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Andris Nelsons | BSO - Under Stalin's Shadow: Shostakovich Sym 5,8,9 / NPR: First Listen

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How to encapsulate the incredible life and times of Dmitri Shostakovich? His story of tragedy and triumph is the stuff of Hollywood political thrillers. Rocketing to stardom at 19, the Soviet Union's leading composer later runs afoul of Stalin and fears for his life until the dictator's death - all while writing music of extraordinary intensity (and occasional insignificance), eventually becoming an enigmatic legend whose motivations continue to puzzle fans and scholars today.

If you're new to Shostakovich's 15 symphonies, this new double-disc album is a pretty good starter kit. It contains the Fifth, his most famous symphony, the Ninth, his most approachable and which looks backward toward the classical period of Haydn, and the Eighth, one of his boldest and most unconventional. The set also includes an example of another Shostakovich specialty, writing for films and plays, with a suite of excerpts from a production of Shakespeare's Hamlet.

The bonus is that these works are played with insight and panache by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Andris Nelsons, who are recording all the Shostakovich symphonies live. The first installment in the series, featuring the Symphony No. 10, was released last fall and won a Grammy.

When Nelsons was born in Latvia, his country was firmly under Soviet rule. One could imagine a distinct sympathy for both Shostakovich and Shostakovich Under Stalin's Shadow, the title the record company has attached to the album series. Judging from these two releases alone, Nelsons is poised to become the next big thing in an ever-crowded field of Shostakovich conductors. The playing he coaxes from his musicians is at the highest level and the deep soundstage of the recording makes it an excellent album for headphones. (Just watch out for the bass drum!)

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