The recently appointed Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, continues his series of the ‘war symphonies’ of Shostakovich in this double-disc set. The Tenth appeared a year ago to great acclaim, and the Sixth and Seventh are slated for future release. This series of symphonies is the pinnacle of Shostakovich’s achievement in the form, reputedly mapping the composer’s anxiety, anger and subversion during the fraught years of war and Stalin’s rule. Valery Gergiev recorded much the same selection with the Kirov (Mariinsky) Orchestra in the early 2000s for Philips (leaving out the post-war Tenth, arguably the best, and adding the experimental pre-war Fourth). That set makes for an interesting comparison.

The Boston Symphony is known for its polish, and it is an aural pleasure to revisit their beautifully upholstered, well recorded sound. Nelsons has galvanised these musicians.Dramatic moments like the descending brass motifs in the Eighth’s third movement absolutely tell. Quirky, pointed phrasing from the clarinet brings Shostakovich the clown to life in the central movement of the Ninth, and the Fifth’s first movement climax carries plenty of weight. The passage that follows, with flute and horn mingling in gentle counterpoint, is as meltingly lovely as it should be. 

Even so, in spite of – or perhaps because of – Nelsons’ control of balance and unruffled laying out of exquisite textures, these are safe performances. The clown is devoid of sarcasm in the symphonies and also the nose-thumbing score for a 1932 production of Hamlet. Nelsons always takes his time, and there are both advantages and drawbacks to this. The slow movement of the Ninth gains gravitas, but the Scherzo of the Fifth merely sounds like a complacent merry-go-round.

Nelsons always takes his time, and there are both advantages and drawbacks to this

Gergiev’s set is led by a man who knew all about Soviet officialdom. The Scherzo in his Fifth teems with menace from the word go; it isn’t notably faster, but the orchestra’s attack and expressive decisions tell a story that Nelsons doesn’t even attempt. 

The long first movement of the Eighth shows both conductors at their best. Nelsons sees it as a symphonic structure: his taut control never allows you to feel that Shostakovich is meandering. Gergiev’s comparative indecisiveness is interrupted by passages of searing intensity. More is at stake. 

While Boston’s Shostakovich Tenth Symphony was impressive, this new set gives us the ‘what’ but not the ‘why’.