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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony no. 1 in F minor, op.10 (1924) [34:07]
Symphony no. 6 in B minor, op.54 (1939) [32:25]
Russian National Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. October 2004, DZZ Studio, Moscow. DDD
PENTATONE CLASSICS SACD PTC 5186 068 [66:57]


There 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 review).

Barshai (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 slow tempi.

Symphony no.1 I II III IV tt
Barshai  8:10 4:45  7:43 8:38 29:16
Delman (live 1993, Milan) 8:47 4:29 9:17 9:54 32:27
Jurowski  8:38 5:15 9:54 10:19 34:07

 
Basically, 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.
 
The 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.
The 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.
 
The 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 of demonstrators.
 
The 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.
 
I 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.
 
Now 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.

Symphony no.6 I II III tt
Barshai  18:50 5:47 7:01 31:38
Boult 19:11 5:29  7:00 31:40
Jurowski  19:59 5:15 7:11 32:25

 
Since 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!
 
Basically, 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.
 
A 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.
 
In 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.
 
With 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.
 
In 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.
 
In 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.
 
I 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.
 
The 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.
 
Christopher Howell
 

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