Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No.10 in E minor Op.93 (1953) [47:23]
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Václav Smetáček
rec. 6 March 1968, Royal Festival Hall, London
ORCHESTRAL CONCERT CDs CD14/2011 [47:23]
This disc preserves a London performance of one of Shostakovich’s greatest symphonies by the Prague Symphony Orchestra and Václav Smetáček. It’s a performance that has a good deal to commend it. However, some six months later London heard an altogether extraordinary performance of the same work and, unfortunately so far as this recording is concerned, that too has made it onto CD. I refer to the performance given at the Proms on 21 August by the USSR State Symphony Orchestra and Evgeny Svetlanov. In his review of that disc Dan Morgan rightly draws attention to its historic significance: the concert took place on the very night that Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, sparking vociferous protests in the Royal Albert Hall from some of the audience. That must have created a frisson and Svetlanov and his players went on to give an incandescent reading of the Tenth symphony. However, I should say that I remember the Melodiya LP from the same forces; that studio recording was pretty visceral too.
I don’t think, however, that it was just the sense of occasion that made the Svetlanov performance so much more intense than this Smetáček reading. What really differentiates the two - and so disappoints me in the Smetáček performance - is the first movement. The Czech conductor has a very different view of Shostakovich’s Moderato marking and to my mind the fairly flowing pace that he sets is too fast. It’s the main reason why he takes 20:25 against Svetlanov’s 22:44. Indeed, at this speed the first four notes we hear sound brusque rather than ominous. Smetáček doesn’t have the brooding introspection of Svetlanov and later on he can’t bring the same menacing power. Furthermore, I don’t sense the willingness to engage in slight, subtle tempo modifications that other conductors have done in my experience; it’s a bit unyielding. Just out of interest I looked out the very fine 1955 DG studio performance by Karel Ančerl and the Czech Philharmonic. Ančerl’s timing is almost identical to Smetáček’s - he takes 20:48 - and his basic speed isn’t very different but you sense much more probing with Ančerl and there’s more give and take in the pulse. It helps also, I’m sure that while Smetáček is at the helm of a good orchestra Ančerl has a great one at his disposal. So, within a similar time frame Ančerl delivers a more searching reading of this huge first movement and while the movement is dismissed in a mere sentence in the booklet note - which is no more than serviceable - it is, in fact, one of Shostakovich’s deepest symphonic movements so the way it’s delivered matters hugely in assessing a performance of the work as a whole. Sad to relate, I think Smetáček sounds superficial when compared with either his distinguished compatriot, Ančerl, or with Svetlanov.
To be fair to Smetáček the other three movements fare much better. The acerbic scherzo has the necessary punch and bite; it’s probably the age of the recording that blunts the weight of those powerful string chords at the start. The third movement is done well. There’s a distinct East European timbre to the first horn’s tone, which I like - and the player is good. Smetáček and his players unfold the andante introduction to the finale eloquently and then despatch the allegro with good vigour. The performance is greeted with vociferous applause by an audience which, hitherto, had been commendably unobtrusive.
The sound of this recording is not at all bad for 1968 though I think there’s more depth and body to the BBC recording of the Svetlanov performance. This disc offers rather short measure at just over 47 minutes of playing time.
This is a decent account of Shostakovich’s masterpiece but the great is the enemy of the good and I feel duty bound to say that if you want a live recording then Svetlanov offers a significantly more compelling experience.
A decent but not compelling account of Shostakovich’s masterpiece.
see also review by Jonathan Woolf