Shostakovich Symphony No 13
Of the many recent versions of Shostakovich’s finest vocal symphony, surprisingly few employ a Russian chorus. And for all that Western choirs can now draw on superb language coaches and emulate the darkness of Slavonic voices, the difference is still decisive. Temirkanov’s Petersburg basses speak and speak about their words, unencumbered by the basic need to get them right, and without having to take their expressive cue solely from the conductor. This helps the episodes in the “Babi Yar” first movement to unfold with an inevitability that few Western recordings can match. Some may even find that the bel canto mellifluousness the chorus brings to Yevtushenko’s verses compromises the poet’s moralising tone, by comparison with the raw passion of performances from nearer the time of composition; I’m inclined to hear this rather as a natural evolution in style, as the Soviet era fades into memory and past horrors are reflected upon rather than lived out on the concert platform.
This is Sergei Aleksashkin’s fourth CD appearance as soloist in this work, and without exactly having an epoch-making voice, I doubt that he has done it better than here. Apart from his familiar nobility of line, there are many fresh nuances, of a piece with Temirkanov’s subtle interpretation. Temirkanov’s most conspicuous intervention is to dash through the second movement in record time: pretty disconcerting at first, but on repeated hearings I think he still puts across the scalding quality of Shostakovich’s take on “Humour”. And although communicative urgency is again the watchword in the slower surrounding movements, Temirkanov actually finds a happy medium between Kondrashin (conductor of the fraught 1962 premiere) and broader modern accounts. Recording quality is straightforward and well balanced; I would not have minded a little more atmosphere.
Overall then, this displaces the Gothenburg/Järvi account as my preferred modern studio version. Kondrashin’s remain the benchmark accounts, the recently reissued Melodiya one being indispensable because it was made after Yevtushenko’s enforced compromises to the text of Babi Yar, a Russian Disc one (3/94 – nla) likewise, for the original texts and performers (Gromadsky, Moscow PO) and for an unparalleled sense of occasion.