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Symphony no.13 op.113 Babi Yar (1963)
Symphony no.14 op.135 (1970) Mvts. 1-6 (CD1) Mvts. 7-11 (CD2)
Symphony no.15 op.141 (1973)
Anatoly Kotscherga (bass) National Male Voice Choir of Estonia in Symphony no.13.
Ljuba Kazarnovskaya (soprano) and Sergei Leiferkus in Symphony no. 14
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
Recorded at Gothenburg Konserthuset, September 1988 (No.15), May 1992 (No.14), November 1995 (No.13)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 474 469-2 [73:40+80:17]

It is marvellous to have these last three symphonies of Shostakovich in one set together, and DG deserve our applause and thanks for packing so much music onto just two CDs – 80:17 on CD2 must be close to the maximum!

I shall discuss the symphonies in the order they appear in the set, i.e. in reverse to the dates of composition. In fact, this order works well psychologically, as the nature of Babi Yar makes it very difficult to follow with anything else. The drawback of the coupling, on the other hand, is that Symphony no.14 has had to be split, with the first six movements on CD1, the remainder on CD2. You may agree with me that it’s worth living with that, for Järvi undoubtedly has a great feeling for Shostakovich’s music, and has succeeded in drawing his musicians into his vision; these performances make compelling, sometimes overwhelming, listening.

I appreciated Järvi’s approach to the fifteenth enormously. It poses serious problems for the interpreter because of its ‘schizoid’ nature. It begins skittishly, with the famous ‘toyshop’ music in tuned percussion, flute and bassoon, and it’s not long before the sly references to William Tell start cropping up. But, as in the other movements, disturbing cross-currents are soon felt, and a sense of crisis infects the music. Järvi sets a brisk tempo, so that the opening sounds convincingly playful. This means that some of the later music, eg. CD1 track 1 around 7:15 becomes very challenging for the players. But it is in places like this that one realises what a very fine body this Gothenburg orchestra is, for they are technically and expressively strong in every department – the playing throughout the three symphonies is of the highest standard.

Järvi, by his uncomplicated approach, manages to emphasise the duality of this music, and in this sense, I prefer his version even to Haitink’s very fine one with the LPO. And, intense and engaging though Rozhdestvensky’s version is, the recording shows Melodiya at, shall we say, their most idiosyncratic, with solos spotlit mercilessly, blatant Russian brass often shatteringly loud, and balance sometimes perceptibly shifting within phrases. Järvi and his players give a wonderfully inward performance of the great slow movement, in which the atmosphere before the central outburst crackles with tension. And just listen to that soft string playing at the recapitulation of the main theme – track 2 around 11:11. If that doesn’t raise the hairs on the back of your neck, then you’re a hopeless case!

The finale begins with another very obvious quotation (the symphony is packed with them, some easily spotted, others more obscure), this time from The Ring. The brass intone the famous Fate motive, here in the form that it appears in Götterdämmerung as a prelude to Siegfried’s Funeral March, complete with rhythmic taps in the timpani. In fact, when the violins enter with their upward-reaching minor 6th, it sounds as if we are about to get the opening of Tristan too; but Shostakovich is taunting us here, and he moves off into the gentle, dance-like main theme of the movement.

All through this amazing finale, Järvi keeps the music ever moving forward, so that the sense of accumulating energy and tension as we enter the central passacaglia becomes overwhelming. The gradual wind-down to that extraordinary coda, with its long-held open fifth in the strings, and scraps of melody floating round in piccolo and celesta, while percussion ticks away nervously, is superbly captured and controlled.

This symphony leaves you full of questions, as great music often can. David Fanning’s excellent notes rightly draw attention to the close kinship with another final symphony, that of Carl Nielsen, his Sinfonia Semplice being another misleadingly ‘lightweight’ piece. Quite naturally, commentators have concentrated on Shostakovich’s personal circumstances, as he was a very sick man with a number of potentially terminal conditions when he was writing this work. But this finale seems to look well beyond the merely personal to the future of the composer’s beloved Russia itself.

The other two works are the only symphonies, apart from the early, rarely heard second and third, to use voices. Symphony no.14 was a radically new departure for the composer in three important ways. Firstly, it is effectively a song-cycle, in eleven fairly short movements; secondly, it is set for the relatively small resources of strings and percussion; and thirdly, it experiments with twelve-tone techniques. This last can be seen as a defiant gesture in itself, for Shostakovich had been put in the position of having to appear to denounce Schönberg when he was appointed First Secretary of the Russian Composers’ Union in 1959. Ten years later, in this symphony, he was able to redress the balance in a subtle way.

It is a famously bleak work, made up of settings of poems by Lorca, Apollinaire and others on the subject of death. The composer came in for much criticism in the West for the determinedly non-religious stance he took in the work; he simply says here ‘Death is the end – anything else is self-delusion’. He lost the friendship of, among others, the writer Solzhenitsyn, who was a Christian, because of this uncompromising message.

Again, Järvi draws out the character of the music without distortion and with brutal clarity. I confess I personally don’t warm to either of his soloists, though each sings with commitment and stylistic authenticity. Leiferkus has a rather strident edge to his tone, which rarely varies and is tiring to the ear (though he is superb in that unparalleled outburst of invective Zaporozhye Cossacks’ Reply to the Sultan of Constantinople). Kazarnovskaya, on the other hand, is squally and often imprecise in intonation, and seems to find it difficult to keep a really steady tone in pianissimo singing, for example in The Suicide. Thus the most memorable moments are orchestral; the sawing violins in Malagueña, or that extraordinarily spooky episode in At the Santé Jail, depicting the prisoner pacing up and down "In a kind of pit, like a bear".

The shattering "Babi Yar", Symphony no.13, completes the discs. I find the soloist here, Anatoly Kotscherga, to be very moving, even though the tessitura is sometimes demandingly high for his voice, which is a genuine Russian bass. He sings with the kind of burning commitment which this work requires from its soloist. Fanning, in his booklet notes, describes how, in the disgraceful background wrangling that preceded the premiere of the work in 1962, the authorities managed to ‘nobble’ no less than three bass soloists. But Shostakovich’s group had a fourth bass lined up, Vitaly Gromadsky, who stepped in at the eleventh hour. Anyone who thinks Shostakovich’s problems with the Soviet authorities ended in 1953 with the death of Stalin had better think again.

The Estonian Male Voice Choir sing superbly, whether at full tilt, as in the opening setting of the Yevtushenko poem which gives the work its title, or in very soft singing as in, for example, the haunting and supremely moving At the Store. Once again, I find that Järvi allows the music to speak for itself, which it does with unflinching power.

This is an outstanding issue, and, at effectively two-for-the-price-of-one, an outstanding bargain, too. This music doesn’t make comfortable listening, admittedly; but it’s some of the greatest written in the twentieth century, captured here in top-class recordings of top-notch performances. Hurry, hurry, hurry!

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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