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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    




Dimitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 10 in E Minor
Symphony No. 6 in E Minor

Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton
recorded live September 21 - 24, November 30, and December 1 - 2, 2000 in Dallas.
DELOS DE 3283
[82.39] - 2 discs nas. Special price

Crotchet £11.99  AmazonUK   AmazonUS  
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Here is a brand new recording of Shostakovich's masterpiece, recorded in superb sound just last year. The Dallas orchestra brought this work to the Proms and this disc was obviously recorded after their world tour where they had had plenty of rehearsal time plus subsequent performances to hone their interpretation. In addition, Delos's recording quality is all the orchestra and listener could possibly hope for with clarity and depth captured to perfection in the orchestra's home in Dallas.

Delos has coupled the tenth with a performance of the sixth, and the problem that this has caused them is that the combined playing time is just over what can at presently be accommodated on a single CD. This means that the second disc in this set plays for just under 30 minutes. However, since the company sells the two discs for the price of one in a slim line double case, the awkwardness is mitigated somewhat.

I was at the Proms performance of the Tenth, and must admit that I came away from the concert less than fully satisfied by the performance, even taking into account that it was live, and with the added atmosphere of the Proms to the fore. I am afraid that the doubts remain, not from the standards of playing from all departments of the orchestra, but more from the interpretation. I find the first movement usually overwhelming, and I did not think that the present performance has the sweep and continuity of the best performances. There are too many tempo changes and stops and starts to give the sweep that this symphony needs and gets, in the hands of other interpreters such as Karajan, Mravinsky, Mitropoulos and more recently from Ancerl.

All of these earlier issues are less well served by their respective recordings (the two Karajan performances less so than the others). If you must have a slap up to date version, then you can do no worse than to buy the version by Mariss Jansons on EMI with the Philadelphia Orchestra. For me however, the performance of this work is the most important factor and I am afraid that I would choose Ancerl as the primary recommendation every time. [review]

Here on Delos, with the first movement starts and stops over, the remainder of the symphony is quite decently played, with a fast and very accurate reading of the vicious scherzo - the portrait in sound of "Old Joe". The finale should be a fused mixture of jollity and jubilation (at the passing of the Russian leader) touched with pathos and with a vein of tragedy just below the surface representing all the terror and uncertainty of life in the Soviet Union. It is beautifully played, but only skates the surface of this music - I long for something more.

The Sixth is less problematical. This symphony has been less lucky on disc than the tenth, but there are still some superb readings in the catalogue. The slow first movement is the heart of the work, and again is laden with doom and tragedy. This is followed by two shorter, faster movements, which are characterised by a somewhat hollow humour, almost apologetic. The Dallas performance is once again superbly played and recorded, but in comparison with the Dutton issue with Stokowski, we enter into a totally different sound world (unfortunately also from the recording).

Once again the less problematical movements (2 and 3) are both superbly played and recorded. These two discs will clearly suit hi-fi addicts and the general listener who is not looking to be shattered by either of these powerful works. I would therefore recommend them with caution.

John Phillips

John Quinn has also listened to this disc


This is the latest instalment of what seems to be a slowly evolving Shostakovich cycle from Andrew Litton and his Dallas orchestra. Both recordings are ‘live’ and though the specific recording dates of each symphony are not specified I strongly suspect that the Tenth Symphony was set down in September, 2000 after the orchestra returned from a European tour. That symphony was in their touring repertoire then and I recall hearing a fine broadcast of the Tenth from the Proms.

I may as well nail my colours to the mast straight away. I have long regarded the Tenth as Shostakovich’s finest symphony, surpassing even the monumental Eighth, and its first movement has strong claims, I think, to be regarded as his greatest single symphonic movement. Happily, the Dallas forces give a performance worthy of this magnificent score.

I was interested to read recently the comments of another contributor to the web site who strongly criticised Litton as a ‘bland’ conductor. Well, on the evidence of this performance that charge doesn’t stand up! I compared Litton’s performance against Karajan’s highly regarded 1982 recording and found that Litton is just as successful in maintaining tension and atmosphere.

Furthermore, Litton has at his disposal an excellent orchestra and he must take credit for training them. For example, the strings, particularly as recorded by Delos, have that all-important depth and sonority which is needed to sustain the long, brooding lines in the lengthy opening paragraphs of the first movement. Then the wind solos are, without exception, eloquent and characterful and the brass section is powerful and sonorous. Listen to the build up to the huge climax of the first movement (from about 10’ 00" onwards); this should lay to rest any charges of blandness. Maybe this performance hasn’t quite the raw power and energy of Mravinsky or Mitropoulos, but how many have? No, this disc contains as cogent and well argued an account of this great symphonic edifice as one could reasonably expect to hear.

Litton’s way with the explosive second movement is excellent. The punchy opening string chords are delivered with just the right amount of weight and with absolute precision of attack. The rest of the orchestra, screaming winds, biting brass and emphatic percussion, gradually pile in and the result is four minutes of controlled but savage power. This movement may or may not be a musical portrait of Stalin but, when played like this, it raises hairs on the back of the listener’s neck.

This is a good time to mention the sound quality. Without detracting from the efforts of players or conductor it must be said that the engineers have made a significant contribution to the success of this issue. It was instructive to compare this new recording to Karajan’s early digital recording, made under studio conditions, to see how far recording technology has advanced in twenty years. Beside the Delos, the DG sound is shallow and one-dimensional. I have heard several Delos releases in recent months and have been greatly impressed with the sonic results. This new disc is another impressive achievement. Though made in concert there is no obtrusive audience noise.

Returning to the music and to the third movement, it always seems to me that Shostakovich’s tempo marking, ‘Allegretto’ is a danger point for interpreters. If the speed is a degree too slow the irony fails to register. On the other hand if the tempo is even a fraction too brisk the music merely sounds jaunty. It seems to me that Litton judges the initial pulse absolutely correctly and when the horn ushers in the reminiscence of the first movement he also catches the new mood unerringly. Throughout this movement he allows the tension to ebb and flow with complete understanding.

The ruminative introduction to the finale brings some of the most accomplished playing on the whole set with impressive contributions from the woodwind principals cushioned on a bed of hushed string chords. Again, one feels that Litton has the measure of this important passage. The suspense is palpable until the "release" of the main allegro. This allegro may be lively but, of course, it is anything but good-natured. There are touches of sardonic humour but for the most part the emotional currents run at a far deeper level. Litton’s account of this movement is suitably powerful and trenchant.

So, a fine achievement. A performance of some stature very well played and superbly recorded.

I have to say that I am not quite so sure about the accompanying performance of the Sixth symphony. This is a strangely constructed work in which a long slow movement is followed by two much shorter quick movements which together do not last anywhere near as long as the first movement. It is not just in terms of timespan that the first movement carries the main argumentative weight of the work: its material is also more significant. Unfortunately, it is Litton’s approach to the first movement which makes me uneasy.

The booklet notes include a quotation from Shostakovich which I had not previously seen. Writing in a magazine in 1939 he said of the then-unperformed symphony: "In my latest symphony, music of a contemplative, lyrical tenor predominates; I wished to convey moods of joy, spring, and youth." Now Shostakovich was notoriously ambiguous about his own music, often writing, one suspects, with an eye to whomever might be examining his words for "political correctness". Did he really mean this about the Sixth symphony? I have to say this comment does not seem to me to sit easily with the minor key. Neither does it accord with either the thematic material or the scoring of the first movement, both of which seem to point to a more dark and brooding mood. Furthermore the comment does not really fit with the performing tradition of the work, at least in the recordings which I have heard.

Certainly Andre Previn in his 1974 recording with the LSO (which is not as well played as is Litton’s account) is tougher and more searching in this movement. Even more magnetic are two much earlier recordings, those by Fritz Reiner and the Pittsburgh Symphony (1945) and the 1940 account by Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra (the work’s premiere recording). All three of these plumb the depths to a greater degree than does Litton, I think. His tempo is just a little too fluid and some of the phrasing just a little too smooth to make the right effect. Of course, to what extent he may have been influenced by the quotation referred to above I do not know. Overall timings are never a wholly reliable guide but it is interesting to note that Litton takes 17’.46" for this movement whereas his three rivals range from 18’.27" (Reiner) to 19’.20" (Previn, just a bit too broad, I think).

Litton also takes the other two movements at a faster pace than these other conductors but here the advantage lies with him, I believe. The extra brio conferred by his swifter tempi is highly appropriate to these two perky and sardonic movements. The orchestra has no problems with the fleet tempi and the movements are dispatched with panache and wit.

Despite my reservations over the first movement of the Sixth this issue is to be welcomed. There remains much to admire in the performance of the Sixth as a whole and the Tenth is very fine indeed. The playing is of a very high standard throughout and the recorded sound is in the demonstration class.

 

John Quinn

 

 


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