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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
CD 1
Symphony No.1 in F minor, Op.10 (1923-5) [31:52]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 102 (1957) [20:20]
String Quartet No.8 in C minor, op.110 (1960) [22:58]
CD 2
Violin Concerto No.1 in A Minor, op.77 (1947) (rev. 1955 as op.99) [37:08]
Cello Concerto No.1 (1960) [28:47]
Jazz Suite No.1 (1934) [8:18]
Tahiti Trot (Tea for Two) (1928) [3:31]
Performance details at end of review
rec. 1970-2006
EMI CLASSICS 2376862 [75:27 + 77:57]
Experience Classicsonline

Have you noticed how feature films are being pushed out on DVD sooner than ever these days after appearing in a cinema near you. In much the same way we see relatively recent classical music releases increasingly to be worth waiting for in budget compilation form. True, many of the recordings here are of older and even distinguished vintage, but it used to be a sign of ‘a certain age’ in a reviewer when releases re-appeared somewhere down the line. It seems like only yesterday when I was listening to the Cello Concerto version which now appears in this twofer. Both this, the String Quartet No.8 and the Violin Concerto No.1 found here are still very much available at full price. I hope EMI haven’t started over-fishing their catalogue in an attempt at the kind of ‘quantitative easing’ which will see us all out of a job in a few years time.
 
With the two or three-ish aforementioned separate concerto/quartet discs in one hand and this compilation in the other, I can see the dollar signs ringing up behind your eyes already. With this release’s bargain credentials already established, it only remains to see if the performances are in fact really worth having.
 
I quite enjoyed the Symphony no.1, though wouldn’t consider it the most exciting I’ve ever heard. The quality of playing by the Berliner Philharmoniker is very good as one might expect, but the recording is surprisingly light in the bass. Those meaty low lines in the gorgeous Lento sometimes are often covered by the rest of the orchestra, and I miss the toothsome welly and impact which the basses and low brass can give here and elsewhere. As with the rest of the Mariss Jansons Shostakovich symphonic cycle, this is good, and in places very good indeed, but while serves well as an introduction it doesn’t set the world alight.
 
What may well send your world into a different plane is the Piano Concerto No.2 as played in 1970 with John Ogdon. There is a little analogue tape hiss as you might expect from a recording of this age, but the quality is certainly no aberration on this otherwise digital disc, and in any case, the playing is such that all considerations of technology take last place. This recording has been available before of course, appearing together with Bartok’s 3rd Piano Concerto on a 2001 budget re-mastering. My favourite recordings of both of Shostakovich’s two piano concertos was for a long time that with Dmitri Alexeev on Classics for Pleasure, and I still consider that to be something of a desert island disc. If I could have his No.1 and Ogdon’s No.2 on one disc then I would be a happy camper indeed, though I’ve also kept Eugene List’s rough and ready 1975 recording with the USSRRSO conducted by Maxim Shostakovich pretty close to hand on an RCA/BMG release. Ogdon and the RPO are penetrating, fun, and deeply moving all at the same time, and with much better sound than that USSR Melodiya/RCA recording with Eugene List. The lively outer movements have a sardonic cold-war grit which seems to tug at Shostakovich’s superficial, typically nervy romps, simultaneously dancing and twitching, possessed as well as passionate. The slow central movement sails close to that Francophile sweetness we love in Ravel, but sustains a sense of barren melancholy which clings to the soul long after the music has stopped. Intonation is not always 100%, but who cares: this is a performance and recording which has classic status, and should be a part of every Shostakovich library.
 
I hadn’t heard anything by the St. Lawrence String Quartet until now, but their disc with the 3rd, 7th and 8th quartets has been widely praised, and one can hear why with this sample of one of Shostakovich’s most famous string quartets. They give an impassioned and colourful tone to the thickest of textures, maintaining the intensity of a tight vibrato in even the driving Allegro molto, and the doom-laden dances and sheer deathly emptiness of the music elsewhere has rarely sounded so potent. It didn’t move me quite as much as the Hagen Quartett, but came close enough.
 
On to disc 2, and I have heard criticism of the tempos in Sir Simon Rattle’s recording of the Violin Concerto No.1 with Sarah Chang. I’m not quite sure why this should be the case. His timings are certainly comparable with Jaap van Zweden’s 1996 recording on RCA with Edo de Waart, and Ruth Palmer with Benjamin Wallfisch certainly make more of a meal of the opening Nocturno, coming in at over a minute longer. It all sounds pretty good to me, through with the big acoustic of the Berlin Philharmonie seemingly more part of the picture than usual – it sounds a bit more like the Albert Hall than usual on this recording. I suspect the problem may be more one of technical brilliance over a real feel of engagement or emotional involvement. No matter how well everyone plays – and the technical standards are very high indeed – some of it sounds like one big intermezzo, to be hacked through before getting on to the next ‘good bit’ of the programme, or better still hitting the pub. If you want real soul in this piece you really have to go back to the David Oistrakh/Rostropovich team, which, once of CBS, can now be found on Sony.
 
I’ve already given a pointer to my previous review of the Cello Concerto No.1, and what I wrote then still stands. What I can add however is that all of that ‘in your face’ white hot playing has become increasingly hard to live with, and I can’t say I’ve played this much since 2006. To be fair, we reviewers rarely get the time to play anything much for sheer pleasure, but listening again and I can appreciate the synergy and sizzling performance from Chang and Pappano, but am glad I have still hung on to my copy of Truls Mork on Virgin. The gorgeous Moderato still hits the spot however, and newcomers and seasoned collectors are unlikely to be disappointed.
 
What do we have left? The Jazz Suite No.1 is given a satisfactory performance here with some nice touches, but is entirely eclipsed by that with Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra. If you are feeling blue, I urge you to seek this Melodiya/BMG recording out: the slide guitar solo alone is an instant cure for SADS. The Philadelphia players enter into the spirit of the piece with gusto however, and I like the richly laid-back saxophone tones throughout and the nicely placed slide trombone. For an American band the slide guitar towards the end is however lamentably low in the mix and a rather feeble ‘fourth man’. Tahiti Trot is a nice bonbon with which to finish the programme, but in this case is more Victor Borge/Mantovani than DSCH.
 
To conclude, for well under a tenner this is indeed a rich bargain, full of wonderful music and remarkable performances. Yes, you may be able to do better with some of the pieces elsewhere, but this is always likely to be that case in such compilations, and most of us accept the tradeoffs along with the gems. None of the performances are intrinsically weak and many are among the last few years’ top selections for this repertoire. If you are only now dipping your toes into the thrilling waters of Shostakovich’s sound-world then you could do far worse that starting here. As a seasoned jewel-case clatterer you might think the bargain element was the clutch of recent EMI recordings found here via the back door, but the reason I shall be guarding this disc against thieves is the John Ogdon Piano Concerto No.2, that’s the real steal.
 
Dominy Clements

Performance details
Symphony
Berliner Philharmoniker/Mariss Jansons
rec. 15-20 June 1994, Philharmonie, Berlin

Piano concerto
John Ogdon (piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Lawrence Foster
rec. 21-22 December 1970, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London

String quartet
St. Lawrence String Quartet
rec. 13-17 January 2006, Skywalker Sound Scoring Stage, Marin County, California

Violin concerto
Sarah Chang (violin)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 15-17 June, 16-20 September 2005, Philharmonie, Berlin

Cello concerto
Han-Na Chang (cello)
London Symphony Orchestra/Antonio Pappano
rec. 12 June 2005, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London

Jazz suite, Tahiti
Philadelphia Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
rec. 8-9, 11 March 1996, Giandomenico Studios, Collingswood, New Jersey

 


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