Let me tell you
Stratospheric Barbara Hannigan
Birmingham and BBC Proms
One to treasure
One of the
Book and CD
Book + 4CDs
Symphony No. 11 in G minor ‘The Year 1905’, Op.
Orchester Bonn/Roman Kofman
rec. 28-30 March 2006, Heilig-Kreuz-Kirche, Bad Godesberg,
Germany MUSIKPRODUKTION DABRINGHAUS
UND GRIMM MDG93712096 [64:28]
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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. .
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.
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
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.
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