Shostakovich: Festival Overture; October; Symphony No. 2 (To October); The Song of the Forests

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Festival Overture; October; Symphony No. 2 (To October); The Song of the Forests
PERFORMER: Mikhail Kotliarov (tenor), Nikita Storojev (bass)Brighton Festival Chorus, New London Children’s Choir, RPO/Vladimir Ashkenazy
CATALOGUE NO: 436 762-2 DDD
Reception to Ashkenazy’s Shostakovich cycle has so far been mixed. Why, one might ask, is Decca doubling up on repertoire recorded so successfully by Bernard Haitink for the same label only a decade before? But when the result is this good, there is room for both. Apart from the exuberant Festival Overture, which really fizzes, these works represent Shostakovich in his agitprop, social realist mood, complete with such choral injunctions as ‘Arise, people of the great Soviet land, and do great deeds!’ in his eulogy to the Soviet postwar forestry industry, The Song of the Forests. The tone poem October has the stature of a symphonic first movement in the style of Symphony No. 10. The most intriguing work, however, is the Second Symphony, which packs a lot into its 17 minutes, with complex modernism leading, by way of a blast on the factory whistle, into a choral hymn to ‘October, the Commune and Lenin’. All are performed with panache – the Royal Philharmonic hasn’t sounded this uniformly good in ages, though the recordings date from 1989-92.

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The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in the wartime Symphony No. 8 proves its match, but is recorded less warmly and there is a sometimes painful glassy edge to the sound.

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Levi’s performance occasionally loses direction (particularly in moments of relative relaxation after climaxes) and lacks the monumentalism and intensity of the Haitink – the motoric third movement is, frankly, tame by any standards. Matthew Rye