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Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 – Work No. 55 in our collection

Dmitri Shostakovich (12.09.1906 – 09.08.1975) was a Russian composer and pianist who is regarded as one of the major composers of the twentieth century. He is remembered particularly for his fifteen symphonies, numerous chamber works, and his concertos.

In addition to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47, we would particularly recommend that you investigate his first symphony, symphonies 8 &10, the Cello Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 107, Cello Sonata in D minor, Op. 40Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor for piano, trumpet & strings, Op. 35Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 99 and his String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110.

Since its earliest performances, given at the height of Stalin’s ‘Great Terror’ in November 1937 Shostakovich’s fifth symphony has rarely failed to move the audience. Tagged A Soviet Artist’s creative reply to just criticism it is both the most popular and also the most mysterious of twentieth century symphonies. The precise intentions of this symphony being the focus of much debate. Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 is a more conservative, less colourful work than Shostakovich’s fourth symphony, which the composer suppressed until Kruschev’s thaw. The idiom of this piece is clearly foreshadowed in the Cello Sonata in D minor, Op. 40. The work is less dissonant than some of his earlier works and written in four movements and both Mahler and Stravinsky loom large in the score. The emotional heart of the work is is the somewhat Tchaikovsky like largo which so moved audiences and can be regarded as some of the best music written by Shostakovich up to that point in time.

There are approaching one hundred CDs of this work available. The best of these include those performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Mark Wigglesworth and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra with Manfred Honeck. However we believe that Andris Nelsons’ account with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, released in 2016 is the best of all.

View the other works in our collection.

Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 – Work no. 54 in our collection

Richard Strauss (11.02.1864 – 08.09.1949) was a leading German composer of the late Romantic and early modern eras. Strauss is known for his operas, which include Der Rosenkavalier, Elektra, Die Frau ohne Schatten and Salome; his Lieder, especially his Four Last Songs and his tone poems. Strauss’s first piece to show his mature personality was the tone poem Don Juan, written in 1888. He went on to compose a series of increasingly ambitious tone poems including Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Ein Heldenleben and Also Sprach Zarathustra.

We have chosen to include Also Sprach Zarathustra in our collection of masterworks although many of the above works are worthy of inclusion. Also Sprach Zarathustra was composed by Richard Strauss, in 1896, and it was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel of the same name. The work is divided into nine sections played with only three definite pauses. The sections are named after selected chapters of Friedrich Nietzsche’s novel:

  1. Einleitung, oder Sonnenaufgang (Introduction, or Sunrise)
  2. Von den Hinterweltlern (Of Those in Backwaters)
  3. Von der großen Sehnsucht (Of the Great Longing)
  4. Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften (Of Joys and Passions)
  5. Das Grablied (The Song of the Grave)
  6. Von der Wissenschaft (Of Science and Learning)
  7. Der Genesende (The Convalescent)
  8. Das Tanzlied (The Dance Song)
  9. Nachtwandlerlied (Song of the Night Wanderer)

Its sunrise theme became hugely popular after its use in the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey and it will be instantly recognisable to most people.

With more than forty versions readily available on CD, many of them containing excellent performances, none can quite match Fritz Reiner’s 1954 recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

View the other works in our collection.

Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet – Work no. 53 in our collection

Sergei Prokofiev (23.04.1891 – 05.03.1953) was a Russian Soviet composer, pianist and conductor. He created a number of masterpieces in various genres and is one of the great composers of the twentieth century. Works to highlight include his Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26Piano Sonata No. 7 in B flat major, Op. 83, his two violin concertos, two violin sonatas, symphonies 1 and 5 and his ballet Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64.

In 1935, Sergei Prokofiev made a devil’s bargain. He returned to the Soviet Union, having receive a lucrative offer to write any opera or ballet he chose and to lead the country’s music scene. He chose to compose a Romeo and Juliet ballet, based upon William Shakespeare’s play. This led to the writing of one of the most widely appreciated dance works in the repertory and as a spin-off; a series of famous orchestral suites. The full ballet premiered in the Mahen Theatre, Brno (then in Czechoslovakia, now in the Czech Republic), on 30 December 1938. However we are more used to hearing the significantly revised version that was first presented at the Kirov Theatre (now Mariinsky Theatre) in Leningrad on 11 January 1940. This production received international acclaim and the ballet has maintained its popular position to the present day.

Our first choice recording comes from Valery Gergiev conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in a live recording on the LSO Live label.

For those looking to acquire a bargain price version you need look no further than Marin Alsop’s recently released, fine performance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Naxos.

If you are looking for a DVD version then you can turn to the Royal Ballet on Decca starring Carlos Acosta (as Romeo) and Tamara Rojo (as Juliet) in a 2009 recording conducted by Boris Gruzin.

View the other works in our collection.

Mozart’s Piano Quartets from Barenboim et al

Mozart: Piano Quartets

Daniel Barenboim (piano), Michael Barenboim (violin), Yiulia Deyneka (viola) & Kian Soltani (cello),

Deutsche Grammophon have assembled a wonderful ensemble for these two piano quartets. Barenboim is joined by  Yulia Deyneka who works as professor at the Barenboim-Said Academy and is the principal viola of the Berlin Staatskapelle. Michael Barenboim, who is Maestro Barenboim’s son, an acclaimed violinist and West-Eastern Divan’s concert master and the label’s recently signed cellist, Kian Soltani.

This oddly neglected instrumental combination, piano with string trio, inspired Mozart to pen these mature works that can be regarded as being the first masterpieces of the genre. Daniel Barenboim and his assembled group play with a sense of adventurousness, quite appropriate in a live performance, but miss nothing of Mozart’s exquisite detail in these pieces that show Mozart at his most fetching. Daniel Barenboim’s piano playing is full of elegance and his colleagues play with mature imagination and the playful exchanges in the final movement of the Piano Quartet No. 2 in E flat major, K493 are realised superbly. In these performances one is able to appreciate the rich textures and the wide range of sonorities that Mozart seems to have delighted in. All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable hour of listening to a pair of Mozart’s masterpieces.

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Beautifully detailed Mahler 4 from Gatti

Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G major

Julia Kleiter (soprano), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Daniele Gatti (conductor).

This is Daniele Gatti’s second recording of the most idyllic, the most pastoral, the most restful of Mahler’s nine numbered symphonies. His first was performed with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the soloist Ruth Ziesak who turned in an outstanding performance in the final movement.

This version was recorded live with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Concertgebouw Amsterdam in November 2017 and features the soprano Julia Kleiter. This is a delightfully detailed and sweeping performance of the work; though some listeners might consider Gatti to have micro-managed the performance. Once again Gatti directs a performance in which the soloist’s contribution is magnificent. The sound is very good, especially in the high resolution download.

Overall then a pleasing performance but I’m not sure that the market really needed a second Mahler 4 from Gatti. Our top recommendation remains the excellently engineered performance by Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra on Channel Classics. Once again this contains some heavenly singing in the finale, this time from from the soprano Miah Persson. Read more about our recommended version here.

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