Roman Kofman / Beethoven Orchester Bonn

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 15

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The Symphony No. 3 for chorus and orchestra, Op. 20, "May Day," of Dmitry Shostakovich, premiered in 1930, was perhaps his high point in the expression of devotion to Communist ideals; the Symphony No. 15, Op. 141, was his symphonic swan song, written after a lifetime of tense relations with the Soviet system. More than 40 years separate the two works, and the booklet notes by Josif Raiskin set them up as contrasting poles in his output. The Symphony No. 3 is optimistic; the Symphony No. 15 is among the darkest works in the symphonic repertoire. Yet there is a curious kind of ambiguous humor, and a unique way of using quoted material, that mark these symphonies as the work of the same composer, and that do much to account for the composer's enduring appeal. The Symphony No. 15, with its acridly bleak slow movement balancing unexpected quotations of the William Tell Overture, as well as various lesser-known pieces in the opening Allegretto, is very hard to pin down, with a bit of the danse macabre, some old man's wit, a fresh take on the long Russian tradition of circus music, and a slippery quality that keeps conductors and orchestras (and audiences) coming back. The performance here by the Beethoven Orchester Bonn lacks some of the purely humorous aspects heard in some other readings of the outer movements of the Symphony No. 15, but the straightforward approach suits the kaleidoscopic (Raiskin's word is "mosaic-like") quality of the single-movement Symphony No. 3, which artfully knits together a sequence of nonrecurring tunes. The strong point in each case is the sound from MDG, which reveals the complex orchestration and what might be called the inner life of each work. Part of a full cycle of Shostakovich symphonies from conductor Roman Kofman, this disc merits strong consideration, especially for audiophile buyers.

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