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Shostakovich Symphony No 13 Babi Yar

Gidon Saks bass

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra conductor Gerard Schwarz


Avie AV2096

Recorded March 2003 63 minutes


Babi Yar is a ravine outside Kiev into which the slaughtered bodies of around 100,000 Jews were dumped by the advancing German army in September 1941. The reactionary poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko starts his poem with a protest at the continuing lack of monument at the site before widening his theme to encompass more general persecution of the Jewish race, with a subtext that is plainly critical of the Soviet regime.


Shostakovich is known to have been deeply moved by the poem and shed tears over the verse beginning I seem to be Anne Frank . He was determined to set it to music, firstly thinking in terms of a cantata, but then extending the work with other poems by Yevtushenko to form what would be his 13 th Symphony.


The atmosphere on the first night ( 18 December 1962 ) was tense the satirical nature of the text was politically risky and added an extra frisson to the occasion which is hard to reproduce in contemporary performance. Nonetheless, the Liverpool Philharmonic gave the work its Western European premiere ( 14 September 1971 ) so the orchestra has a well rooted association to draw on.


The structure of the piece has little resemblance to conventional symphonic form and is divided into five movements with a bass soloist and male voice choir. The mood is outwardly sombre throughout, enlivened by the subversive black humour of the poems, and Gerard Schwarz picks up on every nuance in his conducting. The chorus sing well, and Gidon Saks gives a totally committed performance, with superb phrasing and texture.


Recording quality is high and it is a very satisfactory choice for anyone wishing to acquire this work. There are, however, alternatives Mark Wigglesworth's recent version with Jan-Hendrik Rootering and the Netherlands RPO has been widely praised (BIS-SACD-1543), but my own favourite remains Kurt Masur's 1994 live recording with Sergei Leiferkus and the NY Philharmonic which seems to me to capture an element of edgy tension, and has two extra bands in which Yevtushenko reads his poems in English (Teldec B0000000SJ6)


Serena Fenwick