Nelsons’ Shostakovich Misfires Badly

Review by: David Hurwitz


Artistic Quality: 4

Sound Quality: 8

Up to this point, Nelsons’ Boston Shostakovich cycle has been very good to excellent, but these performances of Symphonies Nos. 1, 14 and 15 are, for much of the time, a mess. No. 1 is the worst of all. The fact that Shostakovich makes the thematic material of the opening movement deliberately disjointed doesn’t mean that every phrase has to be played in a different tempo. The result is spasmodic alright, but in a bad way. I’ve never heard such a clumsy, ham-fisted rendering of what ought to be some deliciously sardonic, witty music–and that’s just for starters. The scherzo flits by in a characterless blur, while the finale features the same nonsense as in the first movement. Only the slow third movement comes off well, but then that music is basically unkillable.

The same defects afflict the Fifteenth Symphony. Mannered phrasing and dynamics (the opening flute solo), random shifts in tempo, a lethally dull central passacaglia in the finale–it all seems either too fast or too slow, and nowhere expressively to the point. All the lovely sonority in the world can’t save a misguided vision of the music, and after so much really good work in previous releases, we can only wonder what Nelsons must have been thinking–or not thinking. At least in the gloomy Fourteenth Symphony he’s mostly limited to accompanying the singers, which he does well. Yet even here his tempo for the vicious second poem, Malagueña, sounds oddly heavy and stiff. Bass soloist Alexander Tsymbalyuk is impressive in his numbers, but soprano Kristine Opolais sounds squally and harsh, even downright annoying, above mezzo forte. At least they sing the work in Russian, and not in the horrible “original text language” version.

The Chamber Symphony in C minor is a string orchestra arrangement of the Eighth String Quartet. It’s potentially one of Shostakovich’s most disturbing works, and there are so many other versions that provide more of the necessary intensity and edge than this one does. You want to hear the instruments scream and rant in the second movement, and feel the dread in the fourth movement Largo. Here, all we get is a good, solid string ensemble and a conductor unwilling to probe the anguish at the heart of this most personal of the composer’s works. Again, I find the lack of persuasiveness on evidence here completely baffling, and extremely disappointing.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Symphony No. 1 (Bernstein, Sony or DG); No. 14 (Rostropovich, Warner); No. 15 (Haitink, Decca)

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