Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13 (Babi Yar)

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: Regis
WORKS: Symphony No. 13 (Babi Yar)
PERFORMER: Sergei Aleksashkin (bass); Moscow Choral Academy, West German RSO/Rudolf Barshai
CATALOGUE NO: RRC 1102 Reissue
Despite the quick refreeze following the Khrushchev thaw, what an extraordinary time the early Sixties must have been in the Soviet Union, with the 1961 premiere of the 27-year-old Fourth Symphony followed a year later by the 13th’s settings of Yevtushenko’s outspoken poetry. Much of the untrammelled genius in both those works blazes through in these vivid Cologne performances, part of a cycle available on an unbelievably cheap Brilliant Classics box.

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Inevitably, perhaps, Barshai can’t pull all the stops out for every outlandish effect in the Fourth, a work which takes orchestral possibilities to the very brink of the abyss. But there are enough to stun: the West German RSO strings are encouraged to go for mania rather than precision in the fuguing earthquake which rips through the heart of the first movement, and even Järvi’s rightly relentless SNO performance (Chandos) is not as harrowingly insistent in the oscillating woodwind leading into the faster central section of the finale. It may be that I’m at last beginning to grasp the thematic consistency under the fractured surface, but understanding is certainly enhanced by Barshai’s shapely phrasing and the finely honed orchestral solos (superb in the desultory dancing on the volcano of the last movement). A handful of climaxes are too much for the excellent sound team, but the definition and atmosphere are elsewhere unparalleled.

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They remain so throughout a consistently magnificent 13th. Barshai’s importation of a Russian male voice choir to match the intensity of bass Sergei Aleksashkin proves vital; the titanic reproach to the short-changers of Russian women in the third movement is almost unbearable. But there’s also much focused brooding from the orchestra, balanced as in the Fourth with a constant sense of forward momentum which holds the whole vast monument together. David Nice