Gennady Rozhdestvensky

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4; Katerina Ismailova Suite; Festive Overture

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Historically, these recordings of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony and Suite from the opera Katerina Ismailova are valuable. Taped at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival and performed by London's Philharmonia Orchestra under the direction of young Soviet conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, they were both works' premieres in the west. Indeed, the Fourth Symphony, after the composer had locked it away in his drawer in 1936 for fear of Stalin's reprisal if he heard it, had only been granted its world premiere in Russia in 1961 -- eight years after Stalin's death. Likewise, the Katerina Ismailova Suite from 1956 was in fact drawn from the opera formerly known as Lady Macbeth of Mzensk. Cautiously rewritten and re-premiered after Khrushchev took power, Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth had once been the most popular opera in the USSR before being condemned on the front page of Pravda in 1936 for the crime of cacophony, thereby precipitating the disappearance of the Fourth Symphony. Thus, both works were not only new to the west, they were emblems of the recent cultural thaw in the east, and the composer's presence at the festival that year highlighted this connection.

However, in comparison to the many later recordings of the same music, the Philharmonia Orchestra is not really up to the scores. Clearly a superb orchestra with a tangible sense of enthusiasm, the London musicians seem insufficiently familiar with the works and the idiom and too often their solos falter and their ensemble fails. Rozhdestvensky's interpretations were no doubt thrilling in their time, but the conductor's later commercial recording of the Fourth with the USSR Ministry of Culture is much more cogent, and the Russian players perform the music far more expertly and convincingly than their English counterparts. Oddly, the bonus of Rozhdestvensky's 1985 performance of Shostakovich's brilliant and bombastic Festive Overture with the London Symphony is even more poorly played than the Philharmonia's Fourth Symphony: listen to the cracked trumpets at the opening or the loopy solo clarinet in the main theme. Furthermore, both the 1962 and the 1985 recordings sound dim, dull, and shallow. Listeners who love the music, the composer, or the conductor may be interested in these recordings, but they are not for the casual Shostakovich fan.

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