Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6; The Execution of Stepan Razin

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Symphony No. 6; The Execution of Stepan Razin
PERFORMER: Anatoly Lochak (bass); Russian State SO & Symphonic Cappella/Valeri Polyansky
Few of Shostakovich’s Symphonies are more enigmatic than the Sixth. From the funereal desolation of the opening Largo to the finales circus parade high-jinks, the works emotional narrative remains inscrutable, and one is invariably left wondering whether its three movements really hang together as a satisfying entity. Yet any lingering doubts about the Symphony can easily be swept aside in a performance that exploits the score’s atmosphere to the full. Valeri Polyansky certainly has the credentials to effect a convincing interpretation, but his performance is only intermittently compelling. The major problem remains the uneven ensemble of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra’s wind section, its raw and unrefined sound blighting some of the earlier tuttis in the Largo. This is a great pity since Polyansky is more successful than conductors such as Haitink or Kondrashin in sustaining tension through the long Mahlerian pedal points that haunt the rest of the movement. In the scherzo and finale, Polyansky delivers energetic, if somewhat humourless renditions, though once again the orchestra is found wanting in completely mastering the brilliant demands of Shostakovich’s writing. In these movements, Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic remain peerless, and while their Largo is not as broadly paced as some, it still evokes a distinctly chilling aura.


I have far fewer caveats about Polyansky’s Execution of Stepan Razin. Completed in 1964, this extended symphonic cantata using words by Yevtushenko is couched in Shostakovich’s most trenchant anti-Stalinist manner. Polyansky’s superb choir packs a mighty punch in the work’s relentless and frenzied opening salvos, and the harsh orchestral timbres are delivered with unremitting aggression. Erik Levi