> SHOSTAKOVICH Symphonies Barshai [PS] PART TWO: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Complete Shostakovich Symphonies conducted by Rudolph Barshai - part 2

Symphony No. 5 op. 47 (1937)

That "something" was the Fifth Symphony. Doughty makes the traditional statement that Shostakovich gave it the title "A Soviet Artistís Reply to Just Criticism", and follows it up with the traditional argument. The trouble is that this is no longer as cut-and-dried as it once was. The facts are that Shostakovich worked his socks off to produce this symphony A.S.A.P. (and P.D.Q!), and that he adopted a conventional four movement layout in the "accepted" manner.

Having been publicly shamed by the State via the state-controlled press, having been labelled a public enemy (which carried the "sentence" of being unemployable), having become aware of the unnerving tendency of outspoken people to "disappear", and having hurriedly hoicked his latest and biggest symphony out of rehearsals, Shostakovich must have felt somewhat insecure, exposed, and in fear for his life. Clearly, he had to do something post haste to get the b******s off his back.

In these post-Testimony days, it seems likely that, yes, he did write the Fifth for this express purpose but, no, he didnít give it that cringing boot - or worse! - licking title. Itís all very complicated, but this much is "certain": Shostakovich pulled off a miracle of escapology fully worthy of Harry Houdini, and moreover one that not only restored his public standing but also did so without compromising his private and passionate integrity. Yet, even with the inherent ambiguity of Music as a means of communicating messages, the path Shostakovich started down was fraught with risk - small wonder, then, that Shostakovich would not include words in a symphony for the next 25 years.

Coming to this symphony directly from the Fourth, I made one discovery which was (for me at any rate) very striking. Listen to the counter-subject of the Fourth Symphonyís second movement, then the first movement of the Fifth. If the first subject isnít deliberately derived from the melody of that counter-subject, and the pulsing accompaniment of the second subject from its rhythm, then Iíll eat my hat. I could be wrong (just in case, I have a large and extremely mouth-watering chocolate hat standing by!). Itís as if Shostakovich had stoically scraped the unsullied butter off a piece of bread that had been knocked out of his hand and spread it, more thinly and with great resolve, onto a fresh slice. Thus, it would seem, his now-disguised anger was set reverberating in the Fifth Symphony, to mingle with other "coded messages". From here on, we can no longer take anything at face value.

The Fifth is without doubt Shostakovichís best-known and most frequently-performed symphony. There are well over 50 recordings currently in the catalogue and, if the form-bookís anything to go by, a fair number pending reissue. Iíve lost count of the renditions Iíve heard of this music - first hearing courtesy of Stokowski, (mis-) spent youth with an oft-played Kertesz LP, joined in recent years by Leviís reliable rendition - and just about all of them go off the rails at some point or other. Memories of the Stokowski have, sadly, vanished into the murk, but I remain convinced that Kertesz was, in the final analysis, too lightweight overall and his coda too skittish, while Levi takes an eternity over the largo and his sound is a bit hard. Others, whom I shall decline to name and shame, have for example galloped across the second movement as if it was a racetrack. With such a huge surfeit of riches (and rags) not only are we spoilt rotten for choice, but also itís unlikely that Barshai can find anything to tell us that we donít know already. In all fairness, he doesnít. But what he does do is give us a performance where virtually all the "right" things are there at once, and leaves himself no room at all to get anything wrong.

Take the very opening: where Levi (and others without number) slip the string canon past us like itís on well-oiled castors, under Barshaiís baton the WDRSO strings sound like theyíre carved out of granite - a real declaration of implacable intent. Having thus grabbed your attention by the throat, the mobile moderato of the first subject is all the more arresting. Barshai refuses to linger, unswervingly focussed on the musicís single propulsive arch. Phrases are pointedly articulated, the sound edging towards (but remaining crucially this side of) brittle, and lending some edge to my suspicions about the provenance of some of the materials. The huge climax is brilliantly controlled, although the strident clattering of the xylophone for some unaccountable reason just doesnít cut through like it should. Barshai doesnít make a meal of the massive unisons of the recapitulation which, surely, youíd expect to dissipate the suspense? Not a bit of it! The high tension is actually maintained, so that the denouement of baleful bass brasses over (or under) a towering tam-tam is truly terrific. The coda is also a marvel: the slightly saccharine solo violin versus the gruff ground of the bass line, ethereal but earthbound, draws an intriguing question mark.

Iíve heard conductors bustle through the second movement as if it were the Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture. Even of those who take it at something like the "right" speed, most manage to make it sound too glossy, too urbane. Iím pretty well convinced that Shostakovich had in mind something on the lines of Mahlerís "gemachlichen landler", and that is exactly how Barshai takes it: the double-basses grunt and chug with an utter lack of sophistication, the clarinet howls and prances, and in the trio section the solo violin quite obviously - and quite properly - has Mahlerís "Death takes the fiddle" in the back of his mind. To cap it all, the booming climaxes have a welly-shod swing that has me thinking, "Sup a couple of pints oí best, and you could actually dance to this!"

The slow movement is marked largo, but while Barshai makes darned sure it doesnít dawdle, it starts in a spacious, awe-filled hush, with a nicely-judged blend of strings. The playing is so heartfelt, the instrusive dissonance so heartbreaking, that I couldnít care one jot about a flute entry that was a whole quarter of a beat late (it actually sounds like a "catch" in the throat!). The build-ups to the climaxes are hackle-raising, growing out of the WDRSOís gorgeous sub-basement. There are some lovely sounds: chilling tremolandos, mellow clarinets and bassoons, the xylophone has woken up with a vengeance, and right in the middle I hear more clearly than I can recollect the shade of VWís Tallis Fantasia. If it sounded like this, then regardless of any political import itís not surprising that the audience at the first performance was moved to tears.

The finale is supposed to explode attacca. It doesnít quite, but it does explode! Starting off slap-bang in the middle of the required allegro non troppo, Barshaiís long-term control of the ever more hectic tempo had me wondering what make of binoculars he used. By the time the big catastrophe arrives, at the very heart of the movement, panic is rife. Yet, for all the mounting hysteria, the orchestraís articulation is purposeful and strong, so that you can sometimes even hear the tonguing. The quiet episode, which Gerard MacBurney has revealingly linked to the recently discovered song, setting meaningfully apposite words by Pushkin about a vandalised oil-painting, is itself beautifully painted, and the contentious coda emerges in a huge, controlled, brutally punctuated release of energy. Barshai broadens the tempo for a crunching conclusion that should satisfy both those who think Shostakovichís victory is "forced" and those who think itís genuine - and those who see it as a big, black question-mark.. One thing is unquestionable - this is a cracking performance.

Symphony No. 6 op. 54 (1939)

Following the bilateral success of the Fifth, it looks like Shostakovich warmed to his two-faced task. In 1938, he went so far as to announce in print his intention to "set in sound the immortal images of Lenin" in a symphony on the same lines as Beethovenís Ninth. Yet, when the Sixth Symphony hit the streets, there were no vocal soloists and no massed choirs. Instead of the expected Beethovenian monument to the founding father of the Soviet State there was just this lop-sided, three movement curiosity which sets out making all the right preparatory noises but then "comes off the rails" in a big way. People were puzzled. Quite frankly, so am I. In all the writings about whatís come to light in recent years I havenít yet come across anything remotely like a convincing explanation of just what Shostakovich thought he was playing at.

Dr. David Doughty sounds as puzzled as I am. He finds the huge opening largo "tragic, solemn and lyrical by turns, something of an extension of the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony and claimed by early critics to be a portrait of Lenin" (I presume that these were "critics for the defence"!). However, he gives vent to what I imagine is a frustration similar to mine by dismissing the two short scherzi that make up the balance (or "imbalance") of the work as throwbacks to Shostakovichís earlier "vaudeville" style, even (and this strikes me as moderately bizarre!) measuring the finale against Prokofievís Classical Symphony. Maybe Iím influenced by the interpretation I know best, that of Paavo Berglund with the estimable Bournemouth SO (EMI), but I find these two movements more than anything put me in mind of a "bumís rush". So, maybe this is Shostakovich making a macabre joke: tell them youíre building a monument to Lenin, build up their expectations with an imposing veil of a first movement, and when the veil is pulled off they are confronted by a statue which, thumb to round red nose, blows them a razzberry, and moreover a razzberry with meaning?

The very beginning is often described as "pastoral" in mood. Well, it was nothing of the sort with Berglund, and it most certainly isnít in Barshaiís hands. Sure, the opening phrases are aspiring and the unison strings and woodwind sound mellow, but the belly-lifting drop at the end of the second phrase and the subsequent contrast of acrid high frequencies soon knock any such cosy "pastoral" notions on the head. In fact, Barshai seems to drill right into the heart of this music. For the first third or so of its running time it is massively miserable, and Barshaiís engineering of the climaxes is blood-curdling in its intensity. The WDRSOís sonic response is fully up to it, which is more than can be said for the poor, beleaguered microphones at a couple of particularly stressful points in an otherwise exemplary recording. Amongst numerous superlatives, I really must single out the horns who sail majestically over a couple of heaving climaxes.

Gradually, the fire dies down, and it is here that Barshai is most impressive, gripping our attention through every second of the musicís long, sleepless night. This is haunted by the ghost of Mahler, whose Wunderhorn-inspired funereal world Shostakovich almost literally copies, especially in the hollow clang of harp and tamtam. But Shostakovich adds something of his very own, a monotonously whirring eternity of string trilling that chills the blood every bit as much as it had formerly been curdled. Then the bright-eyed tinkling of celeste and glockenspiel ushers in a chorale of mellow horns and woodwind: could this be the sun rising, bring a new day and new hope? No, even the glitter becomes oppressive. The musicís blooming into semi-optimism is defeated by a sour horn chord, and the music subsides into deathly stillness. This "pastoralism" is a bit short on buttercups and daisies.

After this, I canít imagine taking the two short, quick movements as simply "Shostakovich having fun". By the sounds of it, neither can Barshai. He whips the whirling woodwind and pizzicato strings remorselessly, whisking the frolicsome materials into a fearsome climax of unbridled aggression. The WDRSO is brimming with vitality and urgency, trumpets and percussion crisp and with crackling articulation of the stammering rhythms. If we are reminded of Shostakovichís comment to the effect that "smiling at everyone in the street was compulsory", then the course of the movement following the ominous tamtam wallop and hammering tympani is logical: the same cheery music continues, only now somehow "dimmer", with even the piccolo sounding "muted". The dissolution into puppet-like disfigurement is finely crafted, and the sheer sound of the tapping of the tympani at the tail-end is a moment of magic.

Barshaiís grip doesnít slip even for a moment: he launches the finale at a seemingly carefree gallop, all apparently pinky and perky. There are maybe occasional awkward moments in the tricky phrasing, but the all-important momentum is spot-on. Equally spot-on is the way the music is made to falter following the relentless central climax. Woodwind and strings grope blindly, a solo violin casting around for the way back to the reprise. Barshai may lack the out-and-out manic aggression of Berglund, but his gradual conversion of the cheerful chuntering into that "bumís rush", propelled against its wishes and with increasing insistence towards the door marked "exit", nevertheless captures the essential and unnerving feeling of being forcibly detached from oneís hinges. But, if you prefer to regard this as simply a Keystone Kops-style romp, then go right ahead: the playing and recording are rumbustious and brilliant enough for just about anybodyís taste.

Symphony No. 7 "Leningrad" op. 60 (1941)

Can any symphony have had more chequered history than this one? Yes, probably, but it does take some beating. Shostakovich may have been less than enamoured by the Uncle Joe and his Supreme Soviet, but he loved his country to the extent that, as soon as another loveable old rogue (Uncle Adolf) threatened his home he went straight round to his local recruiting office. Fortunately, for posterity at least, he was considered to be a short-sighted drip (from the active military service point of view) and instead ended up doing service as a voluntary fire-fighter (in itself hardly a job best suited to "short-sighted drips").

The legend of the birth of this symphony is the stuff of spy-stories. It was composed amid the horrors of the siege of Leningrad, where (it is said) its composer defied the air raids to continue his task. Its value as both propaganda-piece and contribution to the Allied war effort was immediately recognised by the Soviet authorities (who, it must be said, had thus far failed abysmally to comprehend anything of his), and so the score was microfilmed and smuggled, presumably at appalling risk, to the West. Almost overnight, no doubt aided by the titles given to the movements, it became an icon of the war against fascism.

Within a few years the rot set in. Bartok squeezed a biting parody of the infamous "Nazi March" into his Concerto for Orchestra. However, this was not so much a comment on the music itself as on what Bartok saw as the over-hyped media-dotage it "enjoyed". Once the war was won, and the West became increasingly suspicious of the Soviet, then the backlash against the music began. It was "recognised" for what it "really" was - banal, bombastic, over-inflated, poster-painted commie propaganda of the worst sort (was none of the millions who had previously feted it embarrassed at having done so?). Moreover, multitudes of learned scholars oozed out of the woodwork and onto the band-wagon to condemn it as ill-conceived, over-scored, badly structured - you name it: for any and every reason, this was bad music, and concert promoters dropped it like a hot brick. Before long, it suffered the same fate in Russia, though for entirely different reasons.

It wasnít until after the appearance of Solomon Volkovís controversial Testimony, which started a rash of re-appraisals, that the Seventh began to undergo a process of rehabilitation. It now seems to be far more sensibly evaluated as a "flawed masterpiece", though whether it "represents" Shostakovichís feelings about his country and the threat of the invading Nazis, or his country and the threat of its own totalitarian regime, is still a bone of contention. Absolutely brilli-bump, I reckon. Through all this almighty howís-your-father, the one thing that hasnít changed one iota is the music itself! When I first heard it about forty years ago (oh, gawd, is it that long?), as a teenager utterly ignorant of its history or meaning, I was bowled over by this symphony. Now, when I hear it, as a "middle-ager" less than ignorant of its history or meaning ("true" or otherwise), I am still bowled over by this symphony. Not that I wish to seem in the least bit biased, you understand! Of course, this begs the now-common question: is an understanding of Shostakovichís motives and codings a prerequisite for the appreciation of his music? The short answer is, emphatically, "no" - though it does help a bit.

Over the years, I have heard a good many different performances, ranging from Toscaniniís pioneering "off-air" recording (with sound quality that redefines the adjective "execrable") through the rugged Berglund recording with which I choose to live, taking in more recent views expressed by such as Wigglesworth, to the extraordinary experience of the Slaithwaite Philharmonic under Adrian Smith (the recording of this performance I made myself, with sound quality that redefines the adjective "mediocre"!). I think I can safely say that the WDRSO and Rudolf Barshai give as fine a performance as any Iíve heard - not perfect, mind, but then is anything?

They give us a good, sturdy opening, forthright and assertive but without the belligerence it often gets. This is important, isnít it? If we are to accept Shostakovichís scheme, this music equates to "care-free workers in the fields and factories", presumably in the halcyon days of the first three symphonies. Barshai underpins this approach by keeping the softer music light: the flute warbles happily, the woodwind chorale is rich and restful, and the idyllic violins get as near to dancing as makes no difference. The "Nazi" march, which can be viewed as a vast "introduction" to the volcanic development (and is thus very nearly as much of a "rude interruption" as in Bartokís subsequent skit), becomes all the more aggressive by contrast. Listening on headphones, I got the feeling from slight changes of tone and perspective that the two snare drums were sharing the duty in the earlier stages (or was this an accident of editing of different takes?). Strangely, Barshai doesnít make as much as Iíd expected of the harmonic clashes of violins and horns in the accompaniment, but otherwise he builds the disaster with almost cinematic dramatic flair. Like most, he speeds up a bit towards the climax, but then refuses to exaggerate the broadening out, and keeps the pressure on. In the aftermath, the flute has lost its warble, and the chorus of woodwind sounds drier. I donít think this is accidental.

The second movement (again!) finds a near-ideal tempo, lolloping daintily. The oboe in the second subject sounds appropriately fruity, complementing some soulful cellos. Plaudits must go to the palpably straining clarinet in the central episode where Barshai tautens the tempo, but not too much. Interestingly, the brass and drums at the climax are almost romping, as Barshai resists the temptation to get vicious. Quite right, too! Shostakovich, initially inclined to call this movement "Reminiscences", was I think harping back rather further than the climax of the first movement. The creamy bass clarinet and fluttery flutes are a delight, as is the finely graduated fade at the close.

By this token, Barshai prepares for the opening of the third movement, softer-grained than Berglund, and yielding to great tenderness in the strings, and a flute that really sings. The fast core of the movement, whilst not as fast as some, lashes out and packs some wicked punches from the WDRSO horns, with the bottom end of the brass tramping in army boots - a vivid image of a peaceful people aggravated by an invader (whether from without or within!). Having endowed the "Spanish-flavoured" passage with thunderous excitement, Barshai goes on to bring out some truly foreboding percussion parts right at the end, subtly enhancing his preparation of the finale.

Opening mysteriously, but threaded with an immediate sense of purpose, Barshaiís finale is a tour de force. He builds the first climax majestically, and with a real feeling of expectancy, so that when the cymbals clash, the effect is electrifying. The ensuing "jolly tune" is given added edge by the unusually evident carpet of pulsating drums. The prayerful central passage literally throbs with emotion, helped by some impressive horn trills. As I am by now coming to expect, Barshaiís grip on the long final crescendo is sure, so that when the denouement arrives it packs a terrific wallop. The triumphant reprise of the main subject of the first movement finds the added brass antiphonally distinguished - a very effective touch - whilst the final chord, emerging out of the sudden blackness of gathering storm-clouds, is actually capped by the orchestra. Normally, this either just "holds on" or (perish the thought!) falls limp by comparison. Not so here!

I had some suspicions that this might have been taken from live performances, as there are some "noises off", though I hasten to add that thereís nothing to write home about. The recording is excellent, full and wide-ranging and with little congestion in the more bruising episodes. The playing is magnificent, and the interpretation (as Iíve suggested) provides sufficient food for thought to seriously worry the "hackney-mongers".

Symphony No. 8 op. 65 (1943)

Before he had finally polished off the finale of the Seventh, Shostakovich was hoicked out of the beleaguered Leningrad, and moved to the comparative safety of Moscow to finish his work. This looked suspiciously like a caring attitude on the part of the authorities. However, as Shostakovich himself was something of a thorn in their sides, we must conclude - bearing in mind the cloak-and-dagger mode of its dissemination - that what they were really after was the Seventh, or more precisely its anticipated propaganda value.

With scarcely a pause for breath, Shostakovich got stuck into the composition of the Eighth, which turned out to be unremittingly gloomy and laden with the grimmest foreboding. The reaction to its first performance (under Mravinsky) was hardly surprising: puzzlement, confusion - and ominous rumblings of accusation: noises on the lines of "Why, when the tide of the war is turning, does he not write something to encourage our valiant workers and warriors?" Why indeed, especially when he had, so to speak, already experienced the rough edge of Uncle Joeís tongue?

According to Ian MacDonald, the reason is this: Shostakovich had believed that Uncle Joe & Co. were specifically purging Leningrad of its overpreponderance of "liberals", free-thinking individualists who were reluctant to genuflect. On being moved to Moscow, he realised that this barbarism was actually infecting the entire country. Shostakovich was utterly appalled, quite literally "speechless with rage", to the extent that he threw caution to the wind and penned a singularly explicit message in his new symphony. However, I donít think this happened suddenly. It begins to look like the first three movements of the Seventh might after all be doing "what it says on the tin", while the finale (written largely in Moscow) expresses this growing realisation: maybe we should hearken more attentively to the covert crawling of the opening subject, that becomes a battering ram to spoil the victory celebrations of the coda?

Since about 1966 I have possessed an LP recording of this work. A Melodiya import, it came in a plain cardboard box adorned only with a black-and-white photograph of an acorn (?). The two discs, thick slabs of armour-plated vinyl (they donít make Ďem like that any more!), contain some of the most execrably-engineered monophonic sound Iíve ever heard. They enshrine a "live" performance although, judging by the din in the auditorium, some of the audience were in a pretty terminal condition. But the performance itself, given by the Leningrad Philharmonic under Evgeny Mravinsky, is completely transfixing! From damp, grey hopelessness through biting sarcasm to vicious vitriol, it has in my ears never been bettered. The reason, I guess, has something to do with the fact that these peerless performers had lived through the self-same oppression as the composer - and at the time still crouched in its dreadful shadow.

Hoping to hear more detail from a modern recording, I eventually supplemented it with the highly-recommended LSO/Previn CD. This was good, very good in fact, but compared to the old LPs it came across as warm, rounded, and positively snuggly - raising the age-old question of whether you have to live through something to properly express it. So, here I am, again holding out high hopes of a high fidelity equivalent to that old Melodiya set and, well, Rudolf Barshai at least has the prerequisite experience. Maybe itís too much to expect that he would match that old Mravinsky recording, but for this pair of ears at least he knocks Previn (and Haitink, for that matter) into the proverbial cocked hat.

The strings at the opening set the tone, forcefully grinding out the theme then, as if exhausted by the sheer effort, sinking back into sorrowful song. This entire threnody is beautifully articulated, though again the piercing intensity of the high violins and flute/piccolo unisons turns out to be a mite more than the mics. can take. Although falling short of the implacable rage of Mravinsky, Barshai builds the colossal crisis of the "central" climax with volcanic inevitability (if there is such a thing. OK, there is now!). Whilst the "march" episode has all the clout of lead-lined boxing-gloves, his outlining of the three-note phrases, over those roaring drum-rolls, is perhaps not jagged enough, but then the shimmering string tremolando that terminates this devastating outburst is utterly stunning. The bleakness of the ensuing recitatives is chilling - itís just a shame that the WDRSO trumpets donít quite scald the ear-drums like the Leningraders do.

Thereís one footnote to this movement: curiously, Iíve never heard it mentioned, but there are astonishing parallels with the first movement of the Fifth. Itís as if Shostakovich had re-used the same mould, so that it sounds like heís giving us the same message - only now of course heís expressing not the lot of one city, but of an entire nation.

The two scherzi are nigh on faultless. In the second movement, the orchestra bring off their phrase-end crescendi superbly, menacing surges ensuring that nobody is fooled by the "up-beat" sound of the music. The feeling of "puppets outwardly conforming, inwardly screaming" is palpable, although the screeching woodwind are, for once, a little subdued (where Mravinskyís forces sound like they must have given themselves hernias). Although the final climax is built with wicked intent, the WDRSO tambourinist is no match for his Leningrad counterpart, who punches the poor instrument so hard it penetrates even that murky old recording! These are, however, all relative - by any normal standards this is superbly played.

If the second movement represents "puppets", the incessant, merciless jabbering of the third must relate to the "string-pullers". But, however you interpret it, thereís no doubt that Shostakovich intended that "merciless", and any conductor who takes off like a frightened gazelle is surely missing the point. Barshai opens at a deliberate tempo, by which I mean just nicely slow enough soís they donít have to ease back to accommodate the less agile trombones when they take up the maddening ostinato. If you want to hear how horribly damaging this is, try Previn, who ignores the composerís cautionary non troppo and "pratfalls" straight into this particular puddle. Again thereís some wonderful playing: the violas at the start have an oaken hue that is spine-tingling, whilst the "oom-pah" section in the trio has a whale of a time. Itís very much a movement of two halves. Each half starts with that nagging nattering. The first half ends with a sarcasm of "circus" music, creating an expectation for the ending of the second half which is savagely broken - and for this reason I donít think that there should be any obvious "special" build-up. At the very end of the movement, where the tempo breaks, Barshai coaxes a right old racket from the players, and the tam-tam is given some real stick. It sounds like the end of the world . . .

. . . and thatís very apposite, because he makes the fourth movement sound like the world has come to an end! This morbid passacaglia bears the full weight of the hopelessness of the incarcerated on its shoulders The strings of the WDRSO sound as if they have had all the colour blanched out of them, the solo horn sounds exhausted, the solo piccoloís melisma hesitates as if half-forgotten, and the woodwind fluttertonguings have an acrid reek. That might sound bad, but it isnít. In refusing to apply any sheen of cosmetics to the musicís sound, Barshai skewers its soul. The simple, unstressed modulation with which Shostakovich slips into his finale is like the proverbial shaft of sunlight through the prison bars. A mood of tentative celebration develops, gradually growing more confident until its surging festivity awakens the "dragon" of the first movement, leaving us in no doubt that the time for dancing in the streets is not yet. Stunned and bemused, the dancers slowly melt into the mist. The hushed coda, almost in fear of reaching its resolution sounds like nothing more than a chastened hand groping stealthily for some imagined shred of hope, and finally grasping it, holding it, and cherishing it. For all its massive outrage, the Eighth ends on a more optimistic note than does the Seventh, for all its pomp and bombast.

On the bridge between the third and fourth movements, I stopped comparing Barshai with Mravinsky, because looking forward from that bridge the panorama presented by Barshai matches that of the Master, and Barshai and his WDRSO players capture the import of the music with equal eloquence.

Symphony No. 9 op. 70 (1945)

For forty days (and possibly forty nights) did Shostakovich toil on the score of his Ninth Symphony. More succinctly, and with rather less biblical ambiguity, he had the whole thing sown up in under six weeks flat. Nevertheless he did have a problem with it, though this was not writing the music, but deciding what to write. He had aroused the Allies with his Seventh, perplexed the Proletariat and the Politburo with his Eighth, and now with the War won and the "magic" number nine hovering on the threshold of his oeuvre, many - particularly certain occupiers of high places whom he despised with all his heart - were expecting a Russian victory hymn to challenge the mighty Ninth Symphony of Beethoven.

Shostakovich was in a right old quandary. Should he do the expected, and be seen to kow-tow? Should he seem to kow-tow, and subvert the surface celebration with some secret code? Did he even want to challenge Beethovenís Ninth? Suppose he tried (either way) and flopped? Then again, there were the ordinary folk of Russia, the brave, long-suffering people, the life-blood of the homeland he so loved: these people above all he did not want to let down. What was he to do? The answer he found was completely gob-smacking in its brilliance: to the people he gave the joy and celebration - and commemoration - they deserved, and to the masters he gave his challenge to the perceived supremacy of Beethoven. Only it was not Russiaís answer to the mighty Ninth, but Russiaís answer to the flighty Eighth!

The people, it seemed, loved it, but it comes as no surprise that Caesar was hardly over the moon with what had been rendered unto him. Shostakovich was sailing dangerously close to the wind, and the weather was about to take a distinct turn for the worse: by 1948 the innocent Ninth would be one of the works outlawed by the Zhdanov decree. Innocent? Yes. Despite David Doughtyís reference to "surface gaiety", implying a concealed subtext, to the best of my knowledge not one expert (revisionist or otherwise) has unearthed the slightest hint of any "subversion". My impression is that, to all intents and purposes, Shostakovich made his subversive point through an entire lack of ambiguity. He gave voice to the simple feelings - happiness, relief, and indeed loss - of the people who had resisted and vanquished an "enemy without", and he had ignored the desire of the Soviet State, by implication an "enemy within", for its extravagant vehicle of self-aggrandisement.

The key to successful performance of this, Shostakovichís equivalent of Prokofievís Classical Symphony (thereís even a first movement exposition repeat!), is directness and simplicity. The places where some conductors tend to "drop their pants" are the second and fourth movements. And the reason is generally because they stuff more emotional baggage into their pockets than their belts can reasonably support. On my old and by now somewhat dog-eared LP, no less a conductor than Kondrashin, whose performance is otherwise in every respect thrilling, overloads the music on the emotional front. Or, I should add, finds a joke where there really isnít one. Iím referring to the short fourth movement. Sure, the bassoonís first two notes give a momentary impression of the start of the Grand Declamation of Beethovenís Ninth, but this is surely no more than an aside, a passing sly dig at the pompous Party dignitaries. I donít think thereís any intention on Shostakovichís part to make the rest of it funny, but performers (perhaps taken in by the surrounding gaiety) can make it so by parodistic inflection.

Barshai homes in like a peregrine falcon on Shostakovichís first movement tempo: as any Italian will (I believe) tell you, allegro means "jolly" or "happy". Barshai does not rush the music off its feet: the first subject bustles merrily and the second positively bounces along. Thanks to some delightfully natty, chatty strings and woodwind, notes and phrases are classically clear and focussed, and everything is audible - including the percussion. Thatís one touch I particularly like - the tymps in the second subject are hit hard, but the effect is robustly playful rather than aggressive. Even the straining harmonies towards the end of the development sound not so much stressful as plain, old-fashioned "tipsy".

The second movement is marked moderato, but like the correspondingly marked movement of Mahlerís Sixth it has often been given a portentous adagio treatment - almost as if conductors were unconsciously trying to salvage something of the Ninth that had been expected. In Barshaiís hands, the lilting clarinet tune really does lilt, and the music becomes charmingly wistful. The heavier, upwardly treading refrain, elsewhere imbued with menace, here sounds about as threatening as an overgrown cuddly bunny because Barshai ever so slightly accelerates into it, generating a slightly "lolloping" feel. The effect is of someone musing by a fireside, thinking back to the bad times, at first with increasing regretfulness but then with a sigh of relief that itís over over and done with. The wonderful grading and shading of the textures and dynamics by the WDRSO conjure this image a real treat: there is proper sweetness in the relief.

Presto, the man asks, and presto he gets, though nota bene itís not prestissimo. The result is a scherzo full of dash and verve, but allowing the woodwind to sound as clear and sparkling as spring water, brass and drums bouncing and boisterous, and the strings bringing sharp incisiveness to those rapidly repeated notes in the trio section. The gradual cessation of festivities for the solemn memorial of the largo fourth movement is seemingly seamless, so that the hiatus just before the brass pronouncement is real hold-your-breath stuff. To my mind, those octave heavy brass have never been better than here: absolutely on the button, a brick wall of sound balanced like one of those ripe Russian menís choruses. Spine-tingling. The ensuing bassoon soliloquy is the heart of the symphony, the heartfelt playing of the WDRSO principal almost "speaking" its personal remembrance for the fallen. So, in a celebratory symphony, it is only right and proper that the same voice eventually ends this "two minutesí silence" to kick off the celebrations.

The finale is one of those rare movements where I wish I had a score to hand (I normally feel that referring to the score, which is by no means an absolute, is somehow "cheating"). I can remember reading a review of the Kondrashin when it first appeared about thirty years ago: a glowing review, but with a question mark over Kondrashinís sudden, huge accelerando for the build-up to the climax, with an equally drastic deceleration into the climax itself. It always did sound a bit contrived (blisteringly exciting, to be sure, but nevertheless contrived!), and I donít recall anyone else indulging in such an acrobatic feat. Until now, that is, because blow me if Barshai doesnít do the self-same thing! Well, very nearly: Barshai cranks up the tempo, more subtly, right from the word "go", and thus when he takes off itís nowhere near as much "like the clappers". Oddly, though, the last couple of bars before the climax itself mark the low spot of the performance: having pulled back on the reins, Barshai then keeps slightly too tight a hold. Either that, or he should have pulled back just a nadge more so that his "release" had more effect. Itís only marginal - and itís only momentary: the climax itself is as breezy as a village band, and the coda romps away as bright and fizzy as you could wish. As Iíve implied already, the recording is exemplary, full-bodied yet clear as a bell.

Symphony No. 10 op. 93 (1953)

Following the war, the totalitarian vice was screwed even tighter, apparently a kindly gesture on the part of Uncle Joe to ensure that the people didnít naively confuse "victory" with "freedom". Shostakovich, for his "crime" of giving joy to the people rather than an Ode to Joy to the State, was censured. His Ninth Symphony, incredibly, was supposed to have failed to "reflect the true spirit of the Russian people" (of course, it depends on whose definition of "true spirit" you are using). In 1948 the mounting storm-clouds broke, and the Russian artistic community was drenched by the downpour of the Zhdanov Purge, from which not even the likes of Prokofiev were safe. True to form, Shostakovichís resolve grew even firmer. Dutifully, he kept his head down and appeared to devote himself to churning out sweet-meats to appease the State. Significantly, this time round there was no major work by way of "apology": his silence on this front was eloquent.

Whether, as Doughty suggests, Shostakovich actually waited for Stalin to die before starting on any further major works, or simply kept what work he did quietly tucked away for that "rainy day", is now probably neither here nor there. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the latter would be more in character, and certainly the first movement of his Tenth Symphony sounds like the sort of music he might well have written to while away the sleepless nights during that grim period. He somehow contrives to make what is just about the most closely-argued symphonic movement he ever wrote come strangely close to music for a film scene: I can readily imagine, in the sombre-hued opening passage, the composer restlessly pacing in the gloom of his room, pausing (perhaps by his bag packed ready in case of the "knock on the door"), then pacing again. As the music progresses, so his thoughts cluster and coagulate: helplessness, fear, resentment, all coalesce into boiling, bitter and impotent anger. This dissipates into weariness; facing the window in the growing dawn he sees no hope in the cold, grey light. This is far more than Doughtyís summarial and generalised "repression and frustration": it is a profoundly personal expression of what life was like not just for Shostakovich himself but for millions of individual people. I donít know about you, but I can lose sleep just thinking about it.

Parts of this performance failed to come up to my accumulated expectations. Right at the outset the bass strings didnít produce the oil-black sound I already knew they could generate. Right in the middle of the climax, the pounding drums seemed to muddle their rhythms. Yet there were compensations, like the hopeless, helpless, lopsided "waltzing" woodwind, or the looming inevitability engendered by Barshaiís rugged sense of the musicís architecture. Where others, including such as Svetlanov, generate crackling high voltages, Barshai exudes a slight odour of detachment which although not as physically exciting you may feel is more in keeping with the sentiments - assuming, that is, you go along with my "scenario".

In the context of that "scenario" the second movement - which I notice Shostakovich does not call a "scherzo"! - starts to make more sense. Itís a strange movement. I reckon that most of us would expect an "evil tyrant" to be represented by something slow, inexorably grinding, and with lots of lurky bass and nasty discords. But Shostakovich "represents" Stalin as the political equivalent of a runaway train, roaring headlong towards an unfortunate (for him) encounter with some unforeseen set of buffers. Of course (I realise, somewhat belatedly), if the evil tyrant had had the Populus panic-stricken and running round like headless chickens, then this movement would have been as expected. But Stalin didnít do that - he stifled activity so that, as per the first movement, nobody dared move. Stalin was the one who did all the moving, drowning all in torrents of his own maniacal energy - and I think weíre hardly taken aback to find that the main theme (woodwind) is none other than the dark spectre that haunted the first movement. In this movement, Barshai and the WDRSO players crank up the voltage as well as more or less anybody: no fumbly drumming here - the snare-drummer especially unleashing salvoes of wrist-cracking machine-gun fire. Then, in the passage just before the tension breaks and the volume drops to next to nothing, they go off the boil. I was about to express disappointment when I remembered two things: firstly, Barshaiís intimate involvement in this business, and secondly my "runaway train". This is not so much a "portrait of Stalin" as a "precis of Stalinís Ďcareerí" - a crescendo of megalomaniac aggression becoming a murderous frenzy, thence to stagnation, just as nasty but bereft of ideas on new ways to be nasty, so takes deep breath, plunges recklessly onwards, hits buffers, The End. Again, it strikes me that Barshai has declined maximum "viscerality" in favour of a bit of "Soviet realism".

Itís now that youíd expect Shostakovich to launch into his finale, expressing triumph over the fallen tyrant. But he doesnít. Instead thereís this enigmatic allegretto, leaning towards the "landler" style movements in the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. Is it just an intermezzo, or is there something more? Well, of course there is, in the form of Shostakovichís celebrated DSCH musical "signature". After the portrait of the defunct tyrant, the portrait of the subversive rebel, perhaps? Very likely something on those lines: the DSCH motto is first heard as if creeping out from under cover (first subject), and then prancing more confidently (second subject). Itís hard to avoid the image of Shostakovich high-stepping gleefully on the grave of the fallen tyrant! As the cavorting subsides into musing, there appears on the crest of a surge a new theme, a horn call which will reappear another eleven times, always the same (dynamics apart). It is thought that this is another "signature", representing Elmira Nazirova, a pupil of Shostakovichís in 1947, with whom he developed some sort of clandestine infatuation, or at least idealised admiration, which continued well beyond the appearance of this symphony. I think that thereís a bit more to it than just that. Listen to the music: immediately this theme is heard, the music returns to the nocturnal brooding, and that "spectre of Stalin", from the first movement (hardly a romantic reminiscence). Further horn calls elicit differing responses - a light woodwind chorale thatís a wistful derivation of the second subject, angelic flutings suggesting that we can now see Hope through that window, and the "corpse of the spectre" in plodding pizzicati. The first subject creeps back, gradually becoming more urgent. The second subject positively slams in, at first clumping in hob-nailed boots, but getting wilder and wilder, until DSCH and the horn call resound jubilantly over the din before they tiptoe off together into the "new dawn". Iím not claiming that this is the answer, but it is for me (at least until I think of something better) an answer: here is where Shostakovich announces his "personal" victory. For him, Elmiraís youth is a constant symbol of that Hope, purging the evil ghost of the tyrant heís outlived, and giving him the courage to stamp its vile embers into the dust.

As so often, Barshai seems to underplay the drama yet, again "as so often", thereís a real thinking brain at work (and I donít mean to suggest that everybody else isnít thinking!). He seems very much aware of the scale of the drama, and refuses to make a crisis out of it. From the almost gauche opening and through the intimacy of the central section he keeps the temperature down, allowing the momentary surges of emotion to make their points succinctly. Only at the climax does he crank up the tension through beautifully controlled accelerandi, but even here he is aware of the personal nature of the music, which must not upstage the grander, relatively public drama of the finale.

The deep-throated bass strings at the start of the finale sort of echo the darkness of the opening, but now that stifling oppression is lifted. That this is the Dawn of Hope that the end of the first movement sought is reflected in the exotic coilings and rubati of the expressive solo oboe, flute and bassoon (almost as if the People were arising and stretching their cramped limbs!), and the ethereal harmonies evoked by the feather-bed of strings. Shostakovich builds tension in an unusual way: he knows, and he knows we know, that this movement is sooner of later bound to spring to life in a big way. So, what does he do? Offering virtually nothing by way of advance warning, he just lets this blissful, haunting music wend its easy way. "Easy" is how it should be, according to the composerís marking. Most conductors take it adagio (some of them molto so), and follow that by molto presto or even prestissimo depending, I guess, on the maximum revs. that their orchestras can spin. But, this isnít supposed to be a spectacular showcase for virtuosi: Shostakovich said andante - allegro, and "easy-going then jolly" is how Barshai sets out his stall. His allegro pops up cheekily, all spick and span, perky woodwind and scuttling strings whirring away. The music is allowed to bounce along, growing "naturally", the deeper surges being not so much "residual threats" from the defunct tyrant as simple undercurrents of excitement. The climax nevertheless packs a fair clout, the massive declamation of DSCH being capped by a superb swish on the tamtam. Although not strictly "correct", Barshai allows just a marginal relaxation of tempo for the hazy delirium of the central episode, which sounds as if Shostakovich, having finally bellowed his name at the top of his voice for what must have felt like the first time ever, canít really believe that the "time for dancing in the street", which was "not yet" at the end of his Eighth, has actually arrived! The final peroration is not unrestrained. To be sure, Barshai does loosen the reins, but he doenít whip the orchestra into a full frenzy. Maybe, like Shostakovich, heís aware that while Stalin is gone, Stalinís cronies are still there. If I might (mis-) appropriate the title of the finale of Hypothetically Murdered, this is very much a Dance of the Temporary Victors. Barshai and his sturdy, reliable WDRSO provide a less overtly spectacular alternative view, in many ways a more realistic view, of this towering masterpiece. It is both consistent and deeply considered, and it shows.

Symphony No. 11 "The Year 1905" op. 103 (1957)

Following Stalinís untimely death (about twenty years too late), things did get better, though nothing so radical as a return to the heady days of the 1920s. People still had to mind their political Ps and Qs, and stepping out of line still carried severe consequences. Shostakovich turned to the string quartet, finding in this less public medium a safer means of having his say. Then on the horizon loomed 1957, the year of the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution. The State expected great things of its great artists: a major symphony was required of Shostakovich, affording him yet another opportunity to demonstrate his unshakeable faith in the Soviet. After all, since the Second Symphony (marking the tenth anniversary - the "twentieth" on page 21 of the booklet is a misprint!) his track record had fallen somewhat short of his imposed performance management objectives.

The ever-helpful Soviet authorities provided Shostakovich with the ideal incentive - in 1956 they had responded to Hungaryís bid for independence with battalions of tanks and a hail of bullets. Shostakovich responded obligingly with a symphony of epic proportions, cast in his Whit Sunday-Best Propaganda Poster mode, and dutifully casting aside those disgraceful formalist tendencies which had so marred his previous three essays in the genre. You must surely have recognised the overtones of sarcasm in my words - I said all the right things, but it was clear that I meant entirely the opposite. In essence, this was what Shostakovich was doing in his music. Considering that in all probability my sarcasm will be transparent to everyone, it just brings it home how risky Shostakovichís subversive strategy must have been.

The Eleventh Symphony bore the title The Year 1905, pointedly not the year of the glorious victory of the Soviet, but the year in which a peaceful demonstration, by people who trusted their Csar to give them a fair hearing, was dispersed with shocking brutality. In penning this title, and going on to entitle the individual movements Palace Square, The Ninth of January, Eternal Memory, and The Tocsin, Shostakovich had already done plenty to draw the parallel between that year of "abortive revolution" and the one that had just occurred in Hungary. This is why Maxim, the composerís son, asked him, "Father, what if they hang you for this?" I think that, had Shostakovich pressed his point any harder, say by sneaking in any quotes of Hungarian songs or even the merest whiff of a Hungarian folk-rhythm, he surely would have been hanged for it.

Over the years, the poor old Eleventh has been slated from all sides: a backward step from its much more "organic" predecessors, a brash, poster-painted piece of "cinematography", over-dependent on non-original materials (it makes use of no fewer than nine, mainly revolutionary songs), blatant agitprop, and in short unworthy of a composer of his standing. Not a proper symphony at all, donít you know? Very similar brickbats have been brought down on the head of Malcolm Arnold, albeit for very different "reasons". Arnoldís Fourth Symphony has been called the "most banal symphony ever written", largely on account of its containing "inappropriate themes" of a particularly common and vulgar sort. My riposte is to ask, "Are you confusing music that actually is tasteless, trivial, banal, or vulgar, with music which uses materials which are tasteless, trivial, banal, or vulgar?" Arnold and Shostakovich are both symphonists of the first rank, which to my mind is borne out not by their chosen materials but by the use to which those materials are put. Interestingly, both were exceptional composers of film music, and were therefore both well aware of both the techniques of musical drama and the expressive potential of "popular" materials, whether "borrowed" or "original in the style of X". So, if Shostakovich stuffs a symphony full of themes drawn from popular culture, itís odds on that he does so for very good reasons, and the experts would be well advised to concentrate on these rather than wittering on about "bad taste". There - thatís me bound for the Bloody Tower (the one in the bowels of Broadcasting House)! In mitigation, I would say that Shostakovich uses his revolutionary song themes to telling effect both dramatically in their non-musical associations and symphonically in the intricate way he integrates and develops them.

The thing is that, as an uncultured yob (relatively speaking), Iím very well placed to be moved - or even shaken to the core of my being - by this music, which is one reason why I do so love this symphony (the cultured will, if they read on, be similarly appalled at my attitude to the even more maligned Twelfth). Mind you, one of my assessment criteria for music is that if, as I strive to "understand" a piece of music better, the music gets even more impressive, then it is "good" music. Shostakovichís Eleventh passes this test with flying colours, so for me itís "great music", end of argument! A measure of my affection is that I nearly wore out my LPs of the recording made by Berglund with the Bournemouth SO, which orchestra Barshai has also conducted. Fearing that my stylus might start to slice right through the vinyl, I replaced the LPs with the CD remastering of the same recording.

They say that there are better performances on record, but none that Iíve heard convinced me of the need to change horses. The performance of the WDRSO and Barshai runs it as close as any, with only one minor reservation raising its ugly head. The recording is of more concern: the dynamic range seems as tight as a whale-bone corset. Having learnt the hard way from Berglund, and therefore anticipating possible structural damage to my ears, I had set the volume so that the freezing fog of the opening bars floated forth as the merest whisper, only to find that subsequent fortissimi hardly had the strength to dribble out of my loudspeaker cones! If I adjusted the volume to get those about right, the eerie near-silences took on seemingly stentorian proportions. Using the level meters on my MD recorder, I did some quick comparisons. The overall dynamic range is no more than 40 dB. (which is a hell of a lot less than even an LP can manage!). Relative to maximum modulation of 0 dB, the strings at the very start peaked at about -30, but the subsequent recurrences of this sound didnít get past -35. Solo instruments, including harp (low notes) and celesta, playing above this texture frequently hit -25, leaving headroom between pretty quiet solos and con tutti ghettoblastimento of only 25 dB. This all seems to point not at some foible of the conductor, but firstly at the general level initially being set too high then pulled back as the music progresses, and secondly at the even higher initial levels on soloistsí "spot" mics. not being granted the same consideration. Needless to say, it could have been compensated at least to some degree during editing - then again maybe it was, but not by enough.

Although this is damaging to the impact of the music, it is not altogether disastrous, provided that you crank up the volume by about 6 to 10 dB at the start of the second movement! Making allowances for the spurious levels, the playing itself is vividly atmospheric. The first movement is a quarter of an hour of almost incessant, sparsely-populated "pregnant pause" - and any conductor who messes it about will inevitably come a cropper. Barshaiís control pays real dividends, not only in the measured, almost relentless pace (or lack of pace) but also in the care taken over the all-important "chording" of the string textures. On the melodic front, Barshai equally draws finely the distinctions between the prickly clawing of the anxious, animated passages and the innocence of the trusting people suggested by the sweeter outlines of the quoted songs. In and amongst, the ominous fanfare figures (that suggest the military hidden and waiting in the wings) are chillingly intoned by the WDRSO brass and horns. A couple of the cruel, and cruelly exposed, solo top notes succeed only by the skin of their teeth, but this (happily) seems to add to the icy tension. The tympanist deserves a special mention: hovering throughout the movement like some attendant Angel of Death, his (or her) repeated intonations of a figure which will become a crucial generating motive have a dull "plopping" tone that is absolutely spot on.

Although the four movements are distinct, Shostakovich designed them to run continuously. Thus, the dark stirrings at the start of the second movement steal out of the frozen embers of the end of the first. That "generator" is already busy generating, working up a polyphonic panic mingled with the "military threat" motive and the theme of a song (Oh Thou, our Tsar). Barshai builds the tension unerringly, moving from vague unease to brutalised panic as effectively as Berglund. In the ensuing unquiet, the milling themes are joined by the first intimations of Bare Your Heads (on this Sorrowful Day). The crowdís growing awareness of the imminent threat crystallises in the increased ardour of their pleading, the greater savagery of the climax, and the even more stunned subsequent "unquiet", rendering the emaciated sound of the WDRSO woodwind, as they intone the symphonyís glacial opening motive somewhat like a Russian Orthodox chant, all the more horribly enervating. The brazen "military threat" resounds alone, and the hush is shattered by a superbly startling snare-drum rattle, dry as dust. The "generator" now generates a rough-shod fugato, hacked out venomously by the WDRSO strings. Apart from the upward trombone glissandi, which are too clipped to make their full, flesh-crawlingly slimy impact, this entire "massacre" episode is brilliantly brought off, as is (the reservations regarding the dynamics apart) the nerve-jangling aftermath. In the warmth of the flute, reprising the first movementís Listen (". . . like the conscience of a tyrant, the autumn night is black"), there is a stark contrast with the surrounding ice and corpses.

The third movement is a comparatively "straightforward" requiem in a "simple" ABA form. Over pizzicato basses picking at the bones of the fallen, the WDRSO cellos gently and with solemn simplicity intone You Fell as Victims. This tune, which Barshai does not let sag in spite of the tempting adagio marking, is played right through before other strings begin to harmonise in condolence. For Shostakovich (or anybody else, for that matter) this is a pretty blatant quote, and whatís more itís a tune that was used at Leninís funeral. The brief development of the theme is equally restrained, but not so the ensuing Welcome the Free Word of Liberty (which was foreshadowed on brass in the "massacre" episode). This is pronounced by leaden, gloomy horns over a glutinous funereal rhythm on bass winds (ten out of ten especially for the oily bass clarinet!), in entire - and Iím sure entirely deliberate - contradiction of its implied words. I do get the definite impression that Shostakovich is trying to tell us something. As the violins take up the line, Shostakovich proceeds to draw out the melody into a throbbing threnody of jaw-dropping fervour. This extended build-up is powerfully wrought by Barshai, but the impact of the volcanic climax, capped by two statements of Bare Your Heads growled awesomely by massed brass, is undermined by some slight uncertainty in the percussion. This is one place where Berglund triumphs, the Bournemouth bass-drummer putting some real whiplash into his crescendi. Nevertheless, itís still exciting, as is the subsequent, almost inarticulate groping for the solace of You Fell as Victims. It falls, as so often, to that sorrowing WDRSO first bassoon to find the road to a brief moment of private sorrow.

The opening of the finale, ostensibly representing the stirrings of revolution in the aftermath of the massacre but ending in a huge and notably less than optimistic question mark, is discreetly marked allegro non troppo - allegro. Both Berglund and Barshai end up going at the same speed, but while Berglund sets off briskly then winds up the tempo slightly over several bars, Barshai sets a more dogged initial pace then suddenly takes off like a greyhound. That abrupt acceleration sounds disconcerting. Berglund makes more sense musically, but I have a feeling that Barshai may be the more correct, particularly in view of the identity of the opening theme (Rage, You Tyrants!) and the strong smell of the Tenth Symphonyís "Stalin" movement in the shrieking woodwind just after "take-off". This first of three sections is the only part of the entire symphony to carry any note of optimism. Rage, You Tyrants! and Bare Your Heads are interwoven with several other tunes - Boldly Friends, On We March (a revolutionary song), Warsaw March (a revolutionary song, originally Polish), and a theme from a musical comedy about peasant life in Tsarist Russia by Shostakovichís one-time pupil Sviridov. Shostakovichís tapestry is a complex tour de force of hectic activity. In all this mayhem, the only thing that matters is that the players give it all theyíve got, which they do, and to a large extent hang the accuracy (the occasional blooper, and there are some, only adds to the mayhem!).

It comes crashing to a halt in one of Shostakovichís trademark massed unisons, on the theme O Thou, Our Tsar which is hurled like an angry accusation (though at which "Tsar", do you think?). This in turn is silenced by the tamtam (and what a terrific tamtam this orchestra has), leaving us confronted by the frozen image of Palace Square for one final time. "Baring his Head", the WDRSOís cor anglais excels, voicing the composerís secret thoughts with sorrowing tenderness. Significantly, the coda commences on the second movementís "peopleís panic" theme, a whirling woodwind miasma out of which Bare Your heads emerges. They combine into a wild build-up to one of the most astonishing conclusions in the entire symphonic repertoire, the whole orchestra balefully thundering along like some juggernaut! Berglund, after getting so much right, saves his Big Blooper for here of all places: right in the middle of this enraged pageant he lets the tempo drop - only a nadge, but a crucially damaging nadge. Not so Barshai. He lacks the sheer weight of Berglund, but his juggernaut is relentless and his WDRSO bells really clang out in brazen alarm. You canít miss the "Angel of Death" motive, the last note of which hangs in the air for seconds after the clamour has crashed to its conclusion.

The shortcomings of this CD are few and mostly minor (although it is a real pity about that dynamic range!), whilst Barshaiís clear-sighted reading ensures that all the composerís questions are asked. Shostakovichís Eleventh may well be dismissed as brash, garish, agitprop clap-trap, but like "beauty" these things are only skin-deep. I think Barshai also compels us to look behind the gaudy curtain (almost certainly erected entirely on purpose by the composer), to see this work in its true colours: as a "proper" symphony - and that, to my mind at least, is exactly what it is.

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