A Survey of Recordings of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony ‘The
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
Perhaps the best comparison to be made is with the Seventh
- the Leningrad - which has such an extraordinary history,
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
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.
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
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.
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.