Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13 in B flat minor (Babi Yar)

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: Sony
WORKS: Symphony No. 13 in B flat minor (Babi Yar)
PERFORMER: Sergei Baikov (bass)Estonian National Male-Voice Choir, St Petersburg Camerata, Orchestra of the State Hermitage Museum, Lithuanian CO/Saulius Sondeckis
CATALOGUE NO: SMK 66591 DDD
Twenty years after his death, Shostakovich’s stock continues strong, but the problem of communicating his vocal texts to Western audiences remains. It is boldly tackled in Solti’s recording of the Babi Yar Symphony, No. 13. (The title really attaches only to its first movement.) Yevtushenko’s poems, the first of which so offended Soviet officialdom with its outcry against anti-Semitism, are sung in Russian but recited in English by Anthony Hopkins – none too convincingly, but on separate tracks, so they can easily be ‘programmed out’ if one prefers the printed translation. A fine Russian bass soloist, Aleksashkin, is solidly backed by Solti’s Chicago choralists and orchestra in this vivid recording.

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Unhelpfully, Sony’s Russian-Lithuanian-Estonian recording of the same symphony lacks even a printed translation (only a paraphrase of the text being given). A somewhat boxed-in solo voice and a very reverberant orchestra further disadvantage the set, but Sondeckis is a conductor both powerful and pliant in this music.

Under the better-known baton of Gergiev, Shostakovich’s purely orchestral Eighth Symphony (1944) – a tough, heavy work – is robustly but not quite satisfactorily delivered by the Kirov Orchestra. A rapid trumpet solo is allowed to escape with dubious intonation, and a curious background noise intrudes two minutes before the end of the first movement.

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About Mackerras’s new version of the much-recorded Fifth little needs to be said except: ‘Magnificent!’ That applies too to the technical recording, with sound gradations embracing a pianissimo which makes you hold your breath. Like Muti with the Philadelphia Orchestra (EMI, 1993), Mackerras fills out the disc with the Festive Overture, the RPO’s prodigious woodwind skills enabling him to take it even faster than Muti did. Arthur Jacobs