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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1907-1975)
Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 23, The Year 1905 (1957)
West German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Cologne/Semyon Bychkov.
rec. Philharmonie, Cologne, 19-23 November 2001.
AVIE AV2062 [59:11]

Bychkov's Shostakovich has rarely moved me in the way some other conductors can, and here he comes into competition with one of the greatest Elevenths I have ever heard – Rostropovich on LSO Live (see Marc Bridle's perceptive review). The empathy between the London Symphony and the great Russian was at its tightest. I remember leaving the Barbican on a cloud. Another fine Eleventh comes from Cluytens on Testament SBT1099, one that almost attains the furthest reaches of the Rostropovich; ideally, one should have it as a supplement.
Bychkov, I doubt, could ever achieve this level of greatness. His is a reading that seems to  improve as it progresses - until one reaches the finale, that is - as against Slava's immediate and unremittingly sustained assertion of greatness.
The first movement is subtitled, 'The Palace Square'. It is built on three distinct themes: a hymn-tune based chorale, a triplet motif for trumpets and timpani and then a Siberian labourers' song. It begins under Bychkov in ultra-quiet fashion, its hymnic nature intact and with a fine sense of space. This is the finest playing on the disc. The second movement, 'The Ninth of January' depicts the two factions on that date in 1905, 'Bloody Sunday'. If the lower strings project the right amount of disquiet, there is also a slightly muffled feel to the recording. And if the movement gains in excitement later, there is a distinct  and continued suspicion that more guts  is required. Side-drums appear a touch dry in the mix. Most of all, though, this sounds like a flawed piece in Bychkov's hands, something which Rostropovich does not even hint at.
The slow movement, 'In Memoriam', a funeral march, boasts long desolate lines that Bychkov persuades his forces to bring off well, if not heartbreakingly. The finale, 'The Tocsin', sags unforgivably. Its parade of song themes - well charted in Thomas Schäfer's excellent booklet note, as indeed they are throughout - makes little sense here.
As a concert performance, this Bychkov performance would have been satisfactory. As a proposition on disc, it is less so. The Eleventh is a work that can freeze the blood in one's veins, but it is difficult to believe that from the present account. Further, the Rostropovich is available at a price that is so low it is almost a sin. There is no real choice here.
Colin Clarke


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