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Symphony No.13 in B flat minor, "Babi Yar" Op. 113 (1962)
(Babi Yar. Adagio [16:13]; Humour. Allegretto [8:19]; In the Store. Adagio [12:12]; Fears. Largo [12:11]; A Career. Allegretto [12:42])
Jan-Hendrik Rootering (bass)
Netherlands Radio Choir
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Mark Wigglesworth
rec. April 2005, Music Centre for Dutch Radio and Television, Studio MCO5, Hilversum
BIS-SACD-1543 [62:22]

Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906–1975)

Symphony No.13 in B flat minor, "Babi Yar" Op. 113 (1962)
(Babi Yar. Adagio [16:03]; Humour. Allegretto [8:07]; In the Store. Adagio [12:43]; Fears. Largo [11:43]; A Career. Allegretto [13:06])
Taras Shtonda (bass)
Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno
Beethoven Orchester Bonn/Roman Kofman
rec. 28-30 November 2005, Heilig Kreuz-Kirche Bad Godesberg

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Several of Shostakovich’s symphonies have political motives. While the others were written to satisfy the Soviet authorities Babi Yar had its origin in the composer’s personal ethics and feelings. Babi Yar was/is a ravine outside Kiev in the Ukraine. At the end of September 1941 the German Army had reached Kiev during their invasion of the Soviet Union and a few days later all the Jews in the city were ordered to a special meeting point, where they were systematically killed and thrown into the ravine. In total 100 000 Jews were killed. When the Germans retreated two years later they did what they could to destroy all the evidence of what had happened, but enough people knew the facts and rumour spread. The young poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko visited the site twenty years later and was very taken by what he learnt, especially upset by the fact that there was no memorial. As a result of the visit he wrote the poem Babi Yar, where he criticised the Soviet indifference to the massacre. Even if there had been a certain thaw during the reign of Krushchev, this was too much for the authorities and Yevtushenko was attacked for, as Mark Wigglesworth writes in his liner notes of the BIS issue, "belittling the suffering of the Russian people by suggesting that it was only the Jews who were the victims of Babi Yar". The poem had to be withdrawn and was not officially published again until 1984. Shostakovich read it, was overjoyed and decided to set it to music. Initially he intended Babi Yar to be a piece of its own but soon decided that it should be the first movement of a larger symphonic building. Finding other poems by the poet that describe various aspects of Russian life he created one of his most personal canvases. It has very contrasting parts but still feels as a unit through the almost consistently dark and bleak tonal language. Fears, the fourth movement, was written by Yevtushenko specifically for the symphony.

There were conflicts also surrounding the premiere of the work. Mravinsky, who had conducted the first performances of most Shostakovich symphonies, got cold feet, so Kondrashin took over. He was asked by the Russian Minster of Culture if the symphony could be performed without the first movement, but Kondrashin refused. After the premiere Yevtushenko rewrote the poem, adding lines about the Soviet people’s sufferings as well, which Shostakovich reluctantly sanctioned, but on the present recordings the original text is performed.

These two, almost simultaneously issued versions of Babi Yar, are both parts of ongoing complete cycles. Mark Wigglesworth started his cycle in 1997 with the Leningrad symphony and with this issue he has come halfway through the fifteen. Roman Kofman, who obviously started later, is fast catching up: this is his sixth Shostakovich symphony. Both are in SACD format and I am not sure if there are further multi-channel versions around. In this review I will, however, only deal with the present two.

They have quite a lot in common. Tempi, as can be seen from the timings, are practically identical. A total timing discrepancy of 31 seconds for such a long work is negligible and even if individual movements differ slightly, take or give a few seconds, they are quite similar. Both conductors are also rhythmically incisive and alert, making the second movement "swing". The prevailing dark mood almost all through the symphony is also brought out with chilling efficiency, from the ominously walking double basses in the beginning of the first movement to the threatening depth of the Fear movement, the beginning of which must have been an influence when John Williams wrote the music for Jaws. The opening of the last movement is the first time when there is a glimpse of light with those almost ethereal flutes flowed by high strings. A little later the chatty bassoon creates a scherzo feeling before the soft contemplative end, the symphony just slowly dying away. This is also well handled by both conductors.

If there is a difference between the orchestras I would say that the Beethoven Orchester is slightly more soft-edged while the Dutch orchestra seems a slightly larger body with more punch, but this may well be a matter of recording. The darkness of the symphony is further enhanced by the use of the male chorus’s basses and the bass soloist, and this is where the greatest differences between the two readings occur. The Czech Philharmonic Choir, who should have a more natural relationship to the language, are excellent and maybe more authentically Slavonic in timbre. However the Simon Halsey-trained Netherlands Radio Choir are even more impressive and sing with a bite and intensity that is quite overwhelming. Most of the chorus singing is in unison and there is an explosive punch to their singing that hits you right in solar plexus.

The two soloists are also excellent. Taras Shtonda, who shares his time between the opera houses in Kiev and Moscow, is fast becoming one of the most sought after basses of the younger generation. He has a pliant instrument that he uses sensitively in a nuanced reading of this testing part and there is no lack of power for the dramatic music. Jan-Hendrik Rootering with a less Slavonic voice timbre digs even deeper and thanks to his more concentrated tone, secure and well-focused, he makes an even greater impression.

Sonically both recordings are also splendid with the added precision of the multi-channel reproduction and the physically exciting feeling of being there in the recording venue surrounded by the hall ambience. Even here the BIS recording is the most dynamic and to experience the almost limitless expansion of the orchestra I would recommend readers to listen from ca. 9:30 into the first movement for a real thrill and also the last 30 seconds of the same movement. Just make sure that your neighbours are well out of earshot.

With valuable documentation - essays by Dr. Josif Raiskin (Dabringhaus und Grimm) and Mark Wigglesworth himself (BIS) - and Yevtushenko’s poems in translation and, with BIS, also the Russian originals, both discs are models of presentation. Either of them is a prime recommendation for an SACD version of this many-facetted symphony and it is only when making close-listening comparisons, that the BIS version comes out as even more thrilling than its competitor. This is thanks to the tremendous sound and, good as Shtonda and the Czech Philharmonic basses are, the singing of Rootering and the Netherlands Radio singers excels. I am happy to have both and will eagerly await the next opportunity to play them again.

Göran Forsling



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