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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 15 in C, Op. 141 (1971) [45:56]
Symphony No. 3, Op. 20 (1929) [29:13]
Beethoven Orchester Bonn/Roman Kofman
rec. Heilig-Kreuz-Kirche, Bad Godesberg, 25-27 January 2005 (Symphony No.15) and 28 November, 6 December 2005 (Symphony No.3).

Experience Classicsonline

Readers of these pages will have come across earlier instalments of this cycle from the Beethoven Orchester, Bonn and its general music director and conductor Roman Kofman. Reactions have been somewhat muted, but knowing MDG’s high standards with SACD production I was still keen to hear what the team might make of these two less often heard numbers in Shostakovich’s grand symphonic canon.

Approached in isolation, this is a very well produced recording. MDG’s standards are always very high, and their 2+2+2 SACD discs have always sounded very good, even if, like me, you’ve never quite had the heart to rebuild your system to accommodate the speaker configuration indicated in the back of the booklet to these discs. I bet if this cycle had appeared 20 years ago everyone would have been raving about it, but such things do not exist in isolation, and cycles of Shostakovich symphonies are no rarity on the shelves these days.

The programme begins with the superficially more approachable Symphony No.15. Kofman and the Beethoven Orchester play with plenty of accuracy, the dynamic range is impressive, and the individual soloists all make excellent contributions. I was a little impatient with the rather pedestrian tempi in both of the 1st and 3rd Allegretto movements, and gingerly reached down my set with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kirill Kondrashin. Despite the sonic disadvantages of tape hiss and some interesting perspectives, this recording was made in 1974, during the composer’s lifetime, and presumably with some consultation as to the work’s intentions. Comparing the two recordings is like comparing chalk and cheese, the rough-hewn but grittily convincing Kondrashin being the chalk, the tasteful but overly creamy and polite Kofman very much the cheese. Timings aren’t everything, but here they tell us a fair bit:

Conductor                 Movt. 1       2           3           4         Total    

Kondrashin (1974)     7:07       13:47      4:24     15:12      40:40

Kofman (2005)          8:30       17:10      4:35     15:32      45:56 

Particularly the first two movements show marked differences. The first movement I just feel as being too slow, with none of the spark which adds that essential sense of danger to all those witty twists and turns. Kondrashin’s second movement has that strange bathroom acoustic with those brass chorales, but his subsequent lower string passages are filled with menace. Kofman goes for lush and eloquent grandeur and has a magnificent brass section, but there is little to grip the listener where the music becomes more sparing. Kondrashin’s cello solo is filled with bleeding anguish: Kofman’s is more lyrical and soulful, and those chiming chords from wind to brass are nice enough but have little of the chilling, operatic impact we have from the Moscow band, who will no doubt have had the chimes of the Kremlin ringing into their souls for decades. There is just too little going on to sustain this slower tempo, and the whole thing ends up becoming rather sad and soggy. 

The third movement perks up a little, but still retains the ‘accuracy over energy/passion’ which this music so badly needs to keep everything alive. The return of more sinister elements in the Adagio opening movement fail to take the listener from their comfort zone, and while the subsequent Allegretto is nicely played I think most of us will have started yawning and playing with the TV remote by this time. 

Timings for the Symphony No.3 are also of interest. 1972 vintage Kondrashin comes in at 26:20, and Kofman at 29:13. I plucked another more modern recording from the shelf just to be fair, and found Neeme Järvi with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra on DG from 2001 to be somewhere in between , at 27:31. To be fair, the energy levels in this symphony are at a higher pitch with the Beethoven Orchester than in the previous work, but this also has something to do with the nature of the music. The madness of the central Allegro is crisp and efficient, and the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno sounds passionate and authentic. It’s only when you put this up against other recordings that you have the feeling there are other worlds to be discovered. Järvi’s orchestra in that same Allegro are brutal and crushing. The sonics are less spectacular as I had remembered, and that aura of resonance begins to sound cumbersome and artificial, but the wildness and drive in the music are on a different level. With the final chorus the pendulum swings in Kofman’s direction, with Järvi’s massed forces straining to be heard through a woolly mass of acoustic boom. Referring back to Kondrashin, tape hiss and all, and the soul of the music becomes a pillar of salt around which the massed cascade of Shostakovich’s ideas dance and cling. The dry acoustic makes this less of an aural feast than either of the more modern recordings, but this, like its sibling the Symphony No.2, was built for speed rather than comfort. Kondrashin’s way with Shostakovich’s neurotic writing is often beyond the pain barrier and the bass drum may sound like someone thwacking a mattress with a baseball bat, but once heard, never forgotten. The entry of the choir raises the hairs on the back of your neck like no other recording I know. 

Going back to Kofman is a bit like doing your teeth with a shaving brush – you can do the motions, but it doesn’t really get the job done. There are some good moments, but, for example, the dynamism in the accents throughout the penultimate Largo have by no means the same impact as with Kondrashin. That elderly recording does have its weaknesses, but there is a feeling that there is no such thing as a transitional passage – the ears are held in a vice-like grip from beginning to end. 

In conclusion, this recording has many fine qualities, but the end results don’t knock any of the other versions I know off the shelf – including one which I haven’t mentioned; that with Rudolf Barshai on the bargain Brilliant Classics label which I would put somewhere closer to Kondrashin in the ‘must have’ stakes. You may be tempted by the SACD technology, and MDG’s engineering is very good, but the musical experience is the one which will keep bringing you back to a recording, and surround-sound sonics may not be enough in this case. 

Dominy Clements           



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