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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, February 2018 (14), November 2018 (1), April 2019 (15) and January 2020 (Chamber Symphony)
Reviewed as a 24/96 press download
Pdf booklet includes sung texts (transliterated Russian & English)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4860546 [83:15+74:07]

If previous instalments of Nelsons’ Shostakovich are anything to go by, this cycle could just become the one to beat. Indeed, even a cursory glance at my reviews of: No. 10; Nos. 5, 8 & 9; and Nos. 4 & 11 should give readers a hint of why I think that. Of course, there will always be dissenting voices. For instance, David McDade wasn’t overly impressed with the album under review, although, to be fair, he did have good things to say about the Fourteenth.

When this Boston project is completed – Nos. 2, 3, 12 and 13 are still outstanding – it will be up against Kirill Kondrashin’s classic set, recorded in the 1960s and early 1970s (Melodiya), not to mention more recent ones from Rudolf Barshai and the WDR Sinfonieorchester (Brilliant Classics) and Dmitri Kitaienko, with the Gürzenich Orchester Köln (Capriccio). There are two even newer sets – well-received on these pages – one with the Dresdner Philharmonie conducted by Michael Sanderling (Sony), the other with Alexander Sladkovsky, with the Tatarstan National SO (Melodiya). Also, I’ve just reviewed the long-awaited Mark Wigglesworth box, released at the end of June 2021 (BIS).

Nelsons’ account of the composer’s maiden symphony – a remarkably polished and prescient graduation piece – gets off to a good start. It’s delectably sprung, the bassoon and trumpet solos attractively done, the pizzicato strings firm and full-bodied. As expected, this is a shapely and refined reading, very different from Barshai’s loose-limbed, rather boisterous one. Both are very engaging, although it’s Nelsons who finds the most colour and detail here. Then again, he has the considerable advantage of engineer Nick Squire’s ear-tweaking, ‘hear-through’ recording. (Indeed, he deserves high praise for his sterling contribution to the series as a whole.)

The second movement has all the brio, bounce and wit it needs, the slapstick piano no less effective for being more discreet than usual. This aversion to excess is a reminder that such a comparatively ‘straight’ approach to these symphonies often makes for a rounded, more rewarding musical experience. As for the dark-hued third, it finds conductor and orchestra at their eloquent and communicative best, the oboe and cello solos feelingly done. Not only that, Nelsons reveals a keen ear for the shapes and sonorities that would become a staple of the composer’s later, greater works. (Wigglesworth is similarly gifted.) Nelsons’ incident-packed finale – almost a symphony in itself – is a treat, timps, bass drum and tam-tam thrillingly caught. In short, this is a very fine First that could easily rub shoulders with the best in the catalogue.

One of the pleasures/perils of reviewing is that it allows one to reassess earlier recordings in the presence of newer ones. This is a risky process, for while it may reaffirm faith in old favourites, it can also see them consigned to Room 101. The latter fate befell my much-admired version of Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony, with Bernard Haitink, the Concertgebouw and big-name soloists Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Julia Varady (Decca). I’ve come to realise the Dutchman’s singers are not ideal, their vocal shortcomings exaggerated by a recorded balance that puts them too far forward. Also, the sound now seems very bright, verging on fierceness at times. There are much better versions of the piece out there, but, alas, Nelsons’ isn’t one of them. His vocalists, Alexander Tsymbalyuk and Kristine Opolais, certainly start well, with pretty decent accounts of ‘De profundis’ and ‘Malagueña’ respectively, but, taken in toto, their responses to these bleak, unflinching texts are far too generalised for my taste. I much prefer Barshai’s Alla Simoni and Vladimir Vaneev, who bring a dramatic intensity to the piece that matches the conductor’s view of the score. (Goodness, he and Kitaienko make their German orchestras play this music as if to the manner born.) By contrast, Nelsons’ performance feels strangely static and uninvolving. As for the recording – narrowly focused and rather airless – it’s very disappointing indeed.

Shostakovich’s final symphony, by turns witty, equivocal and profoundly moving, is a perfect distillation of all that’s gone before. From the outset, it’s clear Nelsons has the measure of this piece, the opening movement crisp and animated. At the same time, the composer’s extremely lucid, pared-down writing demands – and gets – virtuoso playing from soloists and ensemble alike. Also, the sound is wonderfully aerated, with individual instruments precisely placed and so easily heard. Really, this is an ideal alignment of talents – a masterly score, world-class musicianship and Squire’s exceptional engineering. (Now, if only the Boston Fourteenth had been similarly endowed...) Timbres are well caught, especially those of the louring, superbly blended brass and stoic lower strings in the second movement. This, the finest section of the symphony, also finds orchestra and conductor at their most inspired. There’s a rare and sustained sense of communion here, something that one associates with the most indelible musical encounters. But the composer modulates to the key of whimsy in the third movement, the players making the transition with disarming ease. As for the finale, I’ve never heard it done better, or perceived its inner workings so clearly. All of which makes this not only a highlight of the cycle to date, but also one of the most perceptive and penetrating performances of this masterpiece that I’ve ever heard.

The Op. 110a Chamber Symphony, Barshai’s arrangement of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, is not a work I return to very often. That’s probably because I never warmed to the Yuli Turovsky/I Musici de Montréal recording, which was the only one in my collection for years. Revisiting it for this review, I soon remembered why it never appealed to me. The strings are just too overbearing, the sound over-bright, and the performance is frankly underwhelming. Neither of those things can be said of Nelsons’ version, which is sumptuously played and recorded, the Largo movements especially beautiful. That’s hardly surprising, as this is the string section of a great orchestra at the top of their game. The problem is that it’s all too sleek, too corporate. I prefer the emphasis to be more on the ‘chamber’ and less on the ‘symphony’, which is why my current go-to version of the piece features the Dmitri Ensemble, conducted by Graham Ross. (John Quinn made this Harmonia Mundi release a Recording of the Month in August 2015.) What a relief to discern shape and texture, and to hear music-making of such poise and passion. Even more pleasing is a sense of scale and intimacy, which suits the music very well indeed. There’s also a surprising spin-off, in that one is made much more aware of the distinctive Shostakovich sound, and reminded what a good job Barshai did here. The HM recording is rather good, too.

A fine First and an exceptional Fifteenth; otherwise, a disappointment.

Dan Morgan

Previous reviews: David McDade ~ John Quinn

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