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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 - 1975)
Symphony #5 in d, Op 47 (1937) [47.57]
Symphony #9 in Eb, Op 70 (1945) [25.44]
Kirov Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
Rec. Martti Talvela Hall, Helsinki, Finland, 30 June 2002 (5); Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg, Russia, 18 May 2002 (9)
Note in English, Français, Deutsch. Photo of the composer and of the conductor.
CD tracks in 5.1 AC-3 sound. Super Audio tracks in 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround.
Hybrid Super-Audio CD SACD playable on cd players.

PHILIPS 470 651-2 [73.53]

Comparison recordings
Symphony #5, Karel Ancerl, CPO [ADD] Supraphon 11 1951-2 011
Symphony #5, Artur Rodzinski, Cleveland SO [mono ADD] LYS 139
Symphony #5, Artur Rodzinski, RPO [mono ADD] Westminster MCAD2-9823B
Symphony #5, Stokowski, NYPO Everest [AAD] EVC 9030
Symphony #9, Järvi, SNO Chandos CHAN 8587

The Shostakovich Symphony #5 is one of the handful of classical works I came to know from listening to 78 rpm records, a challenge to the imagination residing in having to stitch together the three minute segments into continuous musical phrases and movements, and an even greater challenge in trying to figure out just what a real symphony orchestra sounded like since I had at that time never heard one. (We were tough in the old days, we didnít have it easy like you kids do now!) I still remember where the side breaks were, and when I listen now, I feel them as they go by. It was the Rodzinski performance with the Cleveland Orchestra which I learned from 78s; this performance has been continuously, and still is, in print and still in some ways the best version ever done, although people have told me that since this performance is probably part of my genetic code now I am unlikely to be able to give any other a fair hearing. Well, I donít know. Iíve heard lots of good performances and recordings of this symphony and I think I judge them fairly. Iíve given away more recordings than I own ó Bernstein, Berglund, Rostropovich, Maxim Shostakovich, and so on.

It was with considerable favourable anticipation that I approached listening to Gergievís recording since I have been generally very pleased with his work. But I wasnít prepared for what I heard. Iíve been listening to, and loving, this music for 50 years and I have never, never, heard it so beautifully played and certainly never so beautifully recorded. My tears started flowing about three minutes in and never did stop. The ghost of Leopold Stokowski was sitting next to me and at several points he leaned over and whispered, "Did you hear that? I wish Iíd thought of that. Why didnít I think of that?" Stokowskiís recording on 78s was one of those marred by fade-outs and fade-ins at the side breaks, but, no matter, his stereo remake in 1959 was in every way equal or better than his original.

One of the reasons the Rodzinski recording was so successful is that, like most Western conductors of the time, he paid scant attention to the metronome markings in the score, which are much too slow. The Russian recordings of that period unfortunately did follow them, but Gergiev does not make that mistake. However if I were forced at gunpoint to name a flaw in this Gergiev recording, I would say that while most of the time heís right on, there are a few places where I wish he would pick up the tempo just a little.

Among the many things that Shostakovich thought in January of 1936 after he read the devastating attack on him in Pravda might have been, "Iím good, and Iím going to show them how good I am. And Iím going to show them what I think of them at the same time and make them like it." He withdrew the Fourth Symphony from rehearsals and commenced work on the Fifth Symphony. At the premier in 1937 reports indicate that Shostakovichís truly musically aware friends were stunned speechless by what they heard.

If Shostakovichís orchestration teacher had been present that night (he wasnít, he was dead) he would have wept for joy. If I were ever to teach an orchestration class I would spend at least three class periods on this score, itís that interesting. The use of the piano at rehearsal #17 in the first movement is masterful. The interplay of harp and flute at #60 in the scherzo is pure genius. Listen to that use of xylophone to accent the string melody at #89 of the slow movement! Even if he did steal the idea for the final chords from Schumann, it sounds entirely new here. Not until the Seventh symphony did he experiment so much or so successfully with orchestral sonorities.

The recording is also a marvel. The melodic line in the low strings at the beginning of the first movement is wonderfully clear. The ff violin notes in the first movement just before #5 very often overload in ordinary recordings, but not here. The snare drum accents at #121 are usually placed very forward, but in this SACD recording they can be subtle and soft and still be clearly audible. Many other details that are usually blurred are here very apparent as the surround sound recording establishes a sense "air" around the instruments. However, this recording is not excessively transparent, for many of Shostakovichís effects depend on a blending of the orchestral sound. Previously this would not be possible, to have a blending and clarity at the same time. It was usually necessary to exaggerate the separation of the instruments so they would be distinct in the final mix.

With the Ninth Symphony my first favourite recording was a hi-fi Urania LP but the Järvi recording on Chandos set the standard some years ago for both sound and performance and easily eclipsed all memory of that LP version. In this work the trick is to get a wailing cantorial quality in the bassoon solo in the slow movement but also keep all the sprightly jumping around from getting too silly. I was very interested to see how the Järvi version held up in comparison with this new one.

Again, the Gergiev is clearly the finest performance of the work Iíve ever heard. I have never respected the work so much; in his hands it seems to mean much more than it ever did before. Gergiev brings his trained instincts of an experienced opera conductor to the service of his acute musical intelligence to bring us a performance of overwhelming intensity. He achieves a Mozartean earnestness in the sprightly string passages, but with more of an Italian flavour. The whispers of tragedy in the dramatic sections are exquisitely balanced against the mad tarantella-like frenzy of the windup. In the cruellest of comparisons, I played the Järvi CD immediately after on exactly the same equipment with identical settings. Of course even so fine a sound as a Chandos CD cannot compare with an SACD; the screechy strings, blary brass, crashy percussion and opaque perspective inherent in the CD format are most unfortunately evident. Fine as his version, Järvi cannot equal the intensity of concentration of Gergiev. By comparison, and only by direct comparison, Järvi sounds like heís rushing through it, even though his overall timing is only 1% faster, and Gergiev is actually faster in the fourth and fifth movements. Both orchestras play impeccably, of course, with equal skill and polish.

Next, I played the CD tracks on this hybrid SACD to compare with the Chandos CD. The Gergiev recording is still a great recording, incrementally smoother than the Järvi; but as the percussion accents are not artificially brought forward, they tend to disappear, requiring that the treble control be advanced. The bass strings become somewhat muddled and pitch is less determinate. Dynamic range of the two recordings is now equal.

With this disk capping his previous achievements, Gergiev shows himself to be a supremely great conductor, at the level of Stokowski, Furtwängler, and Karajan. If the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries were the times of the greatest Russian composers, it may be that with Gergiev, Polyansky, and Yablonsky, the Twenty-first century will be that of the greatest Russian conductors.

Paul Shoemaker

 



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