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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 13 in B flat minor, Op. 113, Babi Yar (1962).
Sergei Aleksashkin (bass)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons.
Rec. January 2005. No venue given. DDD
Text and translation included.
EMI CLASSICS 5 57902 2 [60'14]

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Mariss Jansons has frequently struck me as a rather over-rated conductor, his international status in seeming contradiction to his clean, accurate yet rather uninspiring performances. His father, Arvid (a regular guest of the Hallé Orchestra while I was resident in Manchester) always seemed far the more musical of the two. I am however prepared to rescind my evaluation on the strength of this issue.

The Bavarian orchestra has always made a superb sound, characterised by its warmth. That warmth is still here, but with an inner strength that is entirely appropriate to Shostakovich. Just occasionally some extra rawness - particularly from the strings - would have been welcome..

The Thirteenth, a setting of five poems by Yevtushenko, had a characteristically fraught entry into the musical world. The premiere was nearly cancelled, with plenty of pressure from the authorities brought to bear on the performers involved. Yet when it did happen (December 18th, 1962) it was met with huge enthusiasm.

Jansons begins the symphony with a slightly understated tread, not too mysterious or ominous, as if emphasising that we have a way to go. Sergei Aleksashkin is a wonderful soloist, his sound identifiably Russian without being overly woolly. Throughout he is immersed in the multiple meanings of Yevtushenko's texts. The climax of the first movement is tremendous - just before ten minutes in - and the recording has absolutely no problems at all with the decibel level, projecting instead great depth and space.

The orchestra seems to have a ball in the movement entitled 'Humour' - the recording really lets us hear the strings digging in - a huge contrast to the bleak 'In the store', a hymn to the women of Russia. The low strings' evenness at the opening is miraculous, projecting an echt-Russian desolation. Again, the sense of space the recording possesses helps the listening experience enormously. A moment of inspiration from Jansons here, too the way the male chorus emerges out of the solo voice is superbly accomplished.

The harrowing portrait of oppression that is the fourth movement ('Fears' e.g., 'Fears slither everywhere, like shadows'), with its subterranean growlings, leads straight in to the finale ('A career'). Perhaps grotesquerie could be more marked at the pizzicato strings (around 4'26), and while the close is certainly still, it is not quite the frozen effect Shostakovich was surely after.

I have long lived with Haitink (Decca, now on 425 073-2). If you can find Kondrashin on Melodiya, do not hesitate! But as a state of the art recording and a performance that for the most part captures the essence of this marvellous work, Jansons has done himself proud.

Colin Clarke

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