Shostakovich: Symphony No. 15 in A

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: Erato
WORKS: Symphony No. 15 in A
PERFORMER: Cleveland Orchestra/Kurt Sanderling
CATALOGUE NO: 2292-45815-2 DDD
Shostakovich’s last symphony, No. 15, remains an enigma. With its quotations from Rossini, Wagner, Mahler and Shostakovich himself, is it a reflection on human existence, a bizarre picture of Soviet totalitarianism or a memorial to Russia’s war dead? Explanations remain unsatisfactory, perhaps because it is a masterpiece and not so easily defined.

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That it is a profoundly tragic work is underlined in the account from Sanderling and the Cleveland Orchestra. If the first movement with its repeated William Tell tune is a representation of childhood, as has been suggested, it is a childhood shot through with nightmares. And the death-shrouded second and last movements, with their references to the Fate motif and Siegfried’s Funeral March from Wagner’s Ring, are not just sombre but heart-rending. The solo and duo contributions of cello, violin, tuba and trombone reflect almost painfully raw emotion and there is a cumulative inevitability that binds the symphony’s disparate elements into a thoroughly convincing whole.

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Against this, Ashkenazy’s well-played, superbly recorded and generously coupled account barely scratches the surface. The lack of any coupling on the Erato disc is positively mean, but there’s no question that the Sanderling version is an altogether deeper and more rewarding experience. David Michaels