Shostakovich symphony enshrines a complex of messages, some
of them apparently contradictory. The spur for the magnificent
Symphony No.11 was the fiftieth anniversary of the pre-Revolutionary
events of 1905. In that year in St. Petersburg, a peaceful demonstration by starving Russians
had been brutally put down by the Tsar’s cavalry - graphically
represented in David Lean’s film of Doctor Zhivago.
The horror and bitterness thus engendered gave the movement
towards the Revolution of 1917 an unstoppable momentum.
in 1956, even as Shostakovich was working on his commemorative
symphony, the Soviet-backed Hungarian secret police put a violent
end to an uprising in Budapest. Shostakovich’s sense of outrage at these events, and his
awareness of history repeating itself in a terrible way, spilled
over powerfully into, particularly, the second movement of the
work in progress.
many years, the symphony, along with other programmatic works
by the same composer, was viewed with suspicion in the West,
and thought of as little better than film music. Over a period
of time, though, it has established itself as a major milestone
in the composer’s output, and a worthy successor to the seventh
and eighth symphonies.
first movement, in its sustained evocation of uneasy calm, is
one of Shostakovich’s finest achievements. Thickly divided strings,
playing pianissimo and without vibrato, combine with
rumbling timpani and fanfares in muted brass, to suggest with
uncanny intensity the atmosphere of the snow-covered Palace Square before the violence. Folk-songs, one in
low flutes, another rising from the depths in double basses,
come and go like faces glimpsed in the ghostly half-light.
This movement never seems to fail in its impact, and Caetani’s
reading is no exception. Given that this is a ‘live’ recording,
and that this movement is mostly very soft, the Milanese audience
in March 2003 are mercifully quiet and unbronchitic!
the work unfolds, Caetani shows himself an intelligent and disciplined
interpreter. The waves of climaxes of the second movement,
culminating in its final astonishing outburst, depicting the
January massacre, are strongly characterised, and the orchestra
is equal to its task. The sudden shocked silence when the hammering
of the percussion stops, where the ear slowly adjusts to a barely
perceptible trilling in the strings, is one of the greatest
moments in all of the composer’s output, and is well captured
the main disappointment in the present CD is the slow movement
that now follows. Entitled Eternal Memory, it begins
with the violas quietly playing the melody of a revolutionary
folk-song – “You have fallen as victims of a fateful battle”.
Despite starting in a slow and dignified way, the conductor
rather loses his grip on the tempo, and the music is allowed
to proceed too fast at the climax. There are also balance problems
here, with trumpets and drums far too loud for the important
statement of the germinal theme in the strings (track 3, 11:14).
finale is better, and Caetani is faithful to the composer’s
tempo indication of Allegro non troppo (my underline)
– many performances are simply too quick at the outset. Audience
noise does rather intrude during the lengthy cor anglais solo,
where the composer can perhaps be criticised for letting the
tension drop too far, even though the episode is structurally
and musically necessary. And I’m not sure about those bells
at the end – cavernously deep-toned, they seem removed from
the texture, depriving the conclusion of some of its momentum.
Caetani’s performance doesn’t have the sheer elemental dynamism
of that very first recording of the work, made by André Cluytens
and the French Radio Orchestra in 1957 in the presence of the
composer. Whether it was his presence or the freshness of the
work that made the difference I don’t know; whatever it was,
orchestra and conductor were inspired to a remarkable level,
and that recording, still available on the Testament label,
remains, for me, the authoritative one.
creditable rather than brilliant recording, then. The power
of this magnificent symphony undoubtedly registers, but there
is a feeling of ‘nearly but not quite’ about the whole thing.
As a live experience, it may well have been something very special;
as a recording intended for repeated hearings, it isn’t really