After the rather unimaginative "Russian dances" collection from Yamada (Pentatone 2016), it is refreshing to see this innovative Shostakovich program from a conductor new to me: Gustavo Gimeno. Not only do we get the ever-ingenious and endlessly fascinating 1st Symphony, but also some rarely heard "fillers": two Scherzos for Orchestra, Five Fragments for Orchestra, and the fabulous Theme and Variations.
Beginning with the Symphony, which enjoys much more competition on record than the remainder of the program, I will say Gimeno's reading is excellent without quite displacing the very best available. It's extremely well played and superbly recorded. But it isn't quite as gripping with the jaw-dropping sense of discovery as is Ormandy's classic 1959 CBS recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Nor is it as overtly spectacular as Mark Wigglesworth's 2012 BIS recording with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. In superlative sound, Wigglesworth's is easily the best modern recording of the piece of I have yet heard. It is truly stunning. That disc is even more generously coupled with the same composer's 2nd and 3rd symphonies. But do not think for a moment that Gimeno is in any way inferior or fails to impress in this piece. Far from it. This is as engaging, colorful and insightful a performance as you'll encounter. And once again, Pentatone's sound is absolutely some of the best ever produced of a modern symphony orchestra (and the BIS is just as good).
The fillers are just as enjoyable - in some ways even more so, given they are less often heard. In fact, the Theme and Variations is new to me. (Oh, I may have heard it before but simply can't remember!). I was pleasantly surprised to hear how much the opening sections remind me of Arnold Schoenberg's Variations. But Shostakovich's individual voice quickly becomes apparent and thoughts of Schoenberg vanish.
The two Scherzos are terrific pieces in their own right and superbly played here, as are the delightful Five Fragments. One wonders what might have become of these fragments if Shostakovich had set out to develop them into something substantial.
All in all, this is a most glorious, rewarding, engaging, imaginatively fascinating and superbly recorded Shostakovich disc which is not to be missed. Gustavo Gimeno is a name to watch and I eagerly anticipate his Ravel Daphnis & Chloe recording, coming from Pentatone in October (2017).