is no indication whether this is the start of a complete
cycle, but on the strength of this instalment I rather
hope so. My principal comparison for both symphonies has
been Rudolf Barshai, whose incredibly cheap set on Brilliant
Classics has acquired something of a cult status (see my
(b.1924) was a friend of Shostakovich who has never sought
to impose his own personality on that of the composer – any
composer, not just Shostakovich. Having been “in at the
birth” of many Shostakovich works, he treats the composer
as a contemporary whose work needs propagation. Born in
1972, Vladimir Jurowski is young enough to be Barshai’s
grandson and was barely out of his nappies when Shostakovich
died. For him, then, Shostakovich is not a contemporary
but a classic to be explored. As we can see by the timings
of the 1st Symphony, his exploration has led
him in some unexpected directions. For what it is worth
I have also given the timings of another Russian émigré,
Vladimir Delman (1923-1994), who was often noted for his
|Delman (live 1993, Milan)
Barshai tells it like it is. The first movement is marked
Allegretto and he goes straight down the line, treating
it as a sort of perverted Haydn. Jurowski gives the idea
he’s feeling his way, discovering the elements one by one
like a child building a play-house piece by piece. He is
audibly creating a fantastic-phantasmagorical world before
our ears. Delman also seems to discover the elements one
by one – so it’s not just a generational thing – but he
finds an air of dementia in the music.
second movement of this symphony is mostly a brilliant
scherzo, but shortly after the beginning a strange, rather
doleful chorale-like theme interrupts the proceedings.
Jurowski’s slower timing comes from his very deliberate
treatment of this episode; for the rest of the movement
he is actually very fleet, almost Mendelssohnian. Barshai’s
brilliant but more aggressive performance is curiously
ineffective towards the end where the trumpet enters “sforzato” after
the music has been brought to a halt by the clumpy, dissonant
little piano cadenza. Both Jurowski and Delman make a properly
shocking moment of this. Delman finds disturbing undertones
in the lower strings during the chorale episode which the
others pass by.
third movement is basically lyrical – it is sometimes compared
with Mahler but neither of these conductors make it sound
so. Some disturbing brass fanfares erupt here and there,
however. Barshai’s flowing tempo seems aimed at giving
the music an Elgarian nobility; unfortunately, this approach
doesn’t explain what those uncouth brass interruptions
are doing there. Delman produces an atmosphere of troubled
brooding which looks ahead to mature Shostakovich, and
he gives the brass interruptions a quite appalling impact.
Jurowski produces playing of remarkable refinement, creating
a sort of perfumed, Scriabin-like atmosphere. The brass
interruptions sound almost off-stage, unable to destroy
the fairy-tale atmosphere. It is certainly an interesting
interpretation, carried through with absolute authority.
last movement must be the hardest to conduct, for it has
no apparent coherence. Shostakovich tries one thing, then
another, now fast, now slow, until he breaks into a final
canter. Faced with a movement that has no constant, logical
rhythmic trajectory, Barshai seems to want to create one.
The result is that he holds the movement together clearly,
but under-characterizes the different episodes. In the
end, I fear his account of the symphony is too bland to
have much claim on our attention. Delman and Jurowski in
their various ways live each episode to the full, letting
the structure take care of itself, which it seems able
to do. Jurowski seeks orchestral refinement, an extension
of the fantastic-phantasmagorical world of the first movement,
building up to a jubilant explosion at the end. Delman
again finds a demented, sinister world and the conclusion
arrives like a volley of machine-gun fire against a square
conclusion, then, is that Jurowski’s reading is an original
and interesting reading, and one that could only be made
by an artist for whom Shostakovich and the regime he lived
under belong to the past not the present. Barshai lived
under that same regime but in this case he seemingly opts
out of any sort of interpretation of the music, just playing
the notes and leaving the enigmas unsolved. Perhaps some
listeners will find this approach more helpful than I did.
Delman was thrown into a lager and subsequently exiled
by that regime (his crime was that he was a Jew); evidently
the music expressed for him horrors and sufferings which
time had not healed.
make no apology for bringing into the discussion, not for
the first time, a performance that is not available, since
I feel Delman got a poor deal, not only from his own country
but in his later career in the West. He should have worked
with the finest orchestras and recorded with a major company.
The least we can do is to remember him in writing.
to no. 6, and this time my “outsider” comparison is Boult’s
Everest recording (pub. 1968), which was my introduction
to this work. It was in fact the only recording available
in the UK when I bought it.
Boult has been criticised down the years for his very broad
handling of the massive opening Largo it is interesting
to find Jurowski slower still. But quite honestly, I think
the real comparisons are elsewhere (Kondrashin, for example)
since even between Barshai and Jurowski the difference
is only about a minute. I seem to have loaded my shelves
with the three slowest versions out; fortunately I like
it that way!
there isn’t a great difference between the three conductors’ basic
concepts, and that is really rather remarkable when you
think of the cultural differences and age gaps between
them. Marginally, Barshai is once again the most literal,
just getting it all beautifully played. Tension is a spot
higher at the beginning from both Boult and Jurowski. Jurowski
makes the most of the later stages of the movement, where
a suggestion of human warmth and love seems to be invading
Shostakovich’s bleak world. Boult certainly makes you aware
of it, but without dwelling on it; Barshai allows no more
than the notes themselves will render. What I think is
remarkable is that Jurowski encompasses perfectly the vast
span of this movement – conventional wisdom would say that
it takes years of experience on the rostrum to bring off
such a movement without it falling into episodes. Barshai
and Boult certainly had that experience when they made
their recordings. Yet listening blind, I don’t think you
would suspect that Jurowski was a relative stripling.
small point: when the opening idea is taken up by the trumpet,
fortissimo, at the big climax, the Russian player displays
the vibrato we remember from earlier Russian recordings,
though it is actually Boult’s trumpeter who sounds as if
he is pushing his instrument to its very limit.
the second movement, too, the differences are matters of
seconds, and all three conductors again agree on the basic
idea that this is a nocturnal scherzo, the jokey parts
and the sudden rabid fortes emerging from a rather mysterious
background. Barshai’s extra few seconds are enough to make
his version slightly static; the virtuosity of the Russian
orchestra enables Jurowski to go a shade faster than Boult
without any sense of haste.
virtually identical timings, there are nonetheless appreciable
differences between Barshai and Boult in the finale. Boult
finds a bit more character to the first episode, about
two minutes in – ugliness is perceived to be invading the
circus. At the end Barshai is buoyant and jubilant, taking
the music at face value. Boult ever so slightly whips up
the tempo to make a sort of “Sabre Dance” ending. Had he
instinctively perceived the hollowness of the victory even
though this was years before the publication of Shostakovich’s “Testament”?
Or was the respectable English gentleman in him rather
embarrassed by the music and wanted to get it over and
done with? This is something we’ll never know.
spite of his longer timing Jurowski leads off faster than
the other two and seems to be deliberately plunging ahead
recklessly. He then holds back at the first episode and
never quite recovers his drive. I think he is trying to
get a bit too much out of this movement, and when the final
march comes into sight it is he, not Boult, who sounds
embarrassed by the music, apparently trying to make it not sound
like a victory, whether a real one or a hollow one.
spite of this miscalculation, Jurowski is an uncommonly
interesting Shostakovich conductor, and one not afraid
to pursue paths that are rather different from those of
the “old guard” Russian conductors (Mravinsky, Kondrashin
etc.). I certainly look forward to hearing more from him.
should add that I listened to this SACD as a normal CD.
Maybe things are different if you hear it as an SACD but
as it is I must say the Barshai has the most stunningly
brilliant sound of all. However Jurowski’s more refined
sound is excellent and perhaps suits his approach.
booklet has a good introduction to the works by Franz Steiger,
but when the translation is made by one Charles Kenwright
who is presumably a native English speaker I don’t expect
to read phrases like “here is the first musical scent mark
of a phenomenal compositional talent” and “In the last
movement Shostakovich thrusts the listener into a contrast
bath of the senses”. Let alone about a “Symphony in h-minor”.
My German is too limited but I see that those two phrases
make perfect sense in the French translation.