This year marks the centenary anniversary of the birth of Dmitri Shostakovich, and EMI is responding with a series of new releases commemorating the event. This two-disc set offers two works that are separated by forty-plus years and are at opposite ends of the Shostakovich spectrum: the youthful Symphony No. 1 and the chamber-oriented Symphony No. 14. Both works are given superlative performances, marking a welcomed return to form for Sir Simon and the BPO, whose recent batch of EMI releases have offered a rather mixed bag artistically. And while the Berlin Philharmonic has never really had much of a history with the works of Shostakovich, Simon Rattle coaxes idiomatic performances here that should silence the critics in the German press who’ve been hounding them of late.
Disc one contains the late-period Symphony No. 14 for bass, soprano and chamber orchestra. The vocal texts are meditations on death, and are comprised of eleven separate vignettes, whose eclectic themes range from tranquil to downright calamitous. The soloists, Thomas Quasthoff and soprano Karita Mattila, offer superb readings of this mostly melancholy fare. Shostakovich’s orchestration is both eerie and entertaining; the xylophone figure that opens and repeats throughout movements 5 and 6 could easily have come from his much more whimsical piano concertos. Disc two contains the Symphony No. 1, which served as Shostakovich’s graduation exercise from the Leningrad Conservatory. An instant classic that appeared in symphony programs throughout the world shortly after its release, the work contains many of the thematic elements that would characterize most of his symphonies over the next couple of decades.
This two-disc set is both an artistic and sonic triumph. The live recordings are excellent, and while maybe just a bit too dry for my personal tastes (which in my opinion, is the only thing keeping this set from five stars), offer excellent sound nonetheless. While some may complain about the lack of filler material and the rather skimpy length of a two-disc set (only six minutes over the usual limit for a single CD), the release is offered at single-disc price, and leaves little room for serious criticism. Highly recommended.
— Tom Gibbs