Review by Dinko March 5, 2004 (1 of 2 found this review helpful)
|Another mixed bag with good playing but questionable sonics.
I was very afraid of Yablonsky's Shostakovich. The conductor has a past tendency to play theatrics and artificially exaggerate contrasts of fast vs. slow and loud vs. soft. In this recording, those mannerisms are subdued and kept to a minimum. Where they do appear, they tend to enhance the music rather than ruin it because the mannerisms are not taken to extreme levels. He keeps the music moving. Although the total time of this disc would indicate a very slow symphony, it does not sound slow to me. Yablonsky keeps it moving with forward momentum.
The Russian Philharmonic Orchestra was formed as a studio pick-up band which later developed into a concert orchestra as well. Their performance is exemplary.
The sound is good... and bad.
This is an extremely detailed recording. There is more detail in this recording of the Shostakovich 7th than I have ever heard elsewhere. The woodwinds in particular come out very well and all their different colours can be easily picked out. The overall recording is also fairly "bright", but does not suffer from over-brightness like many early digital recordings.
I'm not sure that this is a recording reproducing instrumental timbres with the utmost fidelity however. The woowinds and the percussion section are very well reproduced, as is most of the brass section.
It might be due to microphone placement, but some of the brass instruments often sound squeekier than normal (even for nasal Russian brass sections that is). While there is good enough atmosphere around the percussion and woodwinds, the brass occasionally sounds somewhat two-dimensional, lacking a more rounded, fuller sound from better recordings. At other times, the brass is perfectly natural. The good part is that the occasions of natural-sounding brass are more than the occasions of squeeky brass.
The strings are hardest to pinpoint. Is it because of microphone placement? Or is it simply that there are not enough of them? In any case, be it performance or sonics, the string section sounds horribly understaffed, the violins in particular. Celli, basses are decent. The violins which play such a crucial role in Shostakovich symphonies are almost absent. It sounds as if there were about ten violinists for this recording. In addition to that, the strings sound glossy. Like they have Varathane coating or something. Not the most pleasant string sound I've heard.
One thing this performance cannot be accused of is lacking in dynamic range. While not as excessive as some previous CD recordings of this symphony, dynamic range here is adequately wide, without ever becoming extreme. The uppermost frequencies are well reproduced, and there is ample bass without sounding ridiculous like a dts movie soundtrack full of explosive sound effects. Take the second movement at about 5min 30: timpany, drums & lower brass blast away loudly, yet never cover the lighter parts of the orchestra and never sound too loud.
I find the multichannel version to be about as perfect as they come. The orchestra is spread about the three front channels, while rear channels provide an excellent degree of hall ambience, placing the listener somewhere in the middle of the hall. Not too close to the orchestra, not too far away. Just close enough to hear hall reverb from behind and orchestral detail from the front - all at the same time.
Liner notes, while short, are good enough. Informative and interesting without becoming academic.
In the end...
I'm pleased by the orchestra's playing. The sound however leaves me perplexed. Mostly, I keep coming back to the small and badly recorded violin section. There are too few violinists here, and they sound like they suffer from digitalitis (a sad sonic condition which makes the sound appear as if it were a compressed mp3 file). It is peculiar to hear lower brass, percussion and woodwinds well reproduced, while strings sound thin and glossy while trumpets sound rather distant and two dimensional.
I gladly admit to being wrong about Yablonsky. While the orchestra does not possess the same heaviness as the Kirov/Rotterdam combination of orchestras used by the other recent release of this work ( Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7 - Gergiev ), Yablonsky's approach is by far the better one. Gergiev's ridiculous reading with its amateurish extremes in tempo is jarring, unpleasant, and would be forgettable if it were not so annoying. The Naxos sound is different: more open, less gloomy. Both versions offer a good surround mix. The Philips recording seems to place the orchestra more in a panoramic semi-circle than does the Naxos which lumps the orchestra on a nice sound stage in front but it's harder to determine the shape the orchestra takes. Soundwise, I like both, but I prefer the Naxos for the clarity and detail, while I prefer the Philips for the bolder and not-so-glossy string sound. Performance wise, again Yablonsky is I think the better choice. His interpretation is not as obnoxious as Gergiev's, and the Russian Philharmonic plays better than the Kirov & Rotterdam orchestras. Now if only the Russian Phil had a few more strings...
(PS: Performance & Sonics would be 3½ if there were half-stars.)
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