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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
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
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
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
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 –
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.