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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 11 in G minor ‘The Year 1905, Op. 103 (1957)  
Beethoven Orchester Bonn/Roman Kofman
rec. 28-30 March 2006, Heilig-Kreuz-Kirche, Bad Godesberg, Germany
Experience Classicsonline

For a long time Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony was seen as a capitulation to Soviet orthodoxy, a view now largely discredited. And not before time; although it has all the hallmarks of a patriotic tub thumper – Bolsheviks saw it as an antecedent to the 1917 Revolution – the quoted Russian songs tell a rather different story.
It’s an intensely dramatic work, with its long Bolero-like first movement, an ugly conflict in the second, a lament in the third and defiance in the fourth. As always in these symphonies defiance is never without its ambiguities and the finale of the 11th is no exception. Leaving aside the search for musical clues – an occupational hazard with this composer – this symphony really needs a firm hand and a keen sense of drama to be convincing.
And while the 11th has been rehabilitated it still ranks with the 2nd and 3rd as the least recorded of Shostakovich’s symphonies. Ironically it has attracted some very fine interpreters, among them the legendary Kyril Kondrashin (now available as part of his Melodiya/Moscow Philharmonic box, MELCD 1001065) and more recently Vladimir Ashkenazy and the St Petersburg Philharmonic (Decca 448 179-2).
Roman Kofman and his Beethoven band are the new kids on the block, having recently recorded most of these symphonies for MDG. Within seconds it’s clear theirs is a completely fresh take on the 11th. The muted opening is amazingly detailed but needs a bit more volume before it snaps into focus. Ashkenazy sounds altogether more diffuse but at least he conveys something of the score’s brooding intensity. Kondrashin’s Soviet-era recording is the most direct and explicit, that recurring motto on the timps menacing from the start.
Timings don’t always tell the full story – Kofman’s Adagio ‘The Palace Square’ unfolds at a leisurely 17:16, as opposed to 14:34 for Ashkenazy and a remarkably swift 12:30 for Kondrashin – but they do suggest why the Bonn performance is so lacking in cumulative tension. And despite the marvellous recording Kofman finds none of the unsettling sonorities that Kondrashin uncovers here.
Periodically established performance styles and practices are re-evaluated and sometimes yield interesting – even revelatory – results. Whatever Kofman’s view of these symphonies his reading of the 11th is none of these things. He simply doesn’t have the insights or instincts of Kondrashin, who drills straight down to the conflict and despair that lie beneath the work’s frozen surface.
The Allegro ‘9th January’ is stretched to a mind-boggling 20:29 under Kofman – a full three minutes slower than Kondrashin. The latter really screws up the tension, so much so that the music borders on hysteria at times. But goodness the military and bass drums are hair-raisingly vociferous. And even though the Decca recording has its share of earth-shaking thwacks it doesn’t come close to Kondrashin in terms of graphic violence. And just listen to the grim low brass as the latter surveys the field of slaughter
The  Adagio ‘In memoriam’ is another movement that needs plenty of raw emotion – witness those inconsolable basses and dirge-like brass – and it’s another occasion where the MDG performance sounds curiously detached. All too often Kofman’s reading sounds lightweight – literally and metaphorically – and even though Ashkenazy offers both heft and insight even he is no match for Kondrashin. And as old as the Melodiya recording is it conveys all the pent-up drama and excitement one could hope for.
Kofman’s Allegro ‘Tocsin’ clocks in at 15:36, Kondrashin’s at a whip-cracking 13:24. Speaking of whips no one captures that opening flick quite like Kondrashin, the Moscow Philharmonic playing as if demented in the wild music that follows. No doubt some will criticise this helter-skelter approach but surely no one can fault it for tautness and thrust. .
Perhaps the strangest moment in the MDG recording comes right at the end. In the run-up to the finale Kofman does at least find a degree of inwardness, solace even, but it’s a case of too little too late. Kondrashin’s headlong, bell-capped coda is just breathtaking, Kofman’s far too controlled for music of such abandon. And now for the odd bit; at the very end Kofman leaves the bells to sound and decay into silence. It’s a strange effect and not at all convincing.
This review wasn’t meant to be a paean of praise to Kondrashin but when one encounters an Eleventh as authoritative as this all else seems irrelevant. Of course there are other fine performances to consider, including James DePreist and the Helsinki Philharmonic on Delos DE3080 and the late Mstislav Rostropovich on LSO Live (CD LSO 0030, SACD LSO 0535). The latter, taken from a high-voltage live performance at the Barbican, has its followers but DePreist’s is the more satisfying performance overall.
Given the bar is set so high it’s hard for Kofman – or anyone else – to reach it. He may have a fine band and a wonderful recording but in this symphony that simply isn’t enough.
Dan Morgan


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