Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 9 in E flat major, Op. 70 (1945) [26:41]
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 (1937) [50:02]
Hamlet Suite, Op. 32a (excerpts) [14:12]
Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65 (1943) [66:40]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. live, October 2015 (9); November 2015 (5); February 2016 (Hamlet); March 2016 (8), Symphony Hall Boston, USA
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 5201 [76:44 + 80:54]

This is the second in a projected three-volume Shostakovich series from Andris Nelsons under the title ‘Under Stalin’s Shadow’. The final volume will consist of the Sixth and Seventh symphonies. However, I read recently that Nelsons is also to record the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Boston so I still hope he may add the Fourth Symphony to this series since that complex masterpiece is surely part of any story that carries the label ‘Under Stalin’s Shadow’.

Two things made me determined to acquire this second volume in the series. The first was my experience of the first volume in which Nelsons conducted the Tenth Symphony (review). The second was reading Dan Morgan’s extremely positive review of this new release in download form.

DG have chosen not to present the symphonies in chronological order and one consequence of this is that in this present volume the Fifth and Eighth symphonies are coupled with the Ninth, which is a work on a rather smaller scale. It’s always seemed to me that the Ninth is in danger of being dwarfed by the two mighty compositions that surround it – the Eighth and the Tenth. Consequently, when I first came to play this set I tried a little experiment and I listened to the pieces in the following order: Hamlet followed by symphonies 9, 5 and 8. I found that this gave me a good basis on which to begin to judge the three symphonic performances.

Shostakovich composed his incidental music for what the notes describe as a “zany avant-garde production” of Hamlet in 1932. I believe there were 13 movements in the suite which he drew from the score, of which Andris Nelsons has selected seven. I enjoyed these extracts very much. The first part of ‘Introduction and Night Patrol’ is strident but the Patrol itself is a very effective nocturnal march. ‘Funeral March’, though brief, is powerful, even Mahlerian. ‘Cradle Song’ is touching and features a lovely oboe solo. The concluding ‘Requiem’ opens with the ‘Dies Irae’ theme on the bassoons; the theme recurs elsewhere, too. Though the movement lasts only a few minutes it’s searching and tragic. Nelsons and the BSO are on top form in these brief pieces.

The Ninth Symphony is a curious piece which sits oddly in the composer’s canon. All the expectations – not least ‘official’ expectations – had been that Shostakovich would mark the victorious end of the Great Patriotic War with a large-scale piece of public celebration, quite possibly with a choral finale. Instead, what the composer produced was something completely unexpected: a short and pithy score in five movements which, at first glance, seemed superficial and lightweight. However, beneath the surface the symphony is not all that it seems and its brevity compared to the two previous symphonies probably misled a lot of listeners. The first movement opens in deft, upbeat fashion here, with the Boston strings and woodwinds offering expertly turned playing. The two-note trombone interjections suggest something different; it sounds like someone is trying to gatecrash the party. Nelsons keeps the rhythms taut and crisp. As the movement unfolds the music becomes more turbulent – perhaps this is not such a happy party? I think Nelsons conveys the changing – evolving – moods of the movement pretty well. The second movement is simply marked Moderato and it opens with some deceptively wistful woodwind writing. However, the string material that follows is much more troubled and that sets the predominant tone for the movement. It’s not one of the composer’s longest slow movements – 8:02 in this performance – but it still contains some very serious thoughts.

The remainder of the symphony is played without a break. First there’s a capering scherzo-like movement in which the Boston woodwinds are splendidly dexterous. There’s a shining trumpet solo at the mid-point However, any high spirits are soon banished by the stern summons by the low brass which opens the Largo. This gives way to an extended, doleful bassoon solo, which has the feel of a sorrowful recitative. The brass interrupt, sounding here like the admonition of a forbidding judge, before the bassoonist resumes his mournful plaint. I presume the bassoonist is Richard Svoboda; he’s superb. The bassoon leads us into the finale with what seems like an innocent, perky little tune but the subsequent material played by other members of the woodwind section is more anxious. The perky theme returns and is developed but though the argument springs from a perky theme there’s definitely darkness below the musical surface – and sometimes above the surface. This movement seems to me to have not a little in common with the approach the composer would take years later in the first movement of his Fifteenth Symphony. In his notes Harlow Robinson suggests that the finale showed that Shostakovich “refused to accept the role of cheerleader for Stalin.” I think there’s a lot in that. Below the surface this is a rather subversive score – it’s certainly not a celebration of Stalin’s leadership to victory in the Great Patriotic War – but Shostakovich just about got away with it, probably because the apparatchiks were insufficiently perceptive. It seems to me that Nelsons puts the symphony across very well and the BSO plays the piece splendidly.

The Fifth Symphony was the work with which Shostakovich rehabilitated himself after the furore with Lady Macbeth. However, he got himself back into the regime’s good books not with a hack work but with a symphony of genuine stature and eloquence.

Just recently I reviewed a 1965 performance of the symphony conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky, who gave the first performance of the work. I commented that Mravinsky was quite swift overall in his treatment of the first movement, which in that performance played for just over 14 minutes. Despite the undoubted stature of Mravinsky’s interpretation I would have welcomed a little more expansiveness. Nelsons provides that in a reading which lasts for 16:28. It seems to me that he doesn’t put a foot wrong in terms of pacing and his vision of the music is backed up exceptionally well by the BSO. The strings impress very much in the opening pages. A little later (4:28) the long-breathed and surprisingly serene violin melody is at once tender and fragile. The ominous piano ostinato (7:39) ushers in a much more turbulent passage which eventually leads to the main climax; this is thrust home powerfully by Nelsons and his orchestra. The ghostly coda (from 14:52) sounds really withdrawn; the control exhibited by the players hereabouts is most impressive.

The Boston double basses are splendidly gruff at the start of II; indeed their sound has admirable weight throughout. The episode beginning with the violin solo (1:50) has just the right amount of ‘give’ and rubato, something that was conspicuously missing from the Mravinsky performance. It was in this episode that I registered for the first time – but not the last – Andris Nelsons’ very audible breathing sounds, something that was a regular factor in his CBSO recordings. I think Nelsons’ treatment of this movement is just right; the music is sufficiently deliberate but not to such an extent that it is weighed down.

Shostakovich gives his brass section a well-deserved rest during the Largo and, furthermore, he divides his string section up into multiple parts. The BSO strings are marvellously eloquent in this movement. This is music of deep introspection and it seems to me that Nelsons has a tremendous grip on the music, shaping it in long, expressive lines. The movement is the very heart of the symphony and you certainly feel that in this present performance. The opening of the finale is taken more steadily than the (excessive) pace that Mravinsky adopted in his aforementioned recording. Even if Nelsons is steadier, though, there’s absolutely no want of energy and drive. Around 3:24 Shostakovich eases back on the throttle and there follows an extended reflective section. Here Nelsons plumbs the depths of Shostakovich’s thought most effectively. For his ending Shostakovich returns to the material with which the movement began but the speed is halved. Nelsons is very fine in these closing pages and he and his orchestra justify the huge ovation that greets the end of their performance.

The Eighth was written during the depths of World War II but at a time when the tide had begun to turn in the USSR’s favour in the struggle against the invading Germans. In 1956 Shostakovich wrote thus of the symphony: “In this work there was an attempt to express the emotional experiences of the People, to reflect the terrible tragedy of war.” It was a filmed performance of this work, recorded at the Lucerne Festival, that first alerted me to the prowess of Andris Nelsons as a Shostakovich interpreter (review). This Boston performance is no less fine.

The huge, searching first movement requires great concentration and focus from all concerned if the power of the composer’s thoughts is to come across. I’m in no doubt as to the focus of this performance throughout its extraordinarily long span (26:37 on this occasion). Throughout, the playing is deeply felt and technically beyond reproach. The juddering, titanic final climax (16:47) is reached after a lengthy ascent of nerve-wracking tension, an ascent, moreover, that has been marked by several “subsidiary” climaxes. Immediately afterwards the long cor anglais recitative (17:54-21:27) is delivered with moving eloquence by Robert Sheena. This is an absolutely magnificent traversal of one of the composer’s most inspired movements; it’s a performance that shows the greatness of the music.

The brief Allegretto that follows always suggests strutting jackboots to me. It’s played here with real bite and I admired very much the tangy playing of the woodwind in the sardonic episode in mid-movement. The remaining three movements play without a break, a model Shostakovich followed in his next symphony also. The third movement is dominated by a brutal, relentless string ostinato which is punctuated regularly by a two-note descending figure. The late Michael Steinberg thought that this figure was akin to a scream and commented memorably: “I think every time of the cellars of the Gestapo and the GPU.” Nelsons obtains a fraught, inexorable performance including a swaggering trumpet solo (Thomas Rolfs) halfway through. A climax that is more like a catharsis tips us over into the Largo. This is a remarkable movement, a passacaglia. It’s music of the frozen Steppes, for the much of the time devoid of all colour – devoid, even, of hope. The BSO offers chilly, highly controlled playing in a performance of supreme concentration. At times this is music that seems as private as if we were listening to a string quartet. One feature that never fails to catch my ear – and which does so here – is the two brief passages in which Shostakovich has the flutes play with flutter-tongue. This other-worldly sound stands out because it’s a rare bit of colouring in a pretty barren aural landscape; it’s a stroke of genius.

A well-managed change from minor to major heralds the finale. Here we see Shostakovich at his most enigmatic. At times you feel that perhaps optimism is going to break out and then the music becomes very serious once again. It’s as if the composer allowed the mask to slip and then realised what he’d done and put the mask back in place. Much of the musical argument is troubled, though, and eventually another grinding climax (9:18) seems the only way out. Thereafter a bass clarinet solo suggests that maybe, just maybe the clouds will lift. I’m not entirely sure Nelsons thinks that, however; I’ve heard other conductors relax more at this point and adopt a more flowing tempo. I hasten to add that my last comment is not a criticism of Nelsons’ approach at this point; I think it’s of a piece with his view of the movement. Indeed, I think he makes complete sense of this movement and its sometimes deceptive moods. After the strange, hesitant coda (the music edging its way uncertainly towards the light?) I’m glad to say there is no applause. I bet, however, that in Symphony Hall the audience was, after a decent pause, loud in its appreciation of an outstanding performance.

This is a highly distinguished set. All four works are played superbly by the Boston Symphony and Andris Nelsons here confirms his growing reputation as one of the foremost Shostakovich conductors currently before the public. I await his performances of the Sixth and ‘Leningrad’ Symphonies with impatience.

A few words should be said about the presentation of this set. The booklet isn’t completely satisfactory, I’m afraid. The notes by Harlow Robinson are good in terms of explaining the circumstances under which the three symphonies were written. However, very little is said about the music itself and apart from telling us when the Hamlet incidental music was written nothing more is said about it. That’s poor since the music may well be unfamiliar to collectors. I don’t necessarily blame Mr Robinson who clearly knows his stuff: I’m sure he was given a brief to write just a short note. Other aspects of the booklet show a lack of consideration for the purchaser. There are no track timings whatsoever. Worst of all the track numbers are printed in grey type against a blue background and so are utterly illegible.

Happily, there need be no reservations about the sound quality. The first movement of the Eighth was recently auditioned in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio and we were most impressed with the recording. I’m pleased to confirm that having listened to the whole set on my own equipment I think that the engineers have achieved excellent results.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan

Hamlet - contents
Introduction and Night Patrol [2:45]
Funeral March [1:32]
Flourish and Dance Music [2:22]
The Hunt [1:58]
Ophelia's Song [1:31]
Cradle Song [1:24]
Requiem [2:39]) (1931-1932)

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