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Recordings

Dmitri Shostakovich: The Complete Symphonies
16 Jan 2007

SHOSTAKOVICH: The Complete Symphonies

Recording a Shostakovich cycle has become de rigueur in recent years — a conductor’s mandatory right of passage, like recording a Beethoven or a Mahler cycle.

Dmitri Shostakovich: The Complete Symphonies

Sinfonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Wiener Philharmoniker, Berliner Philharmoniker, Philadelphia Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Mariss Jansons (cond.)

EMI Classics 0946 3 65300 2 4 [10CDs]

$63.63  Click to buy

The Shostakovich centenary in 2006 brought new attention to the composer and resulted in a barrage of recording projects, including the reissue of Haitink’s classics from the late 1970s and early 1980s with the London Philharmonic and the Concertgebouw; a collection put out by the composer’s son Maxim Shostakovich with the Prague Symphony; and even a boxed set by the Giuseppe Verdi Symphony of Milan, conducted by Oleg Caetani. Meanwhile, among several earlier releases still available, the most prominent ones are those by two conductors who, like Maxim Shostakovich, can boast a direct link to the composer, but who are arguably better musicians than he: Mstislav Rostropovich who recorded his cycle in 1998, and Rudolf Barshai, whose 2003 set with the WDR Sinfonie Orchester Köln is (at least according to Victor Carr Jr. at ClassicsToday.com) still “the one to beat.”

The Shostakovich cycle by Mariss Jansons released by EMI this past September stands out even in such illustrious company, and not just for its stunning Sotz-art décor. The set has been a life-long project for the conductor, spanning eighteen years of his career and involving eight different ensembles across two continents. Starting with a harrowing rendition of Symphony no. 7 by the (still at the time) Leningrad Philharmonic on its 1988 Scandinavian tour, it presents Europe and America’s premiere orchestras: the Berlin Philharmonic in Symphony no. 1 and the London Philharmonic in no. 15; the Philadelphia Orchestra in nos. 10-11 and the Oslo Philharmonic in nos. 6 and 9. There are live recordings of Symphony no. 5 by the Vienna Philharmonic and of no. 8 by the Pittsburgh Symphony; and the superbly engineered studio recordings by the Bavarian Radio chorus and orchestra performing Symphonies 2-4 and 12-14 (finished in 2005, these are the most recent ones in the set). Finally, the symphonies are supplemented by excerpts from the Gadfly Suite (London Philharmonic) and the two Jazz Suites, as well as the inimitable Tahiti Trot (all Philadelphia Orchestra), and even a rehearsal fragment of the 8th with the Pittsburgh Symphony, with Jansons talking about the war symphonies.

Throughout, Jansons draws uniformly superior performances from the ensembles with which he works. His crisp woodwinds sparkle in their virtuoso passagework at break-neck speeds; the strings are alternatively sonorous and intense, the brass powerful but not overbearing; the solos are excellent almost without exception, and cataclysmic tutti climaxes are compelling, particularly in the 4th and 8th symphonies. Furthermore, the conductor manages to downplay the peculiarities of each orchestra’s sound and imprint a single, unified vision onto the cycle that bears his own recognizable signature, particularly in his impeccable sense of timing and in his relentless, terrifyingly mechanical driving rhythms. His tempos tend to be on a faster side, which privileges the sarcastic and grotesque over the soulful and lyrical in his interpretations — in Shostakovich’s case, almost always a winning strategy. There is much of Mravinsky recognizable in Jansons, although some of the maître’s edginess seems to be softened at times — perhaps too much so in some moments of the 5th (this criticism, however, does not apply to the work’s truly extraordinary finale).

Mariss Jansons’s cycle is a remarkable achievement from a remarkable musician. Like Rostropovich and Barshai, he possesses that coveted “born-in-the-USSR” label to boost his Shostakovich credentials, but unlike them, his principal training was as a conductor, leading to an apprenticeship with Mravinsky, still the definitive Shostakovich interpreter, and a long fruitful association with the Leningrad and then St Petersburg Philharmonic. While still keeping the City on the Neva in his artistic blood, so to speak, this one-step distance from the composer brings a unique color to Jansons’ approach. He addresses a Shostakovich score as an interpreter who demonstrates an affinity with and appropriate reverence for his source yet allows himself a certain creative license in bringing the music to life. An interview with the conductor included in the enclosed booklet is particularly illuminating in this respect. For instance, Jansons defends his decision “not to follow too faithfully Shostakovich’s metronome markings” by invoking the authority of “the people who knew Shostakovich personally” (p. 12), that is, appealing to the original source. At the same time, his penetrating comments about the “emotional tightrope” the composer had to walk, and the multiple layers of meaning hidden “behind the notes” of his music (p. 11) reveal his comprehension of that music’s message primarily from the point of view of its contemporary Soviet listeners. Apart from Evgenii Mravinsky, few conductors can claim that particular interpretive pulpit. Mariss Jansons is one of these select few; and his voice is certainly worth hearing.

Olga Haldey, Ph.D.
University of Maryland—College Park

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