Shostakovich/Barshai Chamber Symphonies Nos 1 - 5
Over several decades, many listeners must first have encountered Shostakovich’s string quartets through Rudolf Barshai’s arrangements. As the one-time viola-player in both the Beethoven and Borodin Quartets, and founder of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, Barshai was perfectly placed to appreciate these works as chamber music per se and also their potential for orchestral transcription. The results of his advocacy are demonstrated on this new set of “chamber symphonies”, in which the octogenarian conductor’s authority comes through undimmed.
Barshai earlier recorded four of these pieces with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. There are good things in his remakes with the Giuseppe Verdi Orchestra – a finale to Op 73a that is culminatory in every sense, a seamlessness in the unfolding of Op 110a that many quartets would do well to emulate, and a poignancy in the Andantino of Op 83a (the most re-creative transcription) that even Shostakovich might not have suspected. Yet in movement after movement, the COE’s greater refinement and expressive acuity – aided by a cleaner recorded balance – tell to the benefit of these transcriptions and, ultimately, of the music itself. Currently packaged with Viktor Derevianko’s probing chamber “reduction” of Symphony No 15, the choice seems obvious.
Brilliant Classics has also issued the chamber symphonies as part of a 27-disc box that surveys all of Shostakovich’s important orchestral and chamber works, along with a representative sample from his ballet and film scores. Presentation is simple but effective, and there are decent booklet-notes (though no texts or translations) and a bonus DVD in which Barshai talks candidly about his association with the music. At the price, this is worth considering as a budget option, even though Barshai’s cycle of the symphonies (available separately on Brilliant Classics) is the only essential component.