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Recordings of the Month


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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS
Download: Classicsonline

Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
CD 1
Symphony No. 5 in D op.47 (1937) [46:17]
Symphony No. 6 in B minor op. 54 (1939) [33:18]
CD 2
Symphony No. 7 in C major op. 60 Leningrad (1941) [73:26]
Philadelphia Orchestra (5 & 6), NBC Symphony Orchestra (7)/Leopold Stokowski
rec. Academy of Music, Philadelphia, 20 April 1939 (Victor 78s M-619) (first Western recording) (5); 8, 20 December 1940 (Victor 78s M-867) (world premiere recording) (6); live, 13 December 1942, NBC Studio 8H, NY (NBC broadcast transcription discs) (7). mono. ADD.
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1232 [79:40 + 73:26]
Experience Classicsonline

Two pre-Pearl Harbor performances of the Shostakovich wartime symphonies and another from after the USA's entry into the war.

These are not perfect examples of the recording art of the late 1930s into 1940s. They are of predominantly historic interest for out-and-out Shostakovich fans. Even so M&A’s contractors - including Mark Obert-Thorn in the case of CD 1 - have ministered tenderly and very effectively to these documents of the Soviet symphony in the USA and others will also derive pleasure from the vibrancy of symphonies 5 and 7. 

The Fifth Symphony is given in a version that majors on sombre intensity and brooding romantic power. As an illustration try the third movement at 2:09 with those singing high tensile violins. The brass are caught in superb heart at the start of the romping finale with incredible unanimity.

The Sixth Symphony - especially its arching first movement - sings out with Brucknerian amplitude yet without the blaze of heat which both Mravinsky and Svetlanov light under that Largo. Much to my surprise Stokowski adopts a looser hand than he does in the first movement of the Fifth. The lighter playfulness of the symphony's Allegro and Presto is made more of and because the Largo is taken at a slacker state the three movements dovetail more cogently than usual. In fact the two movements after the Largo sound more akin to Prokofiev than usual. Their playfulness looks forward to Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony.

For disc 2 we leave the restorative work of Mark Obert-Thorn and become acquainted with that of N.N and Kit Higginson. Despite Stokowski's pleas and his longstanding connection with the composer the NBC, who had bought the performing rights for the Seventh in the USA, allocated its premiere on 19 July 1942 to Toscanini. But Shostakovich condemned Toscanini’s superficiality. Toscanini himself - who had beaten off Stokoswki for the honour of the premiere - later could not believe that he had lavished time in learning what he then claimed was 'such trash'. The Toscanini premiere has been issued commercially by RCA so you can form your own impressions if you can track it down. Stokowski, much favoured by Shostakovich, had his version lauded to the skies when he conducted it with the NBCSO on 13 December 1942. This is what we hear on this second disc. As an audio document it is flawed, brittle and bristle-brush noisy. Yet in the hands of the Higginsons the music signal emerges with unapologetic immediacy. It sounds good for example in the first movement - the start of the side-drum ostinato even if the music has to compete with audience coughing. It strikes me as the most musical of performances capitalising on even the most inventively threadbare passages in a work with its share of flag-snapping gaud. These broadcast transcription discs have seen better days but thank the heavens for whoever preserved them.

The really useful recording-specific notes are by David Patmore.

Get this single-width double CD set while you can. Here is history made and in the making to be experienced again. These three recordings are as important in their way as Bruno Walter's 1938 Mahler 9 in Vienna.

Rob Barnett



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