Symphonies Nos. 5, 8 & 9
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Deutsche Grammophon 479 5201 (2 CDs)
Titled Shostakovich Under Stalin's Shadow, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's new cycle of symphonies by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) got off to a great start with the Tenth Symphony receiving the 2016 Gramophone Award in the Orchestral category.
The second release featuring live performances of three symphonies is no less fine, however it necessitates three changes of discs to listen to the works in a chronological order. This makes the best sense if one wishes to follow the trajectory of the Soviet composer's changes in fortunes with regards to the totalitarian regime's policy upheavals and quixotic tastes.
Begin with the Incidental Music to Hamlet (1932) on Disc 2, with Shostakovich's alternating witty with sombre music, and then flip to Track 6 of Disc 1 for the outwardly triumphant Fifth Symphony (1937). This had been warmly received by the authorities and public alike as “a Soviet artist's reply to just criticism”, despite its hidden barbs.
Then go back to Disc 2 for the grim wartime Eighth Symphony (1943) with its “toccata of death” movements and a strangely laid-back finale, before returning to Disc 1 for his biggest joke of all. The slapstick Ninth Symphony (1945) is a mocking sneer at final victory in the Great Patriotic War. Listen for the terrific brass of the Boston Symphony, their pride and joy in this memorable album.