ALBUM TITLE: Shostakovich – Complete Symphonies
WORKS: Complete Symphonies
PERFORMER: Gürzenich Orchestra, Cologne/Dmitri Kitaenko
CATALOGUE NO: 71 029
Anticipating the deluge of commemorative boxed sets likely to appear in the Shostakovich’s centenary this year, Capriccio has stolen a march on its rivals with this newly recorded cycle of the complete symphonies from Dmitri Kitaenko and the Gürzenich Orchestra, Cologne. A further trump card was Capriccio’s decision to issue these performances, recorded between 2002 and 2004, on Super-Audio CD, for the demonstration quality sound, whether taken live
in Cologne’s Philharmonie or
from within a recording studio,
has an overwhelming immediacy that allows listeners to savour
every detail of Shostakovich’s inspired orchestration.
Of course outstanding sound quality alone would not offer sufficient grounds for an enthusiastic recommendation for this set. Indeed I must confess that my initial response to the Eighth Symphony issued by Capriccio on a single disc
a year or so ago was somewhat mixed. Although the orchestra evidently delivered a powerful and committed performance for Kitaenko, the interpretation struck me as almost too dogged in places and somewhat flaccid in the score’s more lyrical sections.
Yet as they have worked their way through the cycle, the partnership between conductor and orchestra seems to have blossomed. Tempos in the First and Twelfth Symphonies, for example, are far more dynamic and the phrasing more sharply-etched than in his performance of the Eighth. Even when the music demands a more monumental approach as in the first movement of the Sixth, Kitaenko manages to sustain the tension in the long static passages, and the ensuing Scherzo and Finale have plenty of bite. Perhaps the frenetic string fugato in the first movement of the Fourth and the faster passages of the Finale seem a mite cautious when compared to some other high-voltage performances.
Yet for all these caveats, I found the performances of the First, Fourth, Sixth, Twelfth and Thirteenth Symphonies to be consistently gripping, the latter work enhanced in its impact by the authentic Slav colours of the wonderful Prague Philharmonic Chorus and the impassioned and characterful singing of the bass Arutiun Kotchinian. Elsewhere I might take issue with a few awkward gear changes in the first movement of the Fifth or the slightly anodyne wind chorale at the opening of the third movement of the Seventh. But in general these performances seem to get to the heart of the matter, exposing in particular the deep vein of suffering the Shostakovich experienced during the terrible years of Stalinist repression.
At present, there are surprisingly few alternative sets of the complete symphonies on the market. The Brilliant Classics set under Rudolf Barshai, also emanating from Cologne, retails at an outrageously reasonable price and offers authentic and committed interpretations in good modern sound. Potentially more enticing is Rostropovich’s Warner Classics box which boasts extremely sophisticated orchestral playing from the LSO in a number of symphonies, and also features the unrivalled Moscow performance of the Fourteenth with Vishnevskaya which operates at a level of intensity that simply cannot be matched by Kitaenko. But setting aside the Fifth, Eighth and the Fourteenth, I would argue that in many places Kitaenko matches and even surpasses Rostropovich in terms of insight and incisiveness, and the recording quality of course has far greater impact. No doubt finer versions of individual symphonies may one day find their way into a boxed set, but in the meantime those coming to these remarkable works for the first time will surely be thrilled by Kitaenko’s powerful interpretations and the disciplined playing of the Gürzenich Orchestra. Erik Levi