Twenty years in the making, this 2007 cycle of the complete symphonies of Shostakovich marks a milestone in the career of Vladimir Ashkenazy. The Russian émigré pianist turned conductor began the cycle with the Royal Philharmonic in 1987 with the Fifth and followed that with the First and Sixth in 1988, the Second and Ninth in 1989, the Tenth and Fifthteenth in 1990, the Eighth in 1991, and the Third and Twelfth in 1992. He shifted to the St. Petersburg Philharmonic for the Eleventh in 1994 and the Seventh in 1995, and then to the NHK Symphony for the Thirteenth in 2000, and, finally, the Fourth and Fourteenth in 2006. Whatever the orchestra and whenever the date, Ashkenazy's fundamental approach to the composer remained unchanged: this is Shostakovich played big, bright, brawny, and above all heroic. There's passion in his First and pathos in his Eighth, rhetoric in his Second and Third and realism in his Eleventh and Twelfth, but above all there's courage in his Fifth, bravery in his Seventh, triumph in his Tenth, strength in his Thirteenth, and against-all-odds victory in his Fifthteenth. The Fourth and Fourteenth, the last recorded symphonies, are leaner in texture, darker in tone, and sterner in manner then the rest but no less persuasive. Each orchestra's playing is highly individualistic -- the English Royal Philharmonic is warmly colored, the Russian St. Petersburg Philharmonic is strongly rhythmic, and the Japanese NHK Symphony is brilliantly virtuosic -- but each plays with consummate musicality and obvious affection for Ashkenazy. Considering the variety of venues, Decca's lush digital sound is remarkably consistent. Compared with Barshai's ardent authenticity, Mravinsky's grim austerity, Kondrashin's urgent advocacy, and Rozhdestvensky's violent irony, Ashkenazy's direct approach may seem too straightforward for some listeners, but his honesty, sincerity, and efficacy cannot be denied.
By the way, the NHK Fourth is a new recording. Ashkenazy first recorded the work in 1989 with the Royal Philharmonic. And for the record, the earlier performance is bigger, brighter, brawnier, and more unambiguously heroic than the later performance.