Les Dissonances & Xavier Phillips play Shostakovich – Symphony 5 & Cello Concerto 1

3 of 5 stars

Cello Concerto No.1 in E-flat, Op.107
Symphony No.5 in D-minor, Op.47

Xavier Phillips (cello)

Les Dissonances
David Grimal (leader)

Recorded at Opéra de Dijon, France – 2 December 2014 (Concerto) & 23 January 2016

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: December 2016
Duration: 76 minutes



The novelty here is that Les Dissonances plays without a conductor, and is led by David Grimal, hence his credit. Whatever his input, and however democratic (compromises made?) the approach, the overall performance of Shostakovich 5 finds little that emerges as revealing, not that it need, save, from the outset, a lack of vibrato, and this from ‘just’ eleven first violins (founded on six double basses): not exactly Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic.

Mind you, the playing is excellent, and, of course, without a conductor, the musicians’ listening-to-each-other skills are heightened, yet there is less sense than there might be of a focussed emotional view of the piece coursing its way through a collective and being relayed to the listener, although one appreciates the unanimity of the ensemble and the eloquence of the numerous solos.

Although vividly detailed, the arrival of the faster music – a menacing march – in the first movement is rather held in check, and if the recording gives the spectator a front-row seat for the chamber-like writing, when it comes to the mightiest fortissimos the fullest resources of Les Dissonances become relatively distant in a venue that is anyway rather cavernous, especially at the very end of the Symphony, here led into with an ungainly change of (faster) gear and then rushed through (Kurt Masur’s massive robotics at this point takes the palm, on the London Philharmonic Orchestra label), and applause is retained.

Meanwhile, the Scherzo has greater spirit and characterisation, and the slow movement – spacious, solemn, fragile – rises to an (unexpected) height of passion and finds aspects of the scoring that can be lost, but for all that the string-sound still comes across as undernourished.

Overall this is a very musical and honourable account of a ubiquitous opus, but it’s a version, matching the photograph in the lavish presentation showing the orchestra with the podium unoccupied, that lacks something… and there is a lot of competition for Shostakovich 5 out there, and for me the composer’s son Maxim’s first recording of it (made in Moscow for Melodiya) remains a yardstick.

Opening the disc is the Cello Concerto (like Shostakovich’s next one, written for Rostropovich) which receives a scorching rendition from Parisian Xavier Phillips, pictured with ‘Slava’ in the presentation and he writes a homage to him, and also makes up the numbers in the Symphony. Phillips plays superbly, so too Les Dissonances, not least some fabulous work from Alexandre Collard (related to Jean-Philippe, the pianist?) on horn. The first movement is driving and biting, and the slow one sensitive and soulful – imploring – whereas the big cadenza linking into the Finale is of rumination and, then, pyrotechnics, the last movement edgy and acerbic, addressed fierily.

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