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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No 11 in G minor The Year 1905 (1957)
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Yevgeny Mravinsky
rec. 1959
REGIS RRC1387 [60:22]

Experience Classicsonline

This reissue takes us right back to one of Shostakovich’s most authoritative interpreters. Yevgeny Mravinsky (1903-1988) gave the first performances of no fewer than six Shostakovich symphonies - numbers 5, 6, 8, 9, 10 and 12 - and though he didn’t lead the première of the Eleventh symphony, he performed it in Leningrad on 3 November 1957, just four days after it had been unveiled in Moscow. Regis give no information about the date of the recording beyond stating that it was “first published in 1961”. However, in his very informative notes Gavin Dixon says that this recording was set down in 1959, presumably for the Melodiya label.
As you might expect, given that the source is a Soviet recording made over fifty years ago, the sound is on the raw side at times. However, I found nothing in the sound that detracted from the performance; on the contrary, the sound plays its part in imparting a sense of the history of the piece itself. Because the symphony was first performed in 1957 and because it was inspired by the unsuccessful revolution of 1905 in Russia it’s often been thought that it may be the composer’s response to the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. It’s possible that that is indeed the case - at least up to a point. However Gavin Dixon tells us that the symphony was originally intended to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1905 uprising but that personal preoccupations prevented Shostakovich from finishing it on schedule though he had made a good deal of progress on the work before the tumultuous events in Hungary.
If there was a subversive political agenda behind the work Shostakovich managed to cover his tracks well: the work was a conspicuous success both with the public and with officialdom and it was awarded the Lenin Prize in 1958.
Mravinsky leads an imposing performance. The first movement, ‘The Palace Square’, opens in what I can only call glacial expectancy though the rather close recording doesn’t allow the orchestra to sound as hushed as is the case on, say, Vasily Petrenko’s 2008 Naxos recording or, indeed, James DePriest’s very eloquent 1988 reading with the Helsinki Philharmonic on Delos; both of those are modern digital recordings. However, any sonic limitations are more than offset by the brooding intensity and tension that Mravinsky generates. Furthermore, even when playing quietly, the Leningrad orchestra plays with significant weight of tone. I think this must be a very difficult movement for a conductor to bring off since it’s all about atmosphere rather than development; but Mravinsky never lets the music sag.
In the graphic second movement, ‘The 9th of January’, Mravinsky whips up a real storm at times and there’s huge power in the playing. The orchestral sound features the traditional Russian brass timbres, which have now largely vanished from the scene. Indeed, there’s a raw edge to the orchestral sound - not to be confused with crudity - that’s really appropriate for this music. During the string fugue (from 10:46) the players really dig in and the playing has tremendous intensity. The performance is viscerally exciting and a very Russian sound - occasionally blaring - is produced. The percussion-dominated climax (from 13:15) has burning urgency - the pace is frenetic - and really does sound like fusillades of shots. At 14:25 the music cuts off abruptly - and Mravinsky’s cut-off is razor sharp - before a pianissimo return to material from the first movement. This passage is quite chilling; the protesting crowds of 1905 have been dispersed - or cut down.
The third movement, ‘Eternal Memory’, stems from an extended melody - a lament for the fallen - which begins on the violas. Mravinsky builds this movement impressively, achieving an impassioned main climax (from 7:32). The finale, ‘The Tocsin’, is something of an enigma. Superficially it sounds like a musical depiction of a triumph for Soviet Socialist Realism; but is it? As Gavin Dixon points out, the bells that feature in this movement alternate between major and minor but end on the minor. To my ears, it’s in some ways the weakest movement in the work but here it is given a scalding performance. The brass playing has raw power and there’s a towering climax before, once again, the music sinks back into another reprise of the glacial material from the first movement. This presages an extended, bleak threnody for cor anglais. Mravinsky takes this very broadly. His cor anglais player offers doleful eloquence and this passage is a true lament, again indicating this is no mere triumphalist movement - if there is triumph it’s been hard won. After the lament the music picks up speed once again and becomes very dramatic; the bass drum thwacks sound like cannon shots. The conclusion is blazing and biting.
This is a great performance of a symphony that I’ve long felt is underrated in the Shostakovich canon. In view of a recent discussion on the MusicWeb International Message Board I thought it would be interesting to compare this Mravinsky recording with the aforementioned Vasily Petrenko recording on Naxos, not least because these two recordings will compete at about the same price point. The Petrenko disc wasn’t one of those that I have appraised for MusicWeb International but I bought it and think it has much to commend it though I know it attracted some contrasting verdicts among my colleagues (review and review). David Barker felt it stood up well amid the competition when he compiled his Eleven 11s survey. It should be noted, however, that this Mravinsky account wasn’t available to David at the time.
At the risk of making an obvious point, the Naxos recording (2008) is sonically superior to the sound that the Soviet engineers produced for Mravinsky fifty-one years before. Significantly, the Naxos recording registers genuine pp playing; the Mravinsky recording does not. Yet even here matters aren’t quite that straightforward. The less refined and closer Melodiya sound imparts an immediacy that’s at one with Mravinsky’s interpretation. Some may feel, as I tend to do, that the Naxos sound has the Liverpool orchestra set a bit too far back. The playing in the Petrenko performance is assured and technically excellent but it’s arguable that it’s a bit too smooth. For instance, I mentioned the fugal passage for strings in I. Petrenko’s orchestra, well though they play, are nowhere near the level of hair-raising intensity of Mravinsky’s superbly drilled Leningrad Philharmonic. Wind forward a little in the same movement and Petrenko is impressive in the extended climax section but he doesn’t achieve the electrifying urgency of Mravinsky, nor is his cut-off after the climax quite as abrupt as the effect that the older conductor achieves. Mravinsky’s interpretation of I is appreciably more spacious than Petrenko’s; he takes nearly two minutes longer. In IV the most telling comparison lies in the cor anglais passage I mentioned earlier. Mravinsky takes appreciably longer than Petrenko over this passage (from 8:39 to 12:10); in the newer recording it’s over half a minute shorter (8:34 to 11:34). The Liverpool cor anglais player, who plays most expressively, is more integrated into the overall orchestral texture, which some may prefer; the Russian player is rather in a spotlight. On the other hand, the relative distancing of the Naxos recording lessens the intensity, I feel. One final detail. At the very end of IV Petrenko allows the bell chime to continue resonating after the rest of the orchestra has fallen silent: Mravinsky does not.
After auditioning these two performances side by side I came to the following conclusions. Petrenko’s recording has much to commend it and I shall not lightly discard it; it makes a good bargain-priced choice, if a safe one. However, Mravinsky offers the less cultivated but surely authentic experience. This is an interpretation of the time in which the symphony appeared and, moreover, it’s by one of Shostakovich’s greatest interpreters. Mravinsky offers an interpretation of raw power which confronts the listener. I think I’d sum up the comparison by suggesting that Petrenko plays the symphony but Mravinsky lives it. This is one of those recordings that’s an essential element in any Shostakovich collection.
John Quinn  

Masterwork Index: Symphony 11


































































































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