Symphonies Nos 1, 14* & 15; Chamber Symphony in C minor, Op. 110a (arr. Barshai)
*Kristine Opolais (soprano), *Alexander Tsymbalyuk (bass); Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
DG 486 0546 153:22 mins (2 discs)
Nelsons’s scrupulous, atmospheric attention to dynamic detail, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s sophisticated beauty and perfect engineering combine to give us fine-tuned mastery in Shostakovich’s last and most refined symphony, the Fifteenth. Until now, Haitink’s with the London Philharmonic has been my benchmark, and I still prefer his pace for the edge-of-death finale’s ethereal Allegretto (Shostakovich’s suggested crotchet = 100 rather than Nelsons’s 80), but Nelsons gets his players to articulate both the harrowing second-movement funeral march with its 12-tone cello-solo responses and the Passacaglia development more finely. And the moment the flute kicks off with the quirky solo of the odd scherzoid first movement, you know that precise characterisation will reign supreme.
The rest is more a matter of taste. Strings, and resonant double bass lines especially, are superlative in the 14th’s ‘Songs and Dances of Death’, but Kristine Opolais’s sound is a little too husky for the unkindest cuts of the extraordinary verse settings – though the middle range is beautiful and expressive in Apollinaire’s ‘The Suicide’, and meaning marries with refined tone colour in Rilke’s ‘The Death of the Poet’. Alexander Tsymbalyuk, a true bass, can’t match either Yevgeny Nesterenko or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau for expressive intensity.
The First Symphony is delineated in watercolours rather than poster-paints, and the more acute the expression in the later stages, the more the pathos feels manufactured. The Chamber Symphony impresses throughout, but lacks the edge of the original Eighth Quartet; a symphonic song cycle like the Michelangelo Suite might have been a better choice.