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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No.14, Op.135 (1969) [55:13]
Thomas Oliemans (baritone), Gal James (soprano)
Netherlands Chamber Orchestra/Gordan Nikolić
rec. Muziekgebouw aan't IJ, Amsterdam, 2013
Surround/Stereo; reviewed in surround

This issue from Challenge Classics is a bit of a mixed blessing. It has some things going for it including being beautifully recorded with a spaciousness reflecting the care commonly applied by this company. The playing of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra is very fine with the singing of the two soloists both accurate and expressive. Gordan Nikolić lavishes great care over textures and detail. This is a rather beautiful performance of a great symphony.

So, what is not to like? Oddly, that beautiful recording helps very little because it is so intent on space that a lot of details go unnoticed. For once I could have done with the microphones being closer. The impact achieved by the premiere recording on EMI/Melodiya LP in 1970 with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra under Rudolph Barshai (ASD 2633) leaves one in no doubt what the orchestra is doing, but it still achieves spacious stereo and a wide dynamic range. Thankfully Challenge Classics provide a parallel translation, transliterated Russian and English only, but the notes tell one very little about the symphony, giving not much more than an outline of what to expect and conveying only a fraction of the story behind Shostakovich's most intense and quietest symphony. For a proper set of notes, go, as so often, to BIS and the CD by Wigglesworth and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales with John Tomlinson and Joan Rodgers (review). This BIS recording is one of the few others with non-Russian singers — but what singers. Neither Thomas Oliemans nor Gal James have the interpretative power of Tomlinson and Rogers, nor of the many native Russians on other competitive recordings. I also wonder why a baritone was chosen rather than a bass, as is the usual case. So far as I can tell, Shostakovich expected a bass. Oliemans has the required range and does sing well, but where is the depth of tone and the passion to be found elsewhere? The same must be said of Gal James who is a good singer — and also figures in Petrenko's Naxos recording of this symphony (review) — but cannot begin to compare with Joan Rodgers (BIS) or Margarita Miroshnikova (EMI/Melodiya) let alone the great Galina Vishnevskaya (BBC Legends BBCB 8013-2). All three singers deliver these songs with hair-raising intensity. To be frank, this is true of all eight of my recordings of this symphony. The aim of this Challenge Classics issue seems to have been to cast the work in a different light; more than a touch rose-tinted, I feel.

A few details: the first song De Profundis is very still and pensive, making for a good start. The Malagueña is diminished by the distant sound and by Nikolić's unwillingness to go with the dance rhythms: Wigglesworth conveys all the ferocious irony making Nikolić simply pedestrian. The third song Loreleya — which would be easier to follow if the voices were marked in the translation, but most issues fail here — shows the wide gap between the gutsy impact of Russian singers and these two non-Russians. It is a beautifully played performance but the drama is too cool. I have to note that Joan Rodgers (BIS) is an exception to the issue of Russian singers, she gives a very powerful performance and with the great John Tomlinson Loreleya becomes an intense argument more than a simple exchange. The sheer desperation of Three Lilies is just not present, nor is the impact of On Guard. The sixth song, Madam look! suffers a similar fate. The recording gives difficulties in the seventh song where the two verses are linked by quiet pizzicati; these are bordering on inaudible here. Thomas Oliemans sings very well in this movement but the drama is still too reined in. Even in the volcanic eighth song, Reply to the Sultan ... the soloists, though powerful by their standards, are left in the shade by Miroshnikova and Vladimirov on EMI/Melodiya. The ninth and tenth songs see fine interpretations and some lovely high violin lines from the orchestra. The eleventh and final song is just a coda and does not leave the listener stunned, as surely ought to happen.

No.14 was premiered by Barshai and the Moscow Chamber orchestra three times, one closed premiere and two more public with two pairs of singers. Miroshnikova and Vladimirov gave the private and the second public performances and they made the premiere recording. Vishnevskaya and Rezhetin gave the first public performance — and the first UK performance, conducted by the dedicatee Benjamin Britten. We have recordings by all these people available, plus several more recent, high voltage and characterful versions on SACD (Caetani, ARTS 47723-8 and Kitaenko, Capriccio CC 71029) and CD (Haitink DECCA 4757413 in particular). I am sad to say that this new issue is simply unnecessary.
Dave Billinge