This past April Brilliant Classics released a “new expanded edition” (according to its Amazon.com page) of their collection of the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. Actually, it is a new contracted edition, since two of the three CDs of historical performances from the original 2012 release have been omitted, meaning that the new collection has 49, rather than 51 CDs. Fortunately, the CD that was not omitted it the one that features solo piano performances by Shostakovich himself.
However, the first 48 CDs are the same in both collections. They are described by Brilliant Classics as a “near complete” collection of Shostakovich’s music. This includes all fifteen symphonies, all fifteen string quartets, the five chamber symphonies (which are actually Rudolf Barshai’s arrangements of five of the string quartets), all the concertos (two each for piano, violin, and cello), and all of the songs). Things fall short in the categories for opera (although Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District is included with Mstislav Rostropovich conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra with lead singers Galina Vishnevskaya and Nicolai Gedda), choral works, instrumental suites (although the two pieces called Jazz Suite are included), and chamber music. That latter category is represented by the two piano sonatas and the sonatas for violin, viola, and cello, as well as the full set of 24 preludes and fugues for solo piano.
More important than any “census” of the music, however, is the selection of performers. The Lady Macbeth recording is a product of performers who know Shostakovich well. The same can be said for Barshai, who conducts not only all of the chamber symphonies but also all fifteen of the symphonies, the latter with the WDR (West German Radio) Symphony Orchestra based in Cologne. These were originally made for WDR between September of 1992 and September of 2000. Also, while the 1923 (first) piano trio in C minor has been excluded, there is a first-rate reissue of a Challenge Classics recording featuring pianist Edward Auer performing the 1944 Opus 67 (second) trio in E minor with violinist Christian Bor and Nathaniel Rosen, coupled with a performance of the 1940 Opus 57 piano quintet in G minor with Auer and Bor joined by violinist Paul Rosenthal, violist Marcus Thompson, and cellist Godfried Hoogeveen.
The one notable absence from this collection involves texts and translations. Earlier anthologies from Brilliant Classics included a data CD that would provide this information. Shostakovich frequently used his music to get to the “semantic infrastructure” of a text, often when it was dangerous to do so. This was a risky business. The use of music to flesh out, so to speak, the brazen eroticism of Lady Macbeth was not lost on Joseph Stalin; and the result was Shostakovich’s first denunciation by Soviet authorities. Granted, that music spoke so clearly and explicitly that one could “get it” from orchestral excerpts alone (as many concert-goers have since discovered); but, like his friend Benjamin Britten, Shostakovich took words seriously when setting them to music. Not having those words readily available is this collection’s greatest weakness.