Although there have been dozens of recordings of Shostakovich's First and Sixth symphonies over the years, there is still a burning need for more recordings of both. Why? Simple: because both works are essentially inscrutable and no conductor has yet plumbed their enigmatic depths. After all, what's a conductor supposed to do with the First, a four-movement work that so thoroughly mixes irony and tragedy that it's often impossible to tell which is which? Or how about with the Sixth, a three-movement work that opens with a massively nihilistic Largo and ends with a pair of brief but cheerful scherzos? There have been recordings of the First that so stress the irony that it's hard to take the tragedy seriously and other recordings that so stress the tragedy that the irony seems superfluous. Similarly, there have been recordings of the Sixth that speed up the Largo to the point where its despair seems trivial and other recordings that slow down the Largo to the point where its despair seems to have killed it dead. But so far, no recording of either work has completely succeeded in finding the right aesthetic balance between irony and tragedy -- hence the burning need for more recordings
What does conductor Vladimir Jurowski do with the First and Sixth in this 2004 recording for PentaTone? He plays it absolutely straight, which, considering the emotional weight of the music, hardly seem like the best approach to take. With the superbly trained and brilliantly colorful Russian National Orchestra, Jurowski turns in performances that reduce the music's tragedy along with its irony. The insouciant tone of the First's opening Allegretto is snappy but lacks bite, while the gravity of the First's central Lento is weighty but lacks depth. Similarly, the limitless desolation of the Sixth's opening Largo is neither too fast nor too slow, but rather too cool to have any effect while the reckless exuberance of the Sixth's closing Presto is marvelously effective but makes the music sound too much like an exercise in orchestral virtuosity and not at all like the conclusion of a work that began with a nihilistic Largo. While PentaTone's deep and detailed sound is surely among the finest either work has ever received, Jurowski's interpretations fail to match the best recordings of the distant past -- Kondrashin's and Rozhdestvensky's -- or the more recent past -- Ashkenazy's or Temirkanov's -- or his contemporaries -- Barshai's and Kitajenko's -- and this recording will be of interest principally to those who collect recordings of Shostakovich's symphonies.