> SHOSTAKOVICH complete symphonies Barshai [CH]: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No.1 in F minor (1925) (recorded 1994)
Symphony No.2 "To October" (1927) (recorded 1995)
Symphony No.3 "First of May" (1929) (recorded 1994)
Symphony No.4 in C minor (1935-6) (recorded 1996)
Symphony No.5 in D minor (1937) (recorded 1996)
Symphony No.6 in B minor (1939) (recorded 1995)
Symphony No.7 in C major "Leningrad" (1941) (recorded 1992)
Symphony No.8 in C minor (1943) (recorded 1994-5)
Symphony No.9 in E flat major (1945) (recorded 1995-6)
Symphony No.10 in E minor (1953) (recorded 1996)
Symphony No.11 in G minor "The Year 1905" (1957) (recorded 1999)
Symphony No.12 in D minor "The Year 1917" (1961) (recorded 1995)
Symphony No.13 in B flat minor "Babi Yar" (1962) (recorded 2000)
Symphony No.14 (1969) (recorded 2000)
Symphony No.15 in A major (1971) (recorded 1998)
WDR Radio Chorus (2, 3), Choral Academy Moscow (13), Sergei Aleksashkin (bass) (13), Alla Simoni (soprano) (14), Vladimir Vaneev (bass) (14), WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne conducted by Rudolf Barshai
DDD Stereo
Recorded in the Philharmonie, Cologne (recording dates for each symphony above)
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 6275-1/11 [11 CDs: 1,2,3 [75:03]; 4 [62:07]; 5,6 [77:27]; 7 [71:34]; 8 [64:01]; 9,10 [76:15]; 11 [60:01]; 12 [37:07]; 13 [62:47]; 14 [45:38]; 15 [37:54]]

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The cheapest source is CD Selections £23 only in card cover
Crotchet sell the same set in proper jewel cases for £36

As you can see, this cycle was built up over a period of eight years. A review elsewhere of no. 7 (the discs are also coming out separately on the Regis label) states that they are live recordings. The documentation here says nothing to that effect and they certainly sound like studio recordings, clear but with the reverberation typical of a large empty hall. The same sound engineer, Siegfried Spittler, is named all through, and for most of the time the producer is Christoph Held, joined by Reiner (or Heiner, the covers canít make up their minds) Müller-Adolphi in nos. 7 and 8 and replaced by Hans-Martin Höpner in the last recordings (13 and 14). The results are consistently impressive, big and shattering in the climaxes without losing focus in the quieter sections.

This set marks a departure from the usual Brilliant Classics trend. Rather than 11 jewel-cases flimsily held together by a strip of cardboard we get a sturdy box, containing the 11 CDs each in a smart envelope of its own [Editorís Note: increasingly Brilliant are offering purchasers both options] and, glory of glory, a booklet, in English, which gives a profile of the conductor and a well-argued essay on each symphony by David Doughty. We donít get the texts for nos. 13 and 14 but at least we have a summary of each poem. In the case of no. 2 and 3 itís probably better not to know what they are singing about. Even the layout has the indefinable air of a quality product, with its uncompromising insistence on chronological order even when this results in some short playing times (nos. 12 and 15 could have gone together, for example, but why worry at this price?).

Doughty is commendably honest in his presentation; he does not attempt to deny that, alongside a few towering masterpieces, this cycle contains a lot of messy and sheerly uninspired music. He also states the pre- and post-"Testimony" views on some of the works without necessarily coming down on one side or another. This is all the more welcome as the accompaniment to a cycle by a conductor who, we are told (and the results bear this out), brings out "the meaning of a composition purely on the basis of the score. Barshai needs no additional ingredients to make a piece Ďinterestingí; he shows what the music itself has to say". In the case of no. 5 - our perceptions of which have changed totally since "Testimony", affecting in particular the manner in which the finale is to be played - Barshai unleashes from the score the most numbing evidence possible in favour of the "Testimony" interpretation. By the end of the finale all remaining attempts at humanity or beauty have been mercilessly smashed aside Ė the perfect musical counterpart of the odious OíBrienís words in Orwellís 1984: "if you want an image of the future, think of a boot stamping on a childís face". And, while I donít doubt that Barshai found his evidence in the score, he was also in the know. He worked professionally and as a friend with Shostakovich from the 1940s till the composerís death and stated in a 1983 BBC radio interview that "Testimony" was "all true". I have started here because, if in the last resort I find these sturdy, powerful readings donít quite engage me as the best of Mravinsky or Kondrashin can, I would like to emphasise that there is at least one absolutely enthralling performance in the set.

When the first wave of Soviet musicians were allowed to tour the Western world in the 1960s, audiences found in Rudolf Barshai, then known principally as a great viola-player and as the founder-conductor of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, a musician not quite corresponding to the penny-in-the-slot image of a Russian dynamo, all brilliance, savagery and seething tension. (But audiences acquainted with the art of Nikolai Malko should have known better than to typecast Russian musicians). Barshai proved that a Russian could be perfectly idiomatic in Mozart and Beethoven. After his move to the west in 1976 Barshai has won a lot of respect without ever quite making it to the top. The booklet profile, taking up a comment by Shostakovich about Barshaiís "Eroica", states that his "music-making could most easily be compared to Klempererís".

Easily said, when Klemperer recordings of Shostakovich are not exactly two-a-penny. But wait, there is one, so letís examine the two conductors in Shostakovichís 9th Symphony. Klempererís 1955 Turin performance of this work used to be available on a Cetra LP and is occasionally re-broadcast by the RAI; we may hope that one day a re-mastering of the original tapes will produce a less scrawny sound than that of the off-the-air tape I am working from. At the outset Klemperer is so much slower than Barshai that it seems ridiculous, but then you realise that he is thoroughly enjoying the droll humour of it all, and he gets bouncier rhythms and cheekier phrasing. It sounds closer to Kurt Weillís pre-war Berlin than to post-war Shostakovich, but it has character and Iím afraid Barshaiís neat reading sounds merely bland in comparison. Klemperer also gets a weird mixture of beauty and sleaze out of the second movement and in the third movement, where he is scarcely slower than Barshai, the players sound possessed where Barshaiís are no more than spick and span. By this time Klemperer has the Turiners absolutely under his thumb. The brass in the fourth movement blow raspberries in a way Barshai does not even attempt and the Turin bassoonist is momentarily transformed into the greatest bassoonist in the world as Klemperer coaxes a saxophone-like whine and some bilious rubato from him. And in the finale Klemperer, at a faster tempo than Barshai, again revels in the cheekiness of the music.

So please, a warning to over-zealous fans of present day musicians: donít make comparisons that risk blowing up in your face! Barshai is a very fine conductor but a great conductor is another thing and Klemperer, even in music for which he presumably had only a passing interest, was unmistakably that.

But back to Barshai and in many ways I feel he is to be appreciated in Shostakovich for the same reasons as Berglund is to be appreciated in Sibelius. He has a way of letting the sound well out of the orchestra rather than forcing it out and his tempi seem to set up a momentum of their own. You do not feel the conductor whipping up the allegros, Solti-fashion, indeed, in a way you hardly feel an interpreter at all, a tribute to the scrupulous preparation, both as regards articulation and colour, which enables the actual performances to blossom with complete naturalness. If this sounds unexciting, then listen to the first movement of no. 4 which builds up to a colossal climax. If in many ways he seems an unusually westernised Russian, he has his winds screaming and his brass braying in the best of Mravinskian traditions. Indeed, it is often the faster, noisier movements which benefit from Barshaiís approach. Just by taking it at face value, he makes no. 2 stand up better than it often does and in no. 12 he makes you think, up to at least the half-way mark, that this workís insistence on just two themes repeated in every movement might actually be a matter of thematic discipline rather than utter poverty of invention. On the other hand, a more interventionist approach (such as Bernsteinís) is needed if the arid wastes of no. 7 are to yield a minimum of music. A tendency for slow movements to lack tension perhaps explains why nos. 8 and 10, though strongly played, are not completely overwhelming, and in no. 11 Barshai seems engaged only by the third movement (by far the best). He is fully effective in the last three, Shostakovichís return to symphonic health. Barshai was the original interpreter of no. 14 and recorded it almost immediately. He is still master of its enigmatic textures and here and in no. 13 he has the benefit of secure and expressive soloists.

A sturdy, truthful set, then, which in some ways combines the Russian and Western approaches to this composer. And which has a great no. 5.

Christopher Howell

see also detailed review by David Billing and Paul Serotsky


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