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Shostakovich: Symphony No. 15 - Pletnev

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 15 - Pletnev

PentaTone Classics  PTC 5186331

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Shostakovich: Symphony No. 15, Hamlet (Incidental Music) Op. 32

Russian National Orchestra
Mikhail Pletnev (conductor)

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Review by Graham Williams - April 13, 2009

PentaTone’s continuing cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies, each played by the Russian National Orchestra under various conductors, now reaches Shostakovich’s final, and in many ways darkest symphony, No. 15. This time Mikhail Pletnev, always an interesting conductor, is on the podium and his view of the symphony emerges as one of the bleakest on record as well as one of supreme sensitivity. The 15th Symphony is an enigmatic and ambiguous work, and in the concert hall it is always interesting to observe how the knowing smiles of the audience, as Shostakovich quotes the ‘William Tell Overture’, quickly give way to looks of grim-faced concentration as the symphony develops.

In the opening Allegretto (8.14), Pletnev avoids overplaying the Rossini quotes and concentrates more on the sinister and macabre grotesquery that emerges during the course of this movement. The Adagio (16.40) that follows is very slow and controlled. Pletnev captures the sense of loneliness and isolation conveyed by the spare lines of the music as well as the anger unleashed in the central funeral march. The eloquent cello playing of Alexander Gotgelf and the firm solo trombone complement the stasis of the conductor’s conception, though his occasional vocalisations were a minor distraction. The third movement, a sprightly Allegretto (4.19), brings little respite to the oppressive gloom of the music, but highlights the fine playing of the woodwind section of the Russian National Orchestra, as well as that of their Concert master Alexander Bruni.

Pletnev’s doom laden opening to the finale (17.29), with its Wagner quotations, gives way to a cool and unhurried statement of the main theme. The build-up to the anguished climax of the movement, via a passacaglia based on the banal march theme of the ‘Leningrad Symphony’, is searingly intense. Finally, Pletnev’s thoughtful handling of the gradual disintegration of the music, eventually disturbed by the chilling clockwork percussion passage that brings the symphony to its end, lingers long in the mind.

Mikhail Pletnev has chosen to couple the Symphony with a most interesting fill-up; his own selection from the incidental music that Shostakovich wrote for a production of Hamlet by Nikolai Akimov in 1932. According to Shostakovich this outrageous production was possibly the most scandalous in the history of Shakespeare. Hamlet himself was a fat drunk, and Ophelia was a nymphomaniac whose death by drowning was a consequence of a drunken party at court, whilst her brother Laertes was reduced to a comic caricature. At one point, Hamlet parodied his own simulated madness by appearing in a nightgown clutching an outsize carrot and with a saucepan on his head, whilst his entry following Polonius’s scene with Reynaldo was originally staged as a form of wildly exaggerated madness with Hamlet leading a pig on a lead. Needless to say the Communist Party banned the production, but Shostakovich's witty score was praised. As you might expect, Shostakovich’s music for this production is written in his ironic, parodistic and popular vein; a far cry from the dramatic and serious Hamlet film score that he wrote in 1964 for Grigori Kozintsev’s film of Shakespeare’s play.

The music is full of beguiling melodies, lively dances and epigrammatic allusions all colourfully orchestrated in the composer’s usual winning fashion. None of the eleven movements lasts much longer than two minutes, but Pletnev and the orchestra play each with flare and humour making this selection an up-beat musical contrast with the symphony.

The recording quality of this SACD is absolutely superb. Working in PentaTone’s familiar recording venue of DZZ Studio 5, Moscow, the Polyhymnia engineers have achieved a wide-ranging sound in which every detail of Shostakovich’s orchestration is strikingly clear. Strings have a realistic bite and the characterful timbre of the RNO woodwind and brass is vividly captured throughout, while Shostakovich’s important percussion parts have an impressive clarity and impact in both works.

Pletnev’s performances make another valuable addition to this splendid ongoing Shostakovich cycle.

Copyright © 2009 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net

Performance:

Sonics (Multichannel):

stars stars

Review by John Broggio - June 21, 2009

I suppose it had to happen - a less than wholly recommendable release in this Pentatone cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies. What a great shame that it had to happen in, arguably, the most important work of the fifteen.

On the positive side, Pletnev takes his customary scalpel to the music and carves the structures very gracefully, indeed the sound of the Russian National Orchestra is almost balletic in feeling. In the lighter moments (albeit ironically so) of the first movement, as well as the selection from Hamlet, this is often tremendously successful. The darker side is no less well served by such an approach although those who like this music served with heart-on-sleeve passion will need to look elsewhere. The principal cellist Alexander Gotgelf is rightly given credit for the eloquent dispatch of the many poignant solos.

The sound, as ever from the DZZ Studio 5 in Moscow, is predictably fine and allows all the details of the score to come across naturally without any hint of an audio-spotlight being used. The dynamic range is also thrilling in its range, perhaps best demonstrated from about 9'45 to 10'15 of the second movement.

So what is problematic? Well in the middle of the aforementioned excerpt, a trumpeter makes a serious mistake that becomes ever more noticeable upon repetition. That it occurs at the very heart of the emotional core of the work is very sad indeed and if one is being uncharitable, unforgivable for there are few other moments that need the impact together with fidelity to the score. I am sure that a great deal of soul-searching took place when deciding to choose the particular take for this episode; I am equally sure I am not alone to find that such a mistake becomes psychologically louder upon each repetition and so surely a different take would have been preferable at such a crucial moment. One might forgive in a single concert situation but the medium of recorded music is far less tolerant of such "glitches".

A great shame for this alone robs it of the sterling recommendation it would otherwise deserve. It is difficult to assign a star rating in this instance; every note bar that mistake warrants 5 stars without a doubt but how much to deduct is a more difficult manner - some may only reduce by half a star, some by a great deal more! I shall leave it blank and let the reader decide how important such a consideration is to them.

Copyright © 2009 John Broggio and HRAudio.net

Sonics (Multichannel):

stars