on 21 August 2003
I am actually more than mildly surprised to see this boxed set of the Shostakovich symphonies, performed by Rudolf Barshai and the Southwest Radio Orchestra (Germany) listed here. Brilliant Classics is not a label that gets wide distribution (although one can find releases on this label if one knows where to look).
Any – perhaps every – collector of the Shostakovich symphonies can put together a listing of his or her favorite performances, work-by-work, without once referring to this Barshai boxed set. I know that I can, and that such a listing for me would include performances by Bernstein (the 5th), Gergiev (the 7th) Haitink (several, but most especially the 8th and the 15th), both Janssons and Karajan (the 10th), Ormandy (the 4th), Rostropovich (the 11th, in his new LSO Live recording), Stokowski (the 1st and the 11th) and Zander (the 5th). All of these (and more) are already in my library, and I wouldn't want to be without any of them.
But all of this is beside the point. In virtually every way (including performance and sonics), these Barshai recordings are highly competitive, and, as an integral complete set, are topped only by the Haitink set (at considerably higher cost). Barshai, for many years, was a close associate of Shostakovich (and the arranger of, among other pieces, Shostakovich's remarkable 8th Quartet for chamber orchestra as his "Chamber Symphony"), and he has this music in his blood. This long personal association means that Barshai understands not only what we have come to call "authentic performance practice," but all of the myriad "hidden meanings" to be found in this most autobiographical of composers.
Overall, the weaknesses are very few. The packaging is Spartan, and the documentation even less than that. If I continue to prefer Haitink for the 8th and 15th Symphonies, it is by the smallest of margins. Ditto for Gergiev in the 7th Symphony. Everywhere else, Barshai elicits performances that are truly "top drawer," with recorded sound to match. And how often will one go out of one's way to obtain recordings of Shostakovich's 2nd and 3rd Symphonies on a full-price label? Not often at all, meaning that most people miss these two works entirely. Not that they are Shostakovich at his best (particularly with their "agitprop" finales), but I must confess that there are some pleasant surprises in the early movements of the Shostakovich 2nd Symphony, written during his most "experimental" phase and sounding quite like Charles Ives in places: "Gorky Park in the Dark" might be a clever way of putting matters.
Those already having good collections of the symphonies are probably already aware of this bargain box, and will get it (or have already gotten it) just for its comprehensiveness and uniformity of interpretation and quality. Those just starting out to discover Shostakovich and his symphonies could hardly do better than acquire this bargain box: For about what one would normally pay for just three or four of the symphonies on full-price labels, you can have the full set of works by Barshai, and begin your journey comfortable with the fact that these are authoritative performances by an acknowledged Shostakovich master.
on 8 January 2004
Barshai and Shostakovich were long associates, and Barshai's farmiliarity shows right through this set, which pulls the best out of a mid-ranking German regional orchestra. The real strengths of this set are its remarkable consistency of conducting, playing and sound quality over such a long cycle - none of it absolutely mindblowing, but all of it very good. The discs were originally released as single CDs over a 6 year period which probably helped keep conductor and orchestra fresh.
Its main rivals are the Naxos CSPO set which, sorry, doesn't begin to compare either in terms of performance or recording quality, and the Haitinck which costs considerably more.
It is thin on background material, but then again so much Shostakovich background remains disputed that most synopses fall down by presenting only one side of the argument anyway.
This boxed set has become my 'core' set for symphonies by my favourite composer - and it costs barely more than a full price version of a single long symphony. Just don't give yourself indigestion if you're new to Shostakovich - 5, 7, 10 and this wonderful interpretation of 15 are the ones to start with. The 'clockwork' fading out at the end of the last symphony, with Shostakovich aware that he way dying, is absolutely haunting.
As a rule I avoid complete sets. I own performances of all the symphonies of Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Sibelius, for instance, but selected individually. Shostakovich seems to me a slightly different case. His music appears to me to be something of a diary of his feelings, and when it came to his string quartets I found it helpful to listen to them in sequence played by the same group, so I have taken the same approach now with his symphonies. These are a more complex issue than the quartets are, because there were external influences, to put it mildly, on the content of the symphonies. He had to dance a grim paso doble with the Soviet authorities regarding these, and even without that he lived through a grisly era that is to some extent recorded in the symphonies through his own volition. I've also taken the view that a detailed assessment of 15 symphonies on 11 discs, including individual comparisons with other versions, is beyond the scope of a short review. All I would say in general is that there is not a bad performance in all this large set, and that Barshai's readings at least stand comparison with other first-class readings of individual symphonies that I have heard recently from Haitink, Previn, Karajan, Andrew Davis and Rozhdestvensky. Barshai was the composer's pupil, he gave the premiere of the 14th symphony, he was intimately associated with this music all his life, he understands it with the marrow of his bones, and I can recommend his set unreservedly to anyone wanting to gain a better insight into the life's work of this grand and gloomy 20th century master.
Open any book or article on Shostakovich and you will reliably find a lot of comment on WWII, on Leningrad, on Stalin, on Zhdanov and on conditions in the Soviet Union. What one normally has to search hard for is much enlightening comment on the music itself. Anything said about that is usually along perfunctory lines about symphonic allegros and sonata form and the like. The trouble set in with Beethoven. Comment on Beethoven tends to be long on his personal struggles and triumphs, but the music does at least get a decent innings from the commentators. Beecham complained that Beethoven was the first to take away from music its natural idiom and expression. Put less provocatively, it could be said that Beethoven imported into music personal emotion that is external to the music as such. This developed in two ways. One was via Wagner's music-drama, the other was via Liszt and symphonic poems in which purely instrumental music was made to represent or evoke elements external to the music, and Shostakovich stands at the end of this second line. (There was actually a third way, represented by Brahms who really turned his back on this whole aspect of Beethoven's legacy whatever they tell us to the contrary, but that is another story). I find that one problem in understanding Shostakovich is that the commentators in general talk about his biography and about Soviet history under the impression that they are talking about the music. You will find the dilemma (or trilemma) illustrated beautifully here in Dr Doughty's notes on the first movement of the 4th symphony - `...although it cannot be related to traditional sonata form, it is an amazing tour de force ranging from the triumphs of the new industrialisation of the Soviet Union to the sadness of the Russian soul.' I can see how music can range from triumph to sadness, but I can't see how music can range from or to industrialisation to or from anything whatsoever, nor can I see what any of this has to do with sonata form nor indeed what sonata form matters to start with. The music of Shostakovich always seems to be telling us something, but in the first place it is not easy to be sure what. We can grasp the general mood, but the specifics are harder. The only person who can enlighten us reliably on those is the composer himself, should he choose to. There are three completely different accounts from him regarding what the 7th symphony is about, in my view they are not compatible, and I conclude from that that we ought to shift the focus back from this kind of thing on to the actual music, which after all is pretty commanding stuff. There is a movement in symphony 12 that purportedly evokes Lenin's headquarters, for instance. Now I know what the music of headquarters sounds like I suppose, but I find the movement in question means more to me without that concept, and indeed I believe that headquarters are as unmusical a concept as hindquarters.
These 15 symphonies are the story of a great and anguished soul who expressed his grief, fear and outrage through music. After the first 3 symphonies the tone is of almost unrelieved gloom and bitterness, the occasional lighter stretches having about them the feel of `if I didn't laugh I would weep'. Symphonies 13 and 14 suggest to me that he had wrung these emotions dry, and symphony 15 seems a self-parodistic farewell to the whole symphonic scene. These dark emotions are voiced in a music of almost brutal power, without any great sense of development in the actual idiom but with a grim consistency that is easier to follow than the chameleon-like changes of style in his concertos. I'm interested to know what lay behind its composition, but I'm content also to leave the details of that unresolved. Barshai is an expert Virgil taking us through this dark world, the recording is very good (with notable clarity from the voices) and the whole experience is available for a very modest outlay if we feel up to it.
on 3 November 2006
The performances and recordings in this set vary between good and outstanding. For me, symphonies 4, 6 and 8 are the most impressive. I have never heard the first movement of the 6th Symphony played with such glowing intensity, whilst the 8th Symphony rivals the 1960 Mravinsky performance recorded by the BBC. Most of the other symphonies are also given first class performances. The least impressive performances are probably the 5th and 11th symphonies, which are a little unexciting, and the 7th where Barshai sounds unconvinced by the ending. (No recording of the 7th matches Bernstein's 1987 performance on DG.) However, taken as a whole this is most impressive. Orchestral playing and recording quality are also excellent.
The Russian musician, Rudolf Barshai, 1924-2010, was a distinguished violist and, in 1945, a founder member of the Borodin Quartet, being summoned to play at Stalin’s funeral in 1953. He also founded the Moscow Chamber Orchestra in 1955 and arranged works by Prokofiev, Shostakovich and other composers for these players.
Today he is probably best known for his friendship with Shostakovich and his interpretations of his music, most notably the symphonies. He conducted the premiere of the Symphony No 14 in Leningrad in September 1969. For long at odds with the Soviet authorities, after the death of Shostakovich in 1975, Barshai applied yet again to leave the country, which he did finally in the midst of much publicity two years later.
Barshai’s professional and personal closeness to Shostakovich means that his performances of his works are imbued with particular insight. This complete set of the symphonies, issued by Brilliant Classics at super-budget price is, therefore, a great opportunity either to get to know the works of the master symphonist of the 20th century or to compare and contrast Barshai’s performances with those of other conductors and orchestras.
The performances were recorded between 1994-2000 at the Philharmonie in Cologne with the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra. The sound balance is excellent and the musicians play with real passion and intensity. The soloists are Alla Simoni (soprano) and
Vladimir Vaneev (bass), in the Fourteenth Symphony,
and Sergei Aleksashkin (bass), in the Thirteenth Symphony, ‘Baba Yar’, whilst the choral forces are made up by the Radio Choir [Second and Third Symphonies] and the Moscow Choral Academy [Thirteenth Symphony].
Eight discs each present one symphony, the remainder bringing together Symphonies 1-3, 5 and 6, and 9 and 10. This means that the Twelfth, Thirteenth and Fourteenth symphonies offer meager playing time, 37.07, 45.38 and 37.54, respectively. However, this must be set against the bargain cost of the complete set. Each box has a short illustrated text by David Doughty about the relevant work/s, vital if, like me, knowledge of the symphonies goes little further than the Fifth whilst the first box also contains a profile of Rudolf Barshai by Bernd Feuchter [written in 1999].
To listen to these symphonies is to go on a journey through some of the darkest days of 20th-century Soviet history and Barshai’s great strength is that he presents the listener with the composer’s music simply and without affectation. The passion and intelligence of the score is neither forced nor distorted to secure extraneous emotion. One imagines that these performances are very close to how the composer would have conducted them. The First Symphony is a gentle Neo-Classical entry into the cycle after which the next two symphonies, to me, are rather unconvincing, seeming to show a master craftsman still learning his trade. The Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh [‘Leningrad’], Eighth and Ninth Symphonies are, on early hearing, all magnificent whilst the Tenth, rather strangely, seems to be lacking the expected nervous tension.
However, the intensity is restored in the Eleventh [‘The Year 1905’], the musical equivalent of Eisenstein’s cinematography, and Twelfth [‘The Year 1917’] Symphonies. It reaches its summit in the Thirteenth [‘Babi Yar’] and the Fourteenth Symphonies with the orchestra, choir and soloists giving matchless performances in each and ends with a relatively angst-free Fifteenth Symphony that, however, reaches a final, breathtaking climax. Shostakovich’s, Barshai’s and the listener’s journey is completed.
This cycle cannot be recommended enough.
Before I begin, I have to say there is no such thing as a perfect box set. This is because no two orchestras sound the same, and no two conductors can share the same interpretations. But, as so often has been proved over the years, there have been some which have come almost near to perfection.
Mahler, Beethoven, Mozart, and now Shostakovich have all been well served by numerous box sets of CDs over the years. This one is a very fine box set indeed, and can be bought at a superb price which shouldnt be missed.
The first symphony is played very well here, with good spacious sound, Bashai maintaining a consistant tempi throughout allowing the listener to become absorbed into the music. Two and Three are not popular symphonies although they are adequatly served here. The Fourth however, one of Shostakovich's most supreme works, doesnt quite match the very fine Eugene Ormandy's Philadelphia version first recorded in 1961. That remains the definitive version, although Bashai does manage to convey a sense of tension and drama throughout the long final movement. The Fifth, and Sixth are very good indeed, although may not be to everyones taste, and perhaps might not match the now deleted Andre Previn's fine performance from 1966.
The Seventh Symphony, labelled the Leningrad is exciting, and moves along at a superb pace. But the Bernstein version does go further in its dramatic and emotional content. (This is highlighted in the closing bars of the First Movement which has been difficult to surpass since its initial recording dated from 1967 by Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.)
As for the Eighth Symphony, (Stalingrad) Bashai excels himself here, for this is one of the best versions I have ever heard. The sound and the performance is amazing and takes ones breath away. A superb interpretation all round, Wonderful!
The rest of the symphonies are more than adequate, even taking into account some of the weakest music Shostakovich composed, such as parts of the 11th, 12th and the 13th.
Even if you already have some versions of these works such as I have, it is still a very good buy however, great price, great sound, what more could you wish for?
on 4 May 2015
All fifteen symphonies by the recognized major composer of the last Century, conducted by Rudolf Barshai who knew Shostakovitch well, studied with him and is well-known as a Master of Soviet music, as well as for standing up to the massive bureaucratic resistance and in close collaboration with the composer gave the first performance of Shostakovitch's Fourteenth Symphony in 1969 . Barshai was a founding member of the Borodin Quartet and has conducted Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms and Mahler with most of the major orchestras of the world. His knowledge of these scores is untouchable, and his closeness to Shostakovitch means these recordings are not only important but stunning with their impact. He recorded all fifteen symphonies with the cologne Radio Orchestra but the WDR Sinfonieorchester are even better here. I urge all fans of these magnificent symphonies to get this version without delay - you won't be disappointed!
I find all of the symphonies in this bargain set are very well played and conducted, with excellent sound. This Barshai set is a good starting point for someone exploring these symphonies for the first time and can be enjoyed by collectors like myself who have other preferred versions of several of these works. I confess to not being terribly interested in the second and third symphonies and so from a completionist viewpoint when I had the chance to buy this set incredibly cheaply brand new sealed it filled the gap for these two symphonies and I have enjoyed the cycle as a whole. For me, all of the readings can almost be summarised interpretatively as being " very direct and to the point" and I don't see this as a particular weakness. I am well aware of the more notable readings of greater intensity sitting further along my shelves, but when I am listening to these Barshai performances I find that I am drawn to them for their own merits as convincing performances and in that respect I find that this cycle works. Barshai knew Shostakovich and these readings do not lack authoritative conviction. To sum it up, there is a plain spoken integrity about this cycle which certainly appeals to me.
In an ideal world, it would have been good to have had English text translations when required but at this price I can refer to translations elsewhere. To be able to buy performances of this quality at a bargain price I would have thought would be sufficiently self-recommending to many people keen to explore this composer or to add a complete cycle to supplement their preferred readings of the better known symphonies.
on 22 January 2014
I am rediscovering this cycle, thanks to an enhanced headphone setup. I have only listened to the first four symphonies again recently, but now find them to be absolutely superb. Barshai seems to have a complete mastery of Shostakovich's idiom, and it is interesting to have this totally Russian no-holds-barred approach to the music with a Western orchestra (which covers itself with glory). There are several false reasons why you might hesitate to buy this set: it's not Mravinsky or Kondrashin, it's not Russian enough, it's too cheap or whatever. That's all very well, but there are no good reasons not to buy this set which is affording me very considerable joy at the moment. The sound is splendid, quite splendid.
on 27 February 2004
I agree with the oether reviewers, but would cite the performance of the 13th as being possibly the finest in the set; it certainly is the best recording since the legendary Kondrashin/Melodiya version; Barshai scores highly here not only for picking an outstanding soloist, but mostly for his choice of a genuine Russian chorus which gives added authenticity to this marvellous score.