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Eleven 11s
4. First Movement
by David Barker


First Movement - Adagio: The Palace Square
This sets the scene for what is come - it portrays the chilled, snow-covered square in front of the Winter Palace - and has a stark and forbidding beauty. The music is almost entirely slow and quiet and takes (usually) more than 15 minutes, which might be seen as rather too long. Certainly, it takes a deal of concentration to listen to the whole movement without the mind drifting away.

Dominating the movement are strings and soft, insistent timpani. There is a series of short, louder passages throughout, some military-like fanfares in the brass with snare drum reminding us of the troops guarding the Square, others gentler in the winds, the gathering of the protesters perhaps.

Shostakovich uses two popular songs here: “Listen” and “The Prisoner”. The melody for the former recurs a number of times and its lyrics are significant in the context of the whole symphony: “The night is dark as an act of betrayal, as a tyrant’s conscience”. Little wonder Maxim was worried about his father’s safety.

The overriding sense here is foreboding - we should begin to feel uncomfortable as the movement proceeds. Too fast, and the menace is lost; too slow and it becomes rather soporific.

Comparative remarks
The majority of conductors take this in something over 15 minutes, as you can see in the table below.

< 15 minutes Petrenko
15-19 minutes Stokowski, Caetani, Barshai, Haitink, Lazarev, Kitajenko, DePreist, Berglund, Rozhdestvensky
> 19 minutes Rostropovich

Rostropovich extends it to more than twenty. Some reviewers have heard a heightened sense of tension in this, but for me, it has been stretched beyond its breaking point. By the time the movement ends, I am only uncomfortable because of the time spent listening.

At the other end of the spectrum, some seven minutes quicker, Petrenko is slightly more successful in convincing me that his unusual tempo works: he doesn’t manage to portray fully the menace evident in the best.

Showing how it should be done are Berglund and Haitink, who are able to raise the hairs on the back of my neck. How they create the sense of icy calm and repressed violence that the others only hint at, or completely miss, I don’t know, but they make more of this movement than I thought possible (to be honest, my feeling is that it is too long, delaying the drama too much).

Of the others, Barshai and Lazarev are good without reaching the heights attained in Bournemouth and Amsterdam, while DePreist is surprisingly limp, despite being faster (slightly) than Berglund. His was the prime recommendation in the Penguin Guide in the mid 90s, but until I began preparing this survey, I had not heard it. Now having done so, I find myself quite underwhelmed and at a loss to understand why it was so highly regarded.

Stokowski’s main failing is not tempo, but volume. Most begin softly, especially Rostropovich, and slowly increase. Stokowski maintains a more consistent level throughout - I can’t say whether this was a choice of the conductor or the sound engineer. This does have the effect of reducing the build-up of tension, but it certainly makes for easier listening. In some recordings, much of the first movement is inaudible unless you turn the volume up significantly. You then face the problem of the neighbours ringing the police during the massive climaxes in the second movement.

Best: Berglund, Haitink
Worst: DePreist, Rostropovich

 

First Movement

 

 


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