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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65 (1943)
Russian National Orchestra/Paavo Berglund
rec. 2005, DTZ Studio 5, Moscow, Russia
PENTATONE PTC5186 084 SACD [66:29]

Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, ‘The Year 1905’ (1957)
Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
rec. live, 2005, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
PENTATONE PTC5186 076 SACD [62:07]

The Russian National Orchestra has been compiling a Shostakovich symphony cycle for Pentatone under various conductors over the last few years. It was when I reviewed Paavo Järvi’s very impressive account of the ‘Leningrad’ recently that I realised that a couple of the previous issues had slipped through our reviewing net. I’ve now been able to hear both of these recordings.

In the last two or three years I’ve heard a number of Pentatone discs and I’ve been consistently impressed with the standards of the engineering. These two recordings, set down a decade ago, confirm that this excellence in recorded sound isn’t a recent trait.

The late Paavo Berglund had impressive credentials in Shostakovich; I remember his fine Bournemouth recordings, which I used to have on LP (review). His account of the mighty Eighth opens with deeply sonorous lower strings. In its own way it’s impressive but it’s not the call to attention – to arms? – that one hears, for example, in Kirill Kondrashin’s 1967 Melodiya traversal, the recording through which I first encountered this symphony (review). Bernard Haitink’s opening is equally attention-grabbing in his 1982 Decca recording, made in Amsterdam. The Decca sound is over thirty years old but, my goodness, the sound of the double basses of the Concertgebouw Orchestra seems to leap out of the loudspeakers. In fact I’ll say now that even though that Decca recording is over 30 years old it gives the more recent Pentatone version a run for its money.

The long first movement unfolds very spaciously in Berglund’s hands; indeed in terms of timing at 27:44 his is the longest recorded version I know. The booklet note, which isn’t the best I’ve read, seems to have been written by someone who hadn’t heard this recording for it refers to the movement “lasting about 25 minutes”. Berglund is patient and measured in his conducting and very single minded too. That brings many rewards, especially since the playing of the RNO is so fine; for example, the long violin melody (from 6:01) sounds desolate here. The build up to and delivery of the five-fold grinding climax (12:24-19:03) is implacable while the long cor anglais lament after the climax sounds as bleak as it should. So there’s much to admire here but I worry a little that sometimes Berglund isn’t more ready to move the music forward; there is, arguably, insufficient tempo variation. Nonetheless, as a gaunt, forbidding view of this austere movement it’s impressive.

The Allegretto is very pronounced – some might say heavy – but the playing is spiky and what the notes aptly describe as a “grotesquely distorted march” is put across as such. Haitink is not dissimilar in his view but Kondrashin offers something different. He’s appreciably faster than either of his colleagues and he conveys a real sense of massed jackboots strutting along; I think he’s just right.

The next three movements play without a break. In the Allegro non troppo Kondrashin pushes the music along brazenly – and Haitink isn’t that far behind. Berglund is significantly slower and the music seems too steady. His way with the movement is more implacable than his rivals and that’s hair-raising in its own way though I have to say that I find it a bit too controlled and deliberate. Here Kondrashin’s controlled wildness is a great asset. The RNO principal trumpeter is, rightly, forthright to the point of being brazen in the central episode. The transition to the Largo begins with a passage in which the timpani thunder out a frightening tattoo and the Pentatone recording presents the thundering drums with tremendous definition. Another succession of grinding climaxes sees the music tip over into the Largo and that moment is positively apocalyptic in this recording.

The Largo is a passacaglia in which the basses repeat a theme no less than 12 times. All three conductors do this movement very well indeed but you may not be surprised by now to learn that Berglund’s treatment of it is marginally the most expansive. His approach is fully vindicated, however. His conducting is focussed and concentrated and he and the players control the music expertly. This is tragic music and it gains in impact when it’s presented as stoically as is here the case. The movement is almost entirely subdued and there’s great clarity so that you can hear the various musical lines well; and all the time that quietly relentless passacaglia theme persists underneath everything else.

The finale is something of an enigma. Both Haitink and Berglund are quite sober in their approach during the first four minutes or so. That’s a perfectly defensible stance but Kondrashin offers something rather different. In these opening minutes he’s somewhat lighter of touch and I think he may be on to something because such superficial lightness would be typical of the composer, keeping the listener guessing. Berglund’s seriousness of tone brings its own rewards in this movement, however, and this is all of a piece with his overall view of the work. He brings off the ambiguous ending very well.

Splendidly played and superbly recorded, Berglund’s recording might not be a first choice for this symphony but it’s very well worth hearing.

In listening to Mikhail Pletnev’s recording of the Eleventh I started off with the intention of comparing him with the same two conductors even though his recording is live and those by Kondrashin (1973, Melodiya – review) and by Haitink (1983, Decca) are studio recordings. However, Kondrashin rules himself out of contention as far as I’m concerned with a reading of the first movement which is taken far too quickly with a resulting loss of tension. It’s almost as if Kondrashin, despite being a highly distinguished Shostakovich interpreter, lacked sufficient confidence in this music. True, that first movement can be challenging to bring off. In the first seven or eight minutes it seems as if not a lot is happening; it’s all about generating atmosphere and pregnant tension. Haitink is renowned for his command of long structures – Bruckner and Mahler, for instance – and he displays that here. So too does Pletnev who maintains the essential focus in his conducting. Supported by terrific playing by the RNO he establishes and maintains the chilled atmosphere of ‘The Palace Square’.

The four movements play without a break and establish a narrative that may not be truly symphonic in the sense of conventional development but which are still compelling as a narrative. Thus the pace quickens in every sense at the start of ‘The Ninth of January’ as the action moves closer to the conflict that we know, with the benefit of historical hindsight, is inevitable. Pletnev injects the right degree of urgency into the music. At 10:43 the side drum erupts, ushering in an intensely driven fugato section during which the tension is racked up significantly. Here the music is full of menace which is powerfully conveyed by Pletnev and the RNO. Haitink, superbly recorded by Decca, is also very potent in this passage. Shostakovich brings the movement to a terrifying, percussion-dominated climax which depicts the Imperial army firing on the crowds. The Pletnev performance is frighteningly intense here, the RNO’s shattering playing emphasised by the power of the recording – the percussion is thrillingly reported. Mind you, the Decca engineers did just as fine a job for Haitink and his climax is similarly overpowering, albeit in a more resonant acoustic.

The third movement, ‘In Memoriam’ is, as its title implies, an elegy for the fallen innocents. It’s built around a very long, elegiac theme intoned by the violas. The husky, soulful timbre of the RNO viola section is ideal here and the players deliver the theme with simple, direct eloquence. The viola section of the Concertgebouw Orchestra is no less fine for Haitink and I like the acoustic halo that the resonance of the hall puts round the sound of their instruments. Pletnev’s interpretation of this movement is appropriately grave and he builds the music patiently to a powerful. noble climax.

The finale, ‘The Tocsin’ is the weakest movement, I think. As such it presents a challenge to the conductor. Pletnev makes a good job of it. There is one passage of genuine eloquence. After a noisy climax the music breaks off abruptly and Shostakovich returns us to the oppressive brooding atmosphere in which the symphony began. But now he introduces an extended threnody for the cor anglais. This lament (8:43-12:40) is played with moving eloquence by the RNO’s player though the Concertgebouw soloist is absolutely outstanding. Once we’re past that passage of reflection Pletnev drives the symphony relentlessly to its conclusion. The end is loud but uncertain as Shostakovich sets up a major-/minor-key conflict; it seems superficially that the ending is triumphant but notice the minor-key elements and you realise there’s something more subversive not far below the surface. There’s no applause at the end of Pletnev’s recording but the sound is cut off rather abruptly, no doubt to avoid the audience reaction. Haitink has the luxury of studio conditions so his orchestral sound decays more naturally.

It’s interesting to revisit the Haitink performance and realise not just how good his performance is but also how spectacular Decca engineering could be in the 1980s. That said, it’s very apparent that the orchestra was recorded in an otherwise empty Concertgebouw and some listeners may not appreciate the resonance of the hall. Pletnev’s recording is presented in a tighter – but by no means oppressive – acoustic which adds to the impact of his reading. His is a notable performance, superbly played and engineered.

John Quinn

The Russian National Orchestra Shostakovich cycle reviewed on MusicWeb International
Symphonies 1 and 6
Symphonies 5 and 9
Symphony 7
Symphony 15

 

 




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