When Decca first issued Bernard Haitink's Shostakovich symphony cycle between 1977 and 1984, it was the first non-Soviet cycle of the works. When the cycle was re-released as a set in 2006, it was still only the third non-Soviet cycle -- Eliahu Inbal had completed a perfunctory cycle for Denon and Ladislav Slovak a lackluster cycle for Naxos in the meantime -- but it was nevertheless by far the finest. One had to make some allowances for the earlier performances of Symphonies No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 7, No. 9, No. 10, and No. 15 by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Then a fairly characterful, reasonably polished, and relatively powerful ensemble, the LPO wasn't quite up to strenuous demands of the scores -- the First is irony deficient and the Seventh runs out of steam midway through the third movement. All such doubts disappear when the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam takes over the Symphonies No. 5, No. 6, No. 8, No. 11, No. 12, No. 13, and No. 14. Then, now, and always one of the great European orchestras, the Concertgebouw was up for anything in the scores -- the central Largo from the Fifth is unbearable in its intensity and the opening Adagio from the Thirteenth is overwhelming in its ferocity.
But what made this the finest non-Soviet cycle was Haitink's leadership. To the inevitable question "Can a non-Soviet citizen comprehend the art of a Soviet symphonist?," the not altogether unexpected answer is "Yes, but not as a Soviet citizen would comprehend it." For the great Soviet conductors -- Kondrashin, Rozhdestvensky, and, pre-eminently, Mravinsky -- Shostakovich's symphonies are the history of their times transformed into art. For Haitink, Shostakovich's symphonies are art transforming the story of one man's life. In Haitink's interpretations, the symphonies are supremely well-wrought works of musical modernism, which, somewhat like Mahler's symphonies, are chapters in a sublimated musical autobiography. In effect, this means a less intrusive interpretive style that stresses the musical over the extra-musical. Thus, while Soviet conductors tend to take Shostakovich's symphonies very personally, Haitink takes them much more objectively. In practice, Haitink's performances are often as musically impressive as the best Soviet performances, but less emotionally harrowing. Coupled with the orchestral versions of the sensual Six Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva and the anguished From Jewish Folk Poetry, this set will be of interest to anyone who loves Shostakovich's symphonies and already knows the great Soviet performances of the works.
Decca's sound is variable. The late stereo recordings with the LPO are big and full, but sometimes shallow. The early digital recordings with the Concertgebouw are huge and detailed, but sometimes harsh.