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Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75)
The Complete Symphonies
see end of review for full details
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra (Nos. 7 & 11); NHK Symphony Orchestra (Nos. 4, 13, 14)/ Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. 1987-2006. DDD.
Booklet with sung texts in Russian (transliterated) and English; notes in English, French and German.
DECCA 475 8748 [12 CDs: 758:30]

Such is the abundance of recordings of Shostakovich now that these recordings of the symphonies somehow slipped under my radar. They were issued individually during the 1980s and 1990s without the kind of publicity with which Decca made us aware of their Haitink recordings. These Ashkenazy versions were soon deleted and forgotten, though some were made available by ArkivCD on CDR. The Leningrad remains available on 448 814 2.
In fact, when I first looked at the box, I thought that it was a reissue of the Haitink box set. So blasé are Decca about the release of this new box set that a search of their on-line catalogue failed to come up with any reference to it. Another minor grumble – in working out the times for the individual works I discovered that some of the timings in the booklet are incorrect: CD3 plays for 69:48, for example, not 69:35 as stated and CD7 for 66:30, not 65:57.
The new set is issued partly as a celebration of Ashkenazy’s 70th birthday. It represents good value, the equivalent of bargain price per CD, and the performances and recordings are good enough to warrant a general recommendation.
The Haitink remains available on 11 CDs for around the same price as the new set - about £60 in the UK - with individual symphonies also available at mid- and bargain-price. Neither of the Decca sets, however, is uniformly ideal and I have suggested some alternatives which you may prefer. In the main, bearing in mind the inexpensive nature of both Decca sets, I have tried to limit my alternative recommendations to CDs at less than full price.
The First Symphony receives a performance that makes it sound worth listening to, not just a student work. Instead of emphasising its debts to other composers, Ashkenazy brings out the individual touches. Though it is not a work I listen to frequently – hardly on a par with Sibelius’s First Symphony either in its own right or as a predictor of things to come – it is well performed and recorded and well worth the occasional outing. Considering that Ashkenazy and the RPO had previously recorded only the Fifth Symphony, a rather hesitant beginning for players, conductor and recording engineers, the First and the Sixth Symphony, recorded at the same time, are very creditable.
The Festive Overture gets the second CD off to a good start and the version of the Second Symphony which follows also receives a fine performance. The symphonic poem October and the choral Song of the Forests rather outstay their welcome, though Ashkenazy makes the best possible case for them. Had Decca chosen to omit these less attractive pieces, totalling almost 50 minutes, and re-coupled the symphonies, the whole could have been accommodated on 11 CDs, like rival versions, including Decca’s own Haitink set.
The Fourth Symphony is a new recording, with the NHK Symphony Orchestra, presumably because the balance of critical opinion was that the earlier version with the RPO was one of the weakest CDs in that series. The new recording, for all the virtues of the orchestral playing, also fails by a small margin to reveal exactly what it was about this symphony that made it political dynamite and caused it to be shelved for over a quarter of a century, though Ashkenazy comes close to it in the climax of the Allegro section of the final movement, an angry outburst which dies away almost to inaudibility.
By contrast Rozhdestvensky really makes the Allegro blaze on his 1985 Melodiya recording, once available on Olympia, but sadly not currently available. The Decca recording is, of course, superior to the Melodiya, though Olympia’s re-mastering of this is not at all bad, with the contrast between the loudest outbursts and the quiet ending almost as well captured as by the Decca engineers. Even the tremulous Russian brass and the imbalance which makes, for example, the xylophone over-prominent seem appropriate to Rozhdestvensky’s reading. The Jazz Suite which follows after all-too-short an interval on the Olympia CD rather destroys the atmosphere after the symphony.
In place of the Rozhdestvensky recordings, Melodiya have chosen to issue Kondrashin’s versions as a box set, but Rozhdestvensky’s 1962 Philharmonia version – the symphony’s first performance in the West – is available on BBC Legends (BBCL42202). Barshai’s version on Regis at bargain price (RRC1103) offers the interpretation of an echt-Shostakovich conductor with a Western orchestra.
For many (most?) the Fifth Symphony will be the test piece. Two versions of this Symphony have stood the test of time. The Ančerl version, at one time an incredible bargain on a Music for Pleasure LP at 12/6 (63p), is still available at mid-price on Supraphon Gold (Nos. 1 and 5 on SU36992) and Previn’s RCA recording is still an incredible bargain (82876 55493 2, with the Hamlet Suite). The Barshai version of Nos. 5 and 6 is also an excellent bargain (Regis RRC1075), as is Haitink’s coupling of 5 and 9 on Eloquence 467 478 2. All these CDs offer longer playing times than CD5 of the Askenazy set, though the latter is actually 56:42, not 56:29 as stated.
Initially, Ashkenazy’s Fifth is disappointing: the violins sound distinctly undernourished and the recording is less vivid than the 40-year-old Previn, even with the volume higher than normal. This was the first CD in the series to be recorded and the first to be issued; neither the RPO nor Ashkenazy had had much experience with Shostakovich at that time, so the hesitant opening is, perhaps, to be expected. By a little over eight minutes into the first movement, however, the performance and recording begin to take off – the central section is dramatic but not overdone, its abrupt changes very well handled, and the ensuing coda especially effective, its close really magical.
There is the briefest of pauses before the swaggering second movement intrudes on the peace, perhaps to stress Shostakovich’s later denial that the symphony was at all optimistic – reflecting merely the forced optimism that was beaten into the Soviet citizens. Forced or not, it is clear from the finale that the orchestra and conductor are both enjoying themselves. Even the notes in the booklet are not quite sure that the hysteria of this movement serves only to underline the emptiness and hopelessness of the work as a whole. The words “Or so one interpretation might run” seem to indicate that the writer might think otherwise.
There is a real danger that the version(s) of a great work by which one came to know that work can colour our perception of other interpretations. Be that as it may, the competition is fierce in this symphony and the Ančerl and Previn versions still sound more ‘right’ than the Ashkenazy.
The Five Fragments are almost contemporary with the Fifth Symphony but they are small beer by comparison and it was surely as great a mistake to place them after the main work as it was for Olympia to have the Jazz Suite follow hard on the heels of the Fourth.
The Sixth Symphony receives a sympathetic performance, perhaps the best in the set. One reviewer of the original CD thought the recording rather too thin but this is not a criticism which I share. I note that all the CDs, whether new or reissues, have new matrix numbers, so it may be that re-mastering has removed the problem.
The Seventh and Eleventh Symphonies were recorded with the St Petersburg Phil – this is especially appropriate for the Seventh, the Leningrad, since it was in that city, now St Petersburg, that Shostakovich began work on the symphony. The brief sub-fusc extract from the wartime broadcast in which Shostakovich announced the completion of two parts of what he hoped would become a symbol of his country’s defiance of Nazism is of historical interest but I am not sure that I want to hear it every time I listen to the Leningrad or to have to programme the player to omit it. The performance more than atones for the inconvenience, making an impact right from the start. Though later, at times, Ashkenazy is unwilling to let rip as fully as I might wish, this is one of the most effective performances in the box and its continued existence on a single CD is fully justified.
Without subscribing to the view that only Russian orchestras can interpret Shostakovich, I hear a distinct difference here from the playing of the RPO on the earlier CDs. It may be some kind of placebo-effect but I don’t think so. The recording, which emphasises the timpani and percussion more than the Walthamstow recordings, and the change of venue probably play a part in the difference. The incremental build-up to the menace in the opening movement is especially well handled by all concerned. Whether the menace of Hitler alone or that of Stalin too is intended, remains one of those moot questions which Ashkenazy’s ‘straight’ interpretation is as content to leave open as am I. For a discussion of this and other issues relating to Shostakovich’s wartime symphonies, see Paul Serotsky’s notes here on Musicweb.
I have seen one criticism that here and elsewhere Ashkenazy’s conducting refuses to ‘move forward’, but the conductor can only move where the music takes him and, for me, Ashkenazy goes with the flow here and, mostly, elsewhere. He may make the music sound smoother than some interpreters – a little too smooth for me in places, including the Fourth, as I have indicated – but so does Haitink to name but one other.
There are several very worthwhile alternatives for the Leningrad, not least the Barshai in the lowest price category (Regis RRC1074). Whatever else, please do not be seduced into buying the Naxos/Slovak version by the recommendation of an eminent and trusted critic who should have known better than to write that it is “full of dramatic flair”. It isn’t – it’s really under-powered: I bought it some years ago and promptly gave it away to my local charity shop. In mitigation, I must add that I have never before, in almost forty years, regretted following this reviewer’s advice. Were EMI to reissue their Berglund recording, a very fine version, until recently available coupled with a sound performance of No.11 on a low-price twofer, that would be a very acceptable bargain. Several of the Double forte series are being reissued as Geminis; I hope this will be one of them.
The Eighth Symphony is a notorious divider of opinion: reviewers have almost come to verbal blows, for example, over their (dis)like of the Rostropovich version (Apex 0927 49850 2) – not a version that I have heard, so I can cheerfully duck this argument. For me, like the Leningrad – perhaps even more so – it needs to be kept moving and this it initially failed to do. On paper Ashkenazy’s timings for all the movements but one are noticeably faster than Haitink’s: 24:58 for this first movement against Haitink’s 25:55, yet my initial impression was that Haitink’s opening was more urgent, whilst still capturing the meditative nature of the opening. Haitink’s Concertgebouw players, of course, have the edge on Askenazy’s less polished RPO.
Perhaps it was the contrast between the bombast of the opening work on this disc, the Funeral and Triumphal Prelude in Memory of the Heroes, which Ashkenazy actually makes sound better than it probably is, that made the opening of the Eighth seem not to be going anywhere. I have already said that a conductor can only go with the flow of the music and, once the movement is underway, around 11:30 into the movement, Ashkenazy does really capture its spirit and the rest of this long movement goes well. Maybe the fault for the hesitant opening is really Shostakovich’s: perhaps, for once, the authorities were right, at least as far as the opening is concerned, in their view that the war had had too great an effect on Shostakovich and that he had given in to pessimism. Or maybe Ashkenazy has been too ready to apply the suggestion in the Memoirs that the Eighth was an even more subversive work than even his critics knew.
After the opening movement Ashkenazy steers a safe course which will prove generally satisfactory for most listeners and the recording is fine, especially if reproduced at a higher-than-usual level. By comparison with Haitink, though, that last degree of excellence is missing. Novorossiisk Chimes (subtitled The Fire of Eternal Glory) really is a pot-boiler: even Ashkenazy cannot make much of it and it is a real let-down after the symphony.
Haitink’s Eloquence version of the Eighth is very worthwhile (467 465 2), as also are the Leningrad PO/Mravinsky version on Regis (RRC1250) and Barshai’s with the Bournemouth Symphony on Classics for Pleasure (5 87034 2). If the Previn version, briefly available on HMV Classics, were to become available again, that would also be worth serious consideration. Again I recommend avoidance of the Naxos/Slovak version and Dave Billinge’s review of the Australian Eloquence version of this symphony (Braithwaite) was hardly confidence-inspiring. Nor was Colin Clarke much more impressed in his review of the Kofman version. Adrian Smith’s review of the Litton version was much more positive. John Phillips recommended the Jansons, a version now available, I believe, only in a box set, albeit at a very favourable price (see below).
Symphonies 9 and 15 are harnessed together – an odd coupling on the face of it, though it works quite well, with the sotto voce opening of No.15 following on the heels of the throw-away ending of No.9. The way in which the finale of No.15 dies away makes a good contrast with the abrupt end of No.9. Once again, these are good performances, well recorded, but no match for the Rozhdestvensky versions. These erstwhile Olympia recordings capture the spirit of Shostakovich so well that it really is time that someone reissued the series.
No.9 is another symphony which should not have happened not because, like the Fourth, it was in danger of being dubbed ‘formalist’ but because it is not the great celebration of victory which the authorities were expecting. The jaunty, ironically tuneful opening has been compared to Haydn and Rossini but I also hear an echo of Bartók. It is usually assumed that the symphony was a deliberate snub to Stalin but I wonder if it is not the case that, in the first movement at least, he was also concerned with artistic matters, responding to Bartók who had parodied one of the more facile passages of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony in his Concerto for Orchestra (1944).
The booklet calls the 9th “music for a hollow victory” and the performance conveys this well – foot-tapping music at one level but provoking deeper thought. Ashkenazy makes no attempt to mitigate the abrupt endings of the first movement and finale, throwing them off in just the right manner like a comedian’s punch-line. The slow movement meanders by comparison with Rozhdestvensky but not inordinately. The orchestral support here is generally good, with enough weight when it is required in the finale, and the recording is obviously much better than Rozhdestvensky is accorded on Olympia.
The Tenth is coupled with the Chamber Symphony, Barshai’s arrangement of the Eighth Quartet, Shostakovich’s most popular chamber work. My preference remains for the quartet in its original form, skilful as the orchestration is. If you must have the orchestral version, this is as good as any. The mysterious opening is well captured, but it sounds even more mysterious in its original form. The transition from the first to the second movement is much more dramatic in the original: the orchestral version sounds less powerful, less immediate. This is not the fault of the orchestra or the recording: some orchestrations, like the Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence or Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, do work – this does not, at least for me. Decca must think otherwise: they have chosen an extract from Ashkenazy’s version of the Chamber Symphony as the sole representation from this set on their Simply Shostakovich ‘Accessible Introduction’ (475 7927).
The first movement of the Tenth is of Mahlerian proportions, with more than a hint of the latter’s Resurrection Symphony – rebirth after the death of Stalin? After all, the second movement is supposed to represent Stalin. My allegiance to Neeme Järvi remains unshaken (CHAN8630, with Ballet Suite No.4). Nevertheless, these are very worthwhile interpretations, well recorded. Ashkenazy’s tempi generally match Järvi’s fairly closely and the RPO play well. The rather slow tempo for the opening of the first movement allows a build-up of the sense that a great revelation is imminent – one Soviet writer described this as ‘Faustian’ – and the energy of the second movement is well conveyed. The third movement, allegretto, is almost two minutes faster than Järvi. Both capture the dance-like elements of this movement very well; Ashkenazy is, if anything, slightly perkier. Both hold back rather too much at the points where the dance rhythm sinks below the surface. In the finale, both Järvi and Ashkenazy convey the sense of joy at the death of the monster and apprehension at what might replace him; I well remember the foreboding, even in the West, at what might happen after the death of ‘Uncle Joe’. D-S-C-H, Shostakovich’s own musical motif, does eventually join the dance, but hesitantly, in a rather awkward and lumpish fashion.
Whatever version of the Tenth you buy, avoid the absurdly over-praised Rahbari on Naxos. I am sorry to seem hyper-critical of Naxos recordings of Shostakovich; let me make amends by praising their recordings of the string quartets. Though even there the Regis versions by the Shostakovich Quartet now rather outshine them, in the same lowest-price category.
The Eleventh and Twelfth are both programmatic symphonies, based on events connected with the Russian Revolution. No.11 depicts the events of 1905, when Tsarist troops fired on unarmed demonstrators. It is, therefore, at one level, what Rob Cowan describes in his notes for the Rozdestvensky recording as “fiercely patriotic”, but there may also be a sub-theme which links the victims of Tsarist oppression with those of Stalin. The new Decca notes steer clear of this possible sub-theme, other than to say that Shostakovich hoped that the symphony would speak to people’s present condition, but the original notes made much of it, citing Ashkenazy’s own belief that it was a grand indictment of Soviet tyranny.
In the opening movement Ashkenazy captures the sense of hushed expectancy as the crowd waits in the Palace Square, but Rozhdestvensky (Olympia, deleted) allows himself much more space here – 18:01 against Ashkenazy’s 14:33 – to the music’s advantage. Indeed, throughout the symphony, Rozhdestvensky’s timings are much broader, but this does not prevent his offering a dramatic performance. In the second movement, depicting the troops gunning down the workers, he again allows himself almost four minutes more elbow-room but the cinematic effect of the music – the equivalent of the scene in the film of Dr Zhivago where the crowd is brutally dispersed – is not diminished. Ashkenazy is just that little bit less cinematic, though the St Petersburg Orchestra plays well and his recording is, of course, better than Rozhdestvensky’s.
No.12, dedicated to the memory of Lenin, is also programmatic, though more loosely than No.11. It is not one of Shostakovich’s more ‘difficult’ works and it is unlikely that many will find Ashkenazy’s straightforward performance objectionable. In this symphony the sound on the Rozhdestvensky/Olympia is definitely inferior to the Ashkenazy: unreconstructed Melodiya against Decca is no contest. Tempi are broadly similar to Rozhdestvensky’s, given that Decca and Olympia choose different places to make the break between tracks 1 and 2. (The movements follow each other without break.) Once again, Ashkenazy is marginally less willing to ‘go for broke’ but I did not hear the lack of conviction which one reviewer of the original issue heard: he sounds convinced enough, for example, at the transition from the third movement and throughout the fourth.
Like the Fourth, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Symphonies both come in new versions with the NHK Orchestra. In No.13 Askenazy’s tempi are, as usual, significantly faster than Rozhdestvensky’s: the opening movement, the setting of Yevtushenko’s poem Babi Yar, which has given its name to the whole symphony, more than two minutes shorter than from Rozhdestvensky, whose slower pace again pays dividends right from the start. The baritone soloist is effective but Rozhdestvensky’s darker-voiced bass would probably have outshone him if he had not been so distantly recorded, albeit that this was a DDD recording. The Nikikai Chorus Group sounds a little undernourished but so does Rozhdestvensky’s chorus because of the distant recording. One plus for the new version is that it reverts to the original texts, not the modified versions which the Soviet authorities demanded, but ultimately, like so many of the symphonies in this set, I found it just a little under-powered. Listening on headphones brings a few unwelcome noises-off. Barshai, as usual, offers a feasible alternative at the lowest price, on Regis RRC1102.
No.14 is rather more effective: the slight loss of drama is made up for by the quality of the playing and the strength of the interpretation. Joan Rogers may not be the best-known soprano in the business but her singing here is very effective. As in No.13, the baritone soloist is outsung by the bass on the Rozhdestvensky/Olympia, much better recorded this time.
This disc would be very short value if it were offered on its own. The Olympia recording coupled it with the King Lear fragments and Decca’s own Haitink recording adds even more, the Tsvetaeva Poems; surely they could have found a worthwhile filler here.
The Fifteenth is another of Shostakovich’s enigmas: the repeated quotations from Rossini’s William Tell Overture, the first occurring out of the blue early in the first movement, and the later quotations from Wagner have never been fully explained. I confess that I have not yet found a way into this work. Rob Cowan’s notes to the Olympia recording are probably right to suggest that we are meant to be unsettled by this symphony, not to come to terms with it. The comparative paucity of single-CD couplings of this symphony suggests that the record-buying public in general have yet to come to terms with it. You may find it helpful to read some of Bruce Hodges’ analysis here on Musicweb Seen and Heard in his review of a Gergiev performance of the 15th.
Ashkenazy offers a very good performance, but it is Rozhdestvensky again who comes closer to giving me a key to unlock the Fifteenth. The greater weight which the latter gives to the Adagio pays dividends: though this version is almost three minutes longer, it is actually the Ashkenazy version which seems to drag in places – and again in parts of the finale, though I rather think that is Shostakovich’s fault (or mine). The RPO offer good support, and the recording is clearly superior to the Olympia. I have seen Ashkenazy’s Fifteenth praised for its refusal to emphasise the miserable moments but surely they are part of the point of this symphony.
The notes in the booklet by Timothy Day are informative and helpful. They replace the original notes by Ian MacDonald, some of which certain reviewers found tendentious.
I expected to enjoy this excursion through the symphonies of Shostakovich but, in the end, it has been more onerous than I anticipated. Some have welcomed this middle-of-the-road Ashkenazy set with (almost) open arms and I have mostly enjoyed the performances, but I have found sometimes myself much more out of sorts with the music than I expected. Ashkenazy has not helped me to come to terms with Nos. 14 and 15 and he has sometimes left me wanting a firmer direction in other symphonies. I’m not sure how much the fault is Ashkenazy’s: there is very little that is actually wrong with this set, but I have, in the main, derived more pleasure from listening to my existing versions. When my preferences are mostly for Olympia CDs which are no longer available, I’m afraid that is little help, so I shall try to be more useful.
Decca’s Haitink set remains competitive, as do cheaper alternatives from Rostropovich (Warner 2564 64177 2, 12 CDs for around £45 in the UK), Jansons (EMI 3 65 300 2, 10 CDs at around £35) and Barshai (Brilliant Classics 6275, 11 CDs at around £35: see review and follow links at the end of that review to other Musicweb reviews of this set. NB: it also exists in a different format as Brilliant Classics 6324 – check before purchase.) Rob Barnett recommended the Kondrashin when it appeared briefly on the Aulos label; this set is now available on Melodiya (MELCD1001065). Rob’s review and Dominy Clements’ of the Melodiya reissue should be read as supplementing my own round-up. All the single CDs of the Järvi recordings on Chandos are recommendable and individual CDs from the Haitink set on Eloquence at bargain price are good value: Nos. 5 and 9 are on 467 478-2 and No.8 on 467 465-2. Caveat emptor: these two CDs are available both at mid-price and at bargain price on Eloquence; all you lose with the cheaper versions are the notes.
Brian Wilson

Disc details
CD1 [63:33]
Symphony No.1 in F minor Op.10 (1926) [32:20]
Symphony No.6 in B minor Op.54 (1939) [31:12]
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, November 1988
CD2 [72:00]
Festival Overture Op.96 (1947? 1954?) [5:53]
October Op.131 (1967) [12:38]
Symphony No.2 in B Op.14 (1927) ‘To October’ [17:04]
The Song of the Forests Op.81 (1949) [36:30]
Mikhail Kotliarov (tenor), Nikita Storojev (bass)
Brighton Festival Chorus, New London Children’s Choir
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, January 1989, October 1991 (Forests)
CD3 [69:48]
Symphony No.12 in D minor Op.112 ‘The Year 1917’ (1961) [41:18]
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, April 1992
Symphony No.3 in E flat Op.20 ‘The First of May’ (1929) [28:30]
The Bach Choir
CD4 [61:11]
Symphony No.4 in C minor Op.43 (1935-6) [61:11]
rec. Suntory Hall, Tokyo, 8-9 March 2006
CD5 [56:42]
Symphony No.5 in D minor Op.47 (1937) [45:43]
Five Fragments Op.42 [8:58]
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, March 1987
CD6 [70:21]
Shostakovich’s Broadcast from Wartime Leningrad [0:54]
Symphony No.7 in C Op.60 ‘Leningrad’ (1941) [69:27]
rec. Great Hall of St Petersburg Philharmonia, May 1995
CD7 [65:57]
Funeral and Triumphal Prelude Op.130 (1967) [2:44]
Symphony No.8 in C minor Op.65 (1943) [60:30]
Novorosiisk Chimes (1960) [2:43]
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, October 1991
CD8 [74:47]
Chamber Symphony in C minor Op.110a (String Quartet No.8, 1960, arr. Barshai) [23:05]
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, January 1989
Symphony No.10 in E minor Op.93 (1953) [51:43]
CD9 [55:23]
Symphony No.11 in G minor Op.103 ‘The Year 1905’ (1957) [55:23]
rec. Great Hall of St Petersburg Philharmonia, November 1994
CD10 [54:12]
Symphony No.13 in B flat minor Op.113 ‘Babi Yar’ (1962) [54:12]
Sergei Koptchak (baritone)
Nikikai Chorus Group
rec. NHK Hall, Tokyo, 19 October 2000
CD11 [50:22]
Joan Rodgers (soprano), Sergei Koptchak (baritone)
Symphony No.14 Op.135 (1969) [50:12]
rec. Meguro Persimmon Hall, Tokyo, 27-29 June, 2006
CD12 [64:54]
Symphony No.9 in E flat Op.70 (1949)
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, January 1989
Symphony No.15 in A Op.141 (1971)
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, November 1990


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