I like this set. I'm not about to claim that it's perfectly played or beautiful to listen to; Inbal on Denon, Haitink on Decca and Rostropovich on Teldec all command better - and more opulent sounding - orchestras than the Slovak Radio Symphony. But there is a certain raw honesty about these Naxos performances that I find tremendously appealing. The Shostakovich symphonies, after all is said, aren't 'haute cuisine' music. They reflect some of humankind's ugliest experiences and their beauties come wrapped in scar tissue. For that reason, I value the 'rough and ready' Shostakovich as performed by East European and Russian orchestras: the performances just seem more truthful. That's the case here, although I intend no disrespect toward Inbal, Haitink and Rostropovich (especially the latter who was, of course, a great friend of the composer).
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 early 2012, Naxos has launched 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 recordings are attracting very favorable reviews, 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.