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Dimitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 1, Op.10 [33.37]
Cello Concerto No. 1, Op.107* [27.34]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Sinfonietta, Op.1 [14.53
Steven Isserlis* (cello)
Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Teodor Currentzis
rec. Concertgebouw, Bruges, 2013
EUROARTS DVD 2059818 [82.00]

The links between the music of Shostakovich and Britten have long been recognised. These include not only their indebtedness to the style of Mahler — at the time far from the universally respected figure that he became during the 1960s — but also their close personal friendship reinforced by their positions as members of the intellectual elite. Simultaneously, for different reasons, they were each outsiders in the musical life of their respective countries. Shostakovich, recognising this affinity, dedicated his Fourteenth Symphony to Britten. The booklet notes by Francis Maes which accompany this issue seem to imply that the series of concerts of music by the two composers from which this DVD derives included more works than we are given here. This selection serves to represent the similarities – and the differences – between two of the pivotal figures of mid-twentieth century music.

Unfortunately the well-meaning inspiration behind this release is effectively set at nought by the horribly close microphone placement to which everybody involved is subjected. We get almost no sense of the acoustic of the hall, and the engineering reduces every single instrument to a one-dimensional sound which seems to reflect the ethic of a ‘pop’ production rather than anything one might reasonably expect to encounter in a live performance. The Britten Sinfonietta, with its chamber scoring, suffers least from this, and the actual playing is as excellent as one would expect from these instrumentalists. The Shostakovich symphony sounds like one of those old Melodiya recordings with each and every instrument subjected to a microscopic examination. No cellist could possibly expect to survive unscathed from the close observation to which Steven Isserlis is subjected. Every rasp of bow on string is brought unnaturally forward in a manner that could never represent the sound produced in the concert hall. Isserlis was a late substitute for Jean-Guihen Queyras who was originally scheduled to appear in this concert. One would love to hear Isserlis perform this concerto in a more natural perspective, since he clearly understands and loves the work. Indeed Hyperion have scheduled a recording with Paavo Järvi and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra for release in 2015. Those who would like to hear him in the concerto would be well-advised to wait for that CD.

For the rest, the performances under Teodor Currentzis are excellently played and excitingly conducted. However, the sound as recorded cannot be recommended for comfortable listening, with a feel that is almost monophonic. Only those who are attracted by the physicality of a live performance need venture further.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Britten discography & review index: Sinfonietta