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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47 (1945) [50:06]
Symphony No.9 in E flat major, Op.70 (1965) [27:07]
Russian National Orchestra/Yakov Kreizberg
rec. DZZ Studio 5, Moscow, April 2006
PENTATONE PTC 5186 096 [77:16]


It would appear that Pentatone’s policy for their Shostakovich symphony cycle is to have the same orchestra, the Russian National, and a variety of conductors. The results so far seem to have largely paid off, with encouraging reviews for earlier efforts by as diverse a bunch as Paavo Berglund (8), Vladimir Jurowski (1 and 6)[review] and the orchestra’s founder, Mikhail Pletnev (11). It’s an interesting concept and the present coupling, an increasingly popular one, has some excellent things to offer, though there are caveats.

The American–based Russian Yakov Kreizberg clearly has a distinct view on both works, especially No. 5. Whether you agree will be entirely personal, but from the very first bars you will almost certainly sit up and take notice. The opening string canon is possibly the swiftest I’ve heard, sharp, no-nonsense, beautifully articulated and crisp. He then slows down to a hushed whisper, illustrating two things about the performance generally – the quality of the playing and the gear changes he tends to indulge in occasionally. The worst is in the finale (of which more later) but this grimly impressive reading is generally gripping. I like the first movement’s pace and sharpness, the second movement’s bitter irony (how those amazing strings dig into the opening figure!) and the slow movement’s hushed intensity, spoilt only momentarily by a clumsy studio bang (music stand?) during the oboe’s poignant, wistful solo at 6:36. Since Solomon Volkov’s Testimony, the finale has become the most hotly debated movement of the symphony, and Kreizberg is obviously in the pro-Volkov camp, making a case for the ‘hollow victory’ of the closing moments. Unfortunately, he tries to achieve this by indulging in some awkward gear shifts. For instance, the timing of 12:44 overall must make it one of the slowest on record, but you’d never know it from the opening, which is so swift that Kreizberg has virtually nowhere to go when the composer asks for things to speed up, which he does twice in the first few minutes. Then, later in the movement as we creep towards the final minutes, he nearly grinds to a halt and instead of speeding up fractionally, as the composer asks again, he actually slows down at 10:51, a gesture which signals a long, slow drag to the last bars, which are drawn out interminably. It’s effective in a theatrical way and would have been fine live, but it’s infuriating on disc, and turning to Barshai (Brilliant) or Järvi (Chandos) makes one time and again aware of what can be done by just playing it straight. There’s no doubt that Kreizberg’s cause is helped by the authentically Russian sound he gets from the orchestra, recognizably the same one as on their debut Tchaikovsky 6 with Pletnev in 1991 (Virgin). Listen to the forthright, vibrato- laden horn at 3:10 in the first movement, or the blaring brass in the finale, to say nothing of that phenomenal string tone and unity, reminiscent of the Leningrad Phil. in its heyday.

The Ninth Symphony is less controversial, at least for the most part. The same elements that make the scherzo of the Fifth so effective are all present and correct here, biting strings, perky, shrill woodwind and punchy brass, especially the recurring rising fourth ‘raspberry’ on trombone. The conductor still indulges himself unnecessarily at times; why slow up 8 bars earlier than the composer’s marked ritenuto poco a poco in the third movement (2:35) and why slow up at all in the finale at 5:44? Again, Barshai shows that by adopting a slightly slower tempo in this movement, the marked shift into a sudden allegro at this point is even more effective. Kreizberg seems to be doing what other conductors have done and show us that he knows better than the composer, though without the force of personality of, say, a Bernstein to quite bring it off. Talking of Bernstein, a still have on video a talk he gave before a concert of the Sixth and Ninth with the Vienna Philharmonic, in which he referred to the Ninth as a ‘five-act carnival’ and proceeded to have great fun, even with the straight-laced VPO. Kreizberg sees another side, one in which the humour is bleak indeed and linking it more directly to the Fifth, a valid viewpoint.

Overall, these are exciting performances and I don’t want to put anyone off the disc as there is much to enjoy, not least the orchestral virtuosity and superb SACD recording, which I only heard in conventional stereo. You just need to be aware that there are indulgences that may, or may not, work for you. Try before you buy.

Tony Haywood


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