Shostakovich: Complete Symphonies/Kitajenko SACD

Review by: ClassicsToday

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

Kitajenko or Barshai? Or who? That’s really the question as the Shostakovich centennial year of 2006 is well served by two sets of the complete symphonies. To answer the question straight out: Barshai’s Brilliant Classics set, taped in excellent CD sound in the 1990s, edges Kitajenko, despite the latter’s often superior 2001-2004 SACD sound. What Barshai has in particular is his clear understanding of the music’s subversive subtext, exemplified by the harshness and brutality of some of the sounds he makes. Kitajenko’s performances keep the recognition of evil under the surface, concealed by a lyrical, even “classical” approach analogous to the way Kubelik or Bertini seek structural clarity and singing lines in their Mahler sets. In places where Barshai produces raw, shocking sounds, Kitajenko’s tone is more likely to remain musically poised.

Kitajenko’s lyricism pays dividends in Shostakovich’s numerous slow, lonely passages, which sing to heartbreaking effect, most notably in the Sixth, Eighth, Tenth, Eleventh, and the final movement of the Fourth. And guess what? Even though Kitajenko refrains from telegraphing the message, the underlying meaning sneaks out, albeit undercover rather than in your face.

It’s the rule that large-scale boxed-set surveys of this sort always have high and low points. In the present case, in which nearly every performance is very respectable and sound tends to be excellent, Barshai has fewer lapses than Kitajenko. For some reason, neither contributes a first-rate Fifth. While Kitajenko rules in the Seventh, and his Nos. 6, 10, 11, and 15 match Barshai’s, Kitajenko is too light-hearted in the Ninth, doesn’t unify the First, and is let down by lightweight bass singing (choral and solo) in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth. The outer movements of the Eighth never have been sung so touchingly, but the two demonic fast movements are too tame and the passacaglia is not dark enough. Barshai is better in the front part of the Fourth, Kitajenko in the finale. Kitajenko scores with magisterial control of the complexities of the Second and imbues most of the Twelfth with tremendous energy, then deliberately lets it dissipate into banality at the end. As for the Third, both Kitajenko and Barshai confirm that piece of trash as a lost cause.

West German Radio engineers produced stupendous sound in the nine symphonies that were taped in the studio. However, Nos. 1, 4, 7, 8, 11, and 15 were “taped live” in concert, and only Nos. 7 and 15 match that clean, solid, natural sound. The other four get “splashy” when Shostakovich’s extremely loud scoring overwhelms the Köln Philharmonie. Except for those four, the symphonies here sound better than I’ve ever heard. Orchestral playing is outstanding, featuring particularly powerful, solid brass.

As for contender boxed sets or projects, enough of Gergiev’s recordings (Philips SACDs) are harsh-sounding and unsubtle that it seems the finished product will not challenge this one; Rostropovich (Teldec) fails to convince often enough; and Slovak (Naxos) has an orchestra that sounds minor league. (MDG also has an ongoing project conducted by Roman Kofman, but colleague David Hurwitz succeeded in warning me off of that one.)

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Barshai/WDR Symphony Orchestra (Brilliant Classics)

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH - Complete Symphonies

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