Shostakovich: Complete Symphonies; Violin Concerto No. 2; The Execution of Stepan Razin; The Sun Shineson Our Motherland; October – symphonic poem

COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: Melodiya
ALBUM TITLE: Shostakovich Complete Symphonies etc
WORKS: Complete Symphonies; Violin Concerto No. 2; The Execution of Stepan Razin; The Sun Shineson Our Motherland; October – symphonic poem
PERFORMER: Yevgenia Tselovalnik (soprano), ArturEizen, Vitaly Gromadski, Yevgeny Nesterenko (bass); Boys’ Choir of the Moscow Choral College; Russian StateChoral Chapel; Moscow Philharmonic SO/Kirill Kondrashin (1965-75)
CATALOGUE NO: MEL CD 10 01065
After suffering a personal rift with his favourite conductor Evgeny Mravinsky, Shostakovich entrusted Kirill Kondrashin with the eagerly awaited world premieres of his Fourth and Thirteenth Symphonies in the early 1960s. Although the first performances of Symphonies Nos 14 and 15 were given by Barshai and Maxim Shostakovich respectively, Kondrashin continued to be a dedicated interpreter, recording probably the first complete cycle of the symphonies on LP for Melodiya during the composer’s lifetime. Whilst regretting that Melodiya didn’t find space in the accompanying booklet to print texts and translations of the many vocal works presented here, the major advantage of the present set over its previous reincarnations on CD (on the Chant du Monde and BMG labels) is the inclusion of other Kondrashin Shostakovich performances, some of which have not to my knowledge been released on CD before. Most important of all is a blistering account of The Execution of Stepan Razin (another Kondrashin premiere) which makes a particularly shattering impact following on from the rather empty Twelfth Symphony. In an equally provocative bit of programme planning, another disc pairs the obsequious Cantata The Sun is shining over our Motherland with the gloomy Eighth Symphony, and there’s also a febrile live recording of the little-known symphonic poem October which illustrates that Kondrashin managed to be equally compelling in the concert hall and the recording studio.

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As for the Symphonies, there’s little question that many of the performances have an immediacy of impact that remains unrivalled to this day, the Fourth, Fifth and Thirteenth in particular maintaining their status as classic interpretations. Elsewhere there are plenty of instances where the tension seems to operate at an almost unbearable fever pitch such as in the disturbingly unhinged account of the opening movement of the Fifteenth, and Kondrashin’s phenomenal control of structure steers one effectively through the repetitive passages of the Eleventh, even if the first movement seems unnecessarily rushed.

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Melodiya’s engineers have done wonders in remastering the original tapes. Nonetheless one still has to put up with a distorted orchestral balance highlighting solo instruments, for example the forwardly-placed clarinet at the beginning of the First, and the way in which the brass and percussion are over-emphasised during some of its overloaded climaxes. In some respects, this lack of aural sophistication is not necessarily a disadvantage since it reinforces the pulsating intensity of the cycle as a whole. While those wanting a more upholstered sound might want to stick with Kitajenko on the Capriccio label, my favoured modern alternative in a highly competitive field, the Kondrashin set is surely a must for all Shostakovich devotees. Erik Levi