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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No.15 in A Op.141 (1971) [47:00]
Hamlet - a selection from the incidental music, Op.32 (1931) [17:42]
Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
rec. March 2008, DZZ Studio 5, Moscow.
Experience Classicsonline

Having lived with the Russian National Orchestra through their excellent Beethoven symphonic cycle, I was glad to slip back into some familiar resonances in this new Shostakovich recording. Even so, it’s a shame to be leaving the grand acoustic of the Moscow State Conservatory for this still impressively scaled studio environment. Pentatone Classics are well on their way to completing their cycle of Shostakovich’s symphonies, and if SACD recordings are a priority for your listening experience then this is certainly one of the sets you will be looking into.

To tell the truth, I haven’t been doing much Shostakovich listening of late, but when I have it has more often than not been the venerable Melodiya set with Kirill Kondrashin to which I have turned. The cardboard box for this set seems capable of imminent collapse even with no handling whatsoever, but the recordings remain ones which come closest to the soul of Shostakovich - in the Symphony No.15 a soul which seemed close to a kind of desperate madness. Spiky and drenched in emotionally ambiguous swings and roundabouts, this symphony is one over which critics and commentators will argue until the cows roost on Broadway. Strangely, Mikhail Pletnev seems to want to avoid as much controversy as possible in his new recording. There are plenty of good things in this stunning Pentatone recording, but high octane energy isn’t one of them.

Comparing timings, we have:


Timings never tell the whole story, but you can take it from me that where Kondrashin is white-hot Pletnev is measured, where Kondrashin is scaring your pants off Pletnev intrigues, and where the Moscow Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra players are wringing everything possible from this extraordinary music, the Russian National Orchestra are eminently professional but comfortable and practised, rather than on the edge of their seats. I don’t just mean the exciting fast bits. Just take the Wagnerian opening of the final Adagio and you hear a genuine funereal death tread in Kondrashin’s orchestra, which makes the uncomfortable quasi-warmth of the subsequent quasi-Mahlerian sections all the more cynically disturbing. Pletnev does get a dark growl from his brass, but the knocking of the timpani is timorously feeble and lacking in depth. The contrasts are almost glossed over, maybe intending to show the bigger picture, but missing out on that life-and-death grip which Kondrashin gets. Indeed, Pletnev’s build-up through the final movement is a grand achievement, and the final climax is marvellous, but if you’ve already left the room to make a cup of tea during the first 10 minutes then there’s not much point.

The recording with Rudolf Barshai listed is the one available on Brilliant Classics in a bargain box performed by the WDR Sinfonieorchester. In the first movement Barshai represents something of a middle ground, sharing some of Kondrashin’s fire but without his helter-skelter tempo. Despite coming in shortest, Barshai’s Adagio is anything but superficial, drawing more out of the notes than Pletnev’s comparatively laissez-faire reading. Similar thoughts apply to the final movement, which shifts along in no-nonsense style with Barshai, but remains moving and convincing. Not entirely without blemish, Barshai’s bargain box is however still a big all-round favourite.

This Pentatone disc presents excellent sonics, and even in stereo SACD mode there is significantly greater depth and air around the musicians than in conventional stereo. The more unconventional aspect of the orchestration are brought forth with startling clarity, and there is bags of sonorous bass from the brass and drums. There are however a few blemishes which the superb clarity of the recording lay bare. Pletnev’s vocal contributions are clearly audible in the first movement and elsewhere. In SACD mode this is a bit like having someone sitting in front of your ‘best seat in the house’ who can’t help humming at certain crucial moments - something which would be less noticeable if the score wasn’t so unforgivingly transparent and exposed for so much of the time, but certainly had me wishing the engineers had found a way to reduce the effects of this normally minor problem. There is a definite wrong piccolo note 1:51 just before the first ‘William Tell’ quote, and the trombone solo at 5:25 is disturbingly uncouth. I’m not sure if that was entirely the intended result, with the player showing little distinction between his usefully usual rasping tutti ff and that of a solo. Kondrashin does something similar, but this fits in better with his more rough and tumble overall picture, and either way the 1974 diminuendo is done more effectively. There are some terrifyingly exposed solos in the second movement which are taken very well indeed with the RNO, and it is only a split trumpet note in the first tutti at 10:02 which is the spoiler. The entry of the chorale in the strings at 12:05 is truly magical, or chilling, but I’ve heard better celestas than the slightly choked resonances of the one which follows here. That double-bass solo does sound like a strain as well.

There may be further comments to be made, but I think my general drift is clear. To be honest, I had expected more of Pletnev, who certainly has an ear for every potential expressive contrast in his Beethoven recordings. There are numerous positive aspects in the performance. For instance, you may note the fascinating clarity in the first movement with those antimetrical layered sections from figure 28 in the strings, and its reprise it the woodwinds from figure 47. There is plenty of good playing here, but when you stand it against the comparisons I’ve given you realise what you’re missing. This is one of those performances which would probably go down a storm on a Sunday afternoon in the Concertgebouw, but which for me lacks too much in cynical joviality and nightmarish terminal terror to make it competitive with the best.

This Symphony No.15 is accompanied by a selection from the incidental music written for Hamlet in 1932, and therefore represents relatively early Shosty. There would seem to have been room on the disc for the whole suite, but though we are missing a few movements the argument is that these are not suited to the original Hamlet story, something which became somewhat bowdlerised by the director at the time the music was written. Instead some other movements have been brought in, including a Gigue from some stage music written in 1954. As with much of Shostakovich’s work of this nature, much if not all of the music is relatively facile, and I would suggest a ditching of prejudices against attempts to make such suites more interesting and acceptable. The end result here is something if a romp which, if heard blind, I doubt anyone would associate with Shakespeare in any form. Again, the playing is excellent, and little touches like the extra vibrato laid on to the Lullaby have a tongue in cheek charm which raises this recording above the oftentimes too serious readings of Shostakovich’s commissioned efforts.

To conclude, this is a decent enough recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.15, but as Arthur Davison once said to me, the worst criticism you can make of anything is that it is ‘Beige’. I hate to say it, but the impression I am left with after working my molars over this recording for some time now is that it is rather too ‘Beige’ to be up there with the best.

Dominy Clements


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