Shostakovich Complete Symphonies

Kondrashin’s definitive, pioneering cycle

Author: 
David Gutman

SHOSTAKOVICH Complete Symphonies

  • Symphony No. 1
  • Symphony No. 2, 'To October'
  • Symphony No. 3, 'The First of May'
  • Symphony No. 4
  • October
  • Symphony No. 5
  • Symphony No. 6
  • Symphony No. 7, 'Leningrad'
  • Symphony No. 8
  • (The) Sun shines on our Motherland
  • Symphony No. 9
  • Symphony No. 10
  • Symphony No. 11, 'The Year 1905'
  • Symphony No. 12, 'The Year 1917'
  • (The) Execution of Stepan Razin
  • Symphony No. 13, 'Babiy Yar'
  • Symphony No. 14
  • Symphony No. 15
  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 2

This is a wonderful season for reissues and – notwithstanding the reservation of February’s debaters – for “definitive” recordings. Even if unsure what the phrase means, we do know that Boult’s Moeran comes into that category, and so too does Kondrashin’s Shostakovich. If his name isn’t the first listeners associate with the composer these days that has more to do with the spotty availability of his recordings than with their intrinsic quality. When I last reviewed his symphonic intégrale in these pages (11/94), I had a number of reservations about the sound which, I am delighted to say, no longer pertain to this latest incarnation. Of course the sonics are not state-of-the-art, the mid-range tending to be rather crowded and shouty, but the transfers are more than listenable. The Fourth in particular is an enormous improvement on its mono-only predecessor, the Ninth disappointing only in the way the sound cuts out abruptly at the close, probably to disguise wear on the master tape. Both these readings are usually judged “definitive” and the Russians have added to the attractions of the cycle with extras occupying the same high ground. You’ll not find a more compelling account of The Execution of Stepan Razin than the one by its onlie begetters and this would seem to be the most “official” transfer of David Oistrakh’s Second Violin Concerto currently doing the rounds.

Black marks, and there had to be some, are earned by the flimsiness of the box containing the 11 sturdy individual cardboard folders and the lack of adequate annotations, texts and translations. This is the textually bowdlerised version of the Thirteenth which weakens the author’s personal identification with the fate of the Jewish people. Here the indictment of anti-Semitism becomes less specific to Mother Russia and we are reminded of the latter’s “heroic deed in blocking the way to Fascism”. Not that you’d know it. Neither this nor the Fourteenth make much sense without the words in front of you. It has been fascinating to compare Kondrashin’s intense, quickfire Fifteenth with Sanderling’s more deliberate and morose conception (Berliner Philharmoniker, 2/07). Both are valid but is either “definitive”?

Whatever the case, the Melodiya set is a compulsory purchase for all true lovers of Shostakovich, especially those who feel that most recent recordings speak with a foreign accent or are simply too damn slow! The first complete Shostakovich cycle from one interpreter can still startle with its resilience and panache and the raw tone of the Moscow Philharmonic is part and parcel of the appeal. Over to you.

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