As of tomorrow, Shostakovich was born 100 years ago

by on September 24, 2006 at 5:55 am in Music | Permalink

He has a higher variance of quality than almost any other major composer.  So what is the essential Shostakovich?

The symphonies are tricky, because many of them are wonderful
live but meandering on disc.  On disc you should favor 5, 10, 14, and
15.  #4 is a breakthrough work but no longer so important.  #6-8 are
amazing in concert, with a good conductor, but otherwise a struggle.  9 is pleasant but
slight.  #11-13 are a mixed bag, worth knowing, but don’t judge him by
those or start there.  For #5 buy Bernstein, for ten buy Mitropoulous or
Mravinsky (though many versions are excellent), for #15 Jarvi or Haitink are good versions.  The closing bit of #10 is perhaps my favorite
moment in all of Shostakovich.

The String Quartets are his most convincing and most consistent works.  The Brodsky, Borodin, and Manhattan Quartets all do good versions.   

Buy the two-disc set of his Preludes and Fugues, Opus 87.  Ashkenazy is the version of choice, though I retain a fondness for the idiosyncratic jazzy take of Keith Jarrett.  This is the Shostakovich you will enjoy if the sometimes harsh textures of the orchestral works put you off.

Also buy the Op. 67 Trio for Piano, Cello, and Violin, performed by Yo-Yo Ma, Isaac Stern, and Emanuel Ax.

That’s it.

I’ve never been convinced by the opera, the film music, the concerti, the rest of the piano music, or the short jazzy pieces, though all have their defenders.

Here is some summary information.

1 Sol September 24, 2006 at 8:00 am

Can you recommend a good recording of #14?

Also, I’m a bit surprised you didn’t mention #1, which I’m very fond of. I got the two-disc Bernstein set of 1 and 7 to get 7, but over the years I’ve owned it I’ve probably listened to 1 three times as often.

2 Alex Chisholm September 24, 2006 at 9:57 am

Our own National Symphony Orchestra under Rostropovich has many good recordings of his symphonies (most notably the 5th).

I have to agree with Sol that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra recording, under Bernstein, of 1 and 7 is the definition of a classic. But I tend to favor Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad”, which was mainly composed during Germany’s siege on Russia in 1941.

Many people site his 5th Symphony as his best and most well-received work, but fail to understand the nature of its roots. Stalin became concerned that the increasingly “modern” music of Shostakovich was not reflecting well on the traditional Russian sound exemplified by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. He insisted that Shostakovich compose something more appropriate for the great Soviet nation. Here is an ugly thought; perhaps the most famous composition by Shostakovich is in example of state intimidation on individuals at the highest order. Perhaps not.

The Tenth Symphony, which Tyler mentions, came shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953 and also ranks among his most well-known works. The maniacal second movement of the tenth is believed to be a direct musical portrait of the dictator.

But when it comes down to my favorite compositions or composers I am quite biased. I was an orchestral trombonist before going back to school for economics and tend to favor anyone who let the brass have its way. Mahler, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner played by the orchestras of New York, Chicago, Berlin, Montreal – now that is romantic period greatness.

Government pushing personal preferences on the arts is wrong, but at least Stalin didn’t favor twelve-tone technique.

3 bartman September 24, 2006 at 10:56 am

Violin concerto #1. Also, his Jazz suites are about the best of their (sparsely populated) genre.

4 Alan Little September 24, 2006 at 11:41 am

Wot no Piano Quintet? Various versions of the Borodin Quartet recorded it with various great pianists such as Richter & Leonskaja. For a complete set of the symphonies, Shostakovich’s close friend Barshai’s set on ultra-cheap label Brilliant is a sound bargain introduction; alternatively, a couple of weeks ago in Moscow I paid not very much for a set of Melodiya reissues of Mravinsky’s 5,6,7,8,10,11,12,15, which I haven’t had time to listen to yet and am looking forward to.

(Tyler – next time you’re on a family trip to Russia, the CD shop in Sheremetyevo airport has lots on interesting Melodiya reissues by greats like Mravinsky, Richter & Oistrakh. Not at the kind of absurdly low prices you see in the pirate CD shops outside airports, but reasonably priced by western standards – I think I paid 30 Euros for that 6-disk Shostakovich box. And the ultra-cheap pirate shops are generally disappointing for classical, in that they have cheap knock-offs of stuff that is readily available in the west, but not any of the kind of obscure Soviet archive stuff that I always go there really hoping to find)

Getting back to the point: my favoruite string quartets are #8 & #15. There is an amazing Borodin Quartet live recording of #8 from an early 1960s Edinburgh festival on BBC Legends that is even better than their studio recording from around the same time. And there’s a very, very good #15 coupled with their recording of the Piano Quintet with Leonskaja on Teldec, making the disk very, very worth buying. On ultra-bargain labels for those looking for an introduction on the cheap, the Eder Quartet on Naxos and the Rubio Quartet on Brilliant are also perfectly decent.

5 Mark Hannam September 24, 2006 at 3:34 pm

You say, “I’ve never been convinced by the opera….”

Have you never seen “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” performed well? It is wonderful.

(In my support may I recommend this recent article by Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times)

6 Steve Carroll September 24, 2006 at 6:55 pm

Wow. Thanks for this Tyler. I just dumped the whole list to my mp3 player. The subscription model for music downloads really shines when you find lists like this since it really lowers the bar to experimentation on potentially spiky stuff like Shostakovich (as I like the 5th quite a bit, but have been turned off to other pieces that I’ve tried). People who are experimenting in the classical genre (or jazz) should definitely give subscription services a try. (free 14 day trials are available for most of the subscription services). I’ll try out these and then I’ll give Lady MacBeth a try, Mark.

7 Vanya_6724 September 25, 2006 at 12:47 pm

Avoid the 14th with Haitink – he uses the original language versions of the poems but the music was written for the Russian translations, and the Russian version is more compelling. The Barshai is one of the best performances, although the sound quality is not great. Jarvi or Rostropovich are good alternatives. The second Cello Concerto is excellent – get the Rostropovich. If Cowen is not “convinced” by it I would not trust his judgement on Shostakovich very far. Tyler is also completely out to lunch on the #6 and #8 symphonies – there are a number of great recordings of both including Jarvi doing the 6 and Ashkenazy the 8. And avoid the Manhattan Quartet recordings of the string quartet at all costs – the Borodin is the best, but the Fitzwilliam and the Shostakovich Quartet also have made excellent recordings which are often available at discount prices. The first piano concerto is also worth listening to and a lot of fun, if a bit juvenile. Finally Shostakovich actually wrote three operas. His first “The Nose” is excellent, especially if you like Gogol. It contains one of the greatest extended percussion pieces in classical music.

8 Anderson September 26, 2006 at 2:44 pm

Hm. Which Oistrakh recording did you listen to? Mravinsky? Ormandy? Bartman, do you have a fav of the Oistrakh/Shostakovich # 1’s?

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