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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No 1 in F minor, Op 10 (1926) [35:12]
Symphony No 14 in G minor, Op 135 (1969) [49:15]
Symphony No 15 in A major, Op 141 (1971) [48:03]
Chamber Symphony in C minor, Op 110a arr. Rudolf Barshai (1960) [24:52]
Kristine Opolais (soprano) Alexander Tsymbalyuk (bass) Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. live Symphony Hall, Boston February 2018 (14) November 2018 (1) April 2019 (15) and January 2020 (chamber symphony)
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4860546 [83:15+74:07]

The first issue in considering this new set is the sound itself. It is genuinely luxurious to match the playing of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The question is: is this how you want Shostakovich to sound? Karajan showed that ripe orchestral sound and Shostakovich can go well together, and I found that these new recordings, part of an ongoing Shostakovich project, were similarly persuasive.

Quite apart from anything else, this set shows the Boston Symphony in top form. With two of the works substantially scored for strings, it is an occasion for that section of the orchestra to shine – and shine they do. Special mention must go to the phenomenal cello playing of Blaise Déjardin in the slow movement of No 15. Both Nos 1 and 15 can have a tendency to break up into sections if not handled sensitivity. The solo cello playing here, superb in its own right, is also the powerful glue that holds the movement together.

The liner notes make much of the pairing of Shostakovich’s last two symphonic outings with his first. That the First Symphony is the work of a nineteen-year-old is staggering. All of the fingerprints of his mature style are there even if the symphonic argument is not yet quite as cogent as it would become.

Throughout, Nelsons is a safe pair of hands. He is clearly a believer in letting the orchestra get on with it with a minimum of fuss. From their immensely characterful playing, it seems obvious that the Bostonians enjoy playing for him. By comparison, Gergiev is strangely bland in this symphony on the Mariinsky’s own label from 2009 (MAR0502, Nos 1 and 15); Nelsons’ players are alert to the richness of the young composer’s invention. The debt to Stravinsky is highly audible. Nelsons has the advantage over the equally characterful Petrenko (Naxos 8.572396, Nos 1 and 3 – review) in that, no disrespect to the RLPO, he has an absolutely top-notch band at his disposal. Even so, the question with which I opened this review remains pertinent – can an orchestra’s sound be too full bodied for this music? Certainly the sparer sound of Petrenko’s Liverpool orchestra suits Shostakovich very well indeed.

I made my first acquaintance with the Shostakovich symphonies through Haitink’s Decca cycle (Decca 4757413, 11 CDs; Nos 1 and 5: Decca Virtuoso 4784214, mid-price CD or budget price download) and since then I have tended to take these performances for granted. I had somehow convinced myself that, good though they were, they were a bit too safe. Comparative listening for this review opened my ears to the great virtues of Haitink’s cycle.

Starting with the First Symphony, Haitink gives just the right weight to each note to bring out its sardonic humour. He also knows how to pace the symphony so that it builds rather than remains an interesting collection of clever moments. Haitink is also unafraid of an ugly noise or brutality, for me an essential feature of this early Soviet symphony. Both the Decca sound and the virtuosity of the LPO yield nothing to this newcomer.

Nelsons’ account of the 15th Symphony has the same virtues as that of the First Symphony – sumptuous playing and a clear, unfussy attitude to this quirky and spare work. If you want a straightforward performance that makes good musical sense of the work’s disparate elements, with often astonishingly fine orchestral playing in almost ideal sound, then this is the recording for you. The reader can probably sense a but coming! Haitink in his famous recording has most of the same qualities but his command of the symphonic argument is tauter and more implacable. Nelsons’ climaxes are impressive, Haitink’s are shattering.

Alternatively, I find myself more drawn to Kondrashin’s 1974 recording with the Moscow Philharmonic (available in various incarnations but I was listening to the 2020 Melodiya release – review of earlier reissue; currently available on budget-price Alto ALC1362, with No 9, Gergiev). Apart from a breakneck speed in the opening movement, Kondrashin is more audacious than either Nelsons or Haitink. The wit is more abrasive, the mood more febrile. It does help to have the raw sound of a true Soviet orchestra. There is drama aplenty but overall the anxiety Kondrashin finds in the score seems to me more Shostakovich.

The performance of the 14th on this new set is very good indeed. This devastating score used to be seen as evidence of Shostakovich’s declining powers toward the end of his life. It is anything but! Gloomy it may be but the level of invention is staggering. In particular, it shows the composer having absorbed the influence of his friend, Benjamin Britten, without in any way diluting his own unique voice.

Haitink’s version immediately places itself in a separate category in using the version, sanctioned by the composer, that has the various poems in their original languages rather than in Russian (complete set, above, or Decca 4175142, Presto CD, or 4250742 download only). Haitink’s is one of the great Shostakovich recordings. What it demonstrates is that in setting the poems, the composer very much intended the words to be clear and comprehensible. In Russian, this effect is rather diluted for non-Russian speaking listeners though, thankfully, DG’s booklet for the Nelsons recording has texts and translations.

This new version goes to the top of my list of recommendations for the Russian version. Nelsons is helped by an extremely characterful pair of soloists. Tsymbalyuk has a magnificent voice that is suitably cavernous. Opolais has an appropriately Russian squall to her voice (in the best sense, of course) which raises the emotional temperature. The performers correctly view this music as emotional rather than just flat and bleak. There is plenty of red blood coursing through its veins.

The third song, a setting of Lorelei by Apollinaire, exemplifies all that is good about this performance. It is treated as an operatic scena, which I think is precisely the way to go with it. Opolais is in full-on diva mode here and the orchestra really feel like they are pursuing her over the cliff into the Rhine. Not a hint of the drab, dreary music late Shostakovich is too often taken to be.

Before turning to the final work in this set, I feel it would be remiss of me not to mention again the sheer virtuosity of the Boston strings. The very opening notes of the symphony on extremely high violins is the last word in finesse. Or try the ravishing, almost Sibelian, harmonies in ‘O Delvig’. Every little detail is brought vividly to life and not in a finicky or point making sort of way.

I am always in two minds about this particular chamber symphony. It is an arrangement by Rudolf Barshai of the Eighth of Shostakovich’s string quartets. The arrangement is extremely effective and, if the original string quartet were to disappear mysteriously, it would rightly be hailed as a masterpiece. Like arrangements of the late Beethoven quartets, I find more is lost in the translation than gained. Somewhat perversely I do not feel this way about all the Barshai-arranged chamber symphonies. It is just that in this particular work I miss the extra edge that solo strings, heard in an intimate environment, bring to this heart-rending music.

Make no mistake, this is an accomplished account of it. The Boston strings are electrifying. It is through no fault of theirs that I can’t quite banish thoughts of the original quartet version. As with the two exclusively orchestral symphonies on these CDs, I miss the last drop of frenzy in the wilder passages.

Looking at the set as a whole, the playing of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is phenomenal but, with the exception of the 14th, I would want a bit more personality from the conductor.

David McDade

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