Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Dmitri Shostakovich
The Complete Symphonies

Coro & Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi/Oleg Caetini

[10 CD - SACD/CD Hybrid]
ARTS 600554 78508 0
mail: info@artmusic.de

The first thing to notice about this new ten-disc set from ARTS is the depth of sound and the distinct separation of the instruments. Somehow, the engineers have managed to totally exclude audience noise (if any) so the experience is of all the tension and frisson of live performance without the coughing etc unavoidable at UK concerts. Curiously absent though is any applause after Symphonies 12, 13 and 14.

These wonderful recordings have their bests and not so bests, but overall, it may well have become a new benchmark against which all others should perhaps be judged.


Oleg Caetani, half Russian, half Italian studied these works with Kryil Kondrashin who gave the first performances of Symphonies 4 (in 1961), and 13. Kondrashin became, after Mravinsky, Shostakovich's preferred conductor of his symphonic works and certainly KK's performance have tremendous vitality and fire.


Caetani, generally, has the measure of these symphonies and he too has all the fire and passion required to deliver optimum performances. Without exception, these are high octane performances – some more so than others and whilst one may query the tempi in some movements, in the main they are ‘edge of the seat' performances that grab and grip the listener from the very start of number one to the very end of number fifteen.


The Italian chorus is as good any one has heard and all the soloists are brilliant. The soprano, Marina Poplavskaya has a beautifully pure, sweet tone which can be sweetly beguiling yet furiously powerful when required. Her companion Mikhail Davidov (a true bass-baritone, and without wobble) is a superb match for the soprano and together with the percussion department and strings of this wonderful orchestra from Milan a performance is delivered equal to any.

Symphonies 1-4

The First Symphony (1925) is one of the most astonishing ‘Firsts' ever. Its wintriness is beautifully conveyed as is the biting wit of the nineteen year old composer - the equal of anything being written at the time. Until I heard this performance of the Second – and it is a performance – I had not been able to make real sense of it. Caetani simply sweeps away any former prejudices. With such clarity of line, command of form, and the wonderful way in which he points melodic lines one is simply amazed. Caetani, here with a truly amazing recording team, will surely convince even the most hardened heart to at least gaining proper insight into this score with, actually, many magical elements. I have not heard any recordings of this Symphony that come anywhere near to this one in any aspect; not even the doyen of Shostakovich's music - Kyril Kondrashin (until now my absolute benchmark for these great works).


One expects Italians to be able to sing and, by jove, they do – and, as with their instrumental colleagues, sounding to my ears as Russian as any. Eagerly, I went straight on to listen to the Third Symphony. When I first heard this piece, I wrote a note in my diary that I thought it ‘expectedly immature – unexpectedly trite'. That was over forty years ago, full of the arrogance of youth. As I listened to this revelation by Caetani – I humbly ate my words.


Again there is clarity of performance and recording – again there is absolute fire in the most meaningful playing that I would not be surprised to learn had never been equalled (though one could never tell that, naturally) by any other body – even in Moscow or Leningrad (sorry, St Petersburg). There are moments of real excitement – NOTHING trite here. The Symphony is a celebration of what for many who live in the northern hemisphere is the favourite month of the year – May. There are hints of what was to come in the way of bucolic humour (perhaps the policeman's scene) in Lady MacBeth and the Ninth Symphony. There is also the occasional touch of vulgarity (q.v. The Nose) but above all, this is an absolutely honest presentation of all that was the composer's spirit at the time he wrote it.


It is still difficult for the ‘Conservative' west to fully appreciate the feeling of Russian revolutionaries, but surely we can all enjoy the delight in welcoming spring with these sounds. The choir once again sing most beautifully, touchingly, sensitively and lustily. From hereon, I will urge everybody to listen to these performances. New benchmarks have been achieved.


What can one say about the Fourth (1936), put in a drawer following bad rehearsals – lost during the war, reconstructed from the parts for eventual performance under Kondrashin in 1961? One cannot help speculating how very differently he might have continued but for ‘The Terror' of Stalin's Russia . To my mind, I am not at all sure that the Fourth isn't the very best of them all. I have always responded to it positively; it has always stirred me. I have heard most of the recordings available in this country ( England ) and was lucky indeed to have attended the first performance in the West – given in a Promenade Concert under Sir Malcolm Sargent (who would have thought it?!). Right from the start this music ‘grabbed' me.

Cast in three huge movements, together lasting just over sixty-one minutes, two slowish movements surround a central scherzo of a more gentle nature, not excluding passages of biting wit, and others where the psyche is occasionally disturbed. The opening Allegretto poco moderato passage (1 st mvt) is played with shrieking brilliance – this Symphony (like old age) is not for wimps! The finale with its edgy utterances and sense of dangerous forward propulsion is shatteringly brilliant. Every department of this orchestra with a somewhat curious name performs with total mastery. I did not hear one blip or cracked note and it seems to me that the audience(s) for these recordings – all live – must have been totally mesmerised by what was being laid before them. Coupled with the Symphony is a short unpublished fragment which, presumably, was intended as part of the Fourth - it is brief (at 5 '37secs) but interesting and it is nice to have it included here.

Symphonies 5,6 and 7

Caetani's Fifth is very fine yet with surprisingly slowish tempi for the finale – though nowhere near as eccentric as those chosen by Rostropovich in his recording with the Washington orchestra. Here I retain my preference for the old Karel Ancerl performance,a personal favourite. Slower than usual tempi are also chosen for the whirligig movements (two and three) of the Sixth Symphony, but the first movement is utterly beautiful and the disc is worth having for that alone. As for number Seven, the impact is simply staggering. This work is a huge canvas lasting seventy minutes – sometimes (as here) more. As with the other recordings in this wonderful series, the long pauses between large and exotic movements have been minimised. Every single member of the orchestra has delivered what feels to me like the perfect performance. No histrionics – just pure willpower to survive these awful times.


Symphonies 8,9 and 10

Alongside the ARTS set, I was asked to review another 8 – this time under another much loved and respected Russian conductor – Eugene Svetlanov (BBC Legends). Also live, recorded by the LSO in the RFH, one can feel the audience at all times. Although recorded in October, one could imagine there to be a flu epidemicalready and the whole thing is ruined by totally unrestricted coughing.

A few years ago, I was listening to one of Roberts Simpson's orchestral works with the composer. We were sharing the score, and he was not at all happy with what he was hearing – “They're just playing the notes,” he moaned, as one disappointing passage followed another. Sadly, the LSO here seem to be just playing the notes without any real sense of interpreting the composer's thoughts. Especially given the relatively high price the BBC ask for this series, I cannot recommend this disc at all – it is simply awful.

Coming back to Italy , one immediately hears all the difference in the world, as yet another fine performance is delivered. However, the two ‘scherzo' type movements could have been taken a little faster for my taste. The performance as a whole though is well worth having if not the best of the canon. I cheated a bit here and played my copy of the version by Neeme Jarvi – my overall favourite conductor for studio recordings. Of course then there is Mravinsky (also on a BBC disc…)


The Ninth is appropriately perky and the individual sounds of the orchestra's solo wind players is beyond criticism. The Tenth was the very first of the Symphonies that I got to know way back in 1954. Whenever I felt myself to be in a dark mood, brooding young man that I was then, this piece came with me in my head and kept me (almost?) sane as I went about the miseries of National Service. Along with his fellow Russian, Dostoyevsky, Shostakovich and I became sonic blood brothers and I have been one of his greatest aficionados ever since. However, I could have done with a little more venom in the second movement here – the piece in which the composer has the tyrant (Stalin) stamping about the place – ruining everything in his path. Once more, Kondrashin is unmatched (other than by Jarvi).


And so to Symphony No 11. The only thing marring perfection (for me) is the very slow playing of the initial melody of the fourth movement – it certainly should be a little swifter. But you should hear Rostropovich with this work in his live recording with the LSO! It is so slow all the time that by the time he does perk up a little in the finale it is too late - you are already asleep! Again, the London audience's noise is persistent and the recording itself is poor – especially when compared to these fabulous ARTS discs. Incidentally, jusllisten out for the bells at the very enq of the Symphony in the Caetani recording. They are simply astounding - I am sure they must have been pre-recorded in Russia and played back in the concert via any speaker system that they have got. These are real church bells - huge and deep. The effect is massive and remarkable and I have never heard anything like them in a Shostakovich Symphony before!

Symphonies 12, 13, 14 and 15

This number twelve is simply as good as any that have gone before it – once more, fastish tempi and edge of seat excitement. This Symphony received very bad reviews from English critics following its performance at the Edinburgh Festival in 1962 – but who remembers critics? Shostakovich and this Symphony will be remembered and Caetani makes a terrific case for this work. It may be wrong, but I have always listened to Shostakovich's music simply as music and seldom take any socio-politico elements into account. After all – it is the music that speaks. Thirteen has a most wonderful performance here with suitably declamations made by Pavel Kudinov and the choir. Fourteen I almost dealt with at the beginning of this review and I just urge you to listen to this astonishing cycle of songs about Death. Its final stuttered chord perhaps resembling the last move of life as death opens its jaws to receive you.

Buy this intégrale set – you won't be disappointed!

Dennis Day


Nos 1 & 15 have been reviewed previously from their separate release