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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Symphony No. 13 in B minor, Op 13,’Babi Yar’ (1962)
Oleg Tsibulko (bass)
Popov Academy of Choral Arts Choir; Kozhevnikov Choir
Russian National Orchestra/Kirill Karabits
rec. 2017, DZZ Studio 5, Moscow, Russia. DSD
Transliterated text & English translation included PENTATONE PTC5186618 SACD [58:13]
Pentatone’s cycle of Shostakovich symphonies is evolving slowly but surely. At the foot of this review I have provided links to our reviews of previous issues. The cycle has so far involved a variety of conductors and this release of the Thirteenth adds the name of Kirill Karabits to the roster. The interpretations have been somewhat uneven, though Paavo Järvi’s ‘Leningrad’ was a notable peak. I found a great deal to admire in Karabits’ Prokofiev symphony cycle: how will his view of ‘Babi Yar’ measure up?
A number of fine recordings of this symphony have been made. Kirill Kondrashin’s recordings have a special stamp of authenticity (review ~ review) and André Previn’s 1979 EMI recording is very fine (review). However, a performance that I’ve long admired is the one which Bernard Haitink recorded for Decca with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1984. I think one of the reasons that Haitink is so successful in this symphony – as in several other of the Soviet master’s symphonies – is his famed patience. On the other hand, leaving aside artistic merits, I was conscious that I’d be comparing a 36-year-old CD recording with a very recently-recorded SACD.
The Thirteenth symphony is among Shostakovich’s most impressive achievements and the towering first movement, setting Yevtushenko’s hard-hitting poem, ‘Babi Yar’, is particularly remarkable. In fact, though, all the poems are hard-hitting in their different ways. The second movement, ‘Humour’ is a gift to Shostakovich’s subversive, sardonic side and this setting is full of his trademarks when composing in that vein. Karabits obtains a biting, keen-edged performance in which the pungent RNO winds make a particularly telling contribution. The bass soloist is a young Moldovan singer, Oleg Tsibulko who, I gather, is a product of the Bolshoi Theatre’s Young Artists programme; I think this may be his debut on disc. He makes an excellent impression in this movement, articulating the words and music very well. Haitink’s performance is good, with plenty of bite in the singing and playing but his approach is a bit steadier and I think his account of the movement lacks the edge of the Karabits reading.
‘In the Store’ is a tribute to the stoicism of ordinary Russians, and in particular to the housewives who queued every day to buy necessities. Yevtushenko’s verses show us the grim reality of ‘Soviet realism’ and Shostakovich’s bleak music catches the mood to perfection. Tsibulko is very impressive once again, though, as I listened, I felt his approach was that of an objective yet empathetic observer – his singing strikes me as the musical equivalent of reportage. I hasten to say, that’s not a criticism; it’s a very valid way of delivering the words and music. Haitink’s soloist is the Romanian bass, Marius Rintzler, who would have been about 52 at the time of the recording (b. 1932) and rather more experienced than Tsibulko. His way with the text is more interventionist; he seems to identify more with the daily grind – and endurance - of the Soviet women. I think Karabits handles this movement very well. However, Haitink, bringing a bit more breadth and patience to his performance, seems to offer even more. When Shostakovich gets to the penultimate verse of the poem, Haitink builds a searing climax, as the bitter reproach of Yevtushenko’s words finally finds its inevitable outlet. Karabits is also stirring in this passage but doesn’t quite match Haitink.
The fourth movement, ‘Fears’ follows without a break. I think I’m right in saying that Yevtushenko wrote this poem specifically for Shostakovich to set. In the opening minutes, I found it very interesting to compare and contrast the recorded sound in each of the two versions. Haitink conveys numb tension and the music, though very quiet, sounds oppressive. Karabits isn’t quite as hushed, though there’s still a baleful, oppressive ambience. I think that in part the difference may be due to the respective venues: Karabits was recorded in a studio while the Haitink sessions took place in the empty Concertgebouw. However, in addition each conductor displays a different approach to the musical textures. I like the definition in the Pentatone sound, not least the way the percussion section is reported. Rintzler is commanding on the Haitink disc; Tsibulko is not quite as big a vocal presence but still makes a strong impression.
After all the angst of the preceding four movements, ‘A Career’, the final movement, seems to lower the temperature. Karabits shapes the light-textured orchestral opening beautifully. His performance is nicely relaxed and that is how it should be, I think. For the most part, Shostakovich responds to Yevtushenko’s ironically critical poem with surprising gentleness; tellingly, percussion and heavy brass are almost entirely silent. I think Karabits gets this movement just right and I love the delicacy with which strings and celeste deliver the last couple of minutes. Haitink is also very successful, though I have a slight preference for the lighter touch of Karabits. On the other hand, while Oleg Tsibulko sings very well, his smooth voice right in line with Karabits’ approach, I think that Marius Rintzler is more characterful.
You may wonder why I’ve discussed movements II to V with no reference to ‘Babi Yar’ itself. The reason is quite simple. That first movement towers over the whole of the 13th Symphony like a gaunt monument or obelisk and, for me, versions of the symphony stand or fall by how that movement is put across.
Yevtushenko’s poem was extremely controversial when it was published in 1961 and the poet was the target of a good deal of disapproval. The bleak bitterness of Shostakovich’s music leaves little room for doubt, I think, as to where he stood in the controversy. It was an act of no little courage on his part to set this text. Indeed, some idea of the tensions surrounding the work can be gleaned from the fact that Yevgeny Mravinsky excused himself from conducting the premiere – Kirill Kondrashin took his place – and no less than three baritone soloists withdrew, one of them on the very day of the first performance.
The very opening of Karabits’ performance seems a little understated. Equally, when Oleg Tsibulko begins to sing, he seems quite calm, but by the time he reaches the reference to Dreyfus his singing has become much more intense. A little later on, Shostakovich seems to relax when the poet imagines himself in the persona of Anna Frank. But the surface lightness at this point is deceptive indeed and the cello/bass line makes it clear that there are dark undercurrents. I like the way Karabits brings out that lower string line just enough so that we’re aware of those undercurrents. The Karabits performance of this movement has much to commend it, but when I turned to Haitink I felt everything had stepped up a gear. The Dutchman’s opening is grave and measured. The ‘black’ tone of Russian male voice choirs is often remarked upon, and for good reason. Karabits’ combined choirs deliver that Russian choral sound for him but the Gentlemen of the Concertgebouw Choir are every bit as impressive for Haitink. Marius Rintzler is a big, imposing presence from the start. When the chorus sings ‘They’re coming’ in the Haitink performance the vehemence of their delivery coupled with the hammered-out orchestral part chill the blood. Shortly thereafter (around 10:00) the main climax arrives and, without any histrionics, Haitink makes it a piledriver of a climax, punctuated by terrifying crashes on bass drum and tam-tam. There’s huge oppressive power on display here and the Decca engineers put it across with terrific impact. The hushed horror immediately after that climax is breath-taking. Karabits delivers a powerful climax (from about 9:00) but I don’t find it as searing or, frankly, as intimidating as the same passage in the Haitink version. To my surprise, I really found little to choose between the up to date Pentatone engineering and the Decca sound, though the shrieking high woodwind cut through like a knife in the Pentatone recording. The Haitink performance of this movement is formidable and it’s even more compelling than the Karabits.
Kirill Karabits is impressive in this symphony and those who are following this RNO cycle will find this a valuable addition to the series. He’s well served by soloist, chorus and orchestra though I think Haitink’s soloist is even better and the Dutch choir and orchestra can – and do – match their Russian colleagues. Haitink’s approach is consistently broader – he takes 64:30 – and there are parts of the work where I think the more incisive way of Karabits is preferable. That’s certainly true of the second movement and, to a slightly lesser extent, of the fifth movement. However, much of this symphony consists of music in a slow or moderate tempo and here I think the longer view of Haitink wins the day. That’s why I think that, overall, he nails this profoundly eloquent symphony more successfully than Karabits does.
I listened to the new recording as a stereo SACD. The sound is very good but I was amazed at how well the Decca sound of 1984 stood up in comparison. The Pentatone release comes with a useful booklet note by Pauline Fairclough.