Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)

Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, “The Year 1905” (1957) [63:41]

Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Mark Wigglesworth

rec. Music Centre for Dutch Radio and Television, Hilversum, The Netherlands, March 2006
BIS BIS-SACD-1583 [63:41]
Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony commemorates the abortive Russian popular revolution of 1905, and more particularly the massacre of more than a thousand peaceful demonstrators gathered in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg on 9 January of that year. Mark Wigglesworth, in his thoughtful and readable booklet note, informs us that Shostakovich’s father was present. Shostakovich studies are controversial and divided, and the appearance in 1979 of Testimony, purported to be the composer’s memoirs as related to Solomon Volkov, only fanned the flames of uncertainty. This is not the place to discuss this – and I don’t feel qualified to do so – but Wigglesworth reminds us that, according to Volkov, the uprising of 1905 was a frequent topic of family conversation when Shostakovich was a child. He seems to have been uncertain as to how to proceed when he received an official commission for a work commemorating the event. Did the uprising in Hungary against the policies of the Russian-imposed government provoke a reaction from him? There were certainly depressing parallels between the events in St Petersburg in 1905 and those in Budapest in 1956, and Shostakovich would surely have been profoundly moved by what happened. The work was rapturously received, and was later awarded a Lenin Prize, so the authorities were apparently untroubled by any hidden meaning. The composer’s son, Maxim, thought otherwise: “Father, what if they hang you for this?”
The symphony lasts for more than an hour, in four linked movements. The first, entitled “Palace Square”, depicts the uneasy calm of the crowd before the massacre, frozen to the bone; the second, the rising tension followed by the massacre itself. The third movement is entitled “In memoriam”, and is a poignant threnody for the dead, whilst the fourth, entitled “Alarm” in my score, but generally referred to as “The Tocsin”, celebrates the courage and steadfastness of those who died, as well as encouraging further resistance and struggle.
The work has been criticised for being little more than glorified film music. The use throughout of Russian revolutionary songs can be cited to support the accusation that it is musically lightweight, and there is no doubt that the events are depicted with startling clarity. Little happens, musically speaking, in the first movement – its sixteen minutes require only twenty-seven of the score’s 328 pages – but the deathly chill and sense of ominous foreboding are uncanny. Without it, or with a foreshortened movement, the drama of what follows would surely have been minimised. The violence in the second movement is searing and retains its power to shock even after many hearings, and the determination of the people – grim rather than jubilant – is brilliantly portrayed in the finale.
Let me say at once that this performance goes straight into the list of the very finest available. The orchestra is magnificent, and the recording is well up to the standards we have come to expect from Bis, though you will have to turn the volume well up in order to hear every detail in the quieter passages. The conductor’s booklet note is a distinct plus in my view, so much more worthwhile than any amount of pretentious musicological rubbish. And then there is his way with the work itself. He presents it with total conviction as a masterpiece of symphonic writing. There is a coherence and logic about the way the work unfolds here that not all conductors have been able to find. One consequence of this is that some passages are less immediately dramatic than in some other readings. The massacre itself, for example, stunning in this version, lacks the near-hysterical quality found in Rostropovich’s reading with the London Symphony Orchestra. This is no bad thing in my view, and in any case would only be evident in straight comparative listening. Heard on its own terms there is no lack of drama in Wigglesworth’s reading. Just listen to those screaming piccolos in this movement, to the wonderfully reedy bassoons throughout, to the stunning side-drum playing as the instrument launches the massacre, to the ferocious unanimity of the lower strings as the passage gets underway, and at just the right tempo. The slow trombone and tuba glissandi a little later are unspeakably horrifying. No, the drama is there all right, but tempo relations are carefully managed, orchestral textures and dynamics skilfully balanced, allowing the work to emerge as a coherent whole, a single, brilliantly executed canvass. This is maintained as far as the hollow victory of the final page, where the conductor – in an apparently minority view – respects the score by cutting the final bell/cymbal/gong notes at the same time as the rest of the orchestra. I could go on. It would be remiss, for example, not to mention the marvellous cor anglais playing, so bleak, so sad, yet so terribly eloquent and noble, in the long passage before the coda of the final movement.
I think this is a marginally finer performance than Petrenko’s rightly praised reading with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra on Naxos. It makes out a more convincing case for the work in purely musical terms. It does, however, cost quite a lot more. I certainly think it a finer performance than that of Rostropovich, for reasons alluded to above. Testament have a performance from André Cluytens with the French National Radio Orchestra. Recorded in 1958, this is a reading of white-hot intensity, and those who admire this symphony should not be without it. They should also try to find a copy of a disc issued free last year with the BBC Music Magazine. Kirill Karabits conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in a very fine performance indeed, live from the Lighthouse in Poole. It is seriously marred, though, by one thing: present on the night, sadly for this rest of us, was the most idiotic, selfish, arrogant bravo-shouter I have ever heard. I hope he’s reading this.
William Hedley

See also review by Dan Morgan March RECORDING OF THE MONTH
A magnificently cogent reading of a frequently misunderstood modern masterpiece … see Full Review