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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No.11 in G minor, The Year 1905, op.103 (1956/1957) [57:37]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 22-23 April 2008. DDD
NAXOS 8.572082 [57:37]
Experience Classicsonline

Written to commemorate the abortive 1905 revolution Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony, like the 12th which commemorates the 1917 revolution, lacks the weight or distinction of musical thought and logic which so characterizes the 10th and 13th Symphonies. What we forget, I think, is that the composer is writing in a popular idiom so as to reach as many people as he can. There is nothing wrong in being popular – for too long this has been seen as weak work and not a desire to communicate. As he was writing with regard to important events in Russian history I can well imagine that Shostakovich wanted to reach as many members of the public as he could with his music.
But make no mistake – the 11th Symphony is in no way an easy listen; you can’t sit back and bask in the colourful orchestration and good tunes. Playing for nearly an hour, in four big movements, which run together and share material, some of them revolutionary songs, there is something cinematic about the way the piece is constructed – but this is because of the way Shostakovich cuts between ideas and creates quite vivid visual images; indeed there is one section in the second movement (at 10:58) which always reminds me, for reasons I cannot explain, of the Odessa Steps sequence from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin – perhaps Naxos could be persuaded to record Edmund Meisel’s fine score for this film, for it warrants further hearings.
The first movement – Palace Square – is the calm before the storm. All is quiet, the music is restrained and delicate, soft string chords, quite beautiful in themselves, are interrupted by menacing fanfares from muted trumpets. There’s a disturbed climax but the peace continues as if the insistent brass calls didn’t exist. Fury is unleashed in The Ninth of January, the date (old style, Julian calendar) is significant for on that Sunday, subsequently known as Bloody Sunday, the Orthodox Priest George Gapon led a workers’ procession to the Winter Palace (the square of the first movement) to deliver a petition to Tsar Nicholas II. However, the troops guarding the Winter Palace opened fire on the crowd, causing over 100 deaths. This is considered to be the start of the revolution. Shostakovich depicts the slaughter with music of vehemence, interspersed with reminiscences of the music of the first movement but transformed into icy sounds, long gone are the reassuring string sonorities. Hence my feelings about the Odessa Steps sequence. This is thrilling music and its forward momentum is irresistible. The third movement – Eternal Memory – is an elegy for the dead, deeply felt and with a passionate and yearning climax. The final movement, for it doesn’t feel like a finale in the conventional sense – The Tocsin (which is a signal or alarm sounded on a bell) – is a wild march, grotesque and misformed, the workers rising, I presume. A slower section towards the end sings of grief before the final onslaught of bells and workers songs. It’s a very fine piece.
And this is a very fine performance. With the Liverpool Phil on top form, responding to every one of Petrenko’s demands, it is a resounding success. It is electrifying in the way that a concert performance is – indeed, it’s hard to believe that this was recorded over two days, so immediate is the impact of the playing. The recording has an astonishingly huge wide dynamic range, the opening chords are so quiet that are, when played at a normal volume setting, almost inaudible. Turn the colume control up and the recording is as clear and bright as one could wish for. Every department of the orchestra is exceptionally well balanced, not an easy job in some of the fuller parts - and there are some very full tuttis - and, best of all, at the very end where the bells describe major and minor thirds in G the clangour is left to reverberate after the music has ended – absolutely thrilling. Whatever you do don’t be without Stokowski’s quite magnificent 1958 recording with the Houston Symphony Orchestra (EMI 6520622) and don’t be without this new release – I couldn’t be without either! This is an essential disk for all collections.
Bob Briggs


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