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Customer Review

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A thought provoking and illuminating set of readings of persuasive perception, 8 Nov. 2013
This review is from: Shostakovich - Complete Symphonies (Audio CD)
The individual reviews of symphonies 4, 5, 6, 9, 10 and 15 listed below, being the most familiar along with 1 and 8, are intended to give specific responses to those key works as a guide as to what to expect from the whole set.

Readers will also note that there are several reviewers of the whole set that have awarded a full five stars but within more general terms of reference.

By using both this and the other reviews, readers should be able to obtain a pretty clear idea of the whole set on offer.

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Symphony 4

This disc, well recorded in 1996, was bought as a sampler of the complete set having so far not found a fully satisfying version of this symphony. Barshai comes as close as any of the others and closer than many others that I have tried.

The performance could be described as being played 'straight' without any distortions of tempo. Points are not made aggressively and the music, which is certainly a powerful piece of writing, is allowed to communicate on its own terms. The playing of the orchestra is of a particularly high standard and is compelling as is Barshai's own vision of the work.

In general terms the tempi are kept on the move and the symphony does not suffer from any lapses of tension. The tempi of the fugal section for the strings in the first movement for example can only be described as hair-raisingly fast and, given the virtuosity of the string section, the result is gripping to say the least! Barshai brings to this score a personal knowledge of the composer and that added understanding comes over with authority.

This joins the Jarvi, Jansons (only when played at an increased playback level as it is cut very low) and a Gergiev BBC 'live proms' recording (not the Philips disc) as the most successful that I have heard so far.

I would suggest that the box set is likely to be even more attractive than this single disc if this is typical of the whole set.

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Symphonies 5 and 6

This pair of recordings, made in 1995 -1996, offer good honest sound consistent with their age and 'live' performances. The sixth is very good sound indeed, thoroughly involving with considerable 'presence.' The fifth is also good although although the rhythmical piano part in the first movement seems odd texturally. On the other hand, the plucked strings heard elsewhere are remarkably realistic. Overall the recorded sound is no good reason to reject these performances.

The tendency for Barshai to press on with generally fast tempi is not the case in either of these symphonies. I would describe the tempi as being very main-stream. Barshai takes a severe line with the climatic points and is able to then release the tension resolving it to passages of considerable beauty.

An example would be the first movement climax of the fifth symphony which reaches an almost crushing peak of tension to be followed by the extreme opposite with the pair of solo flutes. The second movement adopts a perfect tempo and the Mahler influence is easy to detect in the woodwind writing in this movement. The Largo is sublime but rises once more to a significant climax and the last movement, ending at a crushingly slow tempo as found in Sanderling for example, leaves one in no doubt that any triumph here is utterly shallow.

The end of the fifth symphony was described by the composer as follows: 'I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the fifth .... It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying "Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing" and you rise, shakily, and go off muttering "Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing".'

Barshai gets this across with crushing authority.

The sixth symphony is arguably the best version I have heard. The first movement towers over the rest but, instead of being lightweight continuations, Barshai makes sure that the tension is maintained in the last two movements with a driven and desperate approach which makes the link with the fifth clear and aware that here too is a political message in code. This is an astonishing concept and delivery and makes other performances seem neat and trivial by contrast.

This is a fine disc and well worth searching out for those who do not wish to buy the whole set.

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Symphonies 9 and 10

This pair of performances from 1995 and 1996 are seemingly typical of Barshai's approach to many of these symphonies in so far as he favours generally faster speeds than many coupled with tight articulation and combined with an urgency that marks his performances out from the rest.

In this case the ninth symphony is taken at some very fast speeds indeed. The three faster movements, 1, 3 and 5, especially requiring some virtuosity from his stalwart orchestra. The third movement in particular practically flies. However, these are far from lightweight performances as the crisp articulation and tight rhythmical control lends a sense of urgency, even desperation, to this often performed as lightweight symphony. It is often forgotten that this symphony also got Shostakovich in trouble with the censors who totally disapproved of its content and mood.

The sense of urgency continues with the tenth symphony, one of his greatest achievements in this field. In this case tempi are not far from the norm so the added sense of urgency comes as somewhat surprising as that effect is achieved through phrasing and articulation rather than through speed. The short second movement has the perfect pace and the second section featuring the 'dies irae' theme sustains the tension without any sense of lost impact or dramatic impact resulting from marginally too slow a tempo.

Only the slow third movement could be thought of lacking in urgency, its emptiness instead rising to implied threat at the climax before subsiding. The fourth movement, by contrast, starts off in a very jaunty manner. However, this is transformed at the mid point after the slow central section. The return to the first subject's faster speed for the final section is taken more deliberately than when first heard and any sense of jauntiness is dispelled as the final bars are approached with the more normal sense of building excitement.

These are impressive and compelling readings which throw a different light on the works and which presumably reflect Barshai's responses in having personal knowledge of the composer. His view should not be lightly dismissed by those not having lived at the same time and place as Shostakovich.

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Symphony 15

This is a well recorded performance made in 1998 and which differs markedly from many of the alternatives. At this point it should be mentioned that Barshai knew Shostakovich well and that knowledge and experience should not be discounted when considering this alternative view.

Essentially Barshai takes a far fleeter view of the work than many of the other conductors and this has an effect on the character of the piece. The climaxes are arrived at speedily with insistence. There is an air of the sort of desperation felt by someone in a hurry and who has no time to waste. This is absolutely not the same as some of the slower and heavier approaches which suggest the weight of autocratic authority bearing down remorselessly.

Thus the contrast between Barshai's driven, incisive but lighter weight climaxes towards the ends of the second and fourth movements are then followed by the ticking idea which has an emptiness resulting from the lack of drive. This is at least as effective as the emptiness felt after a weighty and overbearing climax as in other performances.

Shostakovich made significant but largely unexplained references to Wagner (Siegfried's death) as well as to his own personal motif, DSCH, which regularly features in his other works. The Rossini quote in the first movement is also unexplained but the composer did comment that the movement should be played as in a toy shop. Maybe he had in mind a puppet's as in Coppelia or Petrushka where the puppets are manipulated by other unseen hands. It should be remembered that William Tell was also a successful revolutionary.

I found this to be a thought provoking, perceptive and satisfying reading, both well played and recorded, which provides illumination on an otherwise unexplained enigma of a composition. It has an aura of authority about it which should not be ignored. It therefore deserves to be considered seriously and is well worth adding to collections on that basis. Much the same can be said of the incisively driven Barshai readings of symphonies 4, 5, 6, 9, 10 which I have bought separately from the boxed edition and which show another way to illustrate the composer's despair or desperation.
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