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ON THE RECORD

Dmitri S.'s Symphonic Boom

December 17, 1995|Herbert Glass | Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar

As recently as a decade ago, most of us didn't quite know what to make of the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich. To many observers, their composer seemed chiefly a product of Soviet and Cold War politics, admired more in the West for his travails than for his music. Then, with the CD explosion and the search for new repertory, Shostakovich was increasingly "discovered" by the recording A&R people, which has since translated into unprecedented live exposure as well.

Even the composer's staunchest naysayer, superconductor Georg Solti, experienced an epiphany. Then again, the prolific Solti is among those running out of music to perform.

While Solti professes enlightenment, there is none of the recent convert's zeal to be found in his new recording of Symphony No. 13 (1962), with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the men of the CSO Chorus and basso Sergei Aleksashkin (London 444791). The symphony is subtitled "Babi Yar," after the scene of a 1941 massacre of Ukrainian Jews by the Nazis; it is also the title of a Yevgeny Yevtushenko poem that, along with four other of the poet's works, forms the text for the symphony.

"Babi Yar" elicits a dutiful response from Solti. He glosses over the score's profusion of telling dramatic detail and manages to miss the big picture as well, delivering instead a series of isolated, underpowered episodes. Nor is it a happy inspiration to have an actor, the ubiquitous Anthony Hopkins, recite English translations of the Yevtushenko poems between the movements, destroying the potential for cumulative tension. The readings are, however, on separate tracks, so they can be programmed out.

To experience this score in all its horrifically engrossing splendor, its aggressively bitter humor intact, turn to the Russian recordings by Kiril Kondrashin and Gennady Rozhdestvensky or to the more readily available Kurt Masur-New York Philharmonic version on Teldec.

The Symphony No. 11 (1957) is Shostakovich's depiction, without benefit of sung or spoken words, of a significant harbinger of the 1917 Revolution: the slaughter in St. Petersburg on Jan. 9, 1905, of unarmed civilian protesters by the czar's militia.

This hourlong symphony, its four movements played without pause, is often described in terms of a background score, akin to the one Prokofiev wrote for Eisenstein's film "Alexander Nevsky." And Shostakovich's symphony is indeed a wonderfully vivid series of mood pictures.

It's an episodic work but one whose music, rather than any presumed story line, has shown its ability to strongly affect audiences given the right circumstances. And these surely pertained in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in the fall of 1967 when it was performed, with stunning intensity, by the Leningrad Philharmonic conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky. The event is preserved on a handsome-sounding CD (Praga/Chant du Monde 254 018) that enables home listeners to conjure up their own scenarios.

The first recording of the Symphony No. 11 was by the same forces that introduced it to American audiences in 1958, the Houston Symphony conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Originally on the Capitol label, it was a sonic wonder in its time. Reissued by EMI (65206, mid-price) it sounds, as it did to some in 1958, like pure recording hokum, absurdly unrealistic in its balances, and of variable musical quality. In the two long slow movements, Stokowski and his hard-pressed orchestra frequently fall into sluggishness, and the cruelly clangorous tolling of the tubular bells that should constitute the symphony's culminating horror (and thrill) are here more evocative of a visit from the Avon lady than the death knell for czarist Russia.

The Symphony No. 10 in E (1953) may have been composed in response to news of Stalin's death early in 1953, but it displays a restless, demonic darkness rather than any sense of jubilation. Again, the symphony's rhythmic energy and bracing sonorousness make the composer's points without benefit of literary or historical text.

Two recently released recordings bring to this elusive work immense skill and conviction, employing dissimilar interpretive means. Conductor Mariss Jansons goes for the gut in his seething, whiplash performance, gloriously executed by the Philadelphia Orchestra (EMI 55232), while the venerable Kurt Sanderling, with the Berlin Symphony, a willing but less virtuosic ensemble, provides a somber, less precipitous view of the dark doings (Berlin Classics 90182).

The full-priced Jansons recording also offers the Shostakovich orchestration of Mussorgsky's "Songs and Dances of Death," delivered with the appropriate brooding intensity by basso Robert Lloyd, while the Sanderling edition, at mid-price, takes up the full disc.

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