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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975 )

Symphony No. 11 in G minor, op 103 ‘The Year 1905’ (1957) ‘Palace Square’: Adagio [20:10]
‘9 January’: Allegro [21:27]
‘In Memoriam’: Adagio [13:27]
‘Tocsin’: Allegro non troppo [17:20]
London Symphony Orchestra/Mstislav Rostropovich
Recorded live at the Barbican, London, U.K. on 21-22 March 2002 DDD
LSO LIVE LSO0030 [72:24]


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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 new benchmark.

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.

Michael Cookson

see also Marc Bridle's review

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