SHOSTAKOVICH Chamber Symphonies
BIS has been here before, offering the same pair of Rudolf Barshai Shostakovich string quartet arrangements with Jean-Jacques Kantorow and the Tapiola Sinfonietta. Granted the present disc includes a clutch of bonus items, realisations of tangentially related folk material by Romanian cimbalom player and accordionist Vasile Nedea. Older hands may find such inclusions jarring although the provocation is deliberate, part of the band’s commitment to an educative ‘Essential Music’ project aimed at recontextualising the classics. Closer examination suggests that the disc’s Nordic links may be comparably tenuous: the transparent yet tangible recording is credited to a team led by the vastly experienced Michael Fine.
There’s nothing seriously wrong with the performances of the big pieces even if they lack the last degree of intensity, more easily obtained when there are only four musicians involved. That tends to be a problem even when Barshai himself is on the podium. Late in life he set down all his Shostakovich treatments in Milan but it is his earlier, incomplete sequence with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (including the fleshings-out of the Third and Fourth Quartets recorded here) which has greater finesse and gravitas. He is at once swifter and more inward than Roberto Beltrán-Zavala at the close of the ambiguous finale of No 3 and with larger forces at his disposal in both quartets he almost has us forgetting the powerful intimacy of the originals. DG’s twofer also takes in Viktor Derevianko’s (seemingly unnecessary) chamber reduction of the Fifteenth Symphony, stunningly played by Gidon Kremer and friends during the 1995 Lockenhaus Festival. Back on BIS, Beltrán-Zavala himself provides the bulk of the committed and sincere annotations and his ensemble, founded as recently as 2009, is crisp, buoyant and nicely nuanced, particularly in the couplings. That may or may not be enough to tempt you.