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Shostakovich: Symphony No. 14 - Storgårds

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 14 - Storgårds

Chandos  CHSA 5310

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Shostakovich: Symphony No. 14*, Six Verses of Marina Tsvetayeva^

Elizabeth Atherton* (soprano)
Jess Dandy^ (contralto)
Peter Rose* (bass)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
John Storgårds (conductor)


John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic continue their survey of Shostakovich’s late symphonies with this recoding of the Fourteenth, with Elizabeth Atherton and Peter Rose as soloists. Completed in the spring of 1969 and premièred later that year, the symphony is written for soprano, bass, and small string orchestra with percussion, comprising eleven linked settings of poems by four authors. Most of the poems deal with the theme of death, particularly that of unjust or early death, and indeed all four of the poets had died prematurely and / or in unnatural circumstances – Wilhelm Küchelbecker in Siberian exile for his part in the 1825 Decembrist uprising, Federico García Lorca assassinated during the Spanish Civil War, in 1936, Rainer Maria Rilke of blood poisoning following an accident in 1926, and Guillaume Apollinaire in 1918 during the Spanish influenza pandemic. The Six Verses of Marina Tsvetayeva were composed in 1973, originally for contralto and piano, and subsequently arranged for chamber orchestra (the version we hear here, with Jess Dandy as soloist). The recording was made at Media City in Salford, Manchester, in Surround Sound, and is available as a hybrid SACD and in Spatial Audio.

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Review by Graham Williams - September 11, 2023

This release marks the third issue in John Storgårds survey of the ‘late Shostakovich symphonies’ for Chandos. The first item on this very well recorded SACD is the composer’s settings of ‘Six Verses of Marina Tsvetayeva’ Op. 143a for contralto and chamber orchestra. Shostakovich set six of Tsvetayeva’s poems for contralto and piano in 1973 and the version for chamber orchestra appeared in 1974, a year before his death. Here they are sung most beautifully by the young British contralto Jess Dandy whose rich, firm and powerful voice does full justice to these moving songs while the BBC Philharmonic provide a characterful and impeccably played accompaniment.

Regrettably the booklet does not provide any texts and translations – a major omission – both here and especially in the 14th Symphony that follows.

Shostakovich's Symphony No. 14, composed in 1969, stands as a stark departure from the bombastic and triumphant symphonies that define much of his oeuvre. Instead, it delves into the realms of darkness, death, and human contemplation of these, with an unflinching gaze.
The Symphony comprises eleven movements, each setting poems by various poets about death and mortality. Shostakovich chose his texts from a variety of sources. Two poems by the Spaniard Federico Garcia Lorca, six by Frenchman Guillaume Apollinaire, two from the German Rainer Maria Rilke and one poem of Russian origin, by Wilhelm Küchelbecker. The interplay between the orchestra, the vocal soloists, and the thematic material is executed with a careful balance that allows the dark subject matter to shine through while maintaining a sense of cohesion from start to finish. An easy listen it is not.

From the hushed and mournful opening of the first movement the recording evokes a consistent atmosphere of sombre rumination. The playing of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under John Storgårds is characterized by a precision that exemplifies Shostakovich's mastery of the spare orchestration (strings and percussion), highlighting the stark contrasts between the sinister and the ethereal.

Peter Rose (bass) and Elizabeth Atherton (soprano), the vocal soloists, have performed this work in concert on a number of occasions and they show considerable commitment to and understanding of the work. Their voices are clear and suitably emotive, and the way they navigate the challenging vocal lines and intricate moods of the poetry is impressive, though for this listener they fail to deliver the weight of the texts with the necessary visceral intensity, particularly when compared with native Russian singers on alternative recordings of this work.

While this recording captures the essence of the symphony quite effectively, there are some sections where the overall pacing is too measured and could benefit from more nuanced phrasing. Some movements tend to drag, risking the loss of tension that's crucial to the symphony's impact. Overall though, this recording does offer a haunting journey into the depths of Shostakovich's introspection, inviting listeners to confront mortality and melancholy in a way that only his unique symphonic voice can deliver.

The recordings were made on 21 and 22 January 2022 (Symphony No 14) and 25 November 2022 (Six Verses of Marina Tsvetayeva) at Media City, Salford, Manchester, and as I have indicated above, the sound quality is first rate.

Copyright © 2023 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net

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Comment by Marcus DiBenedetto - March 5, 2024 (1 of 2)

I did not have this symphony in my collection. I was waiting for a decent HiRez surround version and decided this was it. I downloaded the album in both stereo (for headsets) and surround. While listening, I found it is very reminiscent of Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13 - Karabits, which is a favorite of mine. Graham's review did cite a few reservations. I checked other reviews which were generally favorable. I'm not an expert but I thought the vocals were wonderful. A surprise was the depth and breadth of the soundstage. The instruments were so clear and well placed that I felt I could get up and go meet the musicians.

Yes, this symphony is intensely morbid and covered in a shroud of darkness. I agree the lack of a translation is a terrible mistake. The translation helps the listener understand the music. Luckily, after much searching, I found a booklet with the lyrics (free download on eClassical, Wigglesworth performance, (BIS-1173)). Once armed with the lyrics, the music gives the listener a look into the abyss. An older listener like myself can feel the palpable emotions of facing the end. As I looked for other reviews, I found a two year old video review by Dave Hurwitz. He really gives the listener a deep understanding of the piece. He then lists his top performances, among which his favorite is Rostropovich (Warner Classics 90295341527). I thought his history of the symphony was very good and informative. "Repertoire: The BEST Shostakovich Symphony No. 14" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mtBtcqYMmx0

I have no regrets purchasing this symphony.

Marcus DiBenedetto
Las Vegas, NV

Comment by DYB - March 6, 2024 (2 of 2)

I love the 14th. Hurwitz's choice is very predictable and boring, like a lot of Hurwitz's choices. (Sorry.) Rostropovich's old recording is actually quite good, though. Of digital hi-resolution recordings, I really like Dmitri Kitajenko's (with Marina Shaguch/Arutjun Kotchinian) and Vladimir Jurowski's LPO recording (Tatiana Monogarova/Sergei Leiferkus.)

Digital but not hi-res that's excellent try Mariss Jansons' from his EMI cycle (Larissa Gogolevskaya/Sergei Alexashkin).