Five of the best Shostakovich conductors
History's finest interpreters of the Russian composer, Shostakovich's landmark symphonies
Yevgeny Mravinsky (1903-88)
Mravinsky gave world premieres of seven of Shostakovich’s symphonies: 5, 6, 8 (which was dedicated to him) 9, 10, 11 and 12. Though the composer’s favourite interpreter for many years, his refusal to conduct Symphony No. 13 ‘Babi Yar’ caused a permanent rift.
Symphony No. 8
Leningrad Philharmonic/MravinskyAlto ALC1150
Kirill Kondrashin (1914-81)
When Mravinsky refused to conduct the Symphony No. 13, Kirill Kondrashin stepped in, though his recording has the sanitised text that Yevtushenko was forced to rewrite. Kondrashin’s performances of Shostakovich were famously harrowing, although all his Soviet recordings were withdrawn when he defected to the West in 1975.
Symphony No. 13 ‘Babi Yar’ Vitaly Gromadsky (bass); Yurlov Choir, Moscow Philharmonic/Kondrashin
Rudolf Barshai (1924-2010)
Shostakovich admired Barshai, originally violist of the Borodin Quartet. On hearing his conducting of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony he is reported to have said, ‘We haven’t heard Beethoven like that since Klemperer.’ Barshai conducted the premiere of Symphony No. 14 in 1969. He founded the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, and made the famous arrangement of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 for string orchestra.
Symphony No. 10 WDR Sinfonie Orchester/Barshai (from complete symphony set)
Brilliant Classics 6324
Leonard Bernstein (1918-90)
Bernstein was a passionate advocate for Shostakovich’s music at a time when he was deeply unfashionable among the Western avant-garde. He approached the music as a great Mahlerian, creating indelible interpretations which breathe a very different air than those of his Russian contemporaries. No. 7 with the Chicago Symphony contains perhaps the most shattering slow movement committed to disc.
Symphonies 1 & 7 Chicago Symphony/Bernstein
DG 427 6322
Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (1931-2018)
Rozhdestvensky conducted many works of the composer, perhaps most memorably the Western premiere of the Symphony No. 4 at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival. He edited volume 2 of the collected works, including Symphonies 3 & 4. He brings a hypnotic focus to the phantasmagorical Fourth in this recording from 1984 of the soon-to-be-dismantled USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra.
Symphony No. 4
USSR Ministry of Culture SO/Rozhdestvensky Olympia/Melodiya MCD 156
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.