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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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!