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Shostakovich Complete Symphonies Box set, Classical
Newly repackaged in a space-saving, super-bargain box, the Naxos Shostakovich cycle may entice shoppers looking to acquire the 15 symphonies cheaply and all at once. Certain performances are better than others. The First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, 10th, and 12th require more dynamism and heft than the Czecho-Slovak Symphony Orchestra give Ladislav Slovák, notwithstanding marvelous first-desk solos. By contrast, the caustic wit and slippery chamberlike qualities of Nos. 9 and 15 are expertly realized. Bass Peter Mikulas and soprano Magdaléna Hajóssyová enliven and brilliantly characterize texts in the two "song symphonies," Nos. 13 and 14. Slovák, in turn, revels in the disjunctive sound worlds of the Second and Third, and traverses the Fourth, Seventh, Eighth, and 11th with an eagle-eyed overview of their sprawling canvasses. You shouldn't be without key individual recordings like Bernstein's 1959 New York Philharmonic Fifth, Berglund's 11th, or Haitink's 13th, and Rudolf Barshai's bargain cycle on Brilliant Classics offers greater sonic impact and more personalized conducting. Still and all, the present set's finest moments are worth the modest investment. --Jed Distler
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
But Ladislav Slovak has his own Shostakovich credentials and they are solid. He worked in the 1950s with the great Yevgeny Mravinsky at the Leningrad Philharmonic when it was one of the world's greatest orchestras. Mravinsky was one of Shostakovich's favorite conductors and performed most of these symphonies, some for the first time and many under Shostakovich's direct supervision. So Slovak saw a lot and up close. Nevertheless, Slovak's performances aren't slavish copies of Mravinsky. He has his own ideas. For example, listen to the richly barbed irony Slovak projects in symphonies 1 and 9, or how well he conveys eloquence, without pomposity, in the problematic 7th ('Leningrad') symphony. Or listen to Slovak's tight and cogent performances of two of Shostakovich's most fascinatingly diffuse scores, symphonies 4 and 11 ("The Year 1905"). In short, Slovak is never less than thought-provoking and if his orchestra were better, I think his achievement would be more widely acclaimed. As it is, the orchestra plays quite competently, with particularly alert and characterful woodwinds (well, usually; they miscalculate the magical opening of the last movement of Symphony 13). If the orchestra suffers from a consistent fault, it's that there aren't enough strings to sound comfortable playing 'above the stave,' as the Brits say. No matter; the imagination, intensity & spirit of these performances are what count with me. In fact, I think there's only one out-and-out failure in the set: a performance of Symphony 12 that's just too slow and heavy, making a tedious piece even more so. (Mravinsky played this symphony at breakneck speed; surely the only way to make it endurable!)
I wish I could say that the (full digital) sound is consistently fine, but it varies too much from performance to performance. It's never less than good, but it is variable. Still, don't get me wrong: warts and all, this set's a real bargain. Eleven (11) cds come in a compact box with an extensive booklet that includes full texts and translations. Cheap without quality is false economy. In spite of the shortcomings I've mentioned, there's real quality here. Final word: as of late 2015, Naxos has produced a new cycle of the Shostakovich symphony recordings with the Royal Liverpool Orchestra conducted by its young, hot-shot Russian Music Director, Vasily Petrenko. Those very fine recordings completely deserve the very favorable reviews they have received, especially in the UK. So if these earlier Naxos recordings (from the late 1980s) interest you, now is probably the time to order, before they disappear from the catalog.