Five of the best Shostakovich conductors
History's finest interpreters of Shostakovich's ever-absorbing, endlessly varied symphonies
The 15 symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich traverse a huge emotional and musical terrain, from the youthful fireworks of Symphony No. 1 via the defiance and bleakness of numbers 7 and 8, onto the strange death music of number 15, his last.
Read conductor Vasily Petrenko's guides to all 15 Shostakovich symphonies on our website.
Who are the greatest Shostakovich conductors?
Which conductors have best realised this strange and absorbing music? Here are our top five Shostakovich conductors.
Yevgeny Mravinsky (1903-88)
Mravinsky gave world premieres of seven of Shostakovich’s symphonies: 5, 6, 8 (which was dedicated to him) 9, 10, 11 and 12. Though the composer’s favourite interpreter for many years, his refusal to conduct Symphony No. 13 ‘Babi Yar’ caused a permanent rift.
Symphony No. 8: Leningrad Philharmonic/Mravinsky
Kirill Kondrashin (1914-81)
When Mravinsky refused to conduct the Symphony No. 13, Kirill Kondrashin stepped in, though his recording has the sanitised text that Yevtushenko was forced to rewrite. Kondrashin’s performances of Shostakovich were famously harrowing, although all his Soviet recordings were withdrawn when he defected to the West in 1975.
Rudolf Barshai (1924-2010)
Shostakovich admired Barshai, originally violist of the Borodin Quartet. On hearing his conducting of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony he is reported to have said, ‘We haven’t heard Beethoven like that since Klemperer.’
Barshai conducted the premiere of Symphony No. 14 in 1969. He founded the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, and made the famous arrangement of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 for string orchestra.
Leonard Bernstein (1918-90)
Bernstein was a passionate advocate for Shostakovich’s music at a time when he was deeply unfashionable among the Western avant-garde. He approached the music as a great Mahlerian, creating indelible interpretations which breathe a very different air than those of his Russian contemporaries. No. 7 with the Chicago Symphony contains perhaps the most shattering slow movement committed to disc.
Symphonies 1 & 7: Chicago Symphony/Bernstein
DG 427 6322
Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (1931-2018)
Rozhdestvensky conducted many of Shostakovich's works, perhaps most memorably the Western premiere of the Symphony No. 4 at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival. He edited volume 2 of the collected works, including Symphonies 3 & 4.
He brings a hypnotic focus to the phantasmagorical Fourth in this recording from 1984 of the soon-to-be-dismantled USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra.
Symphony No. 4
USSR Ministry of Culture SO/Rozhdestvensky Olympia/Melodiya MCD 156
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.