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Dimitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 11, The Year 1905, Op. 103 (1957)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Alexander Lazarev
rec. 22-23 January 2004, Usher Hall, Edinburgh


It is typical of Shostakovich that the 'meaning' of this remarkable symphony remains equivocal. The public references to the 1905 Revolution, which duly earned him a Lenin Prize, hid the work's private links to contemporary events. In particular these related to the abortive Hungarian Revolution, which was so bloodily suppressed by the occupying Soviet forces. Be that as it may, the Symphony No. 11, like all the best programme music, transcends its programme and exists as a masterpiece of symphonic integration and searing emotional commitment.

Shostakovich composed the work in 1957, for the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution. It is outwardly based upon the tragic revolt of the St Petersburg workers in 1905, the year in which the disastrous defeats in the war with Japan combined with intense economic problems, to drive the people to an open expression of discontent. At the centre of the conception is an event as notorious in Russia as the Peterloo Massacre is in Britain: the 'Bloody Sunday' assault on the workers who were demonstrating in the Square of the Winter Palace. Hundreds of men, women and children were killed.

There are four movements, which are closely linked by the careful symphonic integration of the material. The first, entitled The Palace Square, sets the scene and introduces the most important of the musical ingredients, a motto theme which is immediately presented in bleak outline, with the addition of sinister timpani patterns. The atmospheric Linn recording and Lazarev’s steady tempo succeed in setting the scene of the chill surroundings. It is important to outline this material of course, since it will prove pervasive. The playing of the orchestra matches this vision, with rapt intensity and close attention to dynamics: principal flute and trumpet both acquit themselves with distinction. The performance captures the remarkable concentration of this movement, as the impersonal atmosphere becomes obsessive.

The second movement, 9th January, follows without pause, and relates the massacre. In the lower strings a distinctive tune is heard: 'Bare your heads', from Shostakovich's own Choruses on Revolutionary Poems (1951). As if to portray the gathering crowd, the tune is insistently repeated, intensifying until the first movement's trumpet call cuts through the texture and the conflict turns to crisis. There is terrific intensity at length releasing the evocation of the infamous massacre. Here the recording engineers are put to the test, a test that they pass, even if the Scottish strings can sound strained at times. The event itself is graphically represented, by means of the exciting rhythmic conflict between fours and threes. Lazarev’s tempo is insistent, his balancing of the material well articulated without compromising the ‘edge of the seat’ nature of the music.

When it arrives the climax is a masterstroke, returning suddenly to a pianissimo presentation of the motto. Again the Linn recording does justice to the requirements of the dynamic range, before the trumpet call of hope follows, as do subdued references to other potent themes.

From these poignant images emerges the third movement, In Memoriam, whose slow pizzicato pulse sets the tone for the dignified elegy introduced by the violas. Extended presentations of this noble Revolutionary tune - 'You fell as victims' - frame the movement, with a big contrasting climax at the centre.

The finale, The Tocsin, builds an insistent vision that determination and hope must result in victory. This march-like moto perpetuo is cast in three parts: a call to action, a meditation, and the struggle ahead. Accordingly the principal theme is based upon another Revolutionary song: 'Rage, you tyrants'. For relief there is a slow interlude, a cor anglais lament based on the motto; it is beautifully played in this performance. After this the concluding phase is brief and the more urgent for it. Shostakovich builds a final massive and resounding climax for the full orchestra, which makes a suitable impact thanks to the outstanding recording.

There is more than one way of performing a great symphony, of course, and in that sense the best performance must by definition be ‘the next one’. However, Lazarev and the RSNO stand up as worthy members of what is becoming a more crowded assemblage of compelling recorded performances of the Symphony No. 11. His tempi bring a sense of urgency that Mstislav Rostropovich, for one, lacks, although there is no lack of weight when required. On the other hand, Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw have an attention to detailed dynamics that leaves other behind, though on the other hand there are moments, especially in the finale, when the torch of intensity might have burned more brightly. On EMI Paavo Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra remain a personal favourite. The sound wears its age well and the rugged determination of Berglund’s approach to tempi has much to commend it, particularly in the ‘massacre’ music. The older Russian recordings by Mravinsky and Kondrashin have great power and authenticity, although in truth their sound quality is rough and ready compared with what modern technology can produce. There is an excellent 1995 Russian performance, on Chandos with the Russian State Orchestra conducted by Valeri Polyansky, which perhaps combines the best of all these features.

With their highly successful Chandos recordings with Neeme Järvi, the Scottish National Orchestra has a proud recording tradition in Shostakovich (though Järvi recorded the Eleventh for DG in Gothenberg). This well mastered disc assumes a worthy position in that tradition, confirming as it does the orchestra’s standards and international credentials.

Terry Barfoot

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