Listening to Rostropovich’s reading of the Shostakovich
eleventh symphony is a shatteringly emotional experience. This live
recording is most persuasive using insights gained from the conductor’s
friendship with the composer. The playing of the LSO confirms their
status as one of the top five orchestras in the world.
This recording was much fêted upon its initial
release but the performance was not to every reviewer’s taste. However,
I have been caught by the exceptional quality of the interpretation
in what is one of Shostakovich’s most underrated scores. The symphony
is acknowledged as being difficult to bring off successfully so perhaps
I have been waiting for a performance such as this to realise just how
great a work it is.
Shostakovich had been commissioned to celebrate the
fortieth anniversary of the October revolution of 1917. In response
he composed this symphony to commemorate the events of the abortive
first revolution of 1905, particularly the Bloody Sunday of the ninth
of January when the troops of Tsar Nicholas II massacred unarmed civilians
who were peacefully demonstrating in front of the Winter Palace in St.
Petersburg. The symphony, conceived on a large scale, is programmatic
in content. To provide the listener with indications of the meanings
of the music Shostakovich provided explicitly descriptive titles for
each of the four connected movements.
The exceptional control and intense sensitivity that
Rostropovich uses to portray the huge expanses of almost static music
contained in the first movement Adagio is the highlight of the
disc. Rostropovich draws out with considerable emphasis the virile,
militaristic melodies, the agitated brass fanfares and percussive effects
which ape the marching of troops and the firing of shots. I almost jumped
out of my skin at a couple of points courtesy of the LSO’s wonderfully
expressive brass playing. The conductor guides the LSO through the symphony’s
grim and contrasting architectural breadth and does so with consummate
accomplishment. He creates the necessary atmosphere of brooding tension
and expressive power. Experience ferocious violence contrasted with
searing heartache in the emotional roller-coaster ride of ‘Tocsin’,
the concluding movement.
The version of the eleventh symphony by Bernard Haitink
and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, on Decca digital 411 939-2 has been
a personal favourite since its release in 1985. However Haitink cannot
compete with the intensity of the Rostropovich reading which is more
convincing on all fronts. Incidentally, Rostropovich at just over seventy
two minutes takes a massive eleven minutes longer to complete the work.
Other highly rated versions by James De Priest and the Helsinki PO on
Delos digital D/C 3080, Vladimir Ashkenazy with the St. Petersburg PO
on Decca digital 448 179-2 and André Cluytens’s forty five year
old recording with the French RO on Testament SBT 1099 are now all clearly
superceded by this new Rostropovich reading which I feel sets a convincing
The bone-dry acoustic in the Barbican assists the depiction
of the harrowing and brutal events of that icy cold and snow covered
Russian winter. The sound quality is exceptional with few audience distractions
and the sound enginers have dispensed with the applause.
A superb performance together with excellent sound
quality make this a benchmark recording and my top CD choice of the
year. Shostakovich fans will ignore this release at their peril.
see also Marc Bridle's