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Reviews

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13
24 Sep 2005

SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 13 ("Babi Yar")

Audiences accustomed to hearing the grandeur of Shostakovich’s early symphonies may initially be disillusioned when listening to his Thirteenth Symphony for the first time.

Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13 ("Babi Yar")

Sergei Aleksashkin, bass; Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Mariss Jansons (cond.)

EMI Classics 7243 5 57902 2 4 [CD]

 

Lacking the bold thematic statements characteristic of his other works, the Thirteenth, both in music and text, is riddled with subtleties and innuendos designed to expose the musical oppression posed by the Soviet regime through a series of cleverly disguised understatements. The simplicity through which these ideas are realized is a compliment to Shostakovich’s pensive and mature style. If well-executed, a thoughtful interpretation would reveal the heart of what Shostakovich so desperately needed to express.

Shostakovich chose a collection of poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko as the text. The title of the most notable of these poems, “Babi Yar,” is often used as a distinctive title for the whole symphony. Originally, the poem described the death and suffering of Ukrainian Jews by the hands of the Nazi Fascists. However, pressure from the government necessitated revisions that glorified the role of the Soviets in defeating the Nazi threat. Even though Yevtushenko adamantly denied having succumbed to the government pressure when revising the text of “Babi Yar,” outside of the Soviet Union, Yevtushenko was known to have reverted back to the original text.

As expected, Mariss Jansons led the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfinks in a faithful and insightful delivery of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13.The opening Adagio begins in a hauntingly steady tempo. As indicated, the fluctuations in dynamics are gradual, and amazingly controlled in this recording. A carefully articulated chromatic motive sets the stage for the entrance of the chorus of male voices in a low register. The bass soloist, Sergei Aleksashkin, certainly captures the mood of the movement by echoing the somber style established by the orchestra and chorus. Later in the movement, moments of mounting tension characterized by painstakingly slow-moving crescendos add a sense of rising tension, ending suddenly through abrupt subito pianos.

The second movement is set to one of Yevtushenko’s more witty poems entitled, “Humor.” The text of this poem seems to imply the farcical nature of governments (in the general sense, not of specific governments), boasting that the powers in authority may control many aspects in the lives of people, but that they were impotent against humor. The lightest of all the other movements, the Allegretto tempo is a hair on the fast side which actually adds to the levity. A violin solo masterfully played expresses the playful style of this movement, which seems to poke fun at oppressive governments.

“In the Store,” a movement honoring the strength and courage of Russian women, can only be described as utterly respectful. The melodic lines are predominantly in the lowest registers, and are never rushed. It takes enormous patience and control to keep from rushing or inserting superfluous gestures into a movement that should be defined by rich harmonic textures. Kudos to Mariss Jansons for a demonstrating infinite patience and control to provide a performance that never once seemed hurried or exasperated. The bass soloist also proved his incredible versatility through changes in the color and timbre of his voice necessitated by the commanding score.
Appropriately named, “Fears,” the fourth movement of this symphony, fully lives up to its title. If listening to this movement in isolation without any of the background information, it would be easy to assume that the movement was part of a requiem mass. In actuality, the text urges the audience to remember their fears and fight complacent tendencies. It is no wonder the Soviet government may have been fearful of a work that encouraged outspokenness in the face of adversity. Once again, Aleksashkin portrays the severity of Yevtushenko’s poem with great facility. His voice was powerful and unwavering in a way that would please Shostakovich.

The final movement, “A Career,” opens with a refreshing statement from the flutes. In this coy Allegretto, Yevtushenko and Shostakovich threw caution to wind with a text that explicitly defies the pressure that would have them shape their careers through conformity and resignation. A credit to the performers, the untamed spirit of this movement was vividly illustrated on all levels. Certainly, EMI Classics has done a great service by releasing this authoritative recording of a brilliantly executed masterpiece.

Nathalie Hristov
Music Librarian
University of Tennessee

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