SHOSTAKOVICH (arr. Rudolf Barshai): Chamber Symphonies, Op. 110a; Op. 49a; Op. 118a – The Dmitri Ensemble/ Graham Ross – Harmonia mundi

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (arr. Rudolf Barshai): Chamber Symphonies, Op. 110a; Op. 49a; Op. 118a – The Dmitri Ensemble/Graham Ross – Harmonia mundi HMU907634, 65:21 (5/12/15) ***:

The story of these works is an interesting but fairly simple one. Rudolf Barshai (1924-2010) was a pupil of Shostakovich and also one of the best known conductors in Russia; being the founder of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra.

Shostakovich was, of course, already a friend and admirer of Barshai and the two men talked often about the composer writing works for Barshai’s ensemble. By the time such conversations became pressing and after Barshai and his chamber orchestra had already premiered some key Shostakovich works – including the Symphony No. 14 – the composer was quite ill, putting a lot of potential ideas on the self.

Consequently, Barshai asked for and received permission to orchestrate some of Shostakovich’s string quartets, three of which are presented here. Each of these works is bracing and has its own character and background. The opus 110a from the Quartet No. 8 contains some musical materials from many of the composer’s other works, including the Symphony No.1, the Cello Concerto and the dark, satirical opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. This work is personal and brooding.

The opus 49a, from the Quartet No. 1 is quite a bit lighter and is sometimes referred to as a “little symphony” because of its structure and tone. There is a bit of casual sound to this work that Shostakovich considered his ‘test’ at writing for string quartet.

Then the opus 118a, from Quartet No. 10, is a kind of late work in which Shostakovich (as in the work of other Soviet composers) was trying new ideas. This one in particular is noteworthy for its use of a passacaglia in the closing movement. The overall tone of this work is dark, pessimistic and harmonically evasive. It is none the less exciting and captivating.

My reaction to this album is positive. The sound is excellent, if a bit too resonant for my tastes (natural echoes everywhere; recorded in the Church of St. John the Evangelist in London.) The original string quartets remain some of Shostakovich’s most intimate and – on some level – troubling works. I like their dark, personal and passionate tenor. These arrangements are excellent and the strings of the Dmitri Ensemble (named in honor of the composer) are all superb and play very well together. I just still prefer the originals.

—Daniel Coombs

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