> SHOSTAKOVICH Symphonies Barshai [PS] PART THREE: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Complete Shostakovich Symphonies conducted by Rudolph Barshai - part 3

Symphony No. 12 "The Year 1917" op. 112 (1961)

Back in 1997, I wrote a programme note for two performances (and cracking performances they were too, I might add) of this symphony given by the Slaithwaite PO under the baton of their redoubtable (and now alas retired) conductor Adrian Smith. The first paragraph is worth quoting here, to set the scene: "In 1960, at the frozen heart of the Cold War, Shostakovich finally became a member of the Communist Party, subsequently Ďcontributingí to Pravda a series of articles condemning bourgeois western music. At that time, the West, not comprehending the consequences of the alternative, understandably damned Shostakovich with the rest of the Soviet Union. When the Twelfth Symphony was first heard at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival, the critics were appalled at this crude piece of blatant, poster-painted Soviet propaganda. After all, that was exactly what it sounded like, lacking even the one redeeming feature of the much-maligned Second Symphony, that extraordinary, undisciplined crucible in which Shostakovich forged his mature style. [Whilst] the Second was seen as experimental, the Twelfth seemed merely excremental."

After having held out for so many years, why did Shostakovich chuck in the towel and meekly pick up his Party membership card? Was he going soft? Not a bit of it! He joined up because he was forced to (think of "the consequences of the alternative"), by a Soviet State that was dispassionately measuring the propaganda value of his burgeoning international reputation. I observe those cosseted pop and film "stars" who whinge on about the excessive media attention that they attract, when it is nothing more than "the price of fame", a price thatís clearly enough displayed on the goods they so desire, and if they think itís too much it they can simply walk away. Perhaps the tale of Shostakovichís "price of fame" ought to be compulsory reading?

Ah, but had he chucked in the towel? Those critics who heard the Twelfth Symphony clearly thought so, and the music certainly sounded like it - as a piece of blatant agitprop, the Twelfth left even the Eleventh gasping in its wake. In recent years, though, a different view is emerging, a view that finds in the Twelfth possibly the pinnacle of Shostakovichís achievement as a two-faced subversive, a view that sets up Shostakovich as the epitome of the fabled "white man speak with forked tongue". If itís true, then itís an incredible feat, which makes this an incredible piece of music.

The one argument that it doesnít settle is whether this is a "proper" symphony. That apart, the only question is this: is it true? Well, I canít tell you one way or the other, but in all honesty I can say that I think it is true. Even disregarding both what preceded and what followed the Twelfth, the evidence and arguments are strong enough to cast severe doubts regarding the simple "agitprop" postulate, and that alone makes this symphony deserving of our attention. The good news in this respect is that Barshai and the WDRSO deliver an outstanding performance, with excellent recorded sound, to maximise the pleasure of our labours!

To get back to the tale: that "price", in addition to the compulsory subscription and his signing his name to those articles (itís certain that he didnít write them himself. I get the impression that nobody ever did - thereís nowt new about "spin doctors", is there?), he was required to produce a new symphony dedicated to the memory of Lenin. The prospect filled him with dreadful dismay. Sure, he had on previous occasions put out the word that he was working on such a project, but this time the jackboot was on the other foot, and he was faced with the daunting prospect of "forced labour". The crux of his problem was Lenin. In the officially atheistic Soviet Union, Lenin was as near to a "god" as they got. Shostakovich had to be extra careful. In the past, the risk had been that of "merely" upsetting the Party. But to be caught out criticising Lenin, whom apparently he hated almost as much as Stalin, would be tantamount to "blasphemy". He could, of course, have copped out and simply given them what they demanded, and punched home the glorification of Lenin with a choir singing a suitable text. It goes without saying that his technical skills would have been up to it, but by this time the stoic resistance which had built up over the years simply would not allow him to stoop to such a genuflectory gesture, which would have in any event ruined his international reputation. He struggled for inspiration and, it would seem, made progress only when he had committed himself to producing what was on the face of it the most agitprop work ever, whilst bending his subversive powers to the limit - and it would have to be instrumental. His hope, forlorn as it turned out, was surely that someone in the West would "get the message".

His basic method was simple: a code to represent Lenin (basically phrases with even numbers of beats), a code to represent "the People" (odd numbers of beats), and a lot of creative thought to marry symphonic form, surface impression, and "true" subtext. Even this brought problems, with toffee-nosed pundits declaring, "This symphony is almost devoid of ideas". So what? Following that kind of logic, so is Sibeliusí Seventh, to name but the most obvious! You may shoot me for being biased, but Iím going to stick my neck out anyway: I think this is a terrific piece of music, by any standards, and no, you donít need to know the underlying politics to get the message - invent your own storyline if you wish, and so long as itís properly consistent with the musical ideas and their abstract adventures, I am fairly convinced that your tale will be as riveting as the one Shostakovich had in mind when he wrote the work.

Surprisingly, the catalogue boasts well over a dozen recordings of this symphony - not that Iíve been worried about that: Iíve lived quite happily for years with my old Classics for Pleasure LP featuring the Philharmonia under Georges Pretre. But, because it was one I had only on LP, this disc happened to be the first onto the CD tray when I received the review set. Right at the start of the first movement (Revolutionary Petrograd), I was struck by the extraordinary quality of the WDRSO bass strings, a full bodied, dark brown sound with some unruly, growling resonances that (it seemed to me) betokened playing more concerned with musical effect than technical refinement. If these chaps had been short of rehearsal time, theyíd made economies in all the right places!

This black-browed opening subject, brimming with two-note phrases, we must perforce associate with the "subject" of the symphony. This lunges from looming menace into purposeful action, crisply articulated at speed, with bags of fire and momentum. The second subject also first appears on bass strings. Gentle, flowing, and of course brimming with three-note phrases, this blossoms into an aspiring climax whereupon it is beset by two-note thuds. This is but the first example of how Shostakovich works these two elements against one another, augmented by significant quotations from the Eleventh Symphony and Lady MacBeth (the "betrayal" motive!), to underline "Lenin" as a cynical manipulator of the naive and trusting " People" (and, to cap it all, at 9'48 Iíve also just spotted a reference to the aggressive climax of the first part of the finale of the Seventh!). I was mightily impressed by the utter conviction with which Barshai drives his WDRSO forces, bringing out these interactions between the "driver" and the "driven", interactions which the unwary can easily lose behind the gaudy curtain of orchestral pyrotechnics. Sure, there is a fair bit that can be described as "mechanical movie action music", but Barshai never lets us forget that even this is part of the overall "message".

The music slips into the brooding beginning of the second movement with a seamless ease that belies the degree of judgement required for such a transition (only the CD display switching from "1" to "2" betrays it!). Shostakovichís title, Razliv, drops a massive hint that here he is concerned with Lenin hatching his master plan. Throughout, Barshai maintains a wonderful veiled quality, strings velvety, wind solos cold and soul-less. He balances to a "T" the active bass-line, so that the "People" really do seem to creep into Leninís mind from "below", providing the basis for Leninís self-deification in the ironic "holy music" that Shostakovich floats aloft. As the solo trombone announces the Plan, shivers run through the orchestra like lances of ice. Ian MacDonald said of this movement, "Thus, with infinite finesse, Shostakovich lays at Lenin's door the ultimate guilt for the fifty million victims of his Glorious Revolution", and with equal finesse the WDRSO and Barshai would have us believe every word of that.

In basing the furtive flurryings of the start of the third movement, Aurora, on the second movement theme betokening Leninís inspiration, Shostakovich neatly suggests "plan" becoming "action". If Barshai seems to underplay this first part of the movement, itís because heís aware that thereís only one real climax. Through restraint, the tension is if anything increased: in the calm before the storm you could cut the air with a knife. Then the strings start crawling like guerrillas in the undergrowth, and the "People" rise up with a tremendous rallying-cry - a beautifully-engineered crescendo, by both composer and performers. The cynical will observe that now the bullets are flying, thereís no sign of the Glorious Leader himself! The problem for performers with this "battle music" is that there is only a hairline between too clog-footedly slow and too frenetically fast - in both cases it ends up sounding just plain silly. Barshai splits the hair with a scalpel, right down the middle, and the impact is mesmerising.

The battle music spills into victory music, though Shostakovich might well have been hanged for it, as the horns announce The Dawn of Humanity by gloriously intoning the theme of his early, abortive work Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution. This theme had appeared fleetingly in the second movement, as a sly, caustic rejoinder to Leninís "inspiration", but here he replaces that former finesse with seemingly suicidal blatancy. I presume he must have known that only his nearest and dearest would actually be aware of the connotation. I presume also that Barshai is privy to the connotation, bearing in mind his friendship with its composer and judging by his handling of the theme - he encases its feet in concrete overshoes! The subsequent dizzy "dancing in the streets" (c.f. Eighth Symphony!), loosely based on the "People" is made to chitter cheerfully by the strings and woodwind, with the "Lenin" theme drifting amiably in the crowds.

Itís at the end of this development that Barshai brilliantly delivers Shostakovichís coup de grace. Winding up the tempo, he plunges into a gaily lilting rendition of the "People", immediately recognisable as being in the style of Rimsky Korsakov, who was (of course) well known as a revolutionary sympathiser. Shostakovich thereby associates the victorious people with the Narodniks, the "proper" Peopleís Revolutionaries of 1905, and delivers a right old poke in the eye to Lenin and his Bolsheviks. "Lenin" is naturally furious, becoming a militaristic bulldozer before rising in his true colours, as per the very beginning of the symphony. Barshai caps his superb interpretation with a massive, grinding coda. Taking a deliberate tempo, and ramming it home with power and passion, just as he did at the ends of the Fifth and Seventh he negates the sense of triumph: while "Lenin" is not heard, his presence is felt - the "People" and the "Funeral March" themes in pointed juxtaposition under a dead weight, as the long suffering ordinary folk of Russia jump out of the frying pan . . .

As you may have guessed, Iím with MacDonald on this one: Shostakovichís Twelfth is, under its propagandist clownís mask a damned fine symphony that doesnít deserve to be as damned as it has been. Rudolf Barshaiís reading may not be the most physically exciting, but he does do the music justice, gets some very fine playing from the WDRSO, and is well-recorded in a very convincing, beautifully balanced sound field.

Symphony No. 13 "Babi Yar" op. 113 (1962)

The Twelfth seemed to find favour with (that is, "fool") the Soviet authorities, because they proceeded to take advantage of Shostakovichís reputation abroad. Shostakovich however must have been all too aware of the derision with which the symphony was met in the West. He must have been in a turmoil, for apparently nothing of his "secret message" had got through (to be fair, the West had no inkling of what was really going on at the time behind that Iron Curtain), and the work had thus if anything damaged the international reputation that he needed as "insurance". He had to do something quickly to repair the damage, bringing him onto yet another knife-edge. Now, in addition to satisfying his own artistic imperatives, he had to "appease" two different masters: both the tyrannical regime at home and (if anything the greater challenge) the fickle cultural establishment of the West. He had to find something that would have international appeal.

The one silver lining amongst all these clouds was the Fourth Symphony, which had finally been resurrected in 1961. At the second time of asking, and under an admittedly less deadly regime than Uncle Joeís, it had gone straight to No. 1, so to speak (whatís the Russian for "I told you so"?). More importantly, it had also been well received abroad. Nevertheless, this silver lining had its cloud, because the West pointed to the Fourth, then to the Twelfth, and observed (probably not unreasonably, given the extent of its understanding of the circumstances), "Of course, that was twenty five years ago, but this shows Shostakovich has gone right down the pan since then".

Shostakovich turned to the young poet Evgeni Yevtushenko, whose fairly critical works had (odd though it might seem) been allowed by the relatively liberal regime to penetrate to the outside, where they had met with considerable acclaim. Shostakovich, with impeccable logic, concluded that he could boldly go where Yevtushenko had gone before. In deciding to set Yevtushenkoís words, he moved on several fronts at once. Firstly, he was moving from the shady world of subversive coded messages into the bright light of explicit texts. Secondly, these were not the propagandist texts he had previously set in the Second and Third Symphonies, but something much more personal. Thirdly, he was free to cherry-pick the poems with which he found particular empathy. Fourthly, being deeply expressive of real personal feelings and moreover critical of those things Shostakovich himself despised, the poetry was anyway right up his street. Fifthly (and finally!), the import and atmosphere of the words fitted right in with the direction he wanted to take in his music.

In view of his enforced change of direction following the Fourth, I donít think Iíd be far wide of the mark to suggest that the relationship of the Thirteenth Symphony to the Fourth feels like that of the mature child to the delinquent father! Both are vast, dark-shrouded musical worlds encompassing extremes of comic and cataclysmic, reaching out and connecting across the span of the intervening symphonies. In the Thirteenth, it is as if the Fifth to the Twelfth had been squeezed like oranges, their dessicated rinds binned, and only their essential juices distilled and sprinkled onto the bones of the Fourth. Then, with eye of toad and wing of bat and diabolical incantations courtesy of Yevtushenko, Shostakovich worked his unique magic to produce music ranging from stark to sarky, and from monumental to intimate. For the first time since the Fourth, he was speaking without let or hindrance, and seized the long-awaited opportunity to express what amounted to a "credo", slamming a royal flush of hearts onto the table for all to see and wonder at.

The work gets its title, and to a large degree its overall tenor, from the poem Shostakovich sets in the first movement. Yevtushenkoís Babi-Yar is a "protest song" of blood-curdling intensity, condemning the Nazi mass-murder of a sizeable proportion of Kievís Jewish population, railing mightily against anti-semitism and, pointedly, against the nasty anti-semitic underbelly of the Soviet, which mirrors the tyrannical regime itself - all, Iím sure, very embarrassing to the Soviet leadership. Small wonder, then, that as soon as the work had seen the light of day, that noble leadership tried to suppress it, even though it should have perhaps been obvious even to them that such things were getting less easy to do.

If you listen to Haitinkís magisterial recording with the Concertgebouw, the recording that I myself have, you canít fail to be impressed by the colossal, leaden weight of Shostakovichís musical vision. Yet Barshai, with his "provincial" forces, finds something that Haitink misses in the cosy surroundings of the Grote Zal - something that I can best describe as Shostakovichís equivalent to that "Russian primitivism" that Stravinsky immortalised in Le Sacre du Printemps. Maybe this is no more than an accidental by-product of the WDRSO playing, more rough-hewn and bristling with appropriately nasty splinters than the likes of the Concertgebouw. It doesnít matter - what matters is that it sounds just right. That much is apparent right from the bell - literally so, for the first sound we hear is a "funeral" bell, whose tolling stalks through the whole symphony. The WDRSO make this sound no louder than the Concertgebouw, but instead of a rounded, sonically integrated "bong" we get a real, spine-chilling "clang". The woodwind and brass of the orchestral exposition, underlaid by the bleak buzz of the bass clarinet, possess an acrid stench that you can almost smell. The strings, entering with the menís choir to the words "There is no memorial above Babi Yar", are dismally grey and shrouded (in passing, I might mention that a memorial was finally erected, in 1974). This sets the tone of the entire movement, of almost unimaginable bleakness that persists right through until the final stanza, where Yevtushenko delivers a passionate promise that Shostakovich reinforces through an emergent nobility forcing its way up through, but not quite freeing itself of, the glutinous mire of tragedy. This bleakness is projected with awesome power by Barshai: the quieter music bristles with tension, and the heaving climaxes at the heart and the end have colossal impact (try after the words "No! Itís the ice breaking!"). Incidentally, I must especially commend the WDRSO tamtam for its incredible expressive range! Barshai and the WDRSO also score in the contrasting faster passage, pungent with acid woodwind, brutal percussion and burping brass - music of the most vicious humour.

But itís not just down to the instrumental textures; thereís the small matter of the vocal forces to consider. Where Haitink has the "Gentlemen from the Choir of the Concertgebouw Orchestra" (and thatís exactly what it says on the CD!), Barshai simply has the "Choral Academy Moscow", and these are no "gentle" men. The Russian male singing voice is one of Natureís miracles - this lot sound as though their voices are rising from the very bowels of the Earth, and and by Ďeck it really does sound like thereís a lot of them! Thatís not a trivial comment; far too often these days we hear pitifully small choral forces struggling manfully (and womanfully) to sound BIG. Maybe the companies will get away with it when the engineers have the technology, but right now if you tweak your mics. and mixers to favour a small choir doing a large choirís job, it ends up sounding exactly as if youíd tweaked (etc.), and it simply sounds cheapskate. You only have to listen to Berlioz to know the difference between a real large choir and a pretend one! So, three cheers - no such problems here, the Choral Academy Moscow project a satisfying weight and uniformity of tone, without the slightest hint of the "accidental soloist syndrome".

Standing at the front is the real soloist, Sergei Aleksashkin, another pukka Russian whose voice I think would have reduced Mussorgsky to tears of joy! With effortless authority he covers the entire spectrum demanded by Shostakovich (who clearly was writing with a Russian, as opposed to Western, bass in mind), taking in the whole gamut from pitch-black declamation through to tremulous near-whispering ("I feel that I am Anne Frank, as tender as a shoot in April"). Not only does he know just how to use his voice, acting the part without undue exaggeration, but also (joy of all joys) thereís precious little evidence of any wobble!

At first glance, Shostakovichís choice of a poem entitled "Humour" as the text of his second movement might seem like simply an attempt, and a hugely successful one, at Mahlerian mega-contrast. However, as the opening lines - ". . . rulers of all the world have commanded parades, but couldnít command humour" - immediately betray, these far from still waters run much deeper than that. As I suggested earlier, Shostakovichís wicked sense of humour must have helped him hold on to his sanity through the bitter years. I would now suggest that his choice of this poem, celebrating the victory of Humour over Tyranny, proves the point! Yevtushenkoís "Humour" comes straight from the belly, bursting with red-cheeked "ho, ho, ho!" Shostakovich marks it allegretto, and scores it with plenty of well-fed oomph, suggesting the sort of grandiloquent guffawing that would belch happily from a slightly inebriate, cossack-booted Santa Claus. Aleksashkin takes the point, with relish (dare I say?), and the chorus steer dangerously, deliciously close to the rugby club or studentsí union of a Saturday night. The orchestra revel in their many "solo" bits, starting with a portentous opening that seems to mock the corresponding moment of the Tenth, then veering cheerfully from tipsy to rumbustious (and back again). At the centre of all the mayhem is Barshai, paradoxically ensuring that everything is in its proper place, everything is heard to its proper effect, including the enigmatic quote from the second movement of the Eighth Quartet that launches the brief coda ("Three cheers for Humour!"). As the movement crunches to its conclusion, on a music-hall cadence, Iím left thinking, "Thatís the wackiest Ďvictory hymní Iíve ever heard!"

The third and fourth movements together can be regarded as a "slow movement". Entitled "In the Store", the third is an utterly heart-rending combination of words and music concerned with the self-effacing stoicism of the ordinary Russian housewife. From the simple scene of women quietly queuing in the shop, the poet draws a touching image: "Iím shivering as I queue . . . but . . . from the breath of so many women a warmth spreads round the store". In describing what they endure, how they endure it, and for whom, Yevtushenko seems to sanctify them, justifying his feeling of outrage in the words, ". . . They have been granted such strength! It is shameful to short-change them! It is sinful to short-weight them!"

Shostakovich sets this poem with overwhelming empathy, the basic continual creeping motion of his music echoing the slow shuffling of the queue, the occasional "tock-tocking" of a castanet seeming to underline the almost mechanical progress of the queue. Starting with the darkest string-sounds (those fabulous WDRSO basses!), soon joined by violas caressing the line with the utmost poignancy, he gradually, almost imperceptibly lightens the texture until sanctification is achieved in violins and harp. Barshai controls it all exquisitely, coaxing from the orchestra playing of infinite tenderness. My hackles rose as Aleksashkin solemnly intoned "They have endured everything": about here comes a weird thrilling of slurring strings which is done to spine-tingling perfection. The outraged climax, by contrast, is colossal in its impact, ending on hard, stamped-out chords (not the only pointer in this symphony to the forthcoming Execution of Stepan Razin). Aleksashkin and the chorus are equally as impressive when it comes to expressing tenderness and remorse for the living as they were when venting their spleen over the murdered masses.

While the third movement relates to continuing hardship, the fourth is sort of complementary, dealing as it does with "Fears are dying out in Russia". Nevertheless, the poemís vivid recollection of those Fears "that slithered everywhere" - of speaking, of remaining silent, of being alone, of mixing with others - must have struck white-hot sparks inside Shostakovichís head. Itís no wonder, when Yevtushenko seemed to be "getting away" with such incandescent candour, that Shostakovich felt free to join him on the bandwagon: this was what he had been fighting against for most of his life. Yet the poem is in two parts: after a rallying-call proclaiming victory over these Fears, the poet goes on to list new Fears, fears that are "good" to have, like fear of being disloyal, or of humiliating others, or "of not writing with all my strength".

Shostakovich was quite literally inspired. His music for the first part dripped and drooled, reeking of evil. The suffocating sump-oil of bass drum and tamtam coupled with murky strings and a grisly solo tuba, realised with blood-curdling realism by the WDRSO, in an earlier time and place would have evoked the bloated figure of a somnolent, self-satisfied, and imminently doomed dragon - and, come to think of it, that image is still fairly germane! Aleksashkin, for that matter, delivers his remembrances of "Fears" like some latter-day Wotan. He could have burdened his declamatory lines with all kinds of vocal expression, but instead made them the more chilling through reserve (though Iíd stop short of saying "dead pan delivery") and leaving the orchestra to provide the colouring in. Iíve noted appreciations of "doleful horns", "glowering basses", and especially the graduated approach of fanfares in trumpets, flutes, trombones, bassoons and bass clarinet - but particularly impressive are the appearance of whirring strings (as per the Sixth Symphony) plus tympani and that bell in response to "the secret fear of a knock at the door", and the col legno rhythm that subsequently ushers in the "victory march", a really nifty bit of footwork from the chorus. At the end of this section, the violas pointedly recall the ostinato from the third movement of the Eighth. In the closing section concerning the "new Fears", Aleksashkin allows just the right degree of agitation to creep in, corresponding to the appearance of glittering glockenspiel and woodwind. Tremendous stuff.

In setting Yevtushenkoís "A Career" for his finale, Shostakovich finishes the job in something of a confessional manner. The gist of the poem is that throughout history men like Galileo have been pilloried for their beliefs or discoveries, yet it is these who become "great men" while the mud-slingers end up forgotten, buried in the mucky silt of the past. The nub of the argument is that it is the suffering strivers who are the real careerists. Sung with real warmth by the soloist, Yevtushenkoís closing words - "I believe in their sacred belief, and their belief gives me courage. Iíll follow my career in such a way that Iím not following it!" - could have been written specifically for Shostakovich. In setting these words here, at the very end of this "Outspoken Oratorio", he as good as tells the world exactly what heís been up to all these years.

But does he say so in music quivering with outrageous indignation? Not on your Nelly! The music attains such a lustre of sheer relief that I canít help but think that this finale could well be the Eighthís abortive "dancing in the streets" come to fruition. Perhaps, although the music and the jaunty, "twinkle in their eyes" way that Aleksashkin and the chorus perform it suggest a slightly different scenario: a cosy late-night gathering in some hospitable hostelry, at which a merry raconteur is holding court. A dizzy, lazy woodwind waltz sets the scene, then a bibulous bassoon launches a jolly recounting of Galileoís case. The sociable singers are aptly supported by the musicians, chuntering and chortling cheerfully around, with the trumpets providing some admirably acrid "motor-horn" squawks at the words "[He] was no more stupid than Galileo". We even get "Now thatís what I understand by a Ďcareeristí" as a pub-style punchline, punched home pub-style by the assembled company.

The opening waltz, delightfully pecked by pizzicato strings, returns whilst the comrades ponder the inner meaning of the tale. Glasses recharged, the assembly roars approval of such "careers" then, bolstered by some looming trombone glissandi, turns to railing at the mud-slingers. The matter is settled (in the time-honoured tradition of such discussions!) with a robust and decisive fugue, ruggedly dispatched by the orchestra. The waltz, on intimately whispering solo strings, now becomes a blissful, vaguely alcoholic haze. The bassoon theme is taken by the celeste, an angel that nevertheless dithers and gropes without success for a resolution (thereís always one who doesnít get it!). Help is at hand, and from an unexpected quarter: that bell, which doesnít seem to have budged a semitone right through the symphony, just happens to be sitting on the necessary note! Thus, it seems to me, in this first wholly untroubled conclusion to a Shostakovich symphony, are all the threads of the past drawn together and tied off in the present, leaving us all feeling rather more optimistic about the future.

It strikes me that Barshai is fully the equal of Haitink when it comes to management of the long-term architecture of this long work, but surpasses Haitink and is fully the equal of the likes of Mravinsky when it comes to juggling the hot coals at the heart of the music. The playing of the WDRSO is astonishingly idiomatic, like a real Russian orchestra without the wibbly-wobbly brass tone, and can rear up from confidentiality to cataclysm with nerve-shattering impact. Itís a credit to the engineers that they seem to have captured this with a full, detailed and, most significantly, wide-ranging recording - which makes it all the more a pity that they couldnít do the same for the Eleventh! My one cavil is that there seems to be a bit of a phase mismatch between the microphones covering the choral battalions, though only hardened headphone freaks like me are likely to notice the slight "corkscrewing" effect this produces. But the the singing of Aleksashkin and the legions of lads from Moscow, who can (though hardly surprisingly!) wrap their gobs round the funny phonemes of the Russian tongue with effortless ease, is unreservedly superb, and in spite of my marginal cavils I can only conclude that this is a seriously desirable CD.

Symphony No. 14 op. 135 (1969)

The last two symphonies are the ones with which Iím least familiar, and the Fourteenth, sad to relate, wins the less than prestigious Sore Thumb Award in this respect. Happily, doing this review has provided me with a belated opportunity to put that somewhere in the region of right.

Itís well enough known that Shostakovich had developed a close association with Benjamin Britten in the years following their first meeting. Quite how they wangled it Iím not sure, as even with his greater freedom (both of expression and for travel abroad) Shostakovich was far from off the leash. Another English composer who enjoyed a cordial, if less obviously productive, relationship with Shostakovich during this period was Malcolm Arnold, who relates how they were never allowed to meet in private - in Arnoldís case, the Party-patsy Kabalevsky was the omnipresent gooseberry. Lots of Shostakovich rubbed off onto Britten, but rather less Britten rubbed off onto Shostakovich. My immediate impression of the Fourteenth Symphony is that it is not so much influenced by Britten as a deliberate adoption of elements of Brittenís style, and thus part and parcel of the tribute to a friend implicit (or even explicit, for that matter) in the workís dedication. "Immediate" is the word! I donít think anybodyís going to miss, in the very opening violin line, the allusion to Peter Grimes - it breathes the very same bleak, chill air that drifts in from the grey North Sea in the first Interlude.

Much the same holds in relation to the "influence" of Mussorgskyís Songs and Dances of Death, which Shostakovich had orchestrated not long before writing the symphony. Then again, there is a supposed parallel with another "symphony of songs", Mahlerís Das Lied von der Erde. With all due respect to David Doughty, whose notes are otherwise exemplary, his suggestion that "it is indeed the close relationship of the texts which give a symphonic structure of a kind to what is otherwise a song cycle in the manner of [the Mahler]" strikes me as an uncharacteristic splodge of bovine excrement. Iím not suggesting here that Shostakovichís work is anything but symphonic - that much is plain enough from Shostakovichís motivic writing and the reprise of the opening bars, higher, thinner and bleaker, in the penultimate song - but by golly I disagree most strongly with the implication that Mahlerís work is not symphonic - the whole point about Mahlerís crowning masterpiece is that he finally achieved what has to be the ultimate goal of a composer of only songs and symphonies, namely the reconciliation through fusion of those two, diametrically opposed forms.

Where Shostakovichís and Mahlerís paths coincide is that they were both suffering from undeniable intimations of mortality. Shostakovich, who had never enjoyed the rudest of health, was (if you take my meaning) becoming alarmingly polite, which conspired with his recent preoccupation to put the fear of death into him. The good thing about this is that, a number of years down the line from the cathartic Thirteenth, Shostakovich felt sufficiently free to express in his music such "negative" sentiments without worrying unduly about getting a rollocking for "formalist tendencies" or some such. The downside, if it can be called such, is that for once Shostakovich was writing a symphony devoid of any subversive undertones, coded messages and the like. If youíve got used to treating Shostakovich symphonies as the musical equivalent of the Times crossword, the Fourteenth might seem a bit "penny plain" - only "might", mind!

Doughty, along with plenty of others (including myself!), suggests that this is "perhaps the grimmest of all his works". Fair enough, but letís not forget that the subject of death is one of endless fascination for practically anyone suckered with the label "mortal", and right down through the ages the practitioners of all the Arts have turned this fascination into some of the greatest, and often ultimately most uplifting, works. While weíre at it, letís not forget either that not one of the poems Shostakovich chose was about "death" plain and simple: he was less concerned about those who "fell", and more about those who were "shoved". There was clearly life in the old dog yet.

Rudolf Barshai was entrusted with the first performance. Iíve observed that plenty of folk tend to speak in tones of hushed reverence about recordings made by persons so-privileged. Why? The bloke who first performed a work isnít necessarily the best man for the job, even if he happened to be that at the time. Composers select "premiere performers" for all sorts of reasons - and being the best-qualified for the task is rarely the top of the list. In Barshaiís case, though, it is true that friendship and mutual respect had a lot to do with it. But we still shouldnít let that colour our judgement, should we?

Shostakovich chose eleven poems, in movement order two by the Spaniard Federico Garcia Lorca, six by Guillaume Appolinaire, one by Wilhelm Kuchelbecker, and two by Maria Rainer Rilke. Thatís a total of precisely none written in Shostakovichís mother-tongue, so all of them were originally set in translation. Doughty points out that Shostakovich later sanctioned performances using the original languages, as well as a version in German translation - though surprisingly not one in English, the language of the symphonyís dedicatee, Britten! Clearly, the inflections and speech rhythms of the texts, the music inherent in the sounds of the poetry, were not very high on Shostakovichís list of priorities, and we the listeners must seek the correspondence between text and music from the "flow of meaning", assuming of course that any particular translation from the Russian translations with which Shostakovich worked has been done so as to preserve the order as set. Ye gods, thatís convoluted! Thankfully, this recording sticks to the "original" Russian, which is probably the form in which the composer himself first apprehended the poems!

A symphony this may be by name, but a song cycle it most definitely is by nature: each of the songs is sharply characterised and distinguished from its neighbours, even where Shostakovich engineers a seamless link from one to the next. The poems are frequently like "playlets" so, compared with the relatively detached, discursive approach of the Thirteenth, here the singers have to act their socks off! It follows, as day does night, that suitable singers are going to make a performance, whilst duffers will destroy it. With Alla Simoni and Vladimir Vaneev, Barshai seems to have come up trumps.

Like Aleksashkin, Vaneev is a real Russian bass, another of those voices thatís ample, black as a coal cellar at midnight, and ideally suited to the sort of grave (!) recitative that Shostakovich requires in the first song (appositely entitled De Profundis), or the venomous expressions of disgust in the eighth (The Zaporozhian Cossackís Answer to the Sultan of Constantinople), where he revels in the colouful language. This is definitely one to keep away from the kiddies, unless you want to explain the meaning of sentences like "You were born while your mother was writhing in faecal spasms"! Even when heís singing high up, the shadow of those deep undertones still resonates within the sound, as in the third song (Lorelei) where he also demonstrates articulative agility comparable to the sopranoís, or in the ninth (O Delvig!) where he veers from tenderness to tentative optimism to heartrending effect.

I generally quake with apprehension when sopranos, whose voices seem to be trained to crack glasses at twenty paces, point their lethal vocal chords in my direction. With blessed relief I can tell you that Simoni is a god-send. She has a strong voice, but (to my ears) a delivery that is firm and relatively uniform across her entire range: there is little if anything of the dreaded wobble or yowling "up top", and (best of all) she wilfully ignores the "Soprano Axiom" ("Output level shall be proportional to frequency squared, or cubed if you can manage it"). But thereís more than mere firmness and strength of tone - for example in the fourth movement (The Suicide), thereís touching delicacy as well. To cap it all she is an incredible vocal actress - particularly evident in the sixth song (Madam, look!) where her hysterical hacking of the word "laughing" becomes a comical cross between stammering and gipping! - if anything more than a match for even the impressive Vaneev.

So, the voices are terrific, but what of their "backing group"? I have memories (however distant and vague!) of playing cleaner than this. I equally have memories (equally distant, but rather more distinct!) of it utterly boring the pants off me. Iíd like to think that itís because Iím older, wiser, and more perceptive. Iíd like to, but with a sigh I must set vanity aside and instead admit that itís because the WDRSO strings play with a fire and pungency that simply pins me to the wall, and with such sweetness that I melt and dribble down onto the floor. I could rabbit on for ages (come to think of it, I have anyway!) about all the zillions of felicities that litter the course of this symphony, but Iíll have to limit myself to an exemplificatory "Oh, god! You should hear those double-basses!" Shostakovich, in coincidental observation of UK trades descriptions legislation, says "strings and percussion", making sparing but correspondingly effective use of the can-banging boys. If the most significant contribution comes in the form of the temporal ticking of clacking castanets, they do get one "big scene", when theyíre let off the leash in the militaristic fifth song (On Watch). By gum, do they enjoy the outing!

Standing at the centre of it all is Rudolf Barshai, guiding the threads of the music with effortless-sounding fluidity - nothing fast seems reckless or rushed, yet even the snailest of snailís paces is palpably mobile. The voices are placed well to the fore, but Barshai makes pretty sure that not a single note of the instrumental contribution is lost. The many facets of Death drawn together by the composerís collection of texts are characteristically by no means all unremitting gloom; we get doses of rage and outrage, stoic acceptance and aching nostalgia, even comic turns and a ray or two of hope. Thatís a lot of ground, and Barshai covers it all. The recording, both immediate and ambient, is absolutely superb.

I donít want to end this on a negative note, so Iíll say this first: why on earth are there no texts and translations? Shostakovich was responding in a profound manner to the poetry - to hear the "flow of music" without knowing the corresponding "flow of meaning" is like going to the cinema and sitting with your eyes shut, i.e. utterly ridiculous. Anyway, quite honestly, I donít care if this music can be played - or sung, for that matter - better than it is here. These musicians have inflamed my mind and touched my heart, and believe me thatís not as easy to do now as it once was!

Symphony No. 15 op. 141 (1971)

Having got the subject of death off his chest, Shostakovich moved on. Or did he? Our impressions of the Fifteenth Symphony are inevitably coloured by its opening "toyshop" movement. In music as in anything else first impressions are sticky little blighters, so much so that we as often as not end up wasting half our lives trying to make everything that follows fit in. Hence the commonly-expressed feeling that the work is enigmatic, mysterious, puzzling. I remember one chap who beat his brains against the brick bastions of the Fifteenth for ages, then concluded (not unreasonably, if a little harshly, given his frustration) that the whole shebang was the rag-bag product of a composer on the threshold of senile dementia. Me? I donít believe that for one second.

So what is going on? That first movement looms less large when viewed through the wrong end of a telescope, as I found when I tried taking a step back and looking at the piece as a whole. I got the distinct impression that, whereas the Fourteenthís statement about death was coloured by a degree of political motivation, the Fifteenth is instead about death, "plain and simple". Letís face it: if at any age youíre racked by increasing ill-health, intrusive thoughts of kicking the bucket are hard to put down. Up to around twenty years previously, Shostakovich had been fearful that the nocturnal "knock at the door" would be that of Uncle Joeís bully-boys coming to take him away. In his mid-sixties and racked by increasing ill-health, the knock was more likely to be that of the "real-life" Grim Reaper.

In this light, the Fifteenth Symphony sounds to be a not unreasonable combination of reminiscence and valediction, starting in the frolicsome foibles of carefree youth and ending up shrouded in the mists of the Ultimate Question. This would explain the flurry of self-quotations, but not the two "sore thumbs" - Wagner and Rossini. Many diverse composers have been influenced by Wagner, but Iíd wager that thereíre precious few of us whoíd bet so much as a haípenny on Shostakovich being one of them. Maybe heís leg-pulling: "Here it is, folks, my Grand Wagnerian Influence!" On the other hand, in quoting the Fate motive, that dread harbinger and herald of the fall of Siegfried, the irrepressible and fearless hero, he is (as ever) neatly pinning a dark relevance onto his gag. Of course, he also quotes that well-known motive from Tristan und Isolde, the infamous rising dissonance which resolves only onto further dissonance, yearning after an unattainable ideal - and neatly turns it into an inconsequential ditty. This could so easily be a veiled comment on the triviality of Manís most solemn aspirations when faced with the unknowable mysteries.

But what should we make of the quotation of Rossiniís famous William Tell galop? Suspecting, as per the Fate motive, some devious connection with the musicís operatic context, I asked someone who knows about these things. I was told that, after the sizzling conclusion of the overture, that particular tune does not feature in the drama at all: it occurs, with considerably less vehemence, only in the bucolic burblings of the ballet music! Momentarily dismayed, I retreated and regrouped "with the speed of light, and a cloud of dust, and a hearty ĎHi-yo, Silver!í" I wondered (somewhat feverishly), did Shostakovich watch TV on those visits to the West that started in the late Fifties? If so, did he (like so many of my generation) become a fan of the Lone Ranger? Did he see in Tontoís Kemo Sabay a reflection of himself, galloping on his white stallion, protecting the innocent, and waging a one-man war against the nasty baddies? Ridiculous thought, isnít it? Well, the opera buff remarked, and as far as I can tell in all innocence, "Maybe he was a fan of the Lone Ranger". That makes two of us being ridiculous, so perhaps we should all listen to the music in that context, and then see how ridiculous it really is?

Barshai and his faithful Indian companions set off at a thoroughly jolly trot, opposing a sunny flute to the icy pricklings of glockenspiel, and setting a thoroughly amiable tone for the entire first movement. The tune is remarkably reminiscent of the DSCH-based main subject of the first movement of the First Cello Concerto, a theme which had already resurfaced in the Eighth Quartet. Here it is utterly, uncomplicatedly merry: freed of its former political undertones, it expands under Barshaiís fatherly guidance into Shostakovichís putative "toyshop". The whole movement is delightfully done, every corner of the WDRSO, including the considerable "kitchen", enjoying the youthful romp - I warmed especially to the trumpet, whose poco inebrioso quasi Prokofiev sounds like little Johnny has sampled something from the sideboard that Daddy should have kept in a safer hidey-hole! Thereís also some gorgeously rumbustious playing, notably from those lower strings, but nothing is allowed to threaten the childlike mood: even the main climax, in its outline, weight and tone harks back not to anger or anguish past, but to the youthful impetuosity of the Second Piano Concerto. Tellingly, just before this jubilation comes another significant reminiscence of Shostakovichís own youth, as he reproduces in the strings the effect of that extraordinary, layered "miasma" of the experimental Second Symphony. Then, almost at the end, hot on the heels of a circus band march-past he does it again, only this time chattering on the lighter woodwind and percussion, for all the world like kids playing with grown-up toys.

Whereas the first movement looked back at the Good Old Days (the accent being firmly on the "Good"), the second looks forward less than optimistically to what the future holds. The WDRSOís brass lean wearily on the straining dissonances of their chorale, the solo cello struggles up from the depths of its rocking-chair only to lament, the solo trombone is all but drained of energy and expression. The solo violin aspires momentarily, but is cut off by toneless (or intoneless!) dead-sounding woodwind chords, reminiscent of the chords in the coda of Straussí Also Sprach Zarathustra or (and hereís a thought!) those famous "self-cancelling" chords of Stravinskyís. When I say it sounds dreadful, thatís not a complaint but a compliment! Curiously, when the trombone does stir itself into something approaching a tune, to the accompaniment of a suitably leaden tuba, it emerges as something of a dirge-variant of Waltziní Matilda (this surely is accidental?!). The violin again sings with affecting sweetness, but is again confounded by those negating woodwind (one of the curiosities about growing older is that our minds, remaining forever "sweet sixteen", canít understand why the body creaks and groans at even the most trivial demands). Itís too much; warping the once proud and defiant DSCH into an agonised, plunging SDCH, the dirge spills over into massive mortification that is hammered home to horribly enervating effect. Only exhaustion can follow: strangulated muted trumpets, halting string phrases like glimmering red embers, lifeless plunkings of celeste, a dull and broken tattoo of tympani. Sure, Iíve heard this movement played with more outright intensity than this, but for me Barshai scores in avoiding that extreme. He seems to be very much aware that this is "terminal" music, even in the embittered climax which in his hands becomes like the abortive flare of a dying sun, shedding the remnants of its light into an uncaring universe.

The ensuing short allegretto sounds a bit brighter, with its almost pointillist chamber-music scoring delectably dotted by the players. The tune skips upwards, then turns on its head and skips downwards, getting nowhere fast. In keeping the pace leisurely, the tempo metronomic, and the dynamics subdued, Barshai finds an eerie, haunted quality, carrying something of the feeling of "Death takes the Fiddle", helped out more than a little by some splendidly scrawny playing (quite deliberate, Iím sure!). My gut feelings are that this symphony is stuffed to the gunnels with self-quotations, and my intestines are just as sure that as yet I havenít spotted 99% of them. Nevertheless Iíd lay odds that the grotesque downward trombone slides, leerily relished by the WDRSO first trombone, are a reference to the comical detumescence of the sated Sergei in Scene 3 of Lady MacBeth. If so, then here they ram home the prevailing impression of failing potency, as do the dislocated clatterings of the percussion - the WDRSO can-bangers, captured in great detail by the recording, create a convincing "clock with a dicky ticker".

The opening of the finale confirms the progression. Shostakovich, in co-opting the gloomy brass Fate motive and attendant halting drum rhythm from Siegrfriedís Tod, foretells the fall of another hero - the composer himself. It also forms a wonderful complement and opposition to the Rossini quote from the first movement, or it does if you subscribe to the "Lone Ranger Theory", because then that quotation also relates to a "hero", only one who is full of vim, vigour, and fighting spirit, and for whom death was merely something he himself visited on the enemies of justice. But then Shostakovich, teasingly tweaking the Tristan quote, immediately goes on to demonstrate that his own sense of humour, like the Humour of the Thirteenth Symphony, is unquenchable. Barshai here coaxes, with faultless timing, a prettily poised tenuto from the violins. At a measured, dead-even tempo, Barshai makes the ensuing ghostly dance feel like the comical passage of the Fourthís finale with all its get-up-and-go got up and gone: all is understated and wan, what little colour it has in its cheeks draining away in the twilight. The music subsides, via what must surely be a glance back to the nocturnal pacings of the Tenth, to the gloomy stasis of Siegfriedís Tod, into which the WDRSOís wonderful first clarinet meanders listlessly. Gradually, the music stirs and grows, in a long, curiously crawling crescendo. The climax that erupts, triggered with telling rubato, mirrors the outburst in the second movement, and is likewise burdened. The tune of the plodding dirge this time sounds like a variant of the first few bars of the Seventhís "Nazi" march, as if the strutting jackboot had become a lead-lined size 15 welly. This climax ends in real disaster: a cinematographic "shock, horror!" discord like the Last Gasp of the Damned. The Wagner quotes and the ghostly dancing, already more remote, are gradually stifled by the "self-negating" chords of the second movement: is this Shostakovichís impression of Asrael tapping Dmitri Dmitrevich on the shoulder? The coda drifts into delirium. Over a numb hum of strings, the wraiths of themes half-remembered jostle with the percussion "dicky-ticker", and then - nothing.

Again, I am led to wonder whether, in such music, those who bring more overtly expressive playing arenít in some way missing the point. I must confess that, had I come to this performance of this symphony "cold", then in respect of all save the first movement I would in all likelihood have carped about listless phrasing and dull, ponderous climaxes (and so forth). But I havenít come to it "cold", Iíve come to it via the other fourteen performances in the cycle, and along the way Iíve picked up a great deal of respect and admiration for Barshaiís thoughtful interpretations. Consequently, I do not believe (as some do) that he has "blobbed out" at the finishing post. What we hear is exactly what he intended us to hear. My feelings about the nature of the music, as expressed here, do not originate from any perceptive acuity on my part (though it would be a nice ego-boost if they did!), but from what Barshai is telling me. It doesnít really matter whether you think his performance good or bad, because above all it is an informed one.

Round-Up and Conclusions

The recording schedule of this cycle, a dozen "sittings" over a period of eight years, is astonishingly convoluted - just bend your brains around this little lot! Ten of the symphonies were set down in one "sitting" (series of sessions during a given month) each, but in the order 7, 1, 3, 2, 12, 6, 10, 15, 11, 13. The rest were done in pairs of sittings anything up to nineteen months apart, except for number 9 which surprisingly took three sittings over a nine-month period. On top of that, at least five of the sittings involved two or more different symphonies - during September 1995 they worked on numbers 5, 9, and 12, and April 1996 saw effort devoted to numbers 4, 5, 9 (the CD cases give days as well as months, but even my pernickety mind baulks at descending to that level of detail!). The logistics must have been a nightmare, but this must also mean that both players and conductor must have been thoroughly immersed, if not in the cycle as a whole, then at least in considerable breadths of it at a time. How else can we explain such noteworthy consistency over such a long period?

Regarding the recorded sound, although three producers were variously involved, all the recordings were made by the same engineer, Siegfried Spittler, who on the whole has captured the sounds fabulously, in terms of both quality and consistency. My only real reservations concerned the balance and dynamics of the Eleventh, but even this is by no means a dead loss. Moreover, all the recordings were made in the same location, Cologneís warm-hearted Philharmonie, which makes the relatively "sore thumb" of this symphony, to say the least, a mite puzzling. Spittler has, with commendable good sense, tempered the warm acoustic by pushing his microphones forward just enough to "prick" the ambience with detail, but not so far as to detach a wholly "foreground" orchestra from a wholly "background" ambience. I have noted a couple of places where the microphones seemed to overload. These were always where Shostakovich had scored for particularly high intensity high frequencies. Itís a minus point which could have been corrected easily enough, but at least the instances are rare and short-lived, and on some equipment (I would venture) may pass entirely unnoticed.

Spittler has also given us a just balance between the sections of the WDRSO. In particular (and wonder of wonders!) the percussion, who have such an unusually important role, are given their proper due. During the writing of this "review", I have heard comments about the percussion at the start of the Fourth, on the one hand complaining of over-dominance and on the other lamenting its lack of prominence! I guess that proves itís about right? Equally, there have been suggestions that thereís not enough depth in the bass, to which I can only respond, "Well, adjust your tone controls then!" because I was frequently impressed at what was going on down in the basement (the bass drum sound in the fourth movement of the Thirteenth was one awe-inspiring shock to my system - alimentary that is, not audio). Overall, the sound is rich and firm, warm and detailed, and your equipment will simply love you for ever for being given the privilege of reproducing it!

The vocal contributions in Symphonies 2, 3, 13, and 14 are balanced against the orchestra with consummate care. Soloists are where they should be, "up front" but not sitting on your knee, whilst choirs are definitely where they belong, behind the orchestra but not banished to the stair-wells, and sound decently large (the ruination of more than one Berlioz Grande Messe or Te Deum has been the use of what sound like chamber choirs!). The minor choral contributions to the Second and Third are nice and vigorous, but the singing of the men of the Choral Academy Moscow in the Thirteenth is truly phenomenal, an awesome wall of sound threatening to engulf your senses! Soloists, Aleksashkin in the Thirteenth, Simoni and Vaneev in the Fourteenth, sing with immense character and scarcely a trace of the wibbly-wobblies that seem to be de rigeur these days. Also, itís not just that they sing well, but that they "play their parts" in the acting sense with such dramatic conviction.

The WDRSO approaches what is for me the ideal band to play these symphonies. Shostakovich demands a certain quality of sound, or rather spectrum of sound qualities. In one corner is the "Russians on the razzle" quality: garish, aggressive, coarse. Somehow, the Stiff Collars and Posh Frocks of the top orchestras seem reluctant to loosen their collars (the possible disposition of the frocks I leave to your imaginations!), and instead impose something of their civilised refinement on the music. The WDRSO players on the other hand can sound as if theyíre playing in grubby jeans and tatty T-shirts, and that belting out a Russian rugby song is to them the most natural thing in the world. In the opposite corner is the "dreaming in the Dacha" quality: remote, ethereal, musing. Safer ground for the SCs and PFs, but they often forget that the ground beneath their feet is still as common as muck. Enter the WDRSO to play like angels with dirty feet: they can sing as sweetly as anyone, but you wonít catch them trying to hide any of Shostakovichís gritty accompaniments behind their velour upholstery for fear it might spoil the pristine perfection of their drawing-rooms. In spirit, the WDRSO stand shoulder to shoulder with the Leningrad Phil. of old.

It all starts in the basement: their double-basses sound truly awesome, as if their bows were primed not with horse but with mastodon hair. I lost count of the times I smiled at robust resonances, or at gruff grunts and growlings, or at rosiny runs. This extends, though less obviously, right the way up to the top of the section. They may not be the most refined string band in the world, but they are one of the most colourful and committed, capable of (and demonstrating) sweet song through to bitter acridity, shag-pile Axminster warmth through to liquid nitrogen chill, perky playfulness through to rapid-fire machine-gunning, and corpulence through to scrawniness - and all in the service of the composer.

The brass are a magnificent bunch of roughnecks, though they not once, even though theyíre given ample opportunity, drowned out the rest of the orchestra. These discs contain some of the finest orchestral tuba-playing that it has been my pleasure to experience. The trombonists sound as if they were born with slides in their hands, and some of the "up top" sounds of the trumpets really do earn the epithet "golden". Likewise the horns, who can rattle and roll it with the best of them, and still turn on a noble weight to rival the VPO. They also make up an ensemble of satisfying solemnity and tonal breadth.

Shostakovich makes rather special demands of woodwind: he expects them to be able to scream and shrill. The WDRSO woodwind are a wonderful bunch. Individually, they still possess an individuality that is increasingly rare in these days of anodyne international uniformity. Before youíve got very far, youíll find yourself greeting a soloist like an old pal. I became particularly chummy with the bassoon and the clarinet. But put them together, and turn up the wick, and their screaming and shrilling are electrifying, thanks not least to piccolos that could slice through thick leather like it was tissue paper.

Then thereíre those important people in the kitchen. Sometimes they get a mite tangled up, and I wished, just fleetingly, that theyíd done a re-take. The rest of the time (that is, most of the time), I simply luxuriated in the terrific array of sound they produced. The WDRSO tamtam has to be singled out (especially as I am a real sucker for the sound), not just for some superb, towering "swishes" but also for having such an incredibly extensive palette of sonorities. In comparison other tamtams, especially (I seem to remember) the wooly muffler wearer at the Concertgebouw, pale into "Poor Johnny One-Notes", but this one has to be heard to be believed!

Lots of clues start to club together, leading me to suspect that these recordings were cobbled together from takes that were in fact complete live performances. It would explain much, though it would leave us with the probably unanswerable question of "how did they keep the audience so bloody quiet"? At rock bottom, it doesnít matter, except that (again) it highlights the consistency of performance, which is worth infinitely more than the asking price of a few fluffs.

Of course, in all this Iím not forgetting Barshai, who is ultimately responsible for everything. For every single symphony there will be someone who will point to another recording which is "better". Itís arguable that some of the performances yield nothing to the competition. Numbers 1, 6, 9 and 13 went straight to the top of my list, and itíll take a real blinder to topple Barshaiís number 14 (I havenít heard his earlier one - yet!). Yet, the rest of them are at least contenders, barring only number 11, not on account of its performance but of its comparatively sub-standard recording balance. Even taken individually thatís impressive. But there is more, much more.

Looking at this set as a whole, there is something very special indeed, as you can gather from the way I got just a bit carried away in the above. Thatís not a facetious remark (not entirely, anyway). If you have read my dissertation on even one symphony, you may have noticed that while I was talking about the performance, I tended to drift back to discussion of the music. I had based my opinions and impressions on not one but several auditions of each work. The upshot was that I became so immersed in the experience that the distinction between the music that Shostakovich wrote and the music that Barshai made became blurred. Work and interpretation melded in my mind. But this clarified my judgement, rather than clouded it. The latter wasnít likely because I was aware of what was happening. Consequently, much of what I said about the music was in fact equally a comment on Barshaiís performance.

It need hardly be said, but Iíll say it anyway, particularly as after this somebody, somewhere is sure to brand me as a fawning and undiscerning "Barshai groupie". There are two broad approaches to these works, either to go completely OTT, or to play them with some degree of circumspection. There are risks either way. In maximising physical excitement, a conductor at best runs the risk of drowning the real import of the music under a flood of virtuosic brownie-points, and at worst erects a spectacular arboreal facade to cover the fact that his forest is devoid of wood. On the other hand, a performance that on initial exposure seems relatively dull will be reported as such by critics, who usually have deadlines that preclude the luxury of extended (and intensive!) exposure. The danger is that babies may be evicted along with the bathwater. Having enjoyed the aforementioned luxury in abundance, my feeling is that Barshai, whose performances are firmly in the latter camp, is much more a "baby" than he is "bathwater". He has so thoroughly understood these symphonies that if I were told that on a hot day he sweated Shostakovich through his very pores, Iíd very likely believe it. His understanding encompasses each symphony both as a whole and as an integral part of the entire cycle, and within his sure grasp of the architecture he more or less unerringly gives each moment its contextual due. However great the temptation, no one climax is ever allowed to exceed its proper place in the larger picture. For me, that creates a far greater impact overall than any consistently high-octane performance.

This set is such a towering achievement that Iím sorely tempted to suggest it rivals the Decca Ring Cycle as some sort of "gramophone classic". Itís one of those few, I might say definitive, complete sets that everyone should have on the shelf. This is high praise indeed, and you would be right to wonder whether I am myself going OTT! Well, I can only affirm that I wouldnít say it if I didnít sincerely believe that Barshai thoroughly deserves it. However, after all the brain-bruising listening, I find that I have to end a mite incongruously on a couple of mundane economic notes. Firstly, if you must pick and choose, these recordings are being issued as individual discs by Regis. Secondly, dare I complain about the lack of texts and translations, or a couple of barely half-full discs, when weíre being asked to stump up the best part of twenty five pounds sterling to own a copy? I ask this because, if you donít believe what Iíve said about it, thatís what itís going to cost you to prove me wrong.

Paul Serotsky

See also reviews by
Dave Billing
Christopher Howell

 

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