Has there ever been a more mysterious, more ambiguous composer than Dmitry Shostakovich? This outstanding performance of the Ninth Symphony brings out all its contradictory and inscrutable qualities. The perkiness of the first movement, complete with its absurd piccolo-march solo, suddenly turns sour at around 3:15. Why? Why so perky? Then why so sour? The whole movement is superbly pointed and witty here, and the rest of the performance lives up to it. The wistful slow movement, the magnificent winds in the scherzo, the marvellous, long, brooding bassoon solo in the fourth, and then that ridiculous rush to finish which is the finale, all of these are brought off with consummate skill in this performance. The timbre of the bassoon and brass are the only sure indicators of the orchestra’s national origins, as even in Russia the tendency to homogenise orchestral sound is beginning to appear. This is such a pity! Whilst it’s obvious that a Russian orchestra should seek the right sound in Debussy, and a French one not play Tchaikovsky as though it were Debussy, I do think that the increasingly “one will do for all” philosophy will bring us more loss than gain in the long run.
Collectors will have their favourite recordings of this remarkable piece. I retain a great affection for Bernstein in 1965 (Sony) and, as I wrote in my recent review, Petrenko’s Naxos reading is very fine, though his extremely slow tempo for the second movement takes some getting used to. Titov’s performance is highly successful, but in any event comparisons are of no importance since the remainder of the programme renders the disc indispensable.
In a recent review of an excellent Northern Flowers disc of music by Boris Tischenko, I remarked on the eccentric nature of the English notes. The same Sergey Suslov, translating Vadim Shakhov’s notes, is much more successful here, despite a few idiosyncrasies, and indeed, when describing the remaining two works on the disc, he comes up with the excellent phrase “made-to-order opuses”. These works were both composed in answer to commissions from the NKVD Song and Dance Ensemble as music to accompany patriotic theatre productions. (Laurel Fay, in her biography of the composer, refers to the NKVD as the “People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs”. The booklet has is as the “Ministry of Police and Labour Camps”. Not quite the same thing.) In the Overture to Native Leningrad, the chorus incites the listener to “march on” and “keep step” in the face of aggression and tyranny from an unidentified enemy. The “Song of October Victory” celebrates the fact that the “bloody Czar’s knocked off his thrown, and the final “Ode for Leningrad”, amid paeans of praise for he who gave the city its name, reminds us of the time when “the paw of the Nazi beast will not tramp the ancient, age-old granites.” There will probably never be a satisfactory answer to the question about the composer’s state of mind when composing such pieces as this. I don’t think, given the context, that we can even judge their quality as we should. Shostakovich’s inspiration might seem tepid when so often we experience it at boiling point, but I wonder if this same music had appeared in a symphony, to different words, would we not find it more convincing? What seems unarguable - and significant - is that the only non-vocal movement, “Dance of Youth”, is the finest of the four. Indeed, there are a few quite delicious moments there, which stand out all the more amidst what has to be seen as posturing. The two male soloists are excellent, but I think if this kind of work is to convince, and I’m convinced that it can convince, the chorus needs to be larger, wilder, and better able to adopt the required period mindset than the Smolny Cathedral Chamber Choir manages. No authoritarian state can force people to believe, but a situation can easily be imagined where the people might think they believe, and therefore, in some way, do believe. The chorus here, well though they sing, don’t sing like believers.
Curiously enough, in Russian River they seem to have been converted! The work begins with what must surely be the shortest march ever written, which is then followed by a noisy football match. In truth, there is not much in the music which suggests football - even Shostakovich, who was football crazy, would be hard pressed, I think, to achieve that - but it’s boisterous enough to pass muster. The set then ends with two choruses. The first, “Battle for Stalingrad”, opens with an orchestral introduction in which tension is gradually increased in a way familiar from several of the symphonies. This anthem, with its references to “mothers’ tears” and “Nazi scum” gives way to a final hymn in praise of the river of the title, naturally enough, the Volga. In this fervent and percussion-heavy piece, perhaps more than anywhere else on the disc, we can hear the composer going through the patriotic “made-to-order” motions.
Apart from the chorus’s apparently luke-warm contribution to Native Leningrad, all three performances are quite outstanding. The orchestra plays superbly under Alexander Titov’s inspired direction. The recording is excellent, immediate and with strikingly wide stereo spacing. The booklet cover carries one of those poignant wartime photographs of the composer dressed as a fireman. At not quite fifty minutes we might have hoped for more music, but even so, this disc, entitled “Wartime Music, Volume 7”, makes an important contribution to our knowledge of the composer.
Nick Barnard also listened to this disc as a blind review with no knowledge of performers or content.
Another blind listening disc but with a little clue as written on it says “Russian Wartime Music”. Very short playing time my CD player tells me - coming in at under fifty minutes. The first piece is easy to identify - Shostakovich’s Symphony No.9 Op.70. So that accounts for about half the disc - the rest …. I have not a clue, but more later.
This is an utter turkey of a disc. The symphony - what a compelling work of bitter political irony it is - receives as wan and slack and down-right lazy a performance as you could ever imagine. The recording - can it really be a modern example of engineering? - is opaque and flat with the strings recessed - not that that matters much given that there is little attempt to play the dynamics - and woodwind highlighted. The woodwind, which should crackle with spry sarcastic energy, at best sounds technically challenged - ensemble intonation and sheer personality going for nothing. Even the brass sound as if they would rather be somewhere else. Following the performance with my score was a thoroughly depressing experience; nearly every nuance was ignored. This was such a brave work for Shostakovich to write. As is well known the expectation from the State - with all the implications that held - was for a triumphal monolithic edifice praising the “great leader” Stalin and his triumph in the Patriotic War. Instead we have this nimble, sly ironic work - astonishing! When there IS finally a march of sorts - rehearsal letter I in the 5th movement - the ‘tune’ is distorted by some wonderfully grotesque brass crescendi/raspberries … except not in this performance. It sounds as though this is an eastern European orchestra - mainly down to the edgy brass but particularly because of the choral contribution that features after the symphony - but without any of the normal benefits of searing commitment, superb unified string playing - the leader struggles with his not very hard solo - and the like. I really cannot bring myself to list the failings here - it would be too long and dull for all concerned. Enough to say - avoid this at all costs, shoddy and unworthy of the work. One last tiny example though - the last 3 movements should be played attacca …why then the studied gap from the string diminuendo of the 3rd movement into the startling baleful brass chord that opens the 4th? So very very wrong.
So can the couplings resurrect this disc? Frankly no. A bit better played - a tuba player who at least sounds as though he is having fun and generally more alert yet far from first rank playing. The main problem here is the music itself. As banal as the symphony is majestic. I have no idea if these movements constitute one or more works. They sound like a suite(s?) of film music - there is no musical linkage between movements. Is this more Shostakovich? I have all of the Capriccio and Marco Polo/Naxos discs of the Shostakovich film scores and it is none of them. Certainly the music immediately after the symphony does sound like Shostakovich in Ballet Suites / Limpid Stream mode (track 7 sounds very much in his best The Gadfly galop style). But then suddenly, a phalanx of stern-eyed, square-jawed singers appear. I’ve heard some of Shostakovich’s obedient cantatas (The Sun Shines on Our Motherland and Song of the Forests Op.81 spring to mind) but this toes the party line more than any of those. Usually I’m quite a sucker for this kind of stuff but I really can’t remember having heard such musical tripe in a long time. It sounds for all the world like there must have been an abundant potato harvest or that the current 5 Year Plan deserves particular praise from the comrades. I do not speak Russian and in the circumstances have no texts so I have no idea what they are singing about. Try track 8 - once you get past the sentimental flabby horn and the far-too-close-sitting-in-your-lap flute and a plodding bass line - have they ever heard of the concept of phrasing? - the ‘temperature rises’ and suddenly the unmistakably Russian-sounding choir enter. In fact the choir come off the best by some margin on this disc - at least they sing with some real attack and personality but the minimal harmony and doubling of vocal lines in the orchestra makes this a very thin musical gruel. I’m in a quandary to know whether this is very very bad Shostakovich or another Soviet composer/apparatchik. If the former I guess the musicological value is to show how he could serve both the masters and his conscience by writing concurrent works with such wildly differing messages. If the latter then it shows the different league Shostakovich was in. On balance I rather hope it is the latter because I would like to think that in even his most minor work there are little scintillas of genius and there are none here. Rather bizarrely the opening of track 9 has an echo of the hymn “Dear Lord and father of mankind” but by now I think my brain is playing tricks on me as some kind of hallucinatory survival regime. The highest low point for me is reached in track 13 which sounds like some kind of Soviet entry for the Eurovision Song Contest circa 1950 replete with sincere baritone. This is music that should have been left to moulder in the history books - no-one and nothing is served by its Frankenstein’s monster-like reanimation.
I am still reeling from the cumulative mediocrity of this disc. Against the lighthouse of genius that is the Symphony No.9 the rest of the programme shrivels but even that I can forgive in the prevailing social/political mood of the era in which it was written - “needs must”. The playing and recording here and now I find much harder to make apologies for; this is simply not good enough. Any version of the symphony is better but turn to old trusted friends like Svetlanov, Rohzdestvensky, Mravinsky or Kondrashin for the real thing - this is one of the few comparative ‘misses’ in the Barshai bargain box for me - too clean and lightweight to convey the message that lies beneath. For the rest, there is a concert hall in hell performing this music even as I write and the guest performers are……….???