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Eleven 11s
A Survey of Recordings of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony ‘The Year 1905’
by David Barker

Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, written in the aftermath of the death of Stalin is widely regarded as his greatest orchestral work, and a masterpiece of the twentieth century. By contrast, his Eleventh, which followed four years later frequently gets a bad press, because it is perceived to be too programmatic, repetitive and populist. Western critics of the time described it as “overblown film music”. There is not much doubt that a melodic and tonal symphony was not what most Western music critics and academics were interested in, or indeed expecting, at that time.

Certainly, it is not in the same class as the Eighth and Tenth, widely regarded as the best of the fifteen, but to rank it down at the bottom with the Second, Third and Twelfth? I think not. Perhaps the best comparison to be made is with the Seventh - the Leningrad - which has such an extraordinary history, but is, to my mind, inferior both musically and dramatically.

Matching this critical disregard has been a relative reluctance on the part of recording companies: ArkivMusic lists 32 recordings, some of which are duplicates. By way of comparison, the Fifth leads the way with 70 listings, with the Tenth second with 50. The Eleventh finds itself in mid-table well behind the Seventh which has 44 recordings on Arkiv.

Clearly, I don’t agree - I wouldn’t be taking what is a substantial amount of time to write this article if I didn’t love the work. I first heard it, as a live performance, at the Sydney Opera House with Alexander Lazarev conducting the Sydney Symphony, and was completely bowled over. It is a work that is made for live performance, because of the noise and spectacle. But it is much more than a twentieth century 1812 Overture.

My intention for this article is to give a personal, and hence subjective, view of eleven recordings of this underrated work and to make my choice of “Best in Show”. While I haven’t heard every recording made, the ones I have listened to in preparing this article include those long regarded as the best - Stokowski, Berglund, Rostropovich - as well as those which have been well received recently - Petrenko, Lazarev, Caetani.

Some background
The symphony was written in 1956/7 to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Revolution, but is, on the surface at least, about the slaughter of peaceful protesters by palace guards in St Petersburg on January 9, 1905. However, its composition and premiere coincided with the Soviet invasion of Hungary, which rather complicates the interpretation of the work.

Depending on who you read and what you believe about symbolism in Shostakovich’s music, this work can be a celebration of the anniversary, a coded protest over the events in Hungary or something more universal.

Kirill Kondrashin, who collaborated so closely with Shostakovich said in a 1980 speech “The work of D. D. Shostakovich is inseparable from the events of his life” (1). To me, it seems inconceivable that, regardless of what his initial intentions for the work might have been, the repression of protests in Hungary had to generate resonances in the composer’s mind with the events in St Petersburg.

The work is full of references and quotes from popular Russian protest songs, which mean nothing to us in the West, but at the premiere in Moscow, the audience would have been very aware of them and their significance. Indeed, at one of the rehearsals, the composer’s son Maxim turned to his father and whispered, “Won’t they hang you for this?” (2). But they - as in the authorities - didn’t hang him: they applauded it as a celebration of the people’s eventual victory over the Tsar.

Other pages
For ease of reading, the survey is divided onto a number of pages, which you can access directly below, or to simply read through in the written order click on the next link.


2. Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, Faber & Faber, 1994.


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