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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, 2015, Symphony Hall, Boston, USA
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 5059 [64:48]

Andris Nelsons is the hottest of musical properties at the moment. At the end of the first year of his five-year contract as Music Director of the Boston Symphony the orchestra moved smartly to extend the contract by another three years and to add a so-called ‘evergreen’ clause. Meanwhile, if media reports are to be believed the members of the Berliner Philharmoniker were recently deadlocked over the choice of Sir Simon Rattle’s successor, unable to reach a consensus, it is rumoured, between the supporters of Nelsons and those of Christian Thielemann. While Berlin hesitated, eventually settling on Kirill Petrenko, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig moved decisively and secured the services of Nelsons as successor to Riccardo Chailly. This looks to be a ground-breaking and imaginative deal and something with far greater implications than merely a conductor taking another post. It would seem from their respective announcements that the Boston and Leipzig orchestras plan to use the fact that they will be sharing a Music Director for an inter-orchestra collaboration the like of which I can’t recall previously. If the intentions are translated into reality then Nelsons may turn out to have been the catalyst for something rather remarkable in the musical world.

Away from the headlines about contracts and such things Nelsons has been bedding in his new relationship with the Boston Symphony. Just recently I had the good fortune to see them in action playing Mahler’s Sixth at the Proms at the start of a European tour (review). The following afternoon they played this Shostakovich symphony as part of their second Prom and I heard the broadcast of that performance. Both of those performances indicated to me that Nelsons has already forged a strong and productive relationship with the Bostonians. If the chemistry with them works as strongly as it did during his seven-year association with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra then the music-lovers of Boston are in for an exciting time.

There’s already been one recording from the new team: a live recording of the Sibelius Second Symphony, issued on the orchestra’s own label. Reviewing that recording, made in the early weeks of Nelsons’ tenure, I found a great deal to admire but there was a sense that it was still early days for the understanding between conductor and orchestra. Now we have the first fruit of a new contract with DG. It’s the initial instalment of what’s planned as a partial Shostakovich cycle. With the title ‘Under Stalin’s Shadow’ Nelsons and the BSO will make live recordings of Symphonies 5-10. In fact, it appears from the booklet that the remaining releases will come in two instalments: one set will feature Symphonies 5, 8 and 9 while Symphonies 6 and 7 will form another set. I’m disappointed – to put it mildly – that it does not appear that the series will include the magnificent Fourth Symphony. Surely, if ever there was a symphony influenced by the malign shadow of the Soviet dictator it’s that one; the project seems incomplete without it.

Nelsons revealed impressive credentials as a Shostakovich interpreter in a superb account of the Eighth with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (review). I was rather less impressed with his subsequent Birmingham recording of the Leningrad (review). Part of the trouble with that recording was a tendency to rush his fences but I also think the engineers misjudged the balance and made the sound too close. Since then I’ve experienced Nelsons live in the Eleventh; that was an electrifying experience (review). Though I think the Eleventh is a better work than some commentators have suggested there’s no denying the superior stature of the Tenth. Having been impressed by Nelsons’ Proms performance I was keen to hear this recording, which was made a few months earlier.

Before the symphony Nelsons and the orchestra play the Passacaglia from the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. In the theatre this music is heard between the two scenes of Act II, immediately after Katerina Izmailova has murdered her father-in-law. The piece opens with piercing, ear-splitting dissonance and then the passacaglia itself begins. Initially the music is sounded quietly and ominously in the depths of the orchestra but it builds slowly and inexorably as Shostakovich deploys more and more of his vast orchestral forces. Eventually, however, the music subsides into ominous, empty nothingness. It’s a potent prelude to the symphony.

The great first movement of the Tenth opens, like the passacaglia, with ominous brooding material on the lower strings. The Bostonian string sound is deep and full in these opening paragraphs and there’s palpable tension in the air. You notice, as the focus of attention moves back and forth between the lower strings and the violins, that the engineers have achieved a good left-right spread in the recording. As more sections of the orchestra become involved it also becomes evident that there’s a successful front-to-back perspective. I first heard this recording on the radio when part of it was played by BBC Radio 3 and I wondered then if the sound was a bit too closely balanced. Hearing the disc now I don’t think that’s the case and the recording is certainly far more satisfactory than was the Birmingham Seventh.

As the long first movement unfolds one is conscious that this is a gripping reading and one, moreover, that is very well played. I can readily visualise Nelsons conducting in that inimitably expressive and involved style of his and living every phrase with his players. The Boston Symphony responds very well indeed. There are several fine passages from the solo clarinet while the lugubrious trio of bassoons sing dolefully in their episode from 9:55. There are also admirable contributions from the principal flute. The weight and depth of the orchestra’s sound is most impressive; as a result the massive climaxes are thrust home with great power but with no sense of strain. Eventually, after the extended tumult at the centre of the movement has passed the sardonic quick waltz-like music is very effectively inflected. The last few pages, after the woodwind chorale at 21:54, seem increasingly drained. Here the strings are quietly eloquent and provide a soft foundation against which the chilly sounds of the flute and piccolo have the last word.

The short, belligerent second movement is widely thought to be a musical portrait of Stalin. Certainly there’s a ruthless, determined character to the music which would support that theory. Here the playing of the Bostonians is biting and sharply articulated. Nelsons paces the movement adroitly, not taking it too fast and thereby sacrificing weight; instead the savage tone of the piece comes out.

The third movement starts relatively innocently; the marking is, after all, Allegretto. However, at 3:22 the comparatively relaxed mood is disturbed by the first dramatic intervention of a solo horn playing the notes E-A-E-D-A. It’s now thought this motif may represent in musical notation the first name of Elmira Nazirova. She was one of Shostakovich’s composition pupils at Moscow Conservatoire and it seems that he had formed an emotional attraction to her. The theory is interesting, especially given that the composer’s own musical signature, D-E flat-C-B (DSCH in German notation), is also much in evidence. The horn-call is heard many times in this movement, at various dynamic levels, and the BSO’s principal horn really delivers the goods. The performance of this third movement is extremely successful and persuasive.

In the Andante introduction to the finale we hear excellent solos from the principal oboe and bassoon. Nelsons gives a searching account of this introduction. The Allegro (from 4:52) gets a high energy, high voltage reading. The orchestra is audibly energised by Nelsons and the players are on the top of their collective game. Eventually Nelsons drives the movement – and the symphony – to an emphatic conclusion, the DSCH motif prominent. In the notes Harlow Robinson describes the motif as featuring “triumphantly” in these closing pages. I think he’s probably right, though one can never be sure with this enigmatic composer. The Boston audience, unobtrusive during the performance, responds with a vociferous ovation.

This is a very fine performance of the Tenth Symphony. It provides further confirmation that the relationship between Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony is already blossoming. Furthermore it augurs well for their future exploration of Shostakovich. The catalogue contains many fine recordings of this magnificent symphony. Among those that I’ve heard I’d suggest that this newcomer can safely be ranked alongside the live versions by Nelsons’ mentor, Mariss Jansons. There’s another very good live reading by Bernard Haitink on the London Philharmonic’s own label but Nelsons offers a more highly charged experience. I wouldn’t make a comparison with the extraordinary account from Evgeny Svetlanov; the playing on that version is more rough-hewn but the occasion on which the performance was given results in a taut reading of unusual intensity.

I await with considerable interest the promised further Shostakovich recordings from Boston.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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