I never expected to write this review. I bought this set on its original release, and never enjoyed it-I found the recording constricted, dry and opaquely bass heavy and the interpretation turgid, certainly of the 7th. In reviewing the superb Temirkanov 7th recently, I made some comparisons, but not with this recording which I had not listened to for 15 years. An exchange with rjmcr (Richard) who has reviewed this set prompted me to give it another try-only for me to find that in a post- Stalinist purge, it had evidently been banished to the Oxfam Gulag or similar-whatever, I no longer had it, so I ordered it again in its reissued "Grand Prix "series at mid-price.
It is not made clear whether the recording has been remastered, but frequently when DG reissue in their various series such as DG Masters the recordings have been remastered but this is not annotated in the notes.
Whether it's this, or the passage of time, or my having replaced all my equipment about 4 years ago, or a combination of the above I know not, but I was astounded! The recording of the 7th is still very close, but very detailed, no drier than any Chicago recording will inevitably be these last 20 years or so, and the sonic impact is tremendous! Balancing is not quite right-woodwinds are too forward-but this is a minor point. Furthermore, I find LB's reading to be very well judged at worst, and overwhelming at best.
The first movement is characterised by a very steady medium paced march, more staccato in its execution than many-brilliantly played, and if he misses the "awful" effect of the air-raid section in comparison to Gergiev, Ashkenazy and Temirkanov, he compensates for this with breath-taking tam-tam strokes at the climax. In the coda to this movement, when the opening string theme returns in the major key, he takes it much slower than others. This has the effect of making it an elegiac lament, rather than the rebirth of hope and spirit that others convey-it's certainly a valid view- and the final pianissimo return of the march is pppppp!
It's really the 3rd movement that gets the full "Lennie" treatment-and he conducts as if it were by Mahler. It is searingly emotional and shatteringly dramatic by turns-at the tempo change LB is markedly slower than normal, but sustains the impact throughout. The finale opens with a very steady tempo similar to that of Gergiev-but where Gergiev maintains that tempo throughout, LB whips up the tempo to a spectacular and exciting climax. This is a truly stunning and well recorded performance-and if I prefer Ashkenazy or Temirkanov's new recording it is by a narrow margin, and I can see why anyone would rank this recording as their first choice!
HOWEVER-the REAL gold on this set is LB's astonishing and truly superb reading of the First Symphony. Not even the most ardent of Shostakovich's admirers would say that this is a masterpiece-but it comes off as such in LB's expert hands. Here he displays all his true talents- he nudges the witty first movement along brilliantly, delivering the insidious little changes of tempi perfectly. He catches the acid wit among the playfulness of the second movement, so reminiscent of the First Piano Concerto, finds a great depth and beauty in the third movement and brings the strange, bumpy fourth movement to a thudding climax. Everything is timed and balanced to perfection, and the recording is more spacious than on the 7th. The orchestra plays brilliantly-as ever-in what must have been a rare performance of this work for them -and LB. This is Lennie at his absolute best.
So perversely, it is this coupling of the First Symphony that combined with an outstanding 7th make the set at this new paltry price, the absolute top recommendation. The slimline packaging retains the original artwork and detailed notes. I've eaten enough humble pie-5 stars without any grudge!