This "alpha and "omega" program of Shostakovich's first and last symphonies has been tried before. Almost 50 years separate these two works, so it should come as no surprise that they are dramatically different from each other, and also that a conductor's success in one by no means guarantees his or her success in the other.
Caetani's Shostakovich series (now complete) has been a worthwhile one, with several highlights among the individual releases. It joins conductor Roman Kofman's series with the Beethoven Orchestra of Bonn (MD&G) as an example of how very interesting performances can come from the most unexpected places.
This CD is not the finest release in Caetani's series, however. His rushed tempos throughout much of the First Symphony rob it of some of its substance. (Just because the composer was in his teens when he composed it doesn't mean that he didn't have anything profound to say in it.) It also robs the movements of their contrasts. Here, the first movement is as much of a scherzo as the second, and the third and fourth movements are not given the necessary weight. I don't intend to put down Shostakovich's famous compatriot, but I've never heard his First Symphony sound so much like the work of Prokofieff. There are some splashy moments, and some interesting pointing of orchestral detail – the outstanding engineering really helps – but all in all, this would not be my first choice. It's Shostakovich "lite."
In the Fifteenth Symphony, Caetani takes a similarly lightweight approach, which tends to go across the work's grain. I find it interesting, though. Most final symphonies have commentators searching for presentiments of death, and there is no shortage of such presentiments in this work. Shostakovich's original intention (he says) was to compose a relatively cheerful symphony, so Caetani might be on to something here. Most performances of this symphony creep me out. Caetani's is more detached and mysterious. Also, at one particularly grotesque point in the first movement, it actually made me laugh. Again, I can't say that this would be my sole recording of choice, but there's more going on here than in Caetani's First. There are times (in the First Symphony too) where one is made aware that one is not hearing a first-rank orchestra – some of the playing is a little rough – but the lack of a high gloss finish gives the playing a personality, at least.
Copyright © 2007, Raymond Tuttle