Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6 & Symphony No. 14

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: London Philharmonic Orchestra
ALBUM TITLE: Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6 & Symphony No. 14
WORKS: Symphony No. 6 & Symphony No. 14
PERFORMER: Tatiana Monogarova (soprano), Sergei Leiferkus (baritone); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski

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This is by far the most stunning Shostakovich disc I have heard this year. Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO’s superb performance of the 14th has previously only been available in Volume 3 of the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s 75th Anniversary box sets. Here it is, now, coupled with a new live recording of Shostakovich’s Sixth from last years’s The Rest is Noise festival. Still, this is not an obvious pairing: No. 14, Shostakovich’s response to Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, is clearly one of his very darkest works, while the Sixth from 1939 is often considered one of his oddest and most frivolous symphonies. Yet thanks to the intensity of Jurowski’s performance of that earlier work, the new coupling makes total sense.

Here, the Sixth’s opening Largo is no introverted lament: rather, the LPO’s string trills seem to express a rage a still young Shostakovich had much reason to feel – not only over the humiliation by Pravda (which was the spur to his Fifth Symphony) but also the appalling toll of people arrested during the late 1930s under Stalin, including several colleagues and relations. This seething anger only gradually relents as the dark night wears out. The dawn of the second movement, greeted by an insouciant clarinet, whips up into a scene of would-be but increasingly furious merry making, and the finale’s frenetically jolly circus-world of day-time celebration appears an inevitable outcome. The coda’s reference to Prokofiev’s most successful populist style suggests that even then Shostakovich bitterly resented his rival’s apparent official success.

The Fourteenth Symphony, Shostakovich’s 1969 setting of texts by Lorca, Apollinaire, Rilke and Küchelbecker, presents some of the bleakest reflections on death and decay, all the more baleful with the brittle and tenebrous colours the composer draws from an orchestra of strings and percussion. By then seriously ill, Shostakovich wished to disabuse listeners of the usual sentimentality about death, and unblinkingly presents the various and usually less than glorious ends of human existence.

The soprano part, written with Galina Vishnevskaya’s passionate vocal style in mind, is affectingly taken by Tatiana Monogarova, whose pleas in ‘Lorelei’ well complement Sergei Leiferkus’s brusque and matter-of-fact delivery. Where, so often, the bass role represents Death himself, Leiferkus finds a suitably implacable quality, though he also conveys the despair of the prisoner who in isolation loses his mind as he loses hope.

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Altogether it’s a gruelling experience, but not one to be missed. Daniel Jaffé