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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Cello Concerto no.2 in G major, op.126 (1966)
(1. Largo [14:59]; 2. Allegretto [4:44]; 3. Allegretto [15:35])
Symphony no.12 in D minor, op.112 The Year 1917 – In Memory of Lenin (1961)
(1. Revolutionary Petrograd [14:53]; 2. Razliv [12:19]; 3. Aurora [4:54]; 4. The Dawn of Humanity [10:55])
Jonathan Ayling (cello)
London Shostakovich Orchestra/Christopher Cox
Recorded live at St. Cyprian’s Church, Glentworth Street, London NW1, 14 November 2004

I had not heard the London Shostakovich Orchestra before, either live or recorded, so I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. The booklet tells us that the orchestra, founded in 1999 ‘... exists to provide the opportunity for serious musicians to perform symphonic music to a high standard’. A love of the music of their eponymous composer is obviously a prerequisite, and the passion and commitment of their playing bears this out.

What isn’t perhaps so clear to the unsuspecting CD buyer is that this is an amateur band, albeit a good one. One could argue that this should be made clearer on the packaging, but then again, why should it be? The music is played in its entirety and with integrity, and the standard of performance becomes self-evident to anyone with ears to hear within a minute of the beginning of track 1. So caveat emptor say I!

Jonathan Ayling is a talented and musical cellist, and a genuinely compelling performer, even if the technical demands of parts of the Cello Concerto no.2 – which are huge – are ultimately still beyond his grasp. The balance is not that bad, but he is spotlighted too closely, so that his dynamics seem rather flat, and the music lacks the variety it almost certainly had ‘in the flesh’. The orchestra does well, even if they are unable to bring sufficient ferocity to the extraordinary outburst of the folk-song ‘Bubliki’ in the finale. Any listener who has heard recordings by the concerto’s dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich, will know the devastating effect this passage can have.

What of the twelfth symphony? Other than the little-known second and third, this has always seemed to me the most disappointing of Shostakovich’s works in the genre. It struggles to maintain its inspiration, and often serves up rehashes of the preceding two symphonies, particularly the eleventh, a far superior work. Perhaps the composer’s personal circumstances, or maybe the great speed at which he wrote it (even faster than usual!) are to blame; whatever it is, it’s a hard piece to get enthusiastic about.

However, Cox and his orchestra clearly managed to do so, and turn in a performance of great drama and intensity. Whatever the shortcomings of the playing, there is no doubt that Cox has the measure of this music – its phrasing, its spacing, and its sound-world. Some of the climaxes – for example the great one at the end of the first movement – have the necessary cataclysmic power to them, and the orchestra largely maintains its stamina and concentration. Violins make a really splendid sound, and the percussion section is of a high class. Other areas need more work; high woodwind suffer from sour intonation and poor chording, and horns are unreliable.

Here is music that is challenging even for seasoned professionals to play. In addition, this is a live recording, so that this CD represents a considerable achievement. As a record of what must have been a thrilling and even inspiring evening, it is a valuable document. As a means of repeated hearings of the masterpieces enshrined, however, it is naturally a non-starter. Best bet is to go to Rostropovich/Ozawa for the concerto and Järvi for the symphony, both on DG.

A highly enjoyable recording of a remarkable event, and a reminder of the riches of musical talent in which the UK abounds.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

see also review by Philip Scowcroft

Available in an alternative coupling of the two cello concertos - review



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