While this set of Shostakovich's Fourth through Ninth symphonies is billed as his "War" symphonies, these six works could be more aptly identified as his "Terror and War" symphonies. After all, the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth were composed in the years before the "Great Patriotic War" during the period called the "Great Terror," that period of Soviet history in which Stalin attempted to liquidate everyone he ever remotely suspected of having an unkind thought about him. Still, these six symphonies do form a cogent group of works that describe with extremely painful exactitude the horror of living through one of the most horrific decades in twentieth century history, qualities that Russian conductor Valery Gergiev captures with excruciating effectiveness.
Shostakovich's Symphony No.8 was written in the summer of 1943, and first performed in November of that year by the USSR Symphony Orchestra under Yevgeny Mravinsky, to whom the work is dedicated. Many scholars have ranked it among the composer's finest scores. Some also say Shostakovich intended the work as a ''tragedy to triumph'' symphony, in the tradition of Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler. This release in Praga's Reminiscences series of audiophile SACD remasterings features an historic live recording from 1961 featuring Mravinsky leading the Leningrad Philharmonic.
If the print on this review goes blurry on your screen it’s because I’m still rubbing my eyes at the cast list on this astonishing trove of archive finds, unobtainable anywhere on line. The composer Dmitri Shostakovich was a capable pianist who sometimes participated in his own premieres. The people he played with were the elite of Russian music.
Ida Haendel’s sinewy and athletic reading of the often under-rated Britten combines toughness with a cumulative dramatic impetus which is hard to resist. Berglund and the Bournemouth players respond with a terse and argumentative vigour, suitably balanced between resignation and defiant rhetoric, especially in the closing Passacaglia. The Walton Concerto, also dating from 1938-9, is played with an apposite blend of inscrutable panache, as in the irrepressibly brilliant central movement, and elsewhere, a sensuous, if occasionally over-indulgent languor. Rare lapses in the finale can be safely overlooked, in a performance of eloquence and undisputed stature.
Well known for the intensity and profundity of its interpretations, the Quatuor Danel has made a name for itself on the international classical scene (winning such awards as the Diapason d’Or, Choc du Monde de la Musique, and CD of the Month in BBC Music Magazine) in the great cycles that form the basis of the quartet literature, from Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert to Weinberg. Since Russian composers occupy a key position in the Danels’ repertory, it was logical for them to champion the quartets of Shostakovich by recording them complete in 2005. Today Alpha Classics reissues this boxed set, which is among the reference recordings of the composer’s works.
The Mandelring Quartet plays with unflinching resolve, sympathetic expression, incisive attacks, and penetrating tone, which are all necessary in Shostakovich's sardonic and frequently bitter language.