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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.54 (1939) [31:22]
Sinfonietta, Op.110b (String Quartet No.8, Op.110 (1960) arr. for string orchestra and timpani by Abram Stasevich) [25:04]
Estonian Festival Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. 2016/17, Pärnu Concert Hall, Pärnu, Estonia
ALPHA 389 [56:28]

The Järvi family were brought up in Estonia and they used to take their summer holidays in Pärnu, a seaside resort on the Baltic coast. Russian musicians also used to go there, including David Oistrakh and Shostakovich. Paavo cherishes a memory and a photograph of the time when he, as a ten year old boy in 1973, met the composer. A copy of the photograph is in the booklet for this disc. When Paavo turned eighteen he emigrated to the USA and did not return to Estonia until the fall of the Soviet regime. More recently he was instrumental in setting up the Estonia Festival Orchestra, composed of young musicians from the country together with visiting foreign players. This is their first recording. For it he chose Shostakovich, partly because of the family connection, and this sixth symphony because, he says, it ‘has an air of peculiar lightness,’ and quotes the composer who said ‘I wanted to convey in it the moods of spring, joy and youth.’

Well, so they say, but I find it both a strange choice and strange characterization. Most people would put the sixth in the second rank of Shostakovich symphonies, below the fifth and tenth but well above the twelfth. It is in three movements: a slow movement, followed by a scherzo and a Presto finale. I have always felt that the work, as it stands, is unbalanced and a sonata allegro first movement is missing. Moreover, although the second and third movements are more lighthearted than the first, the opening slow movement is suffused with melancholy and a sense of foreboding. If Järvi wanted a symphony which was really lighthearted and joyful I would have thought that either the first or the ninth might have been better choices.

Still, he and the orchestra provide a performance as in keeping with his vision as the work allows. His orchestra combining young and seasoned players bring both enthusiasm and precision to their work. The opening slow movement is slightly less grim than usual, and Järvi sustains the intensity well even when the textures are sparse. The scherzo, which opens with squealing woodwinds rather in the Prokofiev manner, is tart and sardonic. The finale, which really is cheerful, goes with a will and amazing accuracy considering that this is an ad hoc orchestra, and this promises well for future recordings.

The coupling, simply listed as Sinfonietta on the front cover, may at first puzzle listeners as Shostakovich wrote no work so titled. This turns out to be another arrangement of the eighth string quartet, probably the composer’s best-known, but not the quite well-known one for strings alone by Rudolf Barshai, which he called a Chamber Symphony, but a different one by the conductor Abram Stasevich (1907-1971), which adds timpani to the string band. Like the Barshai version, this was apparently approved by the composer and so has an opus number (Op.110a is the Barshai version). I find the use of full strings works very well as an alternative to the quartet; they play with great fervour in the slow movements and with searing intensity in the fast ones. The timpani at first support them well, but Stasevich overuses them; in particular he cannot resist the temptation to underpin the three note figure which is prominent in the fourth movement. This seems simply crude. I would stick to Barshai if you want to hear a fuller version.

The recording, made by a French team, is excellent, and the booklet has notes in four languages, though little about the music. For some reason the biography of the conductor is printed in entirely in capital letters, making it difficult to read. The disc is housed not in a jewel case but a smart but fragile cardboard sleeve. There are, of course numerous versions of the sixth symphony, with various different couplings, and several of the Barshai version of the quartet, but this seems to be the only one of the Stasevich version, so if the coupling suits there is no need to hesitate.

Stephen Barber

Previous reviews: Brian Wilson ~ John Quinn ~ Michael Cookson

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