Gal James / Thomas Oliemans / Gordan Nikolic

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 14

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Shostakovich's grim Symphony No. 14, Op. 135, a work that Keats might have called half in love with easeful death, has experienced a surge of interest in the early 21st century, with major new readings by conductors and orchestras in both eastern and western Europe. Perhaps this one, with Serbian conductor Gordan Nikolic leading the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, combines the best of both worlds. It is a deliberate, detailed rendering that clocks in at seven or eight minutes longer than Vladmir Jurowski's contemporary live version with the London Symphony Orchestra, or Gennady Rozhdestvensky's slashing classic reading with the State Symphony of the USSR in the 1960s. The effect is twofold: it especially challenges the small orchestra of strings and percussion, challenges to which Nikolic and the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra respond in an exemplary way. The percussion-heavy transitional passages between the 11 orchestral songs, transitions that make the work into a symphony rather than a song cycle, crackle with dark energy here. Moreover, Nikolic lingers over the poems, drawn from a variety of world traditions and translated into Russian. This performance lends itself to the search for hidden subversive messages in Shostakovich's music; the texts, expressed slowly, seem to be talking about two different things at the same time. There are soloists who sound more Russian than soprano Gal James and baritone Thomas Oliemans, and the connections between the symphony and its model, Mussorgsky's Songs & Dances of Death, are perhaps lost here. But it's a spookily effective effort all the same.

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