SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar” – Serge Aleksashkin, baritone/ St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/ Yuri Temirkanov, conductor – RCA

by | Jun 19, 2007 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar” – Serge Aleksashkin, baritone/ St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/ Yuri Temirkanov, conductor – RCA 88697021632, 57:35 ***(*):

The poetry of Yevgeni Yevtushenko, where the actions of the National Socialist party are joined at one hip with the slaughter of Ukrainian Jews, and at the other with the nascent anti-Semitism in Soviet Russia, was perhaps not the most politically correct texts that Shostakovich could have selected for his thirteenth symphony. The period of post-Stalin thaw had granted to the composer and those who suffered like him a bit of repose and even elevation to a status formerly denied. Many of his works that had lain dormant for some time now came blossoming with the fresh breeze blowing across Russia in the wake of the madman’s repose. But Shostakovich, never one to rest on laurels (no matter how short lived) and always conscious of the artist’s duty to society, unhesitatingly took on a subject that he had long felt was a problem in Russian society.

The first movement, from which the symphony obtains its title, was the real source of the controversy. The name is of a ravine near Kiev that was the scene of the largest mass murder in history, where an SS unit killed 34,000 men, women, and children in the space of 36 hours. Shostakovich thought that no one with any sense of decency could pretend to anti-Semitism in this day and age, and his protest was in many ways a reflection of his abhorrence of racism and prejudice of any kind. The five movements are portrayals of the poetry in graphic and sardonic terms, making for a powerful work of undeniable emotive content.

And it has been well-served on records, with many recordings in recent years. Perhaps the two most well regarded renditions are those of Georg Solti (Chicago, Decca) and Kurt Masur (New York, Teldec). The former features the same baritone we have here, Serge Aleksashkin, and also has Anthony Hopkins reading the poems before each movement. This is a nice touch, and the poetry can certainly be programmed out, as I would do after a first hearing. The reading itself is one of Solti’s most searing, perhaps the finest thing he did in Chicago, and almost mandatory for anyone wanting to plumb the depths of this symphony. But Masur also is on the same level. It starts with Yevtushenko reading the poetry himself, and concludes with the first public recitation of his poem “The Loss”, read in English. In between is one of Masur’s greatest recordings while in New York, captured in stunningly realistic sound with great presence. His bass, Sergei Leiferkus, outdoes everyone on record in a splendidly realized performance of great integrity.

This release is not on that level. Though Temirkanov is a very fine conductor, and quite under-rated, this performance lacks the gravity of these other two. Though timings are similar, there is something curiously lightweight about it. Perhaps the wit is too sardonic; maybe the Russians understand this in a different way than we in the west. The St. Petersburg players are on top of their game, and the orchestra really shines. The sound is excellent, but lacks the presence of the two other readings under consideration. And most egregiously, there are no texts given, something really unforgivable in this work. I am glad to have this; it does show that it is possible to have a completely different take on this piece and these poems, and encourages one to re-examine what one though they knew about this masterpiece. But comparatively, at least for me, it remains on the second tier.

— Steven Ritter