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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 13 in B flat minor, Op. 113 ‘Babi Yar’ (1962) [62:38]
Dimiter Petkov (bass)
London Symphony Chorus/Richard Hickox
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
rec. 5-6 July 1979, Kingsway Hall, London, UK. ADD
Libretto in Russian and Japanese only

This was the first Babi Yar I ever heard, on a chromium dioxide cassette and a brand-new Sony Walkman. Both the music and the music-making were a revelation, so it was with some trepidation that I decided to revisit it via this reissue from Warner Japan. Would I react the same way, 35 years and many recordings later? This performance has long been available on a twofer, coupled with the Tenth Symphony, but as I find EMI transfers rather bright I decided to wait. Japanese transfers tend to be superior, which is why I ordered this one; at around £17 it’s still better value than similar discs from Toshiba, Esoteric and others.

When this recording was made Shostakovich had been dead just four years and the Berlin Wall wouldn’t fall for another ten. In that time I’ve heard some fine accounts of Babi Yar, but Bernard Haitink’s towers above them all. Recorded for Decca in 1984 – and with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Men’s Chorus at their considerable best – this is still the most searing and monumental performance that I’ve ever encountered. That said, Kirill Kondrashin – who premiered the piece in December 1962 – is pretty special, too. However, there seem to two KK recordings from that period, as John Quinn’s intriguing review makes clear.

Shostakovich was always a gadfly on the rump of the Soviet musical establishment. Even so his collaboration with Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose poem Babi Yar focuses on the slaughter of Jews in Kiev during World War II and satirises life in the USSR, was bound to get him swatted. And so it proved; Krushchev denounced the symphony, Pravda ignored it and there were unseemly withdrawals prior to the premiere. Conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky was one of them. Alas, those unfamiliar with these texts will have to seek them elsewhere, as the libretto in the Warner booklet is in Russian and Japanese only.

André Previn’s tenure with the LSO, which he led from 1968 to 1979, was immensely rewarding for concertgoers and record collectors alike. Regrettably, a complete Shostakovich cycle never materialised, but the few symphonies he did record – for EMI and Deutsche Grammophon – offer a tantalising glimpse of what might have been. Previn certainly had a unique relationship with the LSO, as the number of ‘classic’ recordings they produced tends to confirm.

This pliant, wonderfully transparent account of Babi Yar definitely belongs in that exalted category. In particular there’s a freshness to the performance – a vitality, even – that appealed to me all those years ago and still does so now. Haitink is unflinching, notably in the eponymous opener that relives the Nazi massacres – carried out with the help of local collaborators – and confronts the issue of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. Previn, more personal and intimate, also brings remarkable shape and colour to this uncompromising score. The analogue recording, masterminded by Walter Legge protégé Suvi Raj Grubb, certainly helps. The sound is tactile and superbly balanced, and those haggard tuttis are as clean and forceful as one could wish.

The Bulgarian bass Dimiter Petkov is riveting here, and his calm, confiding tones magnify the horrors of which he speaks. Even more impressive is the London Symphony Chorus – directed by none other than Richard Hickox – whose crisp, idiomatic delivery is as good as it gets. True, they don’t sound as weighty as Haitink’s choir, but what they might lack in numbers they more than make up for in nuance and drama. Indeed, those qualities apply to Previn’s reading as a whole; not only that, he explores the music in a way that few rivals do. There’s so much ear-pricking detail here, and it’s all framed by thrilling – yet proportionate – percussive thuds and cymbal smashes.

This is a very different approach to Haitink’s, which is frankly intimidating at times. Then again, it’s a reminder that Shostakovich’s oeuvre yields willingly to a variety of styles and emphases. Indeed, that point was eloquently made in Paavo Järvi’s recent recording of the Leningrad Symphony (review). His thoughtful, paradigm-shifting view of this much-maligned work confirms there is far more to this composer than casual acquaintance or peremptory performance would suggest. And that’s exactly the way I feel about Previn’s Babi Yar; it really does give us a glimpse of the man behind the many masks.

In Previn’s hands the mockery of the second movement, Humour, is all the more potent for being so unaffected. Petkov, who also avoids bluster, is just perfect here, as are the spirited choral echoes and wry asides. Rhythms are taut, progress never falters and the range of instrumental colours on display is simply astonishing. As for the sound it’s even more glorious than I remembered it; a good example of analogue’s last gleaming. I’ve not heard the 1999 transfer as featured on that twofer, but I’d be very surprised if it comes even close to this new one.

Previn and his inspired forces capture the lamenting character of In the store very well indeed. The dark, full-bodied lower strings are splendid, as are the limpid woodwinds and nicely placed harp. Once again, I’m reminded of what an intensely musical performance this is. The Romanian bass Marius Rintzler, for Haiink, is a fine soloist, but the beautifully calibrated Petkov moves me in ways that few others do. Previn’s tempi and dynamics are very convincing, so when that peroration arrives it does so with added implacability and a hollowing sense of despair.

The third movement elides into the fourth, Fears, with its forbidding bass line and spectral tam-tam. This music is haunted – in every sense of the word – and Previn really emphasises its Mahlerian cast. As ever Petkov, firm of tone and deep of chest, is alert to the import of these fraught texts. That said, it’s the virtuosic playing of the LSO’s various sections that takes my breath away; the Stygian brass, menacing bass drum and frisson-inducing bells are particularly effective here.

We slip unobtrusively into the finale, Career, with some lovely flute playing. After all that turbid introspection Shostakovich reverts to rollick and banter; that said, it’s the more delicate writing – with perky woodwinds and pin-sharp pizzicati – that really comes through in this reading. Outspoken as always Yevtushenko rails against conformity and celebrates creativity. As for Shostakovich, he gives us one of those hushed, typically enigmatic endings; remember the Eighth? In this recording those parting instrumentals are made all the more unsettling for being wreathed in a ravishing glow.

What a thrill it’s been, and how pleased I am that my response to this Babi Yar is as positive now as it was then. Indeed, this disc would be my Reissue of the Month, if we offered such a thing. I certainly wouldn’t part with Haitink or Kondrashin, but if I had to slip just one recording of Babi Yar into my steamer trunk it would be this one.

Previn and the LSO at their very best, and in gorgeous sound; a bona fide classic.

Dan Morgan



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