Piotr Migunov / MusicAeterna / Teodor Currentzis

Shostakovitch: Symphony No. 14, Op. 135

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Shostakovich wrote his Fourteenth Symphony, one of his most relentlessly dark-hued works, in 1969 at a point when he felt he had essentially wasted his life and was "a dull and mediocre" composer. The symphony, scored for soprano, bass, strings, and percussion, is a devastating reflection of his bleak and hopeless state of mind. The texts he uses for its 11 movements dwell largely on either the dreaded finality of death or the misery of life, which is little better than death. Shostakovich seems indifferent to making the work symphonic in any conventional sense, and fully embraces the formal eccentricity that its grim texts dictate. Its effect is that of an orchestral song cycle, with some movements lasting as long as 10 minutes and others (the abrupt finale) as short as a minute. The performance is the second release on the Alpha label featuring Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis leading Musica Aeterna, the chamber orchestra of the Opera of Novosibirsk, Siberia, the first being an astonishing, revelatory 2008 performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. This recording demonstrates that the earlier disc was no fluke, that these are performers with a distinctive point of view, and the passion and finesse to effectively put it across. The symphony here frequently sounds like chamber music and has an intimacy that makes its depictions of grief, depression, and bitter irony especially poignant and personal. The soloists, soprano Julia Korpacheva and Petr Migunov are fully expressive, but their performances are understated rather than grandly dramatic, as is appropriate, making the moments when they do cut loose -- Korpacheva in the sixth movement and Migunov in the eighth -- all the more effective. Their voices are full and pure but not especially large, and they make a good fit with Currentzis' understated and supple reading. This dark symphony is not the kind of piece that tends to inspire warm affection, but its emotional and musical honesty make it a work that can draw listeners back again and again, and this is a performance that bears close and repeated attention. Alpha's sound is clean, present, and atmospheric.

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