Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 6; Symphony No. 14

COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: (1) EMI,(2) PentaTone,(3) Warner
ALBUM TITLE: Shostakovich
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 6; Symphony No. 14
PERFORMER: (1) Symphonies 1&14: Karita Mattila (soprano), Thomas Quasthoff (bass); Berlin PO/Simon Rattle

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(2) Symphonies 1&6: Russian National Orchestra/
Vladimir Jurowski

(3) Symphonies 5&6: St Petersburg PO/Yuri Temirkanov

CATALOGUE NO: (1) 358 0772, (2) 5186 068, (3) 2564 62354-2
You don’t have to be Russian to perform Shostakovich, but it certainly helps: true or false? Well, we’ve had plenty of recordings over the years which were exceptions to the rule: Ormandy in Philadelphia, Haitink’s well-tempered London Philharmonic cycle (on Decca) and Rattle’s own Shostakovich debut on CD with, of all things, the Mahlerian baggy-monster Fourth Symphony. That his live Berlin Philharmonic 14th takes a back seat to both these Russian performances is due to soloists who, under most other circumstances, would be an immediate first choice.

In these inconsolable Songs and Dances of Death, Shostakovich set poems by Lorca, Apollinaire, Rilke and Pushkin’s schoolmate Wilhelm Küchelbecker in his native Russian. He sanctioned a German translation, and in 1980 Julia Varady and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau gave us a multilingual version (on Decca). Would that Thomas Quasthoff had followed their example. The distorted vowels which launch the cycle aren’t promising, but the garbled Russian text in the later songs is bewildering. Quasthoff’s customary probing only fitfully brings a more generalised meaning to life.

Mattila is better, but miscast. While the lyric heartbreak of ‘Three lilies’ and ‘The death of the poet’ suit her perfectly, she was never cut out to bare fangs in the harder-hitting songs, a gift for the dramatic soprano of Galina Vishnevskaya who still remains supreme. This is all a great pity, because the Berlin strings catch every shade and dynamic under Rattle’s rigorous direction, and the percussion resonates in Philharmonie acoustics. On a bonus disc comes a focused performance of the First Symphony, calculated in its fits and starts but always alive.

Rattle works very hard in focusing the potentially turgid late-Romantic lyricism which threatens to defuse the later movements of this hitherto audacious graduation work. Vladimir Jurowski is more contained, but equally distinguished in his careful phrasing. He’s surely the most rounded Shostakovich interpreter to have emerged for many years, holding the balance between brooding song and headlong dance in perfect equilibrium. The same applies to his Sixth, the real thing at last as the sweeping lines of this Sixth’s stupendous opening Largo announce (and what a perfect work it is, so often overshadowed by the perceived agendas of the symphonies which surround it). Jurowski’s rhythmic definition certainly has the edge over the looser Gergiev: the increasingly grotesque circus-ring antics of the Sixth have a surprising buoyancy and lightness of touch.The flaw rests in the under-defined sound of the Russian Naional Orchestra. Although the naturally balanced recording is superb in both its formats, it can’t disguise the strings’ lack of ideal body, and not all the important woodwind solos are up to the standards of the louring bass clarinet and penetrating high oboe.

Turn to the St Petersburg Philharmonic under old hand Yuri Temirkanov, and you hear what’s so far lacking in the younger Russian orchestra; expressive, sinewy strings and snapping, biting woodwind. There’s more headlong intensity in the outer panels of the opening movement, and in the two faster sequels you can take your pick between Jurowski’s elegant bounce and Temirkanov’s heavy irony, spilling over into a scary final coda which nearly topples before bludgeoning. That unsurpassable Shostakovich interpreter Yevgeny Mravinsky, any of whose definitive Leningrad Philharmonic performances are elusive at the moment, would surely have been proud of his successor’s work here.

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Temirkanov and his orchestra have to work harder in the Fifth Symphony against surprisingly dry Birmingham acoustics – very much second-best to St Petersburg’s Hall of Columns which in the Sixth nurtures the orchestra who knows it so well. The headlong scherzo and finale work better than the efficient but rather neutral development of the first movement, where much more throaty menace is needed from the horns; at least the desolate lower-woodwind chords shortly before it and the frozen final bars are mesmerising. Temirkanov takes the slow movement’s song of sorrow as a shapely, bel canto alternative to the usual numb misery. Here, though, as elsewhere, the crucial solos lack the ultimate eloquence you find in my unexpected front runner, the LPO live performance with Kurt Masur, who also turns in the most convincing First on disc. David Nice.