque scale flourishes in the forte outburst. It sounds like we’re alternating between bits of The Nose and Scheherezade. But it’s not the complete lack of style that is most upsetting, it is the fact that, as in the first tutti, Shostakovich lowers the emotional intensity by several levels of magnitude because the focus is on making something that is pleasing- this is music that is supposed to be shocking, upsetting, anguished and extremely tense, not film music.

Second Tutti- DSCH

Second Tutti- RS

Schumann’s sublime 2nd movement fairs even worse. I find this very strange, as I’ve never heard a criticism of this movement from anyone, ever (other than cellists, myself included, remarking on the difficulty of sustaining the dbl stop passage when playing with orchestra). I find it hard to believe that Shostakovich had anything to do with this travesty- he replaces the delicate and very Schumann-ian pizzicato string accompaniment with a  gaudy portato arco rendition. Then, wait for it—– he adds harp.

HARP!?!?!?!?!??!??!

Why not just add Wagner tubas while you are at it?

It really all sounds like an entr’acte from a Glazunov ballet played by a provincial Russian pit orchestra. One of the most personal, honest, intimate and moving movements in the repertoire is transformed into a saccharine, sentimental, cheap and self-indulgent sounding travesty. It also significantly dimishes the impact of the dialogue between the soloist and the principal cellist, a duet that is the concerto’s most memorable and touching feature, and one that has a powerful symbolic impact on all listeners

2nd Mvt- DSCH

2nd Mvt- RS

In the 3rd Mvt Shostakovich’s concern for the welfare of his fellow man comes to the fore. In particular, his profound concern for the attention span of trumpet players. I have a number of dear friends amongst the world’s trumpet sections, and I too hate to think of them as not getting enough chances to shine and showcase their mighty chops. But I wonder if this was the piece to do it in? In the first tutti, there are brief worrying signs that we’ll be hearing more trumpet that we are used to- perhaps more than we want to-

Finale Tutti 1- DSCH

Finale Tutti1- RS

But it is at the recap that his purpose becomes apparent, when suddenly, we find ourselves not in the Schumann Cello Concerto, but the Artunian Trumpet Concerto, or something like that. In Schumann’s original, this is a very moving and powerful transition- in this arrangement, it is more comic relief.

Finale Tutti 3 DSCH

Finale Tutti 3 RS

I think this is as good a place to stop as any. I don’t want this post to be read as a rant- Shostakovich will always remain one of my favourite composers, but he himself wrote in his memoirs that “composers should orchestrate their own music.” He refused to take on the completion of Mahler 10 for that very reason, and most of his work on music not his own is on Mussorgsky, whose language he understood better, it seems.

The point I really wanted to make is that everywhere Shostakovich makes a change we can argue whether or not it is in good or bad taste (although I doubt it will be a long argument). What seems certain, however, is that each change lowers the emotional temperature of the piece as a whole. Schumann himself could have added piccolo and harp (his piccolo writing in the Konzertstucke for Horns is quite brilliant!), but he knew that to do so would make the music less intense, less moving and less original.

Of course, Schumann’s original is challenging to pull off. Shostakovich shows how easy it is to get things to leap of the page in Technicolor, if that is what you want. In fact, I’ve chosen a recording I don’t like for that very reason. In the tuttis in the first movement, the orchestra doesn’t sustain out fortes before subito pianos very well. In the Finale, the balance is not good, and the chords are rushed. However, those are not Schumann’s fault but those of the performers. Just because something is difficult, it does not follow that it is bad. If something doesn’t work in Schumann’s music, as in Shostkovich’s, the fault is always with the performer.

Tune in next time, when I play extracts from Satie’s re-orchestration of Shostakovich 7.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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6 comments on “Comparative listening- Don’t mess with Bobby.”

  1. Peter

    Ken, you are right. This sounds like bad Tchaikowsky – poor old Schumann. Where did the myth of his bad orchestration come from? But may-be it is just a case of fashion. He wasn’t a bold experimenter at a time when innovation was all the rage. He’s no Berlioz, of course. The sound samples do show that he has a distinctive tone of voice which is aimiable and reassuring by comparison.

    I suppose the argument goes, Schumann was a good piano composer – innovative, imaginative, virtuosic – but when it came to symphonies and concertos he was a bit ordinary, following convention rather than creative intuition. There’s some grain of truth in that, although these works have their formal innovations – but in having a radical and conservative persona together, Schumann was entirely typical of the romantics in general. Think of Mahler, who also had a go at retouching these works, but then he also retouched Beethoven too, so Schumann is in good company there.

    Agreed – it is how you play this music that makes the difference. It is easy enough to “dig in” and make it sound muddy and turgid. Yes, it may-be does not demonstrate a natural clarity, but it is his true voice and has its own merits.

    I wonder also if this music would especially benefit from the period instrument approach – gut-strings, lighter bows, less vibrato and neater phrasing etc. Or as important, less powerful winds and brass. This is one case where historical awareness might really restore a reputation.

    Works like his Manfred Overture are masterpieces of dark colouring and dramatic narrative. Post-Beethoven symphonies always throw up these kind of dilemmas and controversies. In fact, play Beethoven badly and the textures can sound muddy and overscored – all that pointless scrubbing and accentuation – so terribly unmusical! I jest…

    Peter

  2. James Smith

    “Thanks for the fun listening. Schumann got it right at the outset. Best to leave it alone. I do tamper with the symphonies however.

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Mitya’s re-orchestration of Bobby’s cello concerto is DDS opus 125. (Hulme:_ v3 page 426 or v4 page 493)
    DDS cello concerto #2 is Op 126.
    Might have been “practice” – which I can’t recall being mentioned in any biog – or merely coincidence
    DDS’s re-orchestration of Boris Tischenko’s Concerto for Cello with Wind Orchestra to a Concerto for cello with full orchestra (inc strings) (DDS Sans Op W.) was done in 1969.

    The 20 year old Russian recording might have been the Russian Disc CD RD CD 11 106 recorded at a concert on 110 Oct1969 with the USSR Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Oistrakh whilst Mstlav Rostropovich was on the violincello
    Or: the Melodiya A10 00107 009 recorded in 1983 by the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra under Rozhddestvensky with Fyodor Lusanov. (From the MS of different years series.)

  4. Gerrald

    Mitya’s re-orchestration of Bobby’s cello concerto is DDS opus 125. (Hulme:_ v3 page 426 or v4 page 493) DDS cello concerto #2 is Op 126.
    Might have been “practice” – which I can’t recall being mentioned in any biog – or merely coincidence DDS’s re-orchestration of Boris Tischenko’s Concerto for Cello with Wind Orchestra to a Concerto for cello with full orchestra (inc strings) (DDS Sans Op W.) was done in 1969.

    The 20 year old Russian recording might have been the Russian Disc CD RD CD 11 106 recorded at a concert on 110 Oct1969 with the USSR Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Oistrakh whilst Mstlav Rostropovich was on the violincello

    Or: the Melodiya A10 00107 009 recorded in 1983 by the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra under Rozhddestvensky with Fyodor Lusanov. (From the MS of different years series.)

  5. Zac

    I actually don’t know Schumann’s concerto very well, and have never heard Shostakovich’s
    orchestration of it. I have similar (though less clearly developed) feelings about Mahler’s orchestration of Beethoven 9. I love Mahler…but methinks Beethoven did a pretty good job by himself…

  6. richard

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