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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Under Stalin’s Shadow
Passacaglia from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934) [8.11]
Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 (1953) [56.39]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. live April 2015, Symphony Hall, Boston, USA
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 5059 [64.52]

I saw the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons perform Mahler's Sixth Symphony so outstandingly in Berlin last September. With that memory in mind it was gratifying to receive this new release from the same forces. It’s the first disc in a Shostakovich cycle from the Bostoners. Also included is the eight minute Passacaglia from the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

When Nelsons was born in 1978 his birthplace Latvia was still part of the Soviet Union. It is then no surprise that he feels a special connection to Shostakovich saying “I could not live without the music of Shostakovich” and “I’m sure it has something to do with having grown up in the Soviet Union, and my connection to the conducting tradition there in St. Petersburg.”

Shostakovich’s music is inextricable connected to Soviet politics and this was certainly the case with Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Premičred in 1934 it had been touring for a couple of years before Josef Stalin attended a performance at the Bolshoi Theatre and stormed out before the end. A couple of days later the now infamous article entitled Muddle Instead of Music appeared in Pravda ostensibly written by Stalin himself who was furious with the opera. The work was condemned as formalist and subsequently banned in the Soviet Union for thirty years and the Fourth Symphony that was at rehearsal stage for its premičre was immediately withdrawn. From the opera Nelsons has chosen to include the potent Passacaglia which is an interlude positioned between the two scenes of act two. Nelsons' gut-wrenching opening draws terrific power from his players which soon gives way to writing of stark beauty yet with an ominous undercurrent.

Severe censure by the Soviet Authorities occurred again in 1948. Shostakovich together with other leading composers experienced scalding rebukes for failing to write what the Party thought that Soviet audiences should hear. The Ninth Symphony of 1945 was denounced for its “ideological weakness” and for its failure to “reflect the spirit of the Soviet people.” On one occasion Shostakovich stated, doubtlessly mindful of keep himself out of trouble with the Soviet Authorities, “In the final analysis, everything is said in my music. It has no need of historical or hysterical commentaries.”

The death of Stalin in 1953 stimulated a change of fortune for Shostakovich and his response was to present his Tenth Symphony which was his first in eight years. Some commentators have said that the Tenth is not just pure music but within it there is a hidden programme. In Solomon Volkov’s book Testimony Shostakovich is reputed to have related that he depicted Stalin in the Tenth Symphony but the book’s authenticity as Shostakovich’s actual memoirs is much disputed. According to conductor Valery Gergiev “with the Tenth Symphony Shostakovich was finally speaking about Shostakovich.” Conductor Vasily Petrenko has explained that in the 1990s a close association between Shostakovich and an Azerbaijani pupil of his Elmira Nazirova was uncovered in the symphony. In the third movement Elmira’s name is represented by a five note motif on the horn repeated twelve times and answered by the composer’s own personal motif DSCH. Premičred in Leningrad in December 1953 by the Leningrad Philharmonic under Yevgeny Mravinsky the Tenth is a pivotal work arguably Shostakovich’s greatest of the fifteen symphonies - a tautly designed and cohesive work yet profoundly expressive. In the desolate, bitter landscapes of the vast opening movement which occupies almost half the length of the whole work Nelsons directs with consummate skill allowing the music to build impressively. I admire the way Nelsons generates an unsettling anxious undertow that borders on the chilling. Short in length but highly concentrated, the martial brutality of the second movement Allegro could easily be a representation of Stalin's malevolent evil as put forward in the book Testimony. Nelsons captures the savage violence which was described by Shostakovich musicologist Robert Dearling as “a study in concentrated fury rarely equalled in music.” Here I have to single out the magnificent playing of the Boston brass section for special praise. Maintaining steady concentration, Nelsons’ reading is compellingly incisive in the third movement Allegretto at times menacing and at times reflective. The movement is notable for the repeated use of the Elmira five note motif and Shostakovich’s renowned monogram. In the closing movement Andante - Allegro Nelsons communicates a strong sense of optimism, renewal after a severe winter, whilst maintaining the relentless momentum towards the awesome conclusion. Recorded live in Symphony Hall, Boston the engineering team has achieved terrific sound quality, clear and well balanced; keeping all the climaxes within the sound-picture. At the conclusion of the Symphony the thunderous applause has been retained.

The recordings that I continue to admire greatly comprise the 2009 Philharmonic Hall account from the RLPO under Vasily Petrenko for its dramatic power on Naxos and two excellent accounts both recorded in Köln, the first from 1996 by WDR Sinfonieorchester under Rudolf Barshai on Brilliant Classics and the second from 2005 by WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln under Semyon Bychkov on Avie. The present recording from Nelsons and the Boston Symphony is as excellent as I have heard and can stand alongside the best.

Michael Cookson

Previous reviews: John Quinn and Dan Morgan


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