Bernard Haitink / Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 15

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Shostakovich's Symphony No. 15 in A major, his final symphony, written when he was already very ill, is among his most enigmatic works. It lasts about 45 minutes, but it took him just over a month to write, so it was obviously composed in the heat of inspiration. It's notorious for its extensive and unabashed use of musical quotation, most notably from the William Tell Overture and from Wagner and the composer's own works. They raise questions -- do these quotations have a particular meaning the listeners should be able to make sense of? -- but the musical context offers few answers. Shostakovich reported to a friend, "I don't myself quite know why the quotations are there, but I could not, could not, not include them." In any case, listeners who can give themselves over to the composer's own willingness to accept the music without requiring logical explanation open themselves to experiencing one of Shostakovich's most intimate and moving orchestral statements, particularly in the emotionally wrenching second and fourth movements.

Bernard Haitink, whose long association with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra began in 1959, returns to the podium as conductor laureate for this performance. He had recorded the symphony once before, in 1978, with the London Symphony Orchestra. The Concertgebouw plays with considerably more sophistication, elegance, and conviction. The orchestra has a particularly ravishing string sound and the solo sections of the second movement are breathtaking in their poignancy. Haitink makes no attempt to smooth out the strangeness of the music's odd juxtapositions or extreme contrasts and lets the composer's distinctive voice be heard without undue interpretive agenda.

The release is made up from four live recordings made in March 2010 at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. The sound is remarkably clean -- immaculate, in fact -- for a live recording; there is no indication that this is a performance that was not recorded in a studio. The depth of sound is particularly impressive. This is work of extreme dynamic contrasts, ranging from very small groups playing very softly to the massive power of a full orchestra, and the recording captures the extremes with maximum impact.

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