Litton’s Long-Faced Light Shostakovich

Shostakovich: Jazz & Variety Suites

  • Andrew Litton (conductor); Singapore Symphony Orchestra
  • Recorded 2019
  • BIS-2472 (1SACD)
  • Reviewed as a 24-bit/96 kHz download

This was a release that I very much looked forward to, for two reasons. Firstly, there’s a dearth of Shostakovich’s light music on recordings, especially compared to the rate at which new symphony cycles have been issued in recent years, and a new recording has long been overdue (the latest one of note, Theodore Kuchar’s, was recorded in 2001). Secondly, Litton has considerable credentials in Russian music in general, and in Shostakovich in particular, with spectacular recordings of symphonies 6 and 10, as well as in the piano concertos accompanying Marc-André Hamelin.

It therefore gives me no pleasure to report that this album of Shostakovich’s theoretically lighter side gave me no pleasure. To start with, the conducting is maddeningly inconsistent: at times interventionist, at times glib. Litton flies through the Little Polka in the Suite for Variety Orchestra (“Jazz Suite No. 2”) (track 16), making little of the contrast in tempo at around 0:40 (marked poco più mosso at rehearsal number 4 of the score), and then staying that way even when the opening xylophone music returns at 1:45 (admittedly the score doesn’t specify a return to the original tempo), leaving the orchestra hanging on for dear life at the end. On the other end of the scale, he takes 4:30 to trundle through Tahiti Trot (track 21) where others take a whole minute less. Timings of course aren’t everything, and Litton does use that time to elicit some delicious portamenti in the violins, but the lack of momentum really is disconcerting, and this coupled with that huge ritardando at 2:50 makes you think the music’s over, when it should surge on.

In stark contrast to this bout of mannerism, the waltz numbers are all criminally metronomic and uninflected. I know this music is more or less wind-up-and-go, but surely you would expect some sensitivity to round off phrases a little bit or to ease into contrasting sections. Not a chance. The final peroration of the waltz theme in the Lyric Waltz (track 17), led by the strings, seldom has sounded less exalted. Litton has hitherto impressed me with his solid musicality and stylishness; these qualities have evidently deserted him here, of all places in Shostakovich’s ostensibly simplest music.

Then there’s the orchestra, which is proficient enough technically but for the most part offers playing absolutely devoid of character. Listen to the dark, reticent trumpets and the listless response in the woodwinds that start the March in the Suite for Variety Orchestra (track 13), and compare it to the Ukrainians under Kuchar, not to mention the Concertgebouw under Chailly. Likewise sample the popular Polka from The Age of Gold (track 6), where the winds simply don’t squeak, pop, honk or fart the way they should, and then switch to, say, the LSO under Martinon or the New Yorkers under Kostelanetz, where they do. The difference really is night and day. The Singaporeans secure a good Shostakovich sound alright, but for his late symphonies — not for his light music.

Obviously, part of this blame has to go to Litton who fails to encourage his orchestra to play with the color and grotesquerie by which this music lives or dies. Where he does intervene in the orchestra’s sound, it’s in the wrong places: the small brass chorale at 2:40 in the famous Waltz No. 2 (track 19) is played so softly that the tone becomes bodiless and the tune almost vanishes. I suspect that part of the impression of characterless playing stems from the hall’s acoustic, which sounds quite large and seems to make the players’ sonorities blend unusually well with each other, including the “folk” instruments like the accordion, guitar, and saxophones which are rendered pretty much inaudible most of the time. But then again, if Decca’s engineers managed to mike the individual instruments so they stand out with the necessary prominence in an even vaster acoustic that is the Concertgebouw, why couldn’t BIS?

There are good things, in fairness. The smaller-scale Jazz Suite No. 1 goes quite well, and features some appropriately bawdy and gaudy violin and trombone solos. And the adagios from the two ballet suites (The Limpid Stream, The Age of Gold) are poetically phrased and movingly intoned. Here in these more sombre numbers, Litton and his Singaporean players are truly in their element. Such a shame, then, that they couldn’t display the same amount of dedication towards the rest of the program. Please, folks, lighten up!


Andrew Litton and his musicians shy away from the vulgarity and vibrancy so critical in this tongue-in-cheek music, and the result sounds strangely disengaged and joyless. A disappointing release and a missed opportunity to add positively to the paucity of recordings of these pieces.

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