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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 (1953) [56:14]
Veljo TORMIS (b. 1930)
Overture No. 2 (1959) [11 :19]
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. Music Hall, Cincinnati, April 2008
TELARC CD-80702 [67:35] 
Experience Classicsonline

Admirers of Veljo Tormis’s choral music - and there are many - will perhaps be surprised by the vehemence of his Overture No. 2. It is predominantly dramatic and violent, with a calmer middle section which, often rather sinister in character, threatens at one point to grind to a halt. The composer’s habitual inspiration, folk music, is absent. Jonathan D. Kramer, in the accompanying notes, informs us that Tormis has never composed pure music, but that his work always carries some extra-musical message, sometimes a political one. It is difficult, in listening to this expertly written and vividly orchestrated piece, to avoid thoughts of violent repression, subversion and defiance, and indeed the conductor supports this view in the booklet. Pointedly, he also refers to the two works on the disc “emerging from two countries at a common point in their history, both sharing the same conviction, urgency and strength.” The two countries are, of course, Russia and Estonia, the latter shamefully subsumed into the former after the Second World War, achieving independence only in 1991. Paavo Järvi is himself Estonian. However one feels about its genesis, the piece is compelling and is extremely well performed here. It works very well, too, as a kind of prelude to Shostakovich’s Tenth, in which case it seems a pity not to have it placed first on the disc.

The opening of the main work is very successful and promising, the sombre mood well maintained by the conductor’s scrupulous attention to dynamic marks. The difference between piano and pianissimo is well brought out, rendering the odd mezzo forte - comparatively rare - all the more significant. Overall, though, Järvi has a rather free attitude to tempo, and this rather undermines the unity of structure of this huge movement. He seems keen to move the music on as it mounts towards the huge central climax, and this, in addition to a certain lack of weight in the orchestral texture, makes for an experience less overwhelming than it should be. Then, when the opening music returns, where detachment makes for stoic acceptance, he seems too expressive, too willing to linger at the ends of phrases. The astonishing second movement is stunningly well played but, once again, lacks the crushing power that other orchestras have brought to it. The short, pianissimo passage before the close is brilliantly rendered, however. The third movement constantly refers to a little musical tag based on the first letters of the composer’s own name. Why? Whatever the reason, one must assume that this movement was of great significance to him. The same strengths and weaknesses are in evidence here as in the first movement. The ending is very atmospheric, though the repeated tam-tam strokes in the final pages are consistently held too long. The same thing happens at the climactic chord of the finale, so I suppose the conductor instructed the player to do this. It’s probably not important, but then again… The finale, in any event, is dispatched with huge skill and sounds more playful than any other performance I know, this without in the least compromising the very equivocal nature of the music. The final pages are stunning.

I’ve been listening to Bernard Haitink’s 1977 Decca recording of the symphony recently; it is very distinguished. I’ve never much cared for Karajan in this work - I don’t suppose the conductor lost much sleep over this, particularly since the composer was evidently a huge admirer - but I do very much admire Karel Ančerl’s DG performance from 1955. Such is the state of Shostakovich scholarship now that one is wary of believing anything or favouring a particular point of view. The insert notes to the present issue are, however, thought-provoking at least. Järvi’s performance is very fine, finer and more convincing on its own terms than my remarks above might lead readers to think. Cruelly, though, both the rival performances mentioned succeed better in their single-minded command of large-scale structure and in the sheer weight of sound in climaxes which should overwhelm the listener with their inexorability - this is to do with structure again - and sheer sonic power.

William Hedley 



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