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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


RECORDING OF THE MONTH

Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1907-1975)
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 in G minor Op. 103, The Year 1905 (1957)
London Symphony Orchestra/Mstislav Rostropovich
Recorded live March 2002, Barbican, London.

LSO LIVE LSO0030 [72’24"]

Superbudget

Crotchet £4.50


This stunning performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 was recorded live at a series of concerts in London to celebrate Rostropovich’s 75th birthday last March. Conducting works by composers Rostropovich had known (Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich) all the concerts were notable for the intensity of the playing and the incandescence of the conductor, perhaps now at the zenith of his interpretative skills.

The Shostakovich was ecstatically received by London’s critics, and Rostropovich was given a standing ovation after the first concert performance of the symphony. How odd, therefore, that LSO Live should remove applause, which they had the misfortune to leave intact in their recording of Elgar’s First Symphony under Colin Davis, a much less notable recording than this one. If any recent live performance justifies the inclusion of applause it is this Shostakovich Eleventh, a helter-skelter of emotion and intensity.

The symphony is neither one of the composer’s best (suffering from the same bombast that disfigures the Twelfth) nor one of his most heard in the concert hall. Partly for that reason it is easier to be persuaded by the sheer bravura of this performance; ones of the Fifth, Eighth and Tenth nowadays lack the very quality this recording has in spades: a sense of newness, and a sense of rawness to the playing it is rare to hear from Western orchestras. Some years ago Bernard Haitink conducted two performances of the Eighth with the London Symphony Orchestra which, because they were so perfectly and so beautifully played, left this writer quite unmoved. That symphony simply cannot be played like that and actually mean anything. Rostropovich is a different animal altogether; the playing is superlative throughout, but there is a volcanic power underpinning an interpretation of wild dynamic extremes. Only a truly great orchestra can play pianissimos with the ghostly restlessness we hear in the opening movement (piano playing that has a kaleidoscope of inner-meaning to it); at the other extreme, such as the brass band fanfares in the second movement, only a truly great conductor can open up the multitude of textures so every instrument is given an inner clarity. Orchestra and conductor work together in such a symbiotic way that this recording actually seems the more remarkable for it.

The Eleventh is contemporaneous with events in Hungary in 1956, yet, like all of Shostakovich’s symphonies after the Fourth, the work seems to invite universal truths into its interpretations and interpreters. Few conductors are more crushing in the climaxes of this work than Rostropovich, and even fewer are as tender in the more eerily quiet sections of the symphony. Rostropovich’s interpretation is based on a broad latitude of suffering most conductors simply do not bring to the symphonies of Shostakovich, and this is the very reason this particular performance can only be compared with the very greatest: Mravinsky in Prague in 1967 (available on Praga PR 254018) and in Leningrad in 1957 (on Russian Disc RDCD 11157).

The symphony must be a nightmare to record live, given that the balances are so extreme in the work. The LSO engineers do not entirely succeed – in the final movement from about 6’00 to 7’46 the sound seems congested, and the strings sound almost metallic and slightly grate on the ear. Moreover, playback needs to be at a very high volume to produce sufficient bass in the recording, a real problem when the dynamics of the work are so broadly based. When this performance is loud it is very loud; when it is quiet it is almost inaudible.

Despite this, it is a remarkable disc of a remarkable concert. Listen to the disc from 15’30 in the final movement to the work’s close (a sonorous gong) and you will experience world class playing allied with incredible musicianship. It is certainly the finest recording of the modern era.

Marc Bridle

 


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