on 2 September 2010
I am a Jansons fan and this set does nothing to diminish that view.However I cannot agree with Mark Meldon regarding recording quality over the ten disc set.No.7 dates from 1988 and it shows in its harsh,strident character - especially string tone (I am a professional string player by the way).This disc was certainly not unplayable, as some reviewers have found.No.5 is also a less than ideal sound - it was recorded live in 1997 at the Musikverein,one of the best concert halls in the world,so no excuses there.There is a watery,diffused quality to the sound,with brass,woodwind and percussion all lacking focus and impact.By contrast No.15 is beautifully recorded at Abbey Rd.in 1997.Several symphonies (2,3,4,12,13,14)are recorded in Munich with Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra - good performances and generally good sound ,though maybe a little congested and lacking 'air' and ambience.
So all in all, still recommended with qualifications - certainly great value for money.
For some reason, this "budget box" of Shostakovich's symphonies gets the odd poor review, but I think its great. Although I have the Brilliant Classics Shostakovich box with the now "default" Barshai performances, I still frequently reach for this box in preference as it contains 10 CDs, not 27! No, really, the reason is that, in the main, these performances match Barshai.
Conducted by Mariss Jansons with 8 different orchestras between 1988 and 2005, there is little noticeable difference in the sumptuous EMI sound quality throughout this impressive set.
With a good booklet and a competitive price tag, this set is highly recommended.
There is ample reason for anyone interested in the music of the 20th Century to want to own a complete set of the symphonies of Shostakovich over and above those who simply love the music-or some of it at least!
He was beyond question the last major figure writing in the symphonic form, but the very idea of Shostakovich arouses divided passions even before we get to the music!
This is of course because he lived and worked in the Soviet Union, a regime to which he seemingly gave his support and which he glorified in many of his compositions-or not, as there has sprung up a whole industry of apologists even before the appearance of the discredited Volkov Testament which has sought to portray him as a subversive counter-revolutionary whose works were either ironic or cleverly disguised musical exposure and condemnation of the repressive Soviet Regime.
The truth of course lies somewhere in between-he was a Russian patriot who grew up in the Soviet Union and accepted the rules as best he could- and the plaudits and favours heaped on him and his family-and like most composers his style and content was inevitably shaped by his environment.
He nearly came to grief twice-in the 1930s when he overstepped the mark in experimentation and was forced to withdraw the Fourth Symphony and abandon his plan to complete Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, and at the end of the war when his jaunty 9th Symphony did not meet the expectations of Stalin and his cronies who expected a bombastic paean of praise for The Great Leader who had won the war by sheer force of will!
Ultimately it is the music that counts, and though the various concerti and chamber works are magnificent achievements, the 15 symphonies encapsulate better than any the musical genius that was Shostakovich.
I had thought to entitle this review “ The God, The Bad and The Ugly” but the more I revisit these works, the less “ bad” I find in them and where the music can be described as ugly it is because it is intentionally so.
There are many complete sets available, all of them with some degree of merit, but I have factored in cost as an important criterion in my recommendation assessment.
This sadly rules out what is an indispensible set to any lover of Shostakovich-the 1960s Kondrashin recordings with Moscow Philharmonic which are simply incomparable-including when it comes to cost!
At the time of writing the complete set costs pushing £200 either as a box set long unavailable, or as a set of separate discs. Hopefully these will be re-mastered and reissued at more reasonable cost soon.
This still leaves a large selection-Ashkenazy, Kitajenko, Caetani, Haitink and Rostropovich all have strong performances among their overviews-but also several flawed and even poor performances to contend with. The Rozhdestvensky Olympia set is currently unavailable, but it too has some dull performances in at times very harsh recorded sound.
I have narrowed the choice down to Jansons and Barshai, recorded broadly concurrently and in excellent recorded sound.
I’ll cut to the chase-initially I “awarded” the prize” to Jansons by a short head, but repeated acquaintance has increased my preference by some margin. This is not say that the Barshai is not a magnificent set-it is in every respect, and if you prefer a more classical, architectural approach to Shostakovich with less high adrenalin moments then your preference may well be for Barshai.
A significant difference is that Barshai’s recordings are all with the WDR Symphony Orchestra, the renamed Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra which flourished under Wand, Bertini and Bychkov and continues to do so under Saraste.
Jansons on the other hand employs no less than 8 orchestras in his cycle, all of them world class.
The DDD recordings date from the late 80s through to the late 90s and early 200s are never less than superb-I have now purchased the re-branded “Warner” set and though there is no mention of re-mastering from when it was compiled in 2006, the recorded sound is MUCH better than the earlier separately released discs, most of which I still have.
This is particularly true of the Seventh-the weight and brilliance of the orchestra is much better caught, and the Russian character of strings and brass are wonderfully caught in the Oslo Philharmonic Hall.
I note that there is some criticism of the recorded sound in earlier reviews-I find it to be universally excellent when played on my “ high end “ equipment, and even in the car.
Whereas the Barshai set groups the symphonies in sequence, the Jansons groups them together in the most ergonomic and space saving manner and this results in the first CD coupling the First Symphony with the BPO no less, a rare outing for them in this music, and 15 with the LPO. One might think that this does the LPO no favours-not a bit of it, one would be hard put distinguish the difference. Both performances-the Alpha and the Omega-are as fine as ANY in the catalogue.
The bulk of the recordings are with the BRSO-and are actually BR recordings produced by Wilhelm Meister-no further recommendation is necessary as far as technical excellence is concerned!
This includes a particularly somber, austere and trenchant Fourth-surely his greatest work-in a performance which by being played with such ravishing beauty emerges as “terrible” in the true sense the word, the same technique that Karajan and lately Rattle employed in The Rite of Spring.
Jansons also makes a musical experience of the contentious Twelfth, usually disdained as a pot-boiler. There is one performance that might persuade you otherwise-from the 1960s Ogan Durjan and the Leipzig Gewandhaus grasp this work by the scruff and make it a truly uplifting musical experience-trust me!
Jansons comes close, but there is an also an element of “ let’s get it over with.”
The Fifth is with the incomparable VPO-recorded live-and is simply stunning. BBC Radio 3 recently awarded this “ Critic’s Choice”-and for once I totally agree.
In 2014 I extolled the virtues of Jansons’ BRSO performance of the 6th-the earlier Oslo Philharmonic recording is in no way inferior, either in interpretation, playing or recording.
The Tenth with the Philadelphia is of a lower octane than any of Karajan’s 3 recordings, and in this symphony Barshai just has the edge over Jansons in terms of intensity, though the Philadelphia has exactly the right tone for the work.
The harsher Eight and Eleventh are given fine committed performances-not works easy to enjoy as such, but so rewarding in a great performance-these ARE great performances.
I have referred to the “ Leningrad”-the Seventh- earlier, and it is a performance of power and stature to rival the best. Jansons later RCO recording has more weight-it is a “sonic spectacular”-but the slightly tinny edge to the Russian Brass and the steely brilliance of the strings add a different dimension to the earlier recording. Interpretations are all but identical.
Neither set includes the Chamber Symphony, orchestrated by Barshai from a string quartet with full approval and oversight from Shostakovich. This is certainly disappointing in the case of Jansons as it was included in the VPO 5th original release, and was played with all the weight and unique tone of the VPO in a performance which is coruscating!
I’ll just have to keep the original disc as it is my favourite recording even above the Barshai/Moscow recording on DG.
The Jansons set does include some fillers-3 numbers from the Jazz Suites-including THAT waltz played with eyes wide open by the glorious Philadelphia, as is the Tahiti Trot, and the 2 popular numbers played most affectingly by the LPO.
Jansons interpretative style veers toward swifter tempi, with emphasis on orchestral brilliance, a refusal to descend into vulgarity at the points where this can so easily happen-particularly in the finales of certain works-and not to dwell over long in the dark canyons of despair. However, when bleakness is called for as in 4, 8 and 11-no-one does it better or more tellingly.
Of course, there are so many individual performances of these works that are indispensible by the likes of Stokowski, Bernstein (NYPO 5th 1980 in Japan,1&7 CSO & 6 &9 VPO), Temirkanov (7th with SPPO on Signum), Svetlanov, and Karajan whose Tenth is unsurpassable, Nelsons, Kitajenko and in more primitive sound Mravinsky-and I could add Ormandy, Sanderling and Skrowaczewski to the a long list of recordings which have special import.
There are many performances in the Jansons set which could stand shoulder to shoulder with the very top recommendations -1,4,5,6,7,8,11 and 15!
He steers a well balanced course through the vocal symphonies, and when Shostakovich reverted late in life to his earlier inspiration of the music of Mahler for symphonies 13& 14-the most intractable I suggest-Jansons sympathies as a great Mahler interpreter make these song cycles coherent and approachable, so I would add these to the list!
With the exception of possibly the Tenth, I would not apply the same status to the Barshai performances, fine though they all are. This is the deciding factor.
The presentation-now in Warner livery-is beautiful with a brief but pithy booklet which includes texts of the choral and vocal works. As I mentioned, the order is a bit haphazard in order to be economic with space, and this results in more music on 10 discs than has Barshai on 11.
Even if you find you disagree with my view on some of the performances in this set, there is so much that is rewarding that you are bound to be satisfied overall. A tremendous bargain.
5 Stars-Stewart Crowe.
on 11 January 2010
Evan Kastner is absolutely correct about the defective disc with Symphony Seven (my own favourite) on it. My history with the disc was that there was no problem having Amazon replace the set, but the same disc, the Symphony Seven one, was again defective. At this point I gave up exchanging copies of the weighty complete package and bought the Seventh on its own. However, this was never the same as having a full set in the box, quite apart from the extra cost, and I've now lost the whole lot out of lack of interest, perhaps a year or more ago. And it's a good set, but not quite the same, with 9 + 1 discs.
I was so disappointed, Shostakovich being my favourite composer by a mile/ 1,609.344 metres. Janssons is good, but Kondrashin is supreme, apart from the flimsy box, and Russian. Russian conductor, Russian orchestra, Russian interpretations, even produced in Russia with a flimsy Russian box. Nowhere less than interesting and thoughtful, very exciting where it needs to be, everywhere Russian, wonderful, sharply amazing, and better than Barshai and even Mravinsky, brilliant though he is.
But beware Symphony Seven in this set.