Andrey Boreyko / SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 9 & 15

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Two of Dmitry Shostakovich's most enigmatic symphonies appear on this 2012 release from Hänssler Classic, and because their surface gaiety masks more ominous undercurrents, they make a fascinating pair of works to study and compare. Originally planned to mark the end of World War II and celebrate victory over the Nazis, the Symphony No. 9 in E flat major became instead a thinly veiled critique of Stalin, Soviet oppression, and the waste of human lives; the outwardly cheerful tunes seem to be deliberately frivolous and occasionally martial, but not so much that they obscure the many passages of bleak despair and gloom. Shostakovich had good reason to conceal his true feelings in this manner, especially since Stalin had expected a monumental work on the level of Beethoven's Ninth and become critical of the composer's motives, so the symphony was laced with ambiguity and irony, as a kind of defense against attack. By 1971, Stalin was long dead and Shostakovich's expression was no longer hindered by threats to his safety or life, but he had been so practiced in musical evasion and deception, the Symphony No. 15 in A major became his most elusive symphony, almost out of habit. Quotations from Rossini, Mahler, Wagner, and Shostakovich's own music give this piece the quality of a musical joke or game, but there's no mistaking the dirge-like tone of much of the writing, and the strange, mournful tone makes it seem retrospective and fatalistic. The live performances by Andrey Boreyko and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra are vibrant and colorful where needed, particularly in the first movement, but because so much of the music leans toward darker moods and austere scoring, the musicians also play with restraint and control to preserve the intended air of uncertainty. The sound of the recording is exceptional, with fine definition and credible dimensions.

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