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Sound Samples

Symphony No 4 First Movement
Symphony 8 First Movement
Symphony 13 - Humour


Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Complete Symphonies
CD 1
Symphony No. 1 in F minor (1925) [32:11]
Symphony No. 2 in B, To October (1927) [16:46]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat, The First of May (1929) [26:20]
CD 2
Symphony No. 4 in C minor (1935) [60:01]
October, Symphonic Poem Op.131 (1967) [12:43]
Symphony No. 5 in D minor (1937) [41:55]
Symphony No. 6 in B minor (1939) [26:33]
CD 4
Symphony No. 7 in C, Leningrad (1941) [71:10]
CD 5
Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1943) [56:30]
Cantata Op.90 ‘The Sun Shines on our Motherland’ (1952) [12:13]
CD 6
Symphony No. 9 in E flat (1945) [24:15]
Symphony No. 10 in E minor (1953) [49:01]
CD 7
Symphony No. 11 in G minor, The Year 1905 (1957) [53:53]
CD 8
Symphony No. 12 in D minor The Year 1917 (1961)
The Execution of Stepan Razin Op.119 (1964) [27:38]
CD 9
Symphony No. 13 in B flat minor, Babi Yar (1962) [54:07]
CD 10
Symphony No. 14 (1969) [48:45]
CD 11
Symphony No. 15 in A (1971) [40:40]
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No.2 in C sharp minor Op.129 (1967) [29:38]
Artur Eisen (bass) (13); Evgenia Tselovalnik (sop) (14); Evgeny Nesterenko, (bass) (14)
Choirs of the Russian Republic/Alexander Yourlov (2, 3, 13); David Oistrakh (violin – concerto)
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin (conductor)
Rec. Moscow 19 July 1972 (1); 29 Nov 1972 (2); 12 Nov 1972 (3); 1966 (4) and 1967 (October); 27 Mar 1968 (5); 15 Sept 1967 (6); 7 Mar 1975 (7); 4 Nov 1967 (8 and Cantata); 20 Mar 1965 (9); 24 Sept 1973 (10); 9 July 1973 (11); 13 Dec 1972 (12) and 1965 (Op.119); 23 Aug 1974 (13); 24 Nov 1974 (14); 27 May 1975 (15); 1967 (violin concerto).
MELODIYA MEL CD 10 01065 [11CDs: 75:22 + 72:45 + 68:27 + 71:10 + 68:43 + 73:16 + 53:53 + 64:25 + 54:07 + 48:45 + 70:20]

At long last, Melodiya have made their own in-house CD release of the elusive and pretty much legendary complete Shostakovich Symphonies, with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kirill Kondrashin. These have popped up here and there in various guises, the last being a 10 CD set on the Aulos label (see review). Melodiya have created a completely new edition spread over 11 CDs, with some added bonuses including the famous premiere recording of the second Violin Concerto with David Oistrakh as soloist.

There is of course more than one way of approaching such an old/new arrival. The recordings are inevitably of historical value, having been made in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the cold war and during the composer’s lifetime. They cannot however really be taken as ‘historical’ recordings since the techniques and machinery have to compete directly with contemporary releases which command similar classic status in the shops today. Commentators have mentioned the spot-miking and balance issues which can sometimes arise with these recordings, and indeed there are perspectives which you could never encounter in the concert hall. Listening to these recordings and imagining if that really was the sound from your seat however, and I can’t see anyone complaining and asking for their money back. The only real recurring problem is peak distortion at the loudest moments, taking the form of a noticeable ‘clipping’ on the heaviest bass drum thwacks, sometimes making them sound like a very large mattress being struck, and at worst with added roar, as if a volcano is erupting. The mastering is good however, with no acute repression of tape hiss or treble emasculation of the music. There is in fact very little tape hiss, only really noticeable if you turn the volume up high. There is some damage to the original analogue tape, with momentary left or right channel drop-outs (for instance) in one of the fillers: ‘October’ Op.131, and some grungy moments here and there throughout the set. Quite a few audible edits show up: indeed, 15:52 into the 1st movement of Symphony no. 4 there is a bizarre moment where the entire orchestra suddenly appears to decamp into a narrow but very resonant bathroom – some kind of emergency repair work no doubt. I don’t have the Aulos set to compare results on any restoration work, but judging by previous remarks the old problems remain more or less the same.

So, why would you shell out 50 of your hard-earned cash on this particular set?

If you already know and love these recordings on scratchy old vinyl then I can promise you that these CDs are made to the highest standard, and if my own scratchy old vinyl is anything to go by - I have the 5th on an undated Dutch import LP, when Melodiya was still ‘Melodia’ - then the mastering is as faithful as possible to the originals. If your joy is that of pure, squeaky clean digital productions then this may turn out not to be your bag, but I would suggest giving your favourite moments a try in these versions – I can’t guarantee you will be immediately convinced, but you may discover things you’d never imagined before in these pieces.

My own experiences of Shostakovich’s symphonies on recordings are something of an amalgam. I remember being impressed with the sound quality of Haitink’s Decca recordings, but over the years I’ve ditched most of the loose ends I had from that set – they just don’t have the right kind of Russian intensity which, once heard, ousts many a Western recording. Kondrashin’s Symphony No.1 is a case in point. This youthful work is most often seen as a lighter introduction to the entire canon, and indeed you can hear how Shostakovich revels in the strong Russian traditions, pleasing his teachers with the colourful and varied orchestration and logical harmonic and thematic development which was so important at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century with Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, and taken in different directions by the likes of Stravinsky. Kondrashin ‘interprets’ more, seems to hear more in the music than almost any other version I can remember. Some of his rubati might seem overdone at times, but Kondrashin is placing the work in the tradition from which it comes, rather than imposing upon it the tighter, less romantic disciplines of a later age. The oboe solo at the opening of the movingly beautiful Lento movement seems to strain to stay in tune, but you can relax after the first minute, and the music blossoms in to the warmest and most emphatic of youthfully passionate statements.

The Symphony No.2 along with the Symphony No.3 are often seen as problem works, bridges to be crossed before we can get to the good stuff. I like the stunning sound of Neeme Järvi’s 2002 Gothenburg recording (DG 469 525-2) of both of these works, but Kondrashin has the advantage of sheer ‘Russianness’. This might seem like a trite point, but I am a great believer that, when national character and language are so distinctive (and so distinctively different), there is a unique understanding – a ‘sound’ in a native-made production which can’t quite be beaten. To be sure, the Moscow strings seem to have difficulty finding direction in some of the lines which Shostakovich gives them in No.2, but at its best the music is scorching, that mad fugue like an insane crowd of people all looking and gesturing in different directions. The choruses are so Russian throughout this set: you get a colour in the inflections which you can be sure ‘belongs’ in a very special way, and the entry of the choir in No.3 is quite hair-raising. These are recordings which breathe the aroma of Shostakovich’s home turf, and the sense of his emerging style and his struggles with creative exploration along with the nationalistic, philosophical and political fervour of the times seem to inhabit the music more here than in any versions I know. It certainly inhabits the musicians, who bite into the bizarre moments of humour with all of the satirical grit of those caricature puppets which were well-hidden secret symbols of private protest for the man in the street.

Hard-as-nails fortitude is a feature of the Symphony No.4, again translated into gripping drama by Kondrashin, who unleashed the work on its premiere in 1961 a quarter of a century after it had been quashed through political pressure. The work’s mosaic twists and turns are held in absolute control by the conductor, who no doubt had a special affection for the work. Secretive undertones and echoes, tender fragments, the dramas, tensions, sardonic wit and nervy restlessness are all present in what Shostakovich described as a "Credo of [his] artistic work" on its composition, and "in many respects more substantial than my later symphonies" on its first performance. The symphonic poem "October" with which this disc is supplemented was written for the 50th anniversary of the revolution. This is a useful addition to any such set, as it is very much a symphonic movement in typical Shostakovich mode with an inclusion of elements from the ‘DSCH’ motive, and having its programmatic content in common with a number of the other symphonies. The recording here is a live one, with some audience noise, some dodgy moments of tape damage and some drifting in terms of sound levels, but the performance is energetic and committed.

So to the hugely and justly popular Symphony No.5. There are so many recordings of this piece washing around the catalogue that we’re spoilt for choice, but one version, a one-time BBC Radio 3 ‘CD Review’ recommendation, is closely contemporary to the 1967 recording by Kondrashin. André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra made their RCA version in 1965, and created a chemistry which resulted in a justifiably recognised classic. Previn’s contrasts of tempi create a far more sustained and atmospheric feel in the slower sections, and his first movement is almost four minutes longer than Kondrashin. Kondrashin’s intensity is more of a full-on roller-coaster ride, a raw feast which makes the blood run faster. This is not to say that his more restful moments are any less expressive, but they do have a greater forward momentum – more rhythmic snap, a greater sense of urgency and danger. What the one gains in refinement, the other challenges with sheer explosive power. Both of these versions share a sense of freshly minted wonder and joy in the glory of great new music for the times in which they were being played, and this is part of their great strength, as well as showing how good the music is by reflecting it in equally effective but differing lights.

My principal reference with the Sympbony No.6 is, from memory, that of Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw orchestra. Not quite as opulent sounding, the Moscow wind soloists nonetheless prove expressive and convincing in the atmospheric Largo, elements of which resonate on in later symphonies such as the 11th. The dark art of brooding melancholy and the journey to playfulness and humour of the final Presto seem like night and day with Kondrashin, and it is that sensation of having climbed out of a deep gloomy cave into a mad festival of absurd and colourful cavorting that makes this recording immediately memorable.

The later recording date of Symphony No.7 immediately brings up a superior sound quality. "A poem for our struggle and our future victory", it is of course very much a war symphony, dealing with heroism, resistance, horrors and final triumph. There are some intonation problems with the lower winds – alto flute and bass clarinet possibly being doubled by non-specialists, but the high E flat clarinet is a very human cry in this recording. It’s not quite ‘Guernica’ in music form, but all of the forbidding darkness and desperation comes through, as do the shafts of sunlight.

Symphony No.8 opens with some wobbly tape, reminding us that we’re back in the 1960s. Things settle down quickly however, and the typical penetrating woodwind sound colours the orchestral sound with distinctive acidity. There is a nasty sense of compression in the sound of the tuttis in the central section of the opening Adagio – the orchestra seems to be sinking deeper into the floor the louder the music becomes, but there is no denying the intensity of the playing. That famous Allegro non troppo is excoriating throughout, and with so many moments of gloriously characterful musicianship it would be a shame to have to put this recording to one side on sound quality alone. It is however more than the playing which keeps one on the edge of ones seat in this symphony. "The Sun Shines on Our Motherland" is an official, patriotic piece which won the Stalin Prize in 1952, having all of the epic, lyrical and revolutionary character required of such works – this being kind of piece which was designed to prevent persecution from Communist critics. Relatively vacuous, it does have a few Shostakovich fingerprints and certainly has a bravura sense of orchestration, but it is more interesting to hear how much it differs from the personal expressive centre of Shostakovich’s orchestral output – taken in isolation, and you might be pushed to name the composer.

With his Symphony No.9, Shostakovich was expected to express the jubilation on Russia’s victory after the war, but the work became infamous for its lightweight character, compared in the booklet notes to this set to Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony. The second and fourth movements are the key to what Shostakovich really wanted to express. The composer was deeply affected by loss and suffering, and like the 8th String Quartet, he found his outlet in a moving lament. The outer movements are therefore something more ironic, the victory suffused with military drums in the first movement which could belong to any army, the scherzo character of the finale becoming the caricature of a victory.

Eight years of persecution separate the 9th from the Symphony No.10, during which works like "The Sun Shines…" appeared. Shostakovich had built up plenty of symphonic inspiration by April 1953, Stalin having died on 5 March of that year. Coming from the later batch of 1970s recordings, this symphony has that advantage over the recording of the 9th, which has nonetheless survived reasonably well despite some of those rubbly peaks. The first movement of the 10th, one of Shostakovich’s finest, receives a cracking performance from the Moscow Philharmonic. Coming in at a respectably compact 21:23 (even Barshai is 23:14), it never sounds hurried, but Kondrashin’s rhythmic drive propels us with terrifying inevitability towards that drawn-out climax, the one which, like the summit of a vast mountain, seems ever just out of reach.

A typo in the booklet notes has the Symphony No.11 being written in 1967, which is of course 1957, the work being paired with the other ‘revolutionary’ Symphony No.12 from 1961. Both of these works refer to violent events in Russia’s history: 1905 in the case of the 11th, in which the ‘bloody Sunday’ of the first failed revolution is described and commemorated; October 1917 in the 12th, where the ‘path towards the bright future’ of the Soviet nation was initiated. The power of these readings has a life of its own and a believability which springs from the commitment of musicians and conductor – they are commemorating their own ancestry and political history after all. The ‘attack’ section in the second movement of the 11th is passionate and turbulent, but unfortunately once again let down somewhat by the recording, with the stereo image collapsing for some reason and with some messing with the levels – no doubt in anticipation of all that gunfire from the drums. The third Adagio movement is expressive and moving however, and the final ‘Tocsin’ movement is dramatic and urgent like few others I have heard. The same is true of the revolutionary 12th, although the treble seems a little more damped in this recording than some of the others. The filler on this disc, "The Execution of Stepan Razin" was completed after the 13th Symphony, and has one or two echoes of that work in the solo vocal line, sharing the same author for the texts. Shostakovich had a powerful response to the heroic central figure in Yevtushenko’s poem, and the music has some of the same intense passion as ‘Babi Yar’. Kondrashin conducted the premiere of the piece in December 1964, and the soloist in this recording, Vitaly Gromadski - who also sang in the premiere of the 13th Symphony - substituted at the last moment for Ivan Petrov, bass at the Bolshoi theatre, who had withdrawn at the last moment fearing disapproval from the authorities.

Despite the chronological reversal, ‘Execution’ makes a good introduction to Symphony No.13, which to my mind has always been one of Shostakovich’s strongest musical statements. The Russian choir has an immediate impact; the vocal sounds being ‘right’, something a western choir can emulate, but as this recording shows never really substitute. The soloist, Artur Eizen, is powerful and eloquent, narrating as much as singing, giving the text what I can only describe as a biblical character – not hectoring, but emphatic and challenging. Kondrashin’s tempi are brisk, or will seem so to those of us more used to Haitink. Going back to some of my old tapes (oooh, pre-echo!), which includes the CBSO recording with Okko Kamu on Chandos, makes most other interpretations seem overly heavy and lugubrious. Even those of us who have in the past sought Russian authenticity through Rudolf Barshai will note a reduction of many minutes from each of the longest movements. All of this driving exigency makes for a stressful listening experience at times, but this is after all not the kind of music to which you should expect to be able to put your feet up at the end of a working day.

I have refrained from making comparisons with Gennadi Rozhdestvensky until now. I do not dislike his Melodiya set with the U.S.S.R. Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra, and despite some fundamental flaws it does share much of that Russian earthiness and feeling of surreal drama with Kondrashin. One of my desert island moments is the ‘Smert poeta’ movement from his recording of the Symphony No.14 with Makuara Kasrashubili as soloist. Yevgenia Tselovalnik with Kondrashin is more dramatically operatic, but this chimes in with his more intense and resolutely dramatic approach. Rozhdestvensky’s orchestral shortcomings are more often than not disguised in a deep bath of resonance, but Kondrashin is always direct, up close and unafraid. The bass, Yevgeni Nesterenko, sounds as if he is singing through a megaphone. This recording is indeed one of rich contrasts, and while the marimba leaps with unnatural immediacy into your room like a grimacing clown in the fifth movement ‘On Watch’ the instrumental placing certainly makes you sit up and take notice.

Also recorded in 1974, Symphony No.15 has a similarly close, mixing-desk massaged balance, but the quicksilver revue of orchestral effects and mad quotes from ‘William Tell’ in the first movement revel in this kind of treatment. Having criticized Rozhdestvensky for over-resonant presentation, I am sure that the mournful brass of the second Adagio has been passed through one of those wonderful old resonance boxes full of springs in this recording. There is however no need for disguise, the playing is succulently rich and expressive. With the collage of quotes and references in this symphony, Shostakovich turns his final symphonic statement into a holistic railway-buffer, the lines of the music reaching back into a past on whose rails we composers all ride, whether we like it or not. The derailment of avant-gardism was never part of Shostakovich, and he hands on the baton while sitting on the shoulders of giants. The classic 1967 recording of the Violin Concerto No.2 is a generous bonus with which to round off this symphonic experience, and while the sound is a little diffuse there can be no denying the historical importance of this recording, with Oistrakh as the dedicatee and, for many, the best ever advocate of this concerto.

I feel a word about packaging on this set is not out of place. The cardboard CD sleeves have been imaginatively illustrated, each with a different and distinctive woodcut or linocut print by a variety of Russian artists. Unfortunately, no room has been made in the booklet notes to give any further information on these. A little research might reap rewards, but the amount of question marks around some of the artist’s dates lead me to suspect that there might be difficulties. The unspoken reasons for this are expressed eloquently enough in the music. The notes by Daniil Petrov are interesting and comprehensive, but not without the occasional translator’s howler. None of the sung texts are given. The box itself is a masterpiece of the paper folder’s art, but the card is just a little to thin to make the thing really stable. Mine arrived a little squashed and will never recover, so care does need to be taken. The wee tag which is supposed to keep the lid shut is a joke, but I love the wit of that little finishing touch – the ‘lenses’ of the spectacles on the box are glossy, where the rest is matte.

Again, why should one invest in this cycle? The whole point with Kondrashin is that the message of Shostakovich is conveyed by the performers through the music – they’re not just playing the piece, they really are expressing the feelings of the man, and the atmosphere of the place and times. I find it almost impossible to listen to these recordings in a superficial way. There are inevitable moments where you might wince at some dodgy intonation, at bits of tape which have become somewhat chewed over the years or at some of those roaring drums which seem to have overloaded the oxide from day one. Both recordings and performances are rough and gritty, but with a bite which leaves scars. Of each individual symphony, this will probably not be your only choice for a library, but who said we should only ever have one of anything when it comes to art. You will of course want the option of modern digital clarity with this music from time to time, and I’m not about to ditch my motley collection of well-loved individual recordings as a result of (re)discovering these recordings. I have kept my feet on the ground by referring back frequently to Rudolf Barshai’s excellent set with the WDR Sinfonieorchester on the Brilliant Classics label, and if a bargain set is what you are after then this still has few rivals. Both will exist happily side-by-side on the space allocated to my boxed sets – a disused fireplace, and excluding my right lower molar probably the most expensive cavity in my little flat.

I remember going to a concert in the Royal Festival Hall very many years ago, where a touring Russian orchestra – one of the best – was performing. The only thing I remember about the concert, aside from some staggering playing, was that all of the string instruments seemed to be of the same make, certainly being all of the same uniform dark brown colour. I don’t quite know why, but this somehow seemed to sum up the wide differences between the worlds of Russia and the west. There are so many things that we think we know about that other country, but don’t really understand. The Kondrashin recordings are essential Shostakovich listening for this reason if for no other. They spring from the genuine source, and express not only the voice of one great composer, but the voices of an entire population who, for better or worse, became part of something simultaneously vastly inspiring and uniquely terrifying.

Dominy Clements

A Note from John Shand

I bought the 2006 Melodiya Kondrashin set. And now I’ve just come from comparing the opening of the 4th and 10th symphonies with their counterparts in the 1994 BMG-Melodiya set, and there’s a definite improvement! The level is higher, the sound clear - the 1994 set sounds muffled in comparison - and the sound has far more weight and depth. In case I thought I was imagining it, I got my wife to listen, who hasn’t followed any of this, and played her the disks blind - I have a very understanding wife! - and she agreed without a qualm that the sound on the 2006 set was noticeably better.

I've just played the opening of the 8th. That's much improved too in the Melodiya 2006 set over the BMG-Melodiya 1994 set. Where as before it was clear but painful, the sound now has more depth and body and isn't so unbearably shrill, without losing any of the excitement.

He whole improvement is really quite thrilling. The set has come up sounding fresh.

And, by the way, the first note on the double basses at the opening of the 10th is restored, which on the BMG-Melodiya set was chopped off, or at least started half way through - although no-one seems to have to commented on this before.

I found a page on Amazon where someone had compared the 2006 Melodiya set with the 1999 Aulos one, and he thought the 2006 Melodiya set a definite improvement over that too.

All one has to do is get used to the quaint packaging of the 2006 set. But there’s no question about the improvement in sound. I wonder what they did? Whatever they did the Russians have come up trumps!

John Shand

That the 2006 set of the Shostakovich symphonies is remastered is discreetly documented on the back of each of the cardboard sleeves for the disks. (All except Symphony no.7 oddly enough - although it’s clear it too has been remastered judging by the sound compared to the 1994 issue.) Who we have to thank is one of two Russian recording engineers in each case, either M.Pilpov or V. Obodzinskaya, who shared the job. They deserve a medal.

I should mention that there is no mention of Russian sound engineers M.Pilpov or V. Obodzinskaya, or indeed any other sound engineers, including the original ones (also listed on the 2006 set), on the 1994 set.

John Shand


see also review of Aulos release by Rob Barnett


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