Symphonies Nos. 7,
Suite on Verses by Michaelangelo Buonarrotti
Gennady Rozhdestvensky, cond;
USSR State TV and RSO;
USSR Ministry of Culture SO;
Evgeny Nesterenko (bs)
BRILLIANT 9273 (3 CDs: 200:51) Live:
Of the five compositions by Shostakovich in live performances under the baton of Gennady Rozhdestvensky featured in this set, at least one–the Seventh Symphony–has seen previous issues on CD on the Russian Revelation and Yedang Classics labels. Christopher Abbot gave the Russian Revelation release a scorching review back in 22:1, excoriating the recorded sound as “terrible” and the orchestral playing as “amateurish.” Not having heard that release, I can’t say if Brilliant has made any improvements, though I strongly suspect not, as, to my knowledge, that label only relicenses material from other sources without doing any remastering. I can say that, while the sound quality is nothing to write home about, I don’t find it quite as bad as Abbott did; perhaps Brilliant had a better original source. I also am not quite as put off by the orchestral execution as he was, though it certainly does not display the ensemble at its best. If one wants a recording of this work by this conductor, the 1984 studio recording on Melodiya is available as an import and is infinitely preferable. (If only Melodiya would reissue Rozhdestvensky’s entire cycle of Shostakovich’s symphonies and other orchestral works!) Fortunately, the situation is vastly better with the remaining items, which were recorded some years later. Those dating from 1982 have the best sound, though the wider frequency range and palpable sense of depth means that the microphone also picks up more audience noise, particularly in the Ninth Symphony. The 1976 recording of the
Suite is quite acceptable, with the voice a bit more in the foreground than the orchestra.
Unlike the misbegotten Seventh, these other performances are all absolutely fantastic, and anyone who loves Shostakovich ought to order this set from a favorite online merchant as soon as he or she has finished reading this. (And I’m not the slightest bit offended if you stop reading this right now to place that order.) This is hands down the finest version of the Ninth I’ve ever heard; unlike many conductors Rozhdestvensky gets all the tempos exactly right, and the piece positively bristles with all of the composer’s mordant wit and biting irony. The one occasion on which I have heard Rozhdestvensky live was in a performance of the 10th Symphony with the Chicago Symphony at its outdoor summer home in Ravinia. That was a great performance, but this one is even better, almost matching my top two favorites, live renditions by Mravinsky (1976) and Karajan (1969), both currently available only as hard-to-find imports. The first movement is absolutely titanic, running over the listener like an implacable steamroller in its devastating portrait of totalitarian repression. The second movement’s whirlwind depiction of the brutal Stalin has notably well-etched playing by the snare drummers; the finale opens with forlorn bleakness before the psychological tundra thaws and gives way to guarded jocularity at the prospect of a less oppressive post-Stalin future. Only the third movement fails to have the same impact, being merely good rather than great, as it misses the more tender yearning expressed in Shostakovich’s musically encrypted love note to his pupil, the pianist Elmira Nazirova. The
Suite receives an ideal performance, by turns thunderous, brash, sly, impish, and buffoonish. Finally, this is the best performance on disc of the orchestral version of the
Suite; only Ildar Abdrazakov on Chandos comes close to matching Evgeny Nesterenko for depth of sound and harrowing bleakness as a vocal interpreter, but Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic cannot compete with Rozhdestvensky and his Russian forces, who have this music encoded in their DNA.
This is only the second of six issues of
for 2013, but already I’m assembling a formidable list of candidates for its year-end Want List, and this set is a strong entry. At Brilliant’s bargain price, it doesn’t matter that one CD is a waste of plastic and aluminum; you almost cannot afford
to get this set for the contents on the other two; urgently recommended.
James A. Altena