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Dmitry SHOSTAKOVICH (1906–1975)
Complete Symphonies - Vol. 6

Symphony No. 2 To October Op. 14 (1927) [18:55]
Symphony No. 12 The Year 1917 Op. 112 (1961) [40:32]
National Ukrainian Choir “Dumka” (Symphony No. 2)
Beethoven Orchester Bonn/Roman Kofman
rec. 16-17 September 2004 (Symphony No. 2); 15-18 May 2006 (Symphony No. 12)

These two symphonies, composed almost 35 years apart, can claim to be Shostakovich’s two worst efforts in the symphonic genre. Both were written for political reasons. After the great success with the first symphony in 1926, he was commissioned by the propaganda department of the Musical Sector of the State Publishing House to write a composition for the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. He was even sent verses to set, so his freedom was indeed limited. Initially it wasn’t intended as a symphony and structurally it is a bit wayward with a long Largo first movement, pure orchestral, followed by the half as long second and last movement where the choir has most of the focus. It might even be regarded as a one movement composition; not that the composition is only simple and crude. On the contrary it is one of his most complex creations: polyphonic, with canon and fugue and a construction with layer on layer (27 simultaneously played lines!) resulting in tone clusters. Shostakovich was very brave and avant-garde here and the cultural political climate during the first decade of the Soviet Union was liberal enough to allow this. Things were to change radically after the 1934 socialist realism manifesto. Similarly sobering was Stalin’s infamous article “Chaos instead of music”, attacking the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Radicalism is one thing, the result another. Musically the symphony is uneventful, initially at any rate. Starting practically inaudibly it grows dynamically very very slowly. It feels like an eternity before something actually happens. There is a lively, scherzo-like section where one recognizes the ‘real’ Shostakovich but then it wanes and it is not until the choral section that it gains some momentum. This is however political propaganda at its most blatant and the music is a kind of audio equivalent to the very rough-hewn posters, statues and monuments that were part of the communist propaganda armoury. The choir is required to bawl as much as possible and besides a certain animal power there is very little of musical interest. At the suggestion by Lev Shul’gin of the Propaganda Department, Shostakovich also used factory whistles to herald the arrival of the choir but they lose their impact in the general turmoil that prevails. It might be that Shostakovich wanted it this way – I would have liked this novelty sound to be more prominent. Roman Kofman and his forces, including the Ukrainian Choir’s authentic Slavonic timbre and pronunciation, do what they can and the sound-picture is undoubtedly impressive. That said, having listened through the work three times I have to agree with most commentators, including the composer himself, that it does not belong among the upper 100+ of his opuses.
Things improve only marginally when we come to the twelfth symphony, also written as a tribute to Lenin. It is in the traditional four movements and it seems that Shostakovich composed it out of free will and not as an assignment. It was, however written to coincide with the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party and it might be seen as Shostakovich’s wish to make amends for too often being out of phase with party ideology. Criticism in general has been devastating, including from Mstislav Rostropovich, who said: “It is a shame that a genius wasted time on this”. It is easy to agree. The immediate predecessor, Symphony No. 11 “The Year 1905”, has also been castigated for empty rhetoric but that is still music with stature, while No. 12 is only bombast. To be honest there are poetic qualities in the second movement, Razliv, which is the name of a village near St Petersburg, where Lenin hid on the eve of the October revolution. Here there is a nobility and a transparency in the orchestration that sets it miles apart from the brashness of the rest of the symphony. The short third movement, Aurora is named after the cruiser from which the starting shot was fired for the armed uprising. With its pizzicato opening and its sense of rumbling threat it has its attractive points. However in the end it’s back to the mediocre which persists throughout the finale. Again Kofman tries to save what can be saved, which means that he takes the Razliv movement fairly slow to make its poetry stand out from the rest. Actually the title The Dawn of Humanity would be a more suitable name for this movement than for the empty finale.
I admired Kofman’s reading of Symphony No. 13 Babi Yar a half year or so ago (see review), even if in the last resort the simultaneously issued BIS recording under Mark Wigglesworth got my vote. It is not necessary to own these two symphonies. I have no wish to have everything that Mozart or Beethoven wrote either. Those who feel differently could do much worse than starting here.
Göran Forsling

Reviews of other releases in this series
Symphony 7 Symphony 8 Symphony 10 Symphony 13


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