190 of 194 people found the following review helpful
A bargain. Perfect for both "beginners" and compleatists.
, 21 Aug. 2003
This review is from: Shostakovich - Complete Symphonies (Audio CD)
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.
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