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CD Review

Dmitri Shostakovich

Orchestral Works

  • Symphony #1 2
  • Symphony #2 "To October" 1
  • Symphony #3 "The First of May" 1
  • Symphony #4 4
  • Symphony #5 5
  • Symphony #6 3
  • Symphony #7 "Leningrad" 2
  • Symphony #8 6
  • Symphony #9 3
  • Symphony #10 7
  • Symphony #11 "The Year 1905"
  • Symphony #12 "The Year 1917"
  • Symphony #13 "Babi Yar" **
  • Symphony #14 *
  • Symphony #15
  • Suite "The Bolt"
  • Suite "The Age of Gold"
  • Suite "Hamlet"
  • Symphonic Poem "October"
  • Overture on Russian & Kirghiz Folk Themes
* Ljuba Karzarnovskaya, soprano
* Sergei Leiferkus, bass
** Anatoly Kotscherga, bass
** National Male Choir of Estonia
1 Gothenburg Symphony Chorus
2 Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
3 Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
4 Philadelphia Orchestra/Myung-Whun Chung
5 National Symphony Orchestra (USA)/Mstislav Rostropovich
6 London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
7 Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
Deutsche Grammophon Collector's Edition 4792618 12CDs
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon JapanOrder Now from

In 2006, Decca released some magnificent Shostakovich box sets, including a nine-disc set of orchestral music pulled from the very best Universal had. Some critics wondered why only Bernard Haitink conducted in the complete symphonies box of the same series, and this is the answer, I suppose. You can create a cycle without him. So, is this a great set and a terrific bargain? No question. However, there are some entirely too typical and utterly obnoxious issues to clear up. The issue is that, should you happen to own that orchestral box, disc five is essentially duplicated here, in the same recordings by Järvi. He also leads the tone poem and Overture; these were previously led by Ashkenazy and Haitink. This housekeeping problem that the major labels seem to carry may not bother you in the slightest, and even if it does, there are great things here.

The classics remain so. Bernstein's only outing in Chicago ranks as one of his greatest achievements on disc (#1 and #7), and certainly deserves to be in any collection devoted to the composer. Karajan's #10 is the other no-brainer, a true surprise given the source, but one of the maestro's greatest digital accomplishments. Rostropovich would later record an entire set for what is now Warner Classics, but his early DG #5 is gut-wrenchingly powerful, if somewhat ill played. I never did understand why Previn made two readings of #8, but this is rock-solid. English orchestras are not known for great low strings, but Previn manages to get a truly gnarled sound out of the London Symphony, and always did the composer well.

Other renditions are well known among collectors, but less special. Bernstein's #6 and #9 fail to impress, if only because his younger self on Columbia set a new standard. The Vienna Philharmonic actually can play Shostakovich, but these do not number among the better efforts of the conductor's late period, nor of the ensemble's overall discography. Perhaps something from Ashkenazy, also on Decca, would have been preferred. Haitink would have also been a safe bet. In any event, the Bernstein performances here constitute his complete Shostakovich output in his relationship with Deutsche Grammophon; they will also be released next year when the second volume of Lenny's complete DG recordings is brought out. Go figure.

On the other hand, the rest of the set has proved more elusive to American consumers. Chung's #4 was long sought after as an import, if Amazon is to be believed; the playing is incredible, but probably ought not be your only version of the work. Still, the recording is also of exceptional sonic quality, and is worth having. The rest of the box goes to Neeme Järvi, in very good interpretations that confirm him as a true advocate for Russian music. The early symphonies #2 and #3 are quite good, but nobody really enjoys these pieces and nobody buys a set for them alone. Conversely, the symphonies #11-#15 benefit from the conductors' typically intense and urgent style. I never did understand – this is becoming a running theme – why half the man's cycle for this composer was on Chandos, and half of it was here. But here's his complete DG Shostakovich output, in very good sound, and these discs have not been easy to purchase individually. I also don't believe that they were ever released as a group, so it's nice to see Universal put the effort in. For the good stuff, it's really good. The sound throughout is just fine, and each performance has something worth hearing. All the vocal and choral contributions are also uniformly positive. A must for Shostakovich fans, provided they don't own most of it already.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman