Tatarstan is a republic of the Russian Federation with a population roughly the same as Los Angeles, CA. The Tatarstan National SO (TNSO) was founded on 1967 and since 2010 Alexander Sladkovsky has been its artistic director and chief conductor. These are studio recordings done in the Great Concert Hall in the capital city of Kazan. The recordings themselves are excellent, with lots of orchestral detail and a good balance of direct and hall sound. The packaging of the set consists of a large cardboard box containing the 13 CDs, each in individual cardboard sleeves showing movement names in Russian and English and timings. There are two booklets—one English the other Russian—that contain perfunctory notes about the music and performers. There are no texts provided for the vocal works, which I find problematic. This set could have easily been accommodated on just 11 CDs. Symphony 3 has a disc all to itself (31:16) and Symphony 7 is split over two CDs but could have made it on one (total timing 80:46). The individual movement timings are given on the cardboard disc sleeves that house the CDs in the box. My plan for this review is to briefly touch on each performance, providing highlights and/or lowlights in an attempt to give an overall picture of the value of this set.
Symphony No. 1: I marvel with each hearing of this symphony, considering that it came from a 19-year-old composer and it really doesn’t sound like anyone else (well, maybe there is a touch of Prokofiev in it). This one starts off very well with a nice atmosphere of playfulness. By the time the music builds to the first climax about mid-way through this first movement, the orchestra sounds a little strained. For the most part, the wind playing is solid and secure but brasses can be a tad wobbly at times. The string section is very solid. The obbligato piano playing in the second-movement allegro is blended nicely into the sound texture. The following lento at 9:28 is too slow for my taste—Haitink, no speed demon himself, is much preferable at 8:46. The last movement also misses some of the excitement of other performances but the climaxes here seem to be better controlled and played by the orchestra. This is a decent if not profound performance.
Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3: Both of these works commemorate Soviet revolutionary events and each includes a chorus. The instrumental music Shostakovich created for these symphonies pushes on the boundaries of symphonic music, and I find them to be quite interesting and, in places, emotionally moving and exciting. It provides evidence of where DSCH would end up in his Fourth Symphony which was yet six years hence. Unfortunately, the mixed chorus enters near the end of both pieces and this aural intrusion destroys any goodwill that’s been building up from the craft of the instrumental portions. I have no quibbles with either performance. The mixed chorus sounds extraordinarily authentic in its enunciation (I would hope so since it is a native Tatarstan chorus). In Symphony No. 2, the called-for factory siren is replaced by the female chorus “whooping.” Tempos are mainstream and conductor Sladkovsky manages these disparate forces with great skill. These two symphonies are my least favorite of the bunch but I did enjoy these performances, especially in the instrumental sections.
Symphony No. 4: Later in life, Shostakovich held this symphony in higher esteem than some of his other, more popular works. All but the most devoted DSCH aficionados find it to be thorny and difficult music. My view of this piece continues to evolve over time and exposure. I gave high marks to a recent performance from Bulgaria conducted by Emil Tabakov (see issue 39:6), and this one from Tatarstan matches it in intensity and execution. Neither orchestra would be considered world-class in stature but both are able to achieve good results under their respective conductors. I think it is fair criticism to say that this symphony is too long for its material and would have benefitted from some editing. There is a strong Mahlerian influence which Sladkovsky brings to the fore—listen especially to the last five minutes or so of the first movement for Shostakovich’s version of Mahler’s night music. Overall, this is a very fine performance and one of the highlights of this set.
Symphony No. 5: There’s little doubt that this is DSCH’s most popular symphony and not by a small margin. ArkivMusic lists 101 recorded performances currently available and this doesn’t include deleted recordings that have been made since the premiere recording conducted by Mravinsky in 1938 (that Mravinsky performance is on a still-available Doremi CD and can be heard on YouTube). In my experience, there are plenty of modern performances that give Mravinsky a run for his money and have much better sound, so I will keep the focus there. Overall, Sladkovsky’s performance is very swift at 45:48. Of the nine performances in my collection, the Sladkovsky is the fastest followed by Järvi/Chandos at 46:56. Bringing up the rear is the Englishman Mark Wigglesworth/BIS at 52:34 (no surprise there—I like Wigglesworth’s Symphony 4 because of his deliberate, clarifying tempos but really don’t care for any of his other performances that I’ve heard). Interestingly, the fastest performances in my collection all have conductors of Eastern European heritage (Sladkovsky, Järvi, Tabakov, Gergiev). Just to provide one stark contrast—in the first movement, Sladkovsky takes a brisk 14:55 while Wigglesworth is a whopping 5 minutes longer at 19:57! I certainly don’t feel at all short-changed by Sladkovsky’s quick tempo and find the music all that more exhilarating because of it but others may find it lacks gravitas. In the second movement allegretto, Sladkovsky’s fast pace (5:03) has the Tatarstan players hanging on for dear life at times, with some slightly ragged ensemble work. In the Largo, Sladkovsky’s more mainstream 15:22 ensures that the funereal mood is established and maintained. The string playing is especially beautiful and the flute contributes a solitary lament over the plucked harp. There is an appropriate aura of poignant stasis that creates a most somber mood. The music builds to a tragically heroic climax before being subsumed by the high strings over plucked harp. It expires in an ethereal mist as the strings resolve in the major key. The Finale launches on a rip-roaring pace which I find, overall, to be too fast (10:26). It utterly shatters the mood established in the Largo. This is the one significant disappointment in this performance. Sladkovsky does tame the tempo several pages in and delivers a more conventional view of the music, building it to the final denouement with shattering force. I think Haitink finds the right balance and in the end is only a little longer (10:52) than Sladkovsky. Honeck’s recent Pittsburgh account, which is otherwise a good performance, is simply too slow overall at 12:30 despite a good pace at the outset of the movement. Despite my issue with the tempo at the start of the Finale, this recording of the Fifth is among the best in this set.
Symphony No. 6: This is another very good performance that is well played by the Tatarstan SO. It is very similar to Haitink’s in movement timings and the cumulative impact of this performance puts it in a top rank for me. There is surprisingly little variation in first-movement timings between the comparable performances from my collection, most clocking in at just under 18 minutes. Even that notorious speed demon Neeme Järvi is just a handful of seconds faster than the others here. The remaining two movements are more subject to conductor manipulations and I find Sladkovsky finds a happy medium, with a somewhat restrained allegro tempo (à la Haitink) and a brisk, scampering presto Finale. The band plays everything expertly.
Symphony No. 7: In this set, the Seventh symphony occupies two CDs despite a total time (80:46) that could readily fit on a single disc with today’s pressing technology, one of the wayward quirks of the way this set is packaged. The initial statement of the (in)famous march theme in the first movement is presented in a light, almost flippant fashion. As the theme repeats, it becomes more menacing and martial, with the tempo accelerating ever so slightly and the dynamics building steadily and strongly until the massive peroration and eventual collapse into a signature Shostakovichian calm stasis with solo flute. This spare music feeds seamlessly into the moderato movement where things begin to heat up again after the 6-minute mark. Sladkovsky does a good balancing act with the orchestra, providing suitably clarified textures although I find that his tempo does drag a bit here (and Haitink is even more elongated in the same movement). The adagio movement starts off somberly, though I miss the organ-like sonic texture that Emil Tabakov is able to provide in his relatively recent (and marvelous) recording with the Bulgarians on Gega New (see my review in issue 39:5). The build-up and subsequent calm transition to the concluding allegro non troppo Finale is apt. Sladkovsky paces the last movement on the slow side, robbing it of some of its inherent drama and power, a minor blemish on an otherwise good performance. The concluding coda is powerful.
Symphony No. 8: I have more recordings of this symphony in my collection (eight) than of any except for the Fifth. On balance, it is my favorite DSCH symphony. My “imprint” recording is Haitink’s, which I still rank high on my list if not at the very top. Others that have persuaded me strongly are Litton/Delos (a blistering performance) and a recent recording from Andrej Boreyko conducting the Stuttgart RSO on SWR from a slowly evolving set of DSCH symphonies (see Huntley Dent’s favorable review in 41:2). There are two performances in my collection (both on SACD) which I’d advise readers to avoid: the Wigglesworth/BIS, which at 69:54 is simply too slow to be a contender, and the Caetani on ARTS, which is maddeningly fast at a total time of 53:05. What needs to be said in this symphony can be eloquently conveyed in 60–64 minutes. Sladkovsky’s performance is quite good. The orchestra impresses in its execution—I just don’t hear any weaknesses there. What has always stuck in my ear is Haitink’s manic third movement allegro non troppo. Both Sladkovsky and Litton are able to match (even exceed) the fierceness in this movement. The difference between Haitink and Sladkovsky is that the Tatarstan orchestra plays with more wild abandon while Haitink’s Concertgebouw is more controlled. I like wild abandon in this music. This is one powerful performance and a highlight of the Sladkovsky set.
Symphony No. 9: The rather slight (26:15) Ninth Symphony is a pearl between the anguished Eighth and sardonic 10th Symphonies. In many ways, it is a throw-back to the First Symphony, with no harmonic advancement over that early work. The Tatarstan SO play this piece with more seriousness than I hear in other performances and it is an approach that works quite well. The low brass are powerful and the recording is excellent (as it is everywhere in this set). It’s a mighty good performance of a less monumental symphony.
Symphony No. 10: Shostakovich began to compose this symphony shortly after Stalin’s death amidst a time of musical turmoil in Russia. It is the first use of his “DSCH” motto theme which occurs in this symphony’s third movement. The power of the Tatarstan orchestra is fully on display in the first movement crescendo at about the mid-way point. I can also hear the conductor humming along faintly (that also happens in other places in this set—Sladkovsky is carried away by this music). This seems to be about as authentic a sound as one could hear in this music and it puts a strong stamp on the proceedings. The sound engineering is excellent. I was able to clearly hear the lower dynamic bass drum rolls in parts of this score with a subterranean presence, a magical effect. The total timing (54:28) is the just about the same as Haitink’s performance, but Haitink doesn’t match the intensity of this one. Järvi is slightly faster, but again his performance and recording can’t match this one. Wigglesworth/BIS and Levi/Telarc are left in the dust here. This is another special performance from Sladkovsky and team.
Symphony No. 11: Subtitled “The Year 1905,” this work commemorates the events of the first Russian revolution. I find it less convincing as a symphony and more akin to a symphonic poem. Shostakovich quotes a number of revolutionary songs in this work. Alexander Sladkovsky takes all of this seriously, with a strong and emotional performance that never dawdles. At a total time of 56:20, it is on the swift side of competing performances, which for this symphony is probably a good thing. This is a satisfying and strong performance of a less than spectacular Shostakovich symphony.
Symphony No. 12: Another of DSCH’s commemorative works (subtitled “The Year 1917”), this one is dedicated to the life of Vladimir Lenin. Shostakovich is less discursive with this four-movement symphony, which turns out to be a good thing as the musical material is less inspired, sounding recycled from the previous symphony in numerous ways. As in the prior symphonies, the Tatarstan National SO make a glorious, wide-ranging sound that is captured splendidly by the microphones. The Finale climax is nearly overpowering.
Symphony No. 13: It’s a shame that the Melodiya does not include the texts for the vocal symphonies. Someone coming to this set without prior knowledge of the symphonies will miss the context of Shostakovich’s state of mind while composing them. The poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko that Shostakovich uses depict the slaughter of Jews by the hands of the Soviet regime along with other repressive acts of political violence. The vocal element consists of a bass soloist with male bass chorus. The soloist, Pyotr Migunov, is powerfully authentic and the basses from the The Grand Choir Masters are superb. The bass soloist is balanced well to the fore in the recording. As with most of the symphonies here, Sladkovsky’s conducting is urgent and animated—there are no dull moments. Prior to this recording, my go-to performance of this symphony was the live Masur/New York PO on Teldec featuring baritone Sergei Leiferkus (a Want List recording of Ray Tuttle’s in 1994). Despite the excellence of Masur’s forces, the Sladkovsky strikes me as more authentic and intense, and bass Migunov’s stentorian tone beats Leiferkus’s mellifluous baritone. This is another really good performance that drips with Angst and sarcasm.
Symphony No. 14: This symphony, more a song cycle for soprano, bass, and string orchestra with percussion, was the outflow of Shostakovich’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death in 1962. It is a grim work, filled with the dread and hopelessness of one with no hope for life after death (Shostakovich was an avowed atheist). This production does a disservice to the buyer in leaving out the poem texts. The pared-back, chamber-sized string orchestra performs superbly under Sladkovsky’s direction. The percussion effects are precise and sometimes startling. Bass Pyotr Migunov continues to sing with ultimate authority and clarity and soprano Natalia Muradymova holds her own with a solid contribution. Both singers are balanced too far forward in the mix, which gives their vocal parts maximum clarity but detracts from the image of a real singer with a string orchestra. As fine as this performance is (and it is quite fine), this still remains one of my least favorite DSCH works.
Symphony No. 15: After the death-laden 14th Symphony, this one is an enigma. Shostakovich had already suffered his first heart attack and must have thought that he didn’t have much time left on this planet. Many artists, when staring down death, set out to create a valedictory work as a summation of their life’s creative output. This is certainly not such a creation. It’s oddly disparate movements don’t cohere in any tangible way, and a goodly stretch in the second movement is static and boring. Said to represent a toy shop, the playful first movement (with quotations from Wagner and Rossini’s William Tell which older American readers will recognize as the Lone Ranger theme) starts with a five-note motive based on his grandson Sasha’s name (E♭-A♭-C-B-A using the German letter/key association). Sladkovsky and crew treat all of this as serious music while seemingly downplaying the playfulness of the first movement. As a result, I find the performance a bit leaden and uninteresting despite the top-notch orchestral execution. This observation is supported by a rather slow overall timing of 49:03 compared to Haitink’s slightly brisker 45:53.
I was quite taken by most of the performances in this set. The performances of the most-played instrumental symphonies (1 and 5–10) range from good to outstanding and the vocal symphonies are also very well performed. This is an authentically Russian set captured in excellent sound with wide dynamic range and great clarity. As complete symphony sets go, I find this one to rival Haitink’s excellent set and put it alongside that one as the best sets I know. As of this writing, ArkivMusic sells the set for $125—rather steep in my book. But even at that price, it is well worth considering.
This article originally appeared in Issue 41:6 (July/Aug 2018) of Fanfare Magazine.