WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4; Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 6; Symphony No. 7; Symphony No. 8; Symphony No. 9; Symphony No. 10; Symphony No. 11; Symphony No. 12; Symphony No. 13; Symphony No. 14; Symphony No. 15
PERFORMER: Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano), Nicola Ghiuselev, Mark Reshetin (bass) London Voices, Choral Arts Society of Washington, National SO, LSO, Academic SO Moscow/Mstislav Rostropovich
CATALOGUE NO: 0630-17046-2
Brutally expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, Mstislav Rostropovich made a farewell promise to the ailing Shostakovich: ‘I’ll do what I can and record all your symphonies.’ Although it has taken more than twenty years to fulfil that pledge, we can now celebrate the fruits of his enterprise in this remarkable boxed set released to coincide with Rostropovich’s seventieth birthday.
Most of these performances, recorded between 1989 and 1994, have already been available on separate discs. The notable exception is the eagerly awaited first issue on CD of Rostropovich’s 1973 Moscow recording of the Fourteenth — the only version in the current catalogue to feature the work’s original soprano soloist, Vishnevskaya. Recorded in the presence of the composer, this performance has a quite extraordinary sense of immediacy. One senses an enhanced degree of urgency, of music-making that is very near the edge – not so surprising, perhaps, given that Rostropovich was persona non grata with the Soviet authorities at the time of recording. Rostropovich surpasses anyone in my experience in encapsulating the whole gamut of emotion contained in this harrowing score. Vishnevskaya and the bass Mark Reshetin respond with singing of tremendous character and conviction -the sparks really fly throughout the frenzied dialogue of’The Lorelei’, while Vishnevskaya’s despairing ‘three lilies’ in Apollinaire’s The Suicide’ makes an unforgettable impression.
Nothing in the rest of the set quite achieves this sustained level of intensity – a vindication surely of Rostropovich’s decision never to re-record the work. But there are other performances here that rank with the very best. Generally speaking, I feel Rostropovich secures some of his most impressive results in London, for although the Washington-based National Symphony Orchestra is a very fine ensemble, it cannot match the LSO for sophistication and an extra degree of virtuosity. This is certainly the case with the broadly conceived interpretation of the Fifteenth — a marvellous illustration not only of Rostropovich’s capacity to demand, in the words of Shostakovich, ‘just the right weight of sound from the orchestra’, but also to unlock more doors to understanding this disturbingly ambiguous work. Even where Shostakovich is working at a more urbane musical level, in the brazenly revolutionary Second and Third, or in the disappointingly conformist Twelfth, the LSO/ Rostropovich partnership achieves special results.
Of the NSO recordings, both the Eighth and Eleventh strike me as being particularly outstanding. In the Eighth, one admires Rostropovich’s relentless control, whether in the war-machine ostinatos of the third movement or the disembodied stillness of the ensuing passacaglia. Likewise, his daring adoption of slow, grinding tempi at the climax of the second movement of the Eleventh – a passage that is normally taken at a hell-for-leather speed — serves to expose more than ever the merciless brutality of the Tsarist oppressors.
Inevitably there are some performances in the cycle that are not so convincing. Despite Nicola Ghiuselev’s impassioned singing, I don’t feel that Rostropovich brings sufficient gravitas to the opening movement of Babi Kzr(No. 13), and there are moments in both the first and second movement of the Leningrad where the conductor doesn’t appear to be fully engaged with the score. It’s also a pity that Teldec’s presentation, although containing a fascinating interview with Rostropovich, fails to provide a Russian transliteration of the various texts. Nonetheless, it would be churlish not to give this set anything other than a wholehearted recommendation. Go to Kondrashin if you want a more raw and wilful approach, or to Haitink for Brucknerian grandeur. But at their finest, Rostropovich’s performances remain unrivalled for their breadth and depth of emotional expression. Erik Levi