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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 13 in B flat minor, Op. 113, ‘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
Reviewed as a stereo DSD128 download from NativeDSD
Pdf booklet includes sung texts in English and transliterated Russian
PENTATONE PTC 5186618 SACD [58:13]

Shostakovich, no stranger to controversy, courted it again with his 13th Symphony, based on five outspoken poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The first, ‘Babi Yar’, published in 1961, excoriated the Soviet authorities for not granting Holocaust Memorial status to a site, near Kyiv, where the Nazis massacred 33,771 Jews in September 1941. (Predictably, the confrontational text did not go down well in Moscow.) The remaining poems – ‘Humour’, ‘In the store’, ‘Fears’ and ‘A career’ – expose the despair and drudgery of life in Kruschev’s Russia. The last two would have resonated powerfully with Shostakovich and his fellow creatives, who’d long suffered at the hands of capricious authority. Indeed, the well-documented problems surrounding the symphony’s premiere in Moscow on 18 December 1962 suggested the Party could still make difficulties for those who challenged the prevailing orthodoxy.

The 13th has fared quite well on record, starting with Kiril Kondrashin’s pioneering account, set down in 1963, the old-school bass Vitaly Gromadsky uniquely communicative in the all-important solo part (Melodiya/Aulos). There’s also a Praga Digitals release of what purports to be the next performance, recorded on 20 December 1962. In his review John Quinn expressed some doubts about the recording’s provenance, but Kondrashin’s biographer, Gregor Tassie, confirms both the first and second performances were recorded. (In any event, KK’s clear-eyed, very idiomatic take on these symphonies – warts and all – should be the keystone of any self-respecting Shostakovich library.)

Also highly commended is André Previn’s 13th, recorded in the iconic Kingsway Hall in 1979, his LSO forces at their impassioned, incisive best (EMI-Warner). Superbly engineered by the legendary Christopher Parker, this version remains at or very near the top of my personal tree, not least for the magnificent choir – directed by Richard Hickox, no less – and the dark, rock-steady tones of the bass Dimiter Petkov. (Goodness, how accomplished he is compared with the soloists in Mark Wigglesworth’s BIS recording and, especially, Vasily Petrenko’s for Naxos. Quite why less-than-ideal singers are often used in such a pivotal role is a mystery to me.) And, as good as the EMI original is, the remaster from Warner Japan, which I reviewed a while back, sounds even better.

In sonic terms, though, Bernard Haitink’s Concertgebouw performance, set down for Decca in 1984, is the one to beat. Engineer Colin Moorfoot’s recording is both weighty and detailed, but that would count for little if the music-making weren’t so extraordinary. Literally and metaphorically this performance towers above all others, bass Marius Rintzler a firm, nicely nuanced soloist; the singing of the choir as intense as it gets. Granted, Moorfoot’s big-boned recording isn’t quite how one might hear it in the concert hall, but it certainly makes for a seat-pinning aural experience.

Enter Kirill Karabits, the Ukrainian-born chief conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony, whose reputation has grown considerably since 2011, when I heard him – and the BSO – in a pretty decent recording of Khachaturian’s Gayane and Spartacus (Onyx). Then, in 2017, he and his home band treated us to a beguiling set of ballet suites by Kara Abdul’Faz-Oglï Karayev (Chandos). Beautifully played and recorded, it was one of my top picks that year. As for the Russian National Orchestra, they’ve also grown in stature; their recording of Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony, made with Paavo Järvi in 2014, is now one of the finest versions in the catalogue (Pentatone). In the same year the RNO and Mikhail Pletnev recorded two Scriabin symphonies for the same label; that, too, is a front-runner in its field. Happily, those with a penchant for DSD downloads can find these and other Pentatone releases at NativeDSD.

Back to ‘Babi Yar’, and Karabits’s account of the first movement is more beautiful than I’ve ever heard it, the colour and startling detail of Shostakovich’s score superbly caught by engineer Nadia Nikolayeva. Tuttis are powerful yet proportionate, the choirs and bass soloist Oleg Tsibulko well-drilled and wonderfully refined. And, thanks to Polyhymnia’s Erdo Groot, perspectives are very natural, which, in turn, promotes a powerful sense of ‘being there’. The DZZ studio in Moscow, where that Scriabin was also recorded, is clearly a very clean, congenial acoustic that suits the shape, scale and transparency of Karabits’s performance very well indeed. Some listeners may find this opener too refined – I did on first hearing – but it makes sense when heard in the context of the reading as a whole. In that sense it’s similar to Paavo Jarvi’s ‘Leningrad’, which is also cogent and compelling despite being understated.

‘Humour’ is crisply done, its sardonic mood well caught. Again, I was struck by the unforced naturalness of both the performance and the recording. Even the Wigglesworth, as impressive as it sounds, isn’t in the same league as this. Neither is Riccardo Muti’s recent version for CSO Resound, whose engineers are among the best in the business. (Alas, it’s a terribly disappointing performance, too.) Parker’s very impressive though – those early digital releases from EMI sounded splendid on LP and, yes, even on chromium dioxide cassette. (Also, Previn brings a rhythmic verve to this movement that few can match.)

The despair embedded in the dark bass line at the start of ‘In the store’ is deeply felt, Tsibulko as steady and sombre as Petkov and Rintzler at this point. And once more I was astonished by the fine details that lurk in this beautifully crafted score. Both conductor and engineer must share the credit for these epiphanies, the big double climax simply pole-axing (as it should be). Haitink is truly crushing here, the emphasis on punch and power; then again, that’s the hallmark of his big, hard-hitting performance in general. Previn lies somewhere in between, the choir’s attack really quite thrilling. Indeed, Karabits’s recalibration yields satisfying, highly musical results, in much the same way as Paavo Järvi’s ‘paradigm shifting’ 7th does, and that’s quite an achievement.

Played attacca, the concluding movements, ‘Fears’ and ‘A career’, are among the bleakest things Shostakovich ever wrote. The Stygian bass-drum shudders and frisson-inducing tam-tam strokes are more present - and more terrifying - than on any other recording of the 13th I know. If Karabits’s opener lacked the last degree of drama, he certainly makes up for it here, Tsibulko every bit as accomplished as his peers when it comes to conveying the desolation of this extraordinary music.

As if that weren’t praise enough, the orchestral playing astounds at every turn, the choral singing beyond reproach. Even more important, the narrative thread, apt to stretch and sometimes break, is preserved, Karabits in full control to the very end… Unbelievably, I wasn’t hugely impressed when I first listened to this performance, having imprinted on Haitink’s all those years ago. In fact, I even considered abandoning this review altogether, only to be drawn back to – and finally converted by – Karabits’s refreshing take on this great symphony. No, I wouldn’t want to be without Kondrashin (Melodiya), Previn or Haitink but this complementary newcomer deserves a place among them.

A thoughtful, quietly compelling ‘Babi Yar’, studded with good things; stellar sonics, too.

Dan Morgan

Previous review: John Quinn


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