Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 (1953) [50:41]
Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Snow Maiden Suite - Melodrama (1873) [2:56]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh: Hymn to Nature - The Battle of Kerzhenets (1907) [8:24]
USSR State Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. live, Royal Albert Hall, London, 21 August 1968 (Shostakovich), 22 August 1968 (Tchaikovsky), 30 August 1968 (Rimsky-Korsakov)
ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5036 [62:17]
How’s this for a page ripped from history? On the night of 20-21 August 1968 tanks from the Warsaw Pact rolled into Czechoslovakia, bringing the ‘Prague Spring’ to an end. In that raw, angry atmosphere it’s no surprise that Svetlanov and his Soviet orchestra were given a rough reception at the BBC Proms just hours later. Indeed, the opening bars of the symphony emerge from what sounds like a near riot in the hall, the music growing in strength as the clamour subsides. What irony that this symphony - written in the year of Stalin’s death - should be the curtain-raiser for another age of repression. And the cover photograph of Svetlanov - finger to his lips - is a strong visual metaphor for the day’s momentous events.
There’s no way of knowing what went through the minds of this conductor and his players that night, but there’s little doubt that these extra-musical tensions - added to the purely musical ones - spawned a gaunt, hard-driven performance of this great work that’s impossible to forget. Extraordinary circumstances aside, does this recording rank alongside those of Kondrashin, Järvi, Karajan et al? Emphatically, yes; unsparing and idiomatically rough-edged, it will grab you by the scruff and pin you to the wall for fifty relentless minutes.
The BBC sound isn’t bad either - I imagine ICA remastered it for this release - the martial second movement as lacerating as I’ve ever heard it; indeed, this music can so easily be heard as a grim accompaniment to the newsreel footage of the day. The darkly menacing bass drum in the next movement is especially well caught, as are the wobblesome winds. One can only imagine the tension in the hall that night, and no one could have known how the audience would react at the end. As it happens, the sheer guts and cathartic power of this performance silence all criticism, the hardy Prommers - not easily won over - responding with cheers and applause.
The fillers are barely that; signposted as ‘bonus’ items they’re pleasing enough. Blink and you’ll miss the Tchaikovsky, but the excerpts from Kitezh are most enjoyable; no evidence of extra-musical tensions in the band’s easeful playing. As I was reminded when listening to Svetlanov’s Rimsky box - review - this is natural territory for him. One could have wished for more, but the symphony takes centre-stage - and rightly so.
ICA must be congratulated for issuing so much intriguing, good-quality material in the short time they’ve been in business. I was very impressed by the Rozhdestvensky Tchaikovsky Fourth - review - and look forward to more of the same. Indeed, their very active Twitter feed suggests we won’t have long to wait.
Taut Shostakovich, stretched to breaking point by contemporary events.
Dan Morgan
Taut Shostakovich, stretched to breaking point by contemporary events.