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*** 1/2 SHOSTAKOVICH Symphonies Nos. 1-15, Orchestral Works, Song Cycles Gennady Rozhdestvensky, conductor; USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra; BMG/Melodiya

August 06, 2000|RICHARD S. GINELL

For all of the revelatory insight that Shostakovich's controversial memoir "Testimony" has provided, it's an ironic pity that most recordings of his symphonies these days--even those from Russia--play down his bitterness and sarcasm, smoothing it over. That's why this 14-CD set, recorded mostly in the 1980s, is so valuable; it may be the last hurrah for this brand of Russian, emotionally unhinged Shostakovich playing.

While maintaining much of the seething bite that you hear in older Soviet recordings, Rozhdestvensky goes further, adding a sense of the grotesque, letting the abundant black humor run riot. All kinds of acerbic details in the winds and brasses are brought to the fore, which may be partly due to close-miked engineering but nevertheless amplifies Rozhdestvensky's sardonic intent.

The Fourth Symphony is the great recording of the work; Rozhdestvensky lays into the dissonances and fugato madness more boldly than anyone, and the coda is totally desolate. Rarely have the crunches of the Eighth sounded so mean and cataclysmic; the Ninth is a fun house of razzing mockery.

A few performances--like the Second and Fourteenth--could be more powerful, but this conductor hits far more often than he misses. The last two discs survey Rozhdestvensky's "From Manuscripts of Different Years" project, where he resurrected acres of rare scores from the Opus 1 Scherzo (written at age 13) to lost songs, film and incidental music available nowhere else. From much of this trove, we get a vivid sense of the wacky, parodistic directions Shostakovich pursued in the 1920s and '30s, before Stalin clamped down--and Rozhdestvensky knows exactly how to underline them.

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