SHOSTAKOVICH: The Symphonies (Complete) – Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orch./ Vasily Petrenko – Naxos 8.501111 (11 discs), [10/9/15] *****:
Dimiti Shostakovich crafted one of the most impressive bodies of symphonic works in the twentieth century, and his fifteen symphonies are among some of the most revered and sometimes misunderstood masterworks in classical music. While constantly under the thumb of an oppressive regime, he struggled to maintain his artistic freedom, balancing that with keeping a low profile with Soviet officials who constantly pressured him to produce works more pleasing to Josef Stalin. So many of his mature works didn’t have their premieres until much later in his life due to that situation. And due to the lack of credible information coming forth from then Soviet Russia, much of his published body of work was often misunderstood by the music press, who regularly labeled him as a propagandist and tool of the government. How very wrong they were; thanks to brave conductors like Stokowski and Ormandy who championed his work, his reputation soon began to flourish.
The 15 symphonies collected here have been released individually over the last six years, but provide a very cohesive listening experience as a group. Conductor Vasily Petrenko is a master of this repertory, and his seven-plus-year association with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic helps provide us as listeners with informed and idiomatic performances of these massive works that probably wouldn’t be possible as a one-off situation. Just take a look at his personal notes that preface each of the symphony descriptions in the supplied booklet; his very cogent remarks on Shostakovich and his process as composer are insightful and enlightening. His passion for these works are obvious throughout this remarkable set, and every element involved from orchestra to chorus and vocal soloists insure that this Shostakovich box is the one you’ll want for your collection. These are impassioned, white-hot performances that are easily the equal of anything else out there. Strictly based on performance values, this set rates a 10 out-of-10!
While there’s no doubting Vasily Petrenko’s prowess as a classical conductor, his position as a very public figure is obviously a work-in-progress. He created something of a firestorm a few years back with some remarks he made that were construed as disparaging to women conductors and their place leading orchestras in the classical music world. Some media outlets even called for his resignation, but fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. Some well-conducted (no pun intended) public relations helped to quell the storm and perhaps recast the possibly that the remarks may even have been taken out of context. Regardless, it’s great that such a relatively young and important voice wasn’t silenced or relegated to some Siberian backwater, and perhaps it was even a good growth experience for him in the big picture.
For those lucky enough to invest the time required by this excellent and deeply involving set, getting the very best sound is paramount to your musical enjoyment. I’ve been using the PS Audio NuWave DSD digital-to-analog converter recently; it’s a truly excellent DAC and provides remarkably good sound from Red Book CDs. As is my usual method, I rip all music CDs in my collection to uncompressed FLACs and playback is via my computer into the DAC. I’ve recently discovered, however, that for strict 16-bit PCM playback, using a good CD, universal or Blu-ray player as a transport with a digital connection (I use the coax) to a DAC – in this instance, the PS Audio unit – actually provides a bit of a step up in terms of sound quality. It seems to me that reducing the number of D/A-A/D conversions may, in fact, actually result in a marked improvement in the resulting sound. Of course, if you’re using a truly state-of-the art disc player, it may be a moot point anyway.
The PS Audio unit is also capable of outputting DSD via DoP through its USB and I2S outputs, and in a recent leap of faith, I’ve been converting all my playback via computer to 2x DSD output using JRiver Media Center 21. The sound is shockingly good – I must admit, I’ve become somewhat of a convert to the notion of DSD’s superiority. Via the PS Audio NuWave DAC in combination with JRiver, these remarkable recordings exhibit the best characteristics of good analog playback – highly detailed, and yet with added warmth and musicality to a degree I would not have previously thought possible. And for an even further twist, if you happen to have a subscription to the Classics Online HD LL streaming service (from Naxos, of course!), you can hear all these symphonies in 24-bit/44.1 sound. I personally thought the streamed sound compared very favorably with the DSD conversions.
While the MSRP for this set is about $100 US, it sells on Amazon for about $70, with numerous resellers there listing it for around $50 plus shipping. At roughly 5-7 dollars per disc, this 11-disc set is an undeniable bargain, especially in light of the remarkable sound that can be had with the current state of digital playback. In my opinion, this set comes very close to approaching definitive, reference standards, especially in terms of sound and performance values. And let’s face it – that’s what’s really ultimately important about this set – it’s a Shostakovich Symphonies for the ages that rivals anything currently in print. If I have any quibble at all with the set, it has to do with the packaging, which is flimsy at best. But in an age where I’ve become more comfortable reaching for my tablet to control and direct my listening sessions, and where a box of discs is simply stored somewhere for posterity – it’s much more than adequate. The music is stored within my system, and ease of access has made physical media presence a very secondary consideration.
In a world seemingly gone mad for classical music lovers, where orchestras worldwide seem on the precipice of financial failure, and where the former model of music retailing seems like a distant dream, Naxos is a wonder to behold. They seem to be single-handedly maintaining the viability of classical music for those of us who still really care. The bottom line here is that, for the relatively meager price of admission, the performances are skillful, breathtaking and beautiful. Reference quality sound rarely comes at this bargain-basement price point. Very, very highly recommended!