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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

RECORDING OF THE MONTH

January 2007
It proved to be almost impossible to find this Aulos release but the set has now been repacked by Melodiya on 11 CDs

Now with
The Sun Shines on Our Motherland op. 90
The Execution of Stepan Razin op. 119
Violin Concerto Nr.2 (with David Oistrakh)

 

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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Kondrashin conducts the Fifteen Symphonies

No. 1 in F minor (1925)
No. 2 in B, To October (1927)
No. 3 in E flat, The First of May (1929)
No. 4 in C minor (1935)
No. 5 in D minor (1937)
No. 6 in B minor (1939)
No. 7 in C, Leningrad (1941)
No. 8 in C minor (1943)
No. 9 in E flat (1945)
No. 10 in E minor (1953)
No. 11 in G minor, The Year 1905 (1957)
No. 12 in D minor The Year 1917 (1961)
No. 13 in B flat minor, Babi Yar (1962)
No. 14 (1969)
No. 15 in A (1971)
Artur Eisen, bass (13); Evgenia Tselovalnik (sop) (14); Evgeny Nesterenko, (bass) (14)
Choirs of the Russian Republic/Alexander Yourlov (2, 3, 13)
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin
Rec. Moscow 19 July 1972 (1); 29 Nov 1972 (2); 12 Nov 1972 (3); 1962 (4); 27 Mar 1968 (5); 15 Sept 1967 (6); 7 Mar 1975 (7); 4 Nov 1967 (8); 20 Mar 1965 (9); 24 Sept 1973 (10); 9 July 1973 (11); 13 Dec 1972 (12); 23 Aug 1974 (13); 24 Nov 1974 (14); 27 May 1975 (15). ADD
AULOS CLASSICS AMC2 - 043 - 1-10 [10CDs: 68:59 + 65:28 + 68:16 + 60:02 + 75:34 + 71:10 + 56:36 + 64:46 + 53:54 + 54:06]

Sound Samples (of the Melodiya set)

Symphony No 4 First Movement
Symphony 8 First Movement
Symphony 13 - Humour




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Kondrashin presents grainy but shockingly mesmeric performances. These Aulos recordings represent a true ‘intégrale’: a cycle by a single utterly involved and absorbed conductor with a deeply dedicated and often possessed orchestra. In these qualities Kondrashin is rivalled most consistently by Mravinsky who (sadly) did not record a complete Shostakovich cycle and by Barshai (Brilliant Classics).

I first reviewed these recordings in 1999 when they were issued by BMG-Melodiya (74321 19839/48-2). Before that they had been issued by Chant du Monde in the late 1980s and previously in the LP-moribund era by EMI (1985) on 12 LPs. Some of the Kondrashin performances were included in the 1975 complete HMV (SLS5025) LP set of the Shostakovich symphonies. That box is still in my collection. Kondrashin’s recordings formed the core of the set although Maxim Shostakovich’s account of 5 and 15, Barshai’s 14, Mravinsky’s 12 and Svetlanov’s 7 and 10 took the place of the other Kondrashins now restored here.

Listening to these Korean discs it is clear that the Soviet engineers of the period 1962-1975 had no inhibitions about spotlighting of instruments. For example, listen to the larger than life clarinet in the first and second movements of No. 1. Nothing here is permitted to be bland. Everything has a considered colour or mood.

Those who hanker for the final word in refined recorded sound should however opt elsewhere; perhaps for Haitink’s distinguished cycle of which I confess to having heard very little. However Kondrashin’s way with the symphonies is overpowering and I prefer it over the smooth-chamfered approach even when eloquently conveyed - as it certainly is with Haitink.

Aulos, using DSD technology, have here produced a much more cleanly focused sound than BMG-Melodiya were able to do in 1994 when the discs were last issued. The transfer has also been done at a much higher level. It is a joy to hear and is surely the best CD account of those original tapes now between four decades and a quarter century old.

The coupling on each disc is the same as for the BMG Melodiya discs except that Aulos have reversed the order of play so that, for example, CDs 2 and 3 have symphony 2 before 14 and 3 before 5 unlike the BMGs.

Another difference, this time in favour of the BMG set (deleted but copies may still be found here and there), is that Aulos has each of the 10 CDs in a flimsy light paper sleeve. BMG provide full background notes for each symphony individually where Aulos have a single booklet with a brief overview essay on the symphonies and on Kondrashin.

As already indicated the orchestra’s playing for Kondrashin is exciting even when it is not subtle. What it lacks in fine tones it gains in sheer pain, acidic expression, devastating concentration and the sense of blood coursing through the veins and arteries.

The First Symphony is vividly done with the finale especially red in tooth and claw. Kondrashin’s No. 2 is rather rushed. No. 3 suffers in much the same way although both works communicate well, if in a typically driven way. I seem to recall another Melodiya set (conducted by Igor Blazhkov) of these intriguing early revolutionary/modernistic symphonies.

Comparing the sound of the first few bars of the first movement of the Fourth between the BMG disc and the Aulos results in a clear recommendation for the latter. The BMG sound is shredded and lacks close-up grip. Aulos has done an outstanding job with the 1962 vintage master-tape. This was the team’s most testing assignment and it is passed with flying colours. String sound remains strident though not shrill and the brass choir is very forward. Through all this (or perhaps because of it) the performance positively throbs with life.

The Fifth is not so much haunted by time’s wingèd chariot as hunted down by it in a breathless death-chase. Possession and ferocity may have gone a degree more than the ideal here. However there is no denying the power of this performance. My old LP from the EMI set (as conducted by the composer’s son) is more balanced but Kondrashin is unlikely to disappoint.

Also benefiting from the Korean company's audio-recovery technology is the Sixth Symphony with its great largo gaining in bass foundation and overwhelmingly deep stability. The high strings remain secure and clean-sounding - a distinct improvement on the BMG.

In the massed sonorities and spectacle of the Leningrad the gains are also apparent. In the BMG at tr.1 0.06 there is a tape falter which has been eradicated completely by Aulos. Kondrashin’s Leningrad in all its finesse and flaming emotion is amongst the arterial strengths of the box. Grim and poetic qualities light up this work in a way you probably would not have expected from this conductor and especially not in this work. The long first movement is notably well done with the performance successfully conveying the remorseless steel-tracked march.

No. 8 is an old recording. It is a pity that the master tapes could not be ‘reconstructed’ as their distressed state rather showed through on BMG. It does sound better on Aulos. While still by no means perfect it has more torque and sheer grunt than the BMG. Smoothness is gained and distortion is soothed without bleaching out the essential rasp whether in the solar plexus punch of the brass and double basses or in the scalpel and sabre slicing of the high violins. There is no denying the sense of searing penetration communicated by conductor and orchestra; desperately impressive stuff.

The Ninth Symphony was recorded in 1965 and sounds broader and deeper and at least a decade better than the recording of the Fourth. It is a possessed performance driving forward harder and harder. The slow movement is notable for a sense of emptiness rivalled only by Vaughan Williams’ Sixth.

The Tenth is distinguished by a dashing though almost gabbled scherzo. The Allegretto dances along blithely and the finale is intensified by the knockabout recording quality. It successor is most successfully conveyed by the Helsinki PO conducted on Delos by James de Preist. I write from memory and I recall an extremely impressive Berglund-conducted performance on EMI (Bournemouth SO, EMI) which outpoints the Kondrashin.

The gains are also palpable in the minatorily aggressive Allegro (CD5 tr. 5) of the Twelfth Symphony. This is joyously exciting. Did this music inspire Waxman in his music for the Ride to Dubno for the film Taras Bulba.

The unanimity of the double bass attack in Revolutionary Petrograd in No. 12 is staunchly remarkable - full of a determination that is palpable. Time after time the recording turns up trumps - listen to the gripping playing of the brass in the finale of No. 12 and the high piping woodwind - all captured with unflinchingly and undistorted fidelity. I now know exactly who I would choose to remaster the Kondrashin Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances. The chattering half distanced horns at 5:40 in the finale of symphony No. 12 - outstanding sonics and the gut-wrenching thud of the bass drum at 6.27 are remarkably vivid.

In No. 13 Kondrashin’s Arthur Eisen is a tower of interpretative strength seemingly responding with sense and emotion to the words as a linked shadow and reflection. Kondrashin’s Thirteenth is reckoned to be the finest studio recording but there is also supposed to be a live recording on Russian Disc reputed to be well worth tracking down. Kondrashin’s BMG recording communicates commitment and fury as does the bleakly expressive chorus.

Kondrashin’s version of the Fourteenth is in the front rank as an interpretation and the sound is by no means as crude as you may fear or anticipate. The conductor is typically devil-may-care but this contrasts rather poignantly with Evgeny Nesterenko’s way with the words. Evgenia Tselovalnik is rather less impressive than Nesterenko whose bass voice is all ebony and sepulchral gloom. The Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra play their hearts out for Kondrashin: white hot dedication.

The final symphony remains an enigma but a compulsive one. The parodies, infernally ticking clocks, graveyard humour and drama are ardently articulated. Not to be missed.

In this set there is nothing of caution or routine. Instead there is a giving up to the emotional flame of Shostakovich’s inspiration. This Aulos set is startlingly good. If you demand the best of Shostakovich a single box with one orchestra and conductor spanning fifteen symphonies is not the ideal way to add to your collection. The ideal would be to pick and choose carefully among the many recordings out there. However if you are attracted by the convenience of a single cycle Kondrashin’s has undeniably memorable musical strengths. You must accept some slight technical deficits but the musical rewards patently carry the day.

Meticulous care has been taken by Aulos's engineering team and it really shows. The DSD transfer and remastering has been accomplished by Byeong-Joon Hwang and Sang-Wook Nam of Sound Mirror Korea.

Practically speaking there is no choice if you are looking for Kondrashin's Shostakovich symphonies. You will be very lucky at this stage to be able to find the complete BMG-Melodiya series. And if you did find it and were confronted with a choice which way should you jump? Go for the Aulos. It's worth it. The sound problems commented on by many commentators in relation to the BMG have now been substantially ameliorated without bleeding out the gripping music-making.

What about the choice between Kondrashin, Rozhdestvensky (Olympia if you can find this set), Barshai (Brilliant) and Haitink (Decca)? Rozhdestvensky has a good sense of fantasy and brilliance and is aided by 1980s Russian sound. Barshai is excellent and in very good modern sound - German Radio originated. Haitink always strikes me as having knocked some of the rough edges from Shostakovich. I'd prefer mine with those jagged corners still in place. Haitink is at the bottom of my recommendation list. I'd rate Rozhdestvensky at about the same level as Barshai but would recommend Barshai as the best modern-sounding version. However if you want Shostakovich raw and rasping, red in tooth and claw, smarting with vitriolic humour, and do not have a problem with the gloriously distinctive sound of the Soviet brass then there is now no choice - Kondrashin on Aulos. Snap it up before it disappears. Ideally you should have both Barshai and the Kondrashin.

Individually there are other discs to supplement Kondrashin: Ancerl in 10 (DG), Berglund in 7 and 11 (EMI), Sanderling on Berlin Classics, Mitropoulos (Sony), Ormandy in 4 and 10 (Sony), Mravinsky in 6 and 9 (BMG), Maxim Shostakovich in 5 and 15.

For a complete single conductor-orchestra survey Kondrashin and Aulos set the gold standard. The music and the performances speak for themselves. These are exemplary recordings presented in raging colours and with a compulsive tragic power.

Rob Barnett

A Note from John Shand

I bought the 2006 Melodiya Kondrashin set. And now I’ve just come from comparing the opening of the 4th and 10th symphonies with their counterparts in the 1994 BMG-Melodiya set, and there’s a definite improvement! The level is higher, the sound clear - the 1994 set sounds muffled in comparison - and the sound has far more weight and depth. In case I thought I was imagining it, I got my wife to listen, who hasn’t followed any of this, and played her the disks blind - I have a very understanding wife! - and she agreed without a qualm that the sound on the 2006 set was noticeably better.

I've just played the opening of the 8th. That's much improved too in the Melodiya 2006 set over the BMG-Melodiya 1994 set. Where as before it was clear but painful, the sound now has more depth and body and isn't so unbearably shrill, without losing any of the excitement.

He whole improvement is really quite thrilling. The set has come up sounding fresh.

And, by the way, the first note on the double basses at the opening of the 10th is restored, which on the BMG-Melodiya set was chopped off, or at least started half way through - although no-one seems to have to commented on this before.

I found a page on Amazon where someone had compared the 2006 Melodiya set with the 1999 Aulos one, and he thought the 2006 Melodiya set a definite improvement over that too.

All one has to do is get used to the quaint packaging of the 2006 set. But there’s no question about the improvement in sound. I wonder what they did? Whatever they did the Russians have come up trumps!

John Shand




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