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Recording of the Week, Andris Nelsons conducts symphonies by Shostakovich

It's often fascinating to hear the changes in a composer's style when a particular album juxtaposes their early and late works, and that is exactly what Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra have done with the latest instalment in their ongoing cycle of Shostakovich symphonies.

Andris NelsonsBearing in mind the huge scale of some of his later symphonies, the teenage composer's first attempt in the genre can come as a surprise: opening not with a massive orchestra but with a quietly quirky duet for trumpet and bassoon. Indeed, much of the work continues in this chamber-like vein, with extended solos for a host of instruments. It is an ideal piece for the Boston principals to display their virtuosity, particularly flute and clarinet during their off-kilter waltz in the first movement, and poignant contributions in the third movement from oboe and solo cello (the latter's melody hinting at the motif that opens Wagner's Tristan und Isolde). Of course there are moments where the entire orchestra is permitted to let rip, and Nelsons ensures that these passages receive their full weight, helped by a mighty low brass section.

While the First Symphony merely alludes to Wagner, the Fifteenth Symphony, written just a few years before Shostakovich's death, contains more overt quotations from Die Walküre and Tristan und Isolde, as well as from other composers, most notably the final section of Rossini's William Tell Overture. It can be hard to make sense of this work, but Nelsons manages it wonderfully, enjoying the cheeky, incongruous nature of the Rossini quotations but also weaving in the Wagnerian references in an extremely moving way. Much of the symphony was written from a hospital bed, and the way that Wagner's Annunciation of Death motif continually reappears in order to strangle and stifle a pleasant Allegretto melody that keeps attempting to assert itself is affectingly realised. Nelsons maintains the optimistic, if slightly ironic moments of good humour earlier on: even though I knew they were coming, there was something about the innocent, oompah-band nature of the William Tell moments that raised a smile.

However, for me the highlight is the second movement, a sprawling lament that allows the Boston players to demonstrate the full range of their dynamics and expressivity, from the movement's opening where the tragic brass chorales contrast with the agonised cries from solo cello and violin, to the dolorous, funereal tread of the trombone and tuba duets later on. Clocking in at just short of seventeen and a half minutes, it's clear that Nelsons is not afraid to take his time, and yet I think that this adds to both the majesty and also the pathos of the movement. Similarly, the closing few minutes of the symphony, where a serene A major string chord is held underneath the eerie, ghoulish clattering of various percussion instruments such as triangle, castanets, woodblock, and tambourine (thought to represent the distant sounds of hospital machinery), offer a strange yet somehow reassuring end to one of Shostakovich's most distinct works.

The remaining two pieces on the album are scored (aside from percussion and two vocal soloists in the Fourteenth Symphony) exclusively for string orchestra. In the Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a there's an extraordinary range of colours, plus immaculate playing from the Boston strings. Equally exceptional is the Fourteenth Symphony, where the first movement shows off the rich, sonorous sound of the double basses. In their lower register there's a luxurious depth to their timbre that is most pleasing. In this respect they are matched by the bass soloist, Alexander Tsymbalyuk, who combines full-throated resonance with a commanding upper register. The strings despatch the fiendish demands of movements such as Malagueña and Loreley with seeming ease, elsewhere switching effortlessly into tender, melancholic mode, aided by a plangent contribution from soprano Kristine Opolais.

By my calculations there are just four symphonies left to be released in this cycle, and I look forward to hearing them immensely. I have no doubt that it will come to be regarded as one of the finest Shostakovich cycles in recent times.

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC