Top positive review
8 people found this helpful
An Authentic Bargain
on 2 June 2013
I was aware of this set for some time, having a few of the individual cds in my collection. They sounded excellent but never explored further. I was intrigued by some reviews suggesting this was as good as any complete set available today. Well here I'm reviewing the mp3 download that gives you them all for £7.49. You lose the sleeve notes, which were excellent in the individual cds but the sound is still excellent and vivid. The sleeve notes in the cds did, however, have a glaring omission: the texts for the choral symphonies and the Fourteenth song cycle. The orchestra are pretty good too with strings and woodwind particularly shining; perhaps the brass aren't quite the Chicago Symphony Orchestra but they make their point well enough. Barshai was trusted to premiere some of Shostakovich's later works and does have some insights well worth getting to know. This set is consistently good to excellent.
Others have compared Barshai's approach to that taken by Kondrashin and Mravinsky as well as Bernstein, Haitink and Previn. I think with another series approaching its conclusion we should add Petrenko's excellent cycle with Naxos. Barshai is personally close to this music like Mravinksy and Kondrashin but is blessed with better sound and his orchestra certainly get to grips with idiom.
When it comes to tempo Barshai rarely hangs about. The first three symphonies sound more stylistically close to each other whilst the expansive Fourth often sounds furious in the opening movement - sometimes a little over frenetic. Defiant protest may have been a factor before common sense saw him withdraw the piece.
No 5 gets a very fine performance. Much has been said about the sub text in that the finale was mean't to sound like hollow triumph and here it works very well. The quite inner section of the finale finishes with a quotation from his Pushkin Songs, telling a story about how a masterpiece had been covered by a tyrant's portrait only for the varnish to peel and the original to eventually shine through: a quiet piece of defiance before the return of the opening music, which sounds like a return to forced triumph and drudgery after this harp arpeggio. Anyway, subtext or not the symphony sounds terrific here.
No 6 gets a wonderfully well balanced performance that shows this isn't necessarily a journey from darkness to light. The opening movement is very beautiful but to provide balance Barshai really fires up the central movement. Elsewhere I love how No 9 gets a crisp and Haydnesque treatment with the slow movement never being allowed to drag and unbalance the work. As others have mentioned, No 13 gets a blistering performance - particularly the "Babi Yar" poem. Sergei Alekshaskin and the Moscow Choir are highly idiomatic.
The point is, if you want a full set then this sets a very high benchmark and at such a price that you can choose to contrast and compare with others at your leisure. As I said, all the performances are at worst very good even if individual pieces can be bettered elsewhere. The highlights for me are nos 1, 5, 6, 9 and 13. If it is the mp3 set you're going for then this is an incredible bargain: I urge you to snap up this Shostakovich set before Brilliant Classics realise their mistake. What a steal!