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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 (1937) [46’35]
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 54 (1939) [30’55]
Giuseppe Verdi Symphony Orchestra, Milan/Oleg Caetani
Live recs. From the Auditorium di Milano, Italy in January 2001 (Symphony No. 5) and January 2002 (Symphony No. 6). DDD
ARTS 47668-2 [79’14]

Oleg Caetani, son of Igor Markevitch (‘Caetani’ is a matronymic), is a student of the great Kirill Kondrashin. He appears here with an orchestra that boasts Riccardo Chailly as principal conductor and Carlo Maria Giulini as Conductor Emeritus, and the disc is recorded in the new (1999) Auditorium di Milano. As a recording it is impressive (sample the cellos and basses and generally or, in particular, the opening of the second movement of the Fifth for a winning combination of definition and depth).

The Fifth, of course, enters a very, very crowded field indeed, and this is emphatically not a version to have one scurrying to re-evaluate the Shostakovich shelf, despite moments of strength. For a live performance, performance standards may be generally high, but where is the extra intensity a live event is supposed to bring with it?. The very close of second movement of the Fifth, which should be so dismissive, is here a damp squib; the slow movement lacks emotional focus (this is Bernstein territory, really); the finale is under-powered, especially from the brass. Timpani are muted (they need to be more incisive – harder sticks would have been a good idea) and the trumpet solo at 2’30 is very recessed (all we can really hear are swirling strings – the trumpet may as well be off-stage).

There is some expressive playing here (the flute and harp duet in the slow movement is magical, for example), but the end result is interpretatively diffuse.

The Sixth Symphony is a masterpiece that has been overshadowed by the more immediate appeal of the Fifth. A great shame – it needs more exposure in our concert halls. It receives a better performance overall than the Fifth. The first movement (Largo) does possess a rather intriguing inevitability despite its harmonic/gestural ambiguities (or, as the booklet notes would have it, ‘instable harmony’!). But Caetani can smooth out textures that Shostakovich obviously needs to sound as bare as possible, weakening the effect of some passages. Problems of live performance inform the middle Allegro, although many will warm to the crunching climax (4’22). A more manic approach, too, would have paid dividends in the comic-strip antics of the Presto finale, where again the perils of public performance are highlighted.

Worthwhile remembering, too, that Mravinsky (who premiered the work in November 1939) and the Leningraders are available at medium price on Le Chant du Monde, recorded in 1955 in Prague, profitably coupled with the Twelfth Symphony. To listen to Mravinsky in the first movement of the Sixth is to enter into another world from Caetani’s entirely. Viscerally intense, memorably disturbing to the core, Mravinsky lays the score open for the listener like an raw wound and leaves one in no doubt whatsoever that this is great music. His orchestra, of course, is the real thing – there is an intrinsic rightness about the woodwind tone and phrasing, and the strings play preternaturally together, negotiating Shostakovich’s tricky corners with seeming ease. Polyansky on Chandos boasts an interesting filler (The Execution of Stepan Razin, Op. 119) but, like Caetani, signally fails to rise to Mravinsky’s heights.

Despite some impressive moments, then, Caetani remains ultimately unrecommendable. In addition, confusion currently reigns as to the price of this disc. International Record Review claims full price; Gramophone budget; Amazon budget/lower medium; HMV medium. So, should you want it, shop around – I have previously seen Arts discs for super-budget before now!.

Colin Clarke


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