Kondrashin's Shostakovich cycle

Kyrill Kondrashin (left, with Shostakovich) was principal conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra from 1960 to 1975. A friend of the composer for 40 years, he saw him as "the moral conscience of music in Russia" and made a close study of his symphonies, which he insisted were "inseparable from the events of the composer's life". (For Kondrashin's views on Shostakovich's symphonies, see the accompanying statement.) Formerly available on Le Chant du Monde and now reissued on Melodiya, Kondrashin's cycle offers a vital insight into Shostakovich's world.

Symphonies Nos. 1 and 12 [Melodiya 7432119848-2] **(*)
Russian productions are often oddly balanced and the giant clarinet that leaps out at the listener at the beginning of Kondrashin's 1973 recording of the First is typical - although none of these discs suffers from the spotlighting inflicted on Rozhdestvensky's Olympia series. Fortunately, Kondrashin's fader-aided soloists are always characterful, his general line being, where necessary, to trade beauty of tone for dramatic expression. Within these parameters, his First is one of the best, the finest current alternative being Bernstein [Sony SMK 47614]. While some conductors try to impose sincerity on its ambiguous Adagio, no version of the Twelfth attempts much in the way of unusual interpretation. Kondrashin drives the fast music as furiously as Mravinsky on Praga [PR 054217]; it's a toss-up as to which is top of the list. (Ignore recommendations for Ogan Durjan's Philips version, which squares the rhythms and falls flat in the Adagio).

Symphonies Nos. 2 and 14 [Melodiya 7432119844-2] **
Kondrashin's remains the sharpest Second, with more impulse and closer detail than his rivals. Igor Blazhkov's l965 premiere recording [Russian Disc RDCD 11195] moves as propulsively, but is comparatively prosaic. The securest Fourteenth is still Barshai's 1970 studio version, currently unavailable. Surpassing it in intensity, although roughly recorded and slightly blemished in accuracy, is the same conductor's superb live version with Vishnevskaya from 1969 [Russian Disc RDCD 11192]. Kondrashin comes in a fair third, his main attraction being the dramatic bass of Yevgeny Nesterenko.

Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5 [Melodiya 7432119845-2] *(*)
Kondrashin's Shostakovich is marked by rapid tempos and his Third Symphony drives the fast passages hard. Fortunately he is sensitive to the ominous mood of the slower music, and his recording is the best of a field which otherwise offers only Rostropovich [Teldec 4509-90853-2] as competition. Kondrashin's Fifth, though, is rather too impulsive, thwarting penetration and preventing atmosphere. In this symphony, Ancerl and the Czech Philharmonic [Supraphon 1110676-2] ideally combine clarity and passion, while Rozhdestvensky [Olympia OCD 113] is, theatrically, in a class of his own.

Symphony No. 4 [Melodiya 7432119840-2] ***
No need to hesitate. This première recording is a historic document - an untamed masterpiece resurrected after 26 years of suspended animation in a blazing performance unmatched since it was made in 1962.

Symphonies Nos. 6 and 10 [Melodiya 7432119847-2] *(*)
Kondrashin's Sixth is controversial. Stressing its anger and tension, his Largo is far from the gloomy icescape favoured by his slow-moving Western rivals. If Mravinsky is definitive here, Kondrashin beats him in the fast movements, revealing their irony by pushing them less frantically. Mravinsky's l965 recording is deleted, though a fair facsimile, made in Czechoslovakia in 1955, is available [Praga PR 254017]. Kondrashin's live 1968 version with the Concertgebouw ([Philips 438283-2], coupled with Nielsen's Fifth) intensifies the tempo traits of his studio date. Perhaps because of his anxiety to reproduce every nuance of the score (he is almost alone in stressing the squeezed crescendos in the scherzo), Kondrashin's deeply engaged Tenth lacks his usual spontaneity, though it's well worth studying. Mravinsky's 1954 mono version [Saga EC3366-2] is uniquely masterful, while Skrowaczewski [IMP Classics PCD 2043] leads the digital field.

Symphony No. 7 [Melodiya 7432119839-2] ***
For Kondrashin, Shostakovich s music was "essentially about the struggle against fascism - that eternal evil which, though it may change its name, seems indestructible, sustained by the impulses of brutality". By this, he meant not just Nazism but also Stalinism and similar political abominations. "One can no more ignore this background in the Seventh and Eighth symphonies," he insisted, "than one can overlook the programme of Tchaikovsky's Fourth." The last of his cycle to be recorded (in 1975), Kondrashin's Seventh is a sombre, introspective performance in which the pointedly faux naif voice of the yurodivy features strongly - a real experience rather than a showpiece or pseudo-tragedy. The best CD Seventh is Karel Ancerl's 1959 studio version [Supraphon 111952-2] - though the disc's ambience lacks the immediacy of the original LPs. Kondrashin's is a thoughtful and illuminating second choice: the best Russian Seventh.

Symphony No. 8 [Melodiya 7432119841-2] ***
This is quintessentially one of Mravinsky's symphonies; of his three versions, only the 1982 one [Philips 422442-2] is currently available. From 1961, Kondrashin's studio recording of the Eighth was the first in his cycle and remains among the finest of the alternatives. An angry - and very fast - live performance, taped in Prague in 1969, is available on Praga [PR 250040].

Symphonies Nos. 9 and 15 [Melodiya 7432119846-2] **(*)
Kondrashin "owns" the Ninth almost as much as the Fourth and Thirteenth, each of which he premiered. His studio reading of 1965 is a classic, while his live version with the Concertgebouw - his conception virtually identical after 15 years - is only slightly less tight and incisive, for which a more rounded sound and an outstanding bassoonist readily compensate [Philips 438284-2]. These are the best Ninths on disc. (Avoid Istvan Kurtz's often-praised version which fatally distorts the second movement.) Probably charged by his father's presence, Maxim Shostakovich's 1972 première recording of the Fifteenth remains top choice and his finest 45 minutes. Sadly, it's deleted. Kondrashin doesn't match Maxim in the first Adagio's climax and pushes the first Allegretto to the limit of articulation. The rest, while very good, lacks his usual compelling quality, as if he hadn't completed his inner picture of what it meant.

Symphony No. 11 [Melodiya 7432119843-2] **(*)
Kondrashin believed the Eleventh and Twelfth were "associative as well as illustrative; that is, they throw out a bridge between historical events and the present". By "the present", he meant things happening around the time they were composed - in the case of the Eleventh, the Soviet repression of the Hungarian Revolution and the (ironically, simultaneous) release of millions of political prisoners from the Gulag. His Eleventh - very fast - comes third behind Mravinsky's great 1960 studio version (Melodiya, deleted) and the same conductor's live 1967 date in Prague [Praga PR 254018].

Symphony No. 13 [Melodiya 7432119842-2] ***
Like his Fourth, Kondrashin's 1967 version of Shostakovich's first openly dissident symphony remains unequalled, although his live 1962 recording [Russian Disc RDCD 11191] runs it close. His 1980 performance with John Shirley-Quirk (Philips, deleted) is of lower intensity but offers better sound.

*** = worth buying ** = worth trying * = completists only

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