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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – Passacaglia (1934) [8:10]
Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 (1953) [56:38]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. live, April 2015, Symphony Hall, Boston, USA
Reviewed as a 24/96 download
Pdf booklet included

This must be one of the most eagerly awaited releases of the year. News of the Latvian-born conductor Andris Nelsons’ appointment as music director of the Boston Symphony this year was soon followed by the announcement that Deutsche Grammophon will record and distribute their live performances of Shostakovich's Fifth to Tenth symphonies. Nelsons is no stranger to this music; his live recording of the Eighth with the Concertgebouw was inspired (review) but his Birmingham account of the Seventh was something else entirely (review).

Part of the problem with that CBSO Leningrad was the awful recording, which was driven to distortion in places. Nelsons’ approach was pretty brutal too, and the score’s well-rehearsed banalities were cranked out for all to see. That’s one way to play the much-maligned Seventh, I suppose, but then Paavo Järvi and the Russian National Orchestra offered a valuable corrective with their revelatory account for Pentatone (review). That begs the question: which way will Nelsons jump with the Tenth? Even more intriguing, I don’t associate the Boston Symphony with this repertoire, so they have something to prove here.

The orchestra have made and distributed their own well-engineered recordings for a while now, so this five-year deal with the yellow cartouche is somewhat unusual. That said, I imagine the existing technical set-up at Symphony Hall – well-established by now – will be at the heart of this new enterprise. Cue the Passacaglia from Shostakovich’s ill-starred opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which certainly packs a punch. Dynamics are fearsome and the abundant percussion is very well caught. It’s a big, broad performance, drenched in drama and executed with a single-mindedness that’s frankly terrifying. What a pity the sound is so very close - airless, even.

The Tenth Symphony, one of the composer’s most penetrating, has done well on disc. Herbert von Karajan's 1966 recording was one of the most memorable things he ever did, but neither that nor his digital remake has the grip and insight of his live Moscow performance (1969). Speaking of live recordings, Yevgeny Svetlanov’s 1968 Proms account – taped just hours after the tanks rolled into Prague – has a unique intensity that’s unmatched on record (review). In such formidable company Nelsons and his Bostonians will have to excel if they are to equal, let alone surpass, these classic versions.

Begun under the shadow of Stalin and premiered by Yevgeny Mravinsky just months after the dictator’s death, the Tenth has all the qualities one associates with this composer’s earlier symphonies. Trenchant and sardonic, raging and rumbustious, the work also contains periods of awful introspection, notably in the opening Moderato. The lower strings perform a slow, winding lament that, in Nelsons’ hands, is as gaunt and uncompromising as any I’ve heard. The first tutti, hard won, is rimed with exhaustion and despair. Goodness, the BSO play with a unanimity and depth of feeling that’s simply breathtaking. Nelsons, like Paavo Järvi in that redefining Seventh, doesn’t force the pace, and that allows the music ample breath and space in which to speak.

Such an approach really pays off in the symphony’s craggy perorations, which seem all the more powerful for evolving so naturally. And although it's rather close the forensic recording resolves detail and captures amplitude without fuss or fanfare. Indeed, the movement’s spectral woodwinds, desolate strings and louring brass sound remarkably tactile and compelling; the sign-off is as cool and enigmatic as anything Shostakovich ever wrote. The martial Allegro is sharply drawn, and the march is suitably hellish. Nelsons maintains an ideal pace throughout, and rhythms are razor sharp; as for the heroic side-drummer he deserves a mention in despatches.

The predominant and most pleasing aspect of this performance is the conductor's refusal to underline or embellish. In music that already has a high histrionics quotient that’s surely the best way to go. It’s certainly not what Nelsons opted for in that Birmingham Seventh, but then I doubt he’ll make the same mistake with his sleek, ultra-sophisticated Boston band. Those refinements shine through in the Allegretto Largo – Più mosso, which has wonderful transparency and focus. Yes, the bass drum and tam-tam – so sparingly used are too prominent, but the effect is undeniably exciting. The horn playing is terrific, too.

I can’t fault Nelsons in matters of momentum; he really does seem to have found the golden mean here, and he never veers from it. He also has a feel for the symphony’s dramatic nodes; indeed, that sense of the screw tightening at the end of the third movement is carried over into the start of the finale. There the bucolic, rather Mahlerian episodes conceal an air of impending apotheosis. Nelsons doesn’t hold back, he just seems to give the Bostonians their cues and lets them do the rest. There's no sign of excessive contrasts or synthetic thrills, which is just the way it ought to be.

That sense of steady cumulation is perfectly judged, as are the sharp wit and seditious cackles in the build-up to that grand, whack-and-thump ending. All too often the latter seems random and not a little overblown, but in this case it segues nicely with Nelsons' perception of the piece as a whole. Actually, that’s a pretty good metaphor for his Tenth – it all fits together so well. And for once the roar of approval at the close - soon faded - is well deserved. Does Nelsons supplant Svetlanov or the earlier Karajans? No, but he's not far behind.

Cogent performances, but the sound is very close; still, a promising start to the series.

Dan Morgan



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