Saturday, August 8, 2015

Apropos 9 August, 1975: Shostakovich, Rostrapovich and Temirkanov

Warner Classics 2564 64177-2 (2007 compilation)
Shostakovich: Complete Symphonies
Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano) (Symphony #14)
Nicola Ghiuselev (bass) (Symphony #13)
Mark Reshitin (bass) (Symphony #14)
London Voices (Symphonies #s 2 & 3)
Men of the Choral Arts Society of Washington (Symphony #13)
National Symphony Orchestra
London Symphony Orchestra
Academic Symphony Orchestra, Moscow
Mistislav Rostrapovich

This 12-disc set from 2007 brings together recordings made between 1973 and 1997 with at least three different orchestras for as many labels. The performances run a fairly steep gamut from a lackluster, yawn-inducing 8th (with the LSO from 1992 for TelDec/Erato), to the brilliant, stunning 14th, perhaps the greatest performance of a Shostakovich symphony every committed to disc.

Rostrapovich's classic--and still unequaled-- 1973 reading of the 14th with his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, bass Mark Reshitin, and  the Academic Symphony Orchestra of Moscow originally appeared on the old Soviet Melodiya label, subsequently re-issued in the US on a CBS/Melodiya LP (M 34507 (1977)) and on CD first by Melodiya (SUCD 10-00241) in 1991 just before the breakup of the USSR, and later on the obscure Revelation label (RV 10101 (1998))--a poor transfer at best.

I cannot complain about Warner Classics' transfer; it is probably as good as it's possible to get, although still vexed by the original recording's odd acoustic quirks and sometimes-jarring spatial perspective, the tape hiss is mostly gone, and the performances are still as unforgettably passionate, fiery, driven, and utterly electrifying as when first committed to tape over forty years ago. (Complete-ists and sticklers for historical detail may be interested to note that Benjamin Britten conducted a live performance of the 14th with the same soloists and the English Chamber Orchestra two years prior to the Melodyia recording, on 14 June, 1970. This performance, coupled with a 1967 reading of Britten's Nocturne Op. 60, was available for a while on the BBC Legends label (BBCB 8013-2 (1990)) and a fine performance it is, though certainly lacking that last full measure of fire Rostrapovich would so memorably bring to the work.

Other high points of the Rostrapovich integral set include what may be the best interpretation of the often-overlooked 12th Symphony from 1960--Rostrapovich's 1997 recording with the LSO goes a long way to convince me that this is more than a thematically-impoverished piece of note-spinning, but a work of genuine drama and substance. A very fine 6th, also with the LSO--and coupled with the 12th; a well-played and not-too over-the-top 5th; a superb 7th, an aptly quirky 1st, a well-paced, if a bit thin-textured, 9th, and a moving, heartfelt 13th with the National Symphony of Washington D.C., which gets one of the best performances on record, worthy to stand alongside truly great readings by Bernard Haitink (Decca), Eugene Ormandy (RCA), Neeme Jarvi (DG), and the 2014 Vasily Petrenko outing for Naxos

With the already-noted exception of the Melodiya 14th, the re-mastered sound in this set is fairly consistent from one disc to the next, notwithstanding the near-two-decade time span over which these recordings were made. Many of TelDec's original issues featured maddeningly low  dynamic levels, which often necessitated a good deal of knob-twisting; but EMI's transfer engineers seem to have addressed this issue with some success.

Attractively priced and handsomely packaged, this set will make a welcome addition to any serious collection. Die-hard Shostakovich complete-ists will want it not only for the 14th, but as a document of a great musical association between the composer and one of his most ardent interpretive champions and dearest personal friends (akin in its way to the recordings of Mahler by Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer), but it has much to offer the classical-music beginner, and novice collector  as well.


Sony 88843063602 (2014)
Temirkanov conducts Shostakovich
Shostakovich: Symphonies 1, 5, 6, 7, 9, 13;
Cello Concertos 1 and 2; Concerto for Piano, Trumpet & Strings;
The Song of the Forests
Yuri Termirkanov/St. Petersburg Philharmonic etc.

Temirkanov's Shostakovich is something of an interpretive mixed bag, and while I would not go so far as to characterize any of these recordings as "essential", it's nice nonetheless to have them all together in this attractive 6-disc box-set compilation from 2014. Sony assembles all the performances Temirkanov recorded with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic for RCA/BMG in the early to mid 1990s, including six of the fifteen symphonies (#s 1, 5, 6, 7, 9, and 13), the early Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, Op. 35, and the 1948 patriotic cantata The Song of the Forests, as well as the two concertos for cello, recorded in 1988 and 1990 with soloist Natalia Gutmann and the Royal Philharmonic. As with all the sets in Sony's long-running Masters series, no notes or commentary are included, though much useful information can be found on the back of the sturdy individual cardboard sleeves in which each disc is housed.

The recorded sound in the symphonies can be a tad dry, exacerbating what comes across to my ears as a rather rough-edged orchestral quality. Temirkanov's approach is considerably less "prettified" than workmanlike and steady. His rather disappointing reading of the 1st Symphony lacks buoyancy and wit, while his performance of the 'Leningrad' seems long-winded and gratuitously bombastic (I'd recommend Vasily Petrenko's marvelous reading for Naxos instead). The 5th and 6th have a raw power to them, the performances are dramatic, thoughtfully paced, and have a sufficient grandeur, though I do not get the feeling that Temirkanov and his musicians are penetrating the sublimely anguished soul of the music.

The 9th may well be the true "find" of this set, sparkling, marvelously frenetic, and full of athletic vim, ranking alongside Jansons on EMI and Petrenko on Naxos. The 13th is sufficiently dark, though it does not rise to the same rarefied interpretive heights of Rostrapovich, Haitink. Ormandy, or Petrenko. The two concertos for cello are viscerally engaging and very fine notwithstanding recorded sound that seems harsh with the solo instrument too "up front" at times. (Rostropovich's 1960 performance of the first concerto with Ormandy is still an unequaled benchmark for that iconic work.) The youthful c-minor piano concerto is treated here less like a chamber-istic romp than some darkly sardonic Prokofiev-ian statement with what some listeners may regard as an overly heavy orchestral presence. Again, there's an acerbic, almost arid, quality to the sound in places, though soloist Denis Matsuev is truly superb, and subsequent hearings have done much to convince me of the "right-ness" of these collaborators' approach.

The Song of the Forests gets an excellent, dynamically committed  and thoroughly convincing performance in first-rate sound. Shostakovich's relentlessly  diatonic paean to the glories of Stalin and Stalinism is here presented with the revised (post-1957-denunciation) text. Temirkanov discovers a darker, subtly ironic underlying qualities in the score at once surprising and marvelously effective.

For many, this set may fall into the category of a diverting curiosity. Comparative interpretation can be fascinating, and those interested in hearing a Russian conductor leading a Russian orchestra in this quintessentially Russian repertory may well find a thing or two to enjoy.

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