Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1 in F minor; Symphony No. 9 in E flat

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: Teldec
WORKS: Symphony No. 1 in F minor; Symphony No. 9 in E flat
PERFORMER: National SO/Mstislav Rostropovich
CATALOGUE NO: 4509-90849-2 DDD
There are no bad performances here: any one of these three discs would be an acceptable choice for those building a collection of Shostakovich symphonies. But within a generally high standard there are gradations of excellence. Rostropovich’s account of the First Symphony, for example, has a persuasive eloquence, particularly in the luscious Lento, which eludes Dutoit. He embraces the grandiose, 19th-century language with enthusiasm, while Dutoit seems to stand aloof, anticipating the detached petulance that would become a feature of later symphonies.

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Dutoit couples the First Symphony with the Fifteenth, Shostakovich’s last. The over-famous quotations from William Tell in the first movement have guaranteed a certain notoriety, which obscures the greater enigma of a symphony whose interpretation is a matter of labyrinthine complexity. Dutoit remains detached. As a result, the bleak, formalist passages of the first movement are eerily effective, but he does not quite capture the manic energy that drives the rest of it. The last movement, as it pirouettes to a close in a rattle of ghostly percussion, is strangely pedestrian.

By coupling the First and Ninth, Rostropovich has brought together the two symphonies in the canon that show clear allegiance to Classical forms and construction. As music, the Ninth makes enjoyable, even light-hearted listening, particularly in this convincingly vigorous performance. But taken in a biographical context (Shostakovich was supposed to produce an epic ‘war’ symphony) it is difficult to hear this music without wanting to peer beneath the surface.

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The Fifth Symphony, under Inbal, is polished but a little anonymous. Where some prefer a bleak, open string sound, the Vienna Symphony offers ingratiating warmth. The tempi are rather inflexible, except for a massive rallentando before the closing peroration, which Inbal delivers without a trace of irony. The Second Symphony, with its unlikely blend of the avant-garde and Soviet community singing receives an indifferent performance, which is perhaps no more than it deserves. Christopher Lambton