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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Under Stalin's Shadow

Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 (1937) [50:02]
Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65 (1943) [66:40]
Symphony No. 9 in E flat major, Op. 70 (1945) [26:41]
Hamlet Suite, Op. 32a (excerpts) (1931-1932) [14:12]
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]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. live, 2015, Symphony Hall Boston, USA
Reviewed as a 24/96 download
Pdf booklet included
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 5201 [2 CDs: 157:35]

This, the second tranche of a DG/BSO collaboration entitled Under Stalin’s Shadow, must be one of the most eagerly awaited releases of the year. I’ve already reviewed the first instalment, which coupled the Tenth Symphony and the Passacaglia from Shostakovich’s ill-starred opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. It was the latter’s premiere in 1936 that triggered the dictator’s infamous diatribe ‘muddle instead of music’; that, in turn, led to the Fifth Symphony (1937), which the composer described as ‘a Soviet artist’s response to justified criticism’. These labels, expedient in a hostile climate, are of little or no value when it comes to the music itself. The epic Eighth (1943) and quirky, ultra-compact Ninth (1945) are free of such baggage, yet some still persist in lumbering them with extra-musical meaning.

The Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, who became music director of the Boston Symphony in 2015, is no stranger to this repertoire. Apart from that BSO Tenth he’s recorded the Seventh – the Leningrad – with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (review) and the Eighth with the Concertgebouw (review). The former is pretty dire – the performance is crude and the sound is unpardonably poor – but that Amsterdam Eighth is electrifying. The final part of this DG/BSO project will include the Seventh, so at least Nelsons has a chance to get it right.

There’s so much competition in these symphonies that it’s not so much a case of where to start as where to stop. My own preferences for the Fifth are Leonard Bernstein’s audacious NYPO version, taped in Boston in 1959, and his live LSO concert filmed at the Royal Festival Hall in 1966 (review). Staying with video I can heartily recommend Yutaka Sado’s perceptive and powerful performance with the Berliner Philharmoniker (review). There are others – the ‘home team’ of Kirill Kondrashin, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Mstislav Rostropovich and Rudolf Barshai spring to mind – but it’s Mark Wigglesworth I’d like to hear from again; he last recorded the Fifth with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in 1996 (BIS).

As it happens Wigglesworth’s unforgettable account of the Eighth, with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, is one of the two versions I’d save from the flames. The other is that of the work’s dedicatee Yevgeny Mravinsky, and the Leningrad Philharmonic, recorded live in Amsterdam in 1982; the febrile trumpet playing in the third movement is simply hair-raising, as is the performance as a whole. Then there’s the Ninth; Bernard Haitink and the LPO – Decca, 1980 – bring a snick and snap to the piece that I like very much indeed. That said, Kondrashin’s account – on Melodiya, Aulos and HDTT – is still the most idiomatic and insightful one I know.

Shostakovich’s Op. 32, the complete incidental music he wrote for Nikolai Akimov’s controversial production of Hamlet, is available on a splendid Signum release with Mark Elder and the CBSO. I reviewed both that and a Northern Flowers CD of excerpts from the Op. 32a suite with Edward Serov and the St Petersburg Chamber Orchestra. The latter recording dates from the mid-1980s, and while the sound isn’t the best the performances have an authentic tang that’s hard to resist. As I pointed out at the time, both discs are well worth your time and money.

Now back to Nelsons. Despite the jumbled order of play I’ll start with the Fifth Symphony. First impressions are entirely favourable. The start of the Moderato – Allegro non troppo is taut, the string and woodwind playing is superb and, best of all, the sound isn’t too close. There’s a marvellous sense of anticipation here, helped in no small measure by the conductor’s masterly control of phrase and dynamics. After that untidy, overblown Seventh the refinement and scale of this performance is most welcome; that said, every detail registers with thrilling clarity and naturalness. Goodness, these players are so alert and involved, unanimous in their desire to rediscover this well-worn piece.

And it’s that sense of renewal that makes such a strong impression overall. Has the Allegretto ever been explored so thoroughly, its timbres so well caught? Nelsons’ tempi are well judged – no sign of the bloat that disfigures Lenny’s Tokyo Fifth, recorded for CBS-Sony in 1979 – and that’s just one of the many elements that make this a properly filled-in, panoramic performance.

That same 360-degree approach informs the lovely Largo. I found myself listening with bated breath – as if in the concert hall – keenly aware of a great performance in the making. True, Nelsons isn’t as broad in this movement as some, but then the hushed passages are simply ravishing. Even those yearning tuttis – measured, intuitive, magnificent – gain from being played with such finesse and feeling. So often such levels of intensity are achieved at the expense of momentum and structure; that it doesn’t in this case is a tribute to Nelsons’ remarkably complete understanding of this great score.

Of course, that’s just the build-up; the finale, so meticulously planned and prepared for, bursts forth with all the energy and amplitude one could wish for. The rasp of the Boston brass – now strutting, now jeering – will surely take your breath away, as will those emphatic timps and seismic bass-drum thwacks. Even here there’s an underlying sense of proportion and purpose, which adds immeasurably to the ever-twisting tension. Nelsons’ greatest triumph, though, is a finale of such overwhelming humanity that all notions of creeping capitulation or contrition are swept away forever. Never – and I mean never – have I been so profoundly moved by this piece. Not surprisingly, the applause is rapturous. This noble, cleansing Fifth now goes straight to the front of a very crowded field.

There’s alchemy in the air, but can Nelsons sustain the magic with his new reading of the Eighth Symphony? The louring strings at the start of the Adagio – Allegro non troppo suggest there’s no fall-off in technical prowess or musical insight. There’s an airiness to both the playing and the sound that suits Shostakovich’s gossamer textures very well indeed. Then again, Nelsons seems determined to bring out every shade and nuance of this ear-pricking opener; its darker moments – and its gaunt climaxes – are no less impressive, even though there’s a hint of boom at the bottom and stridency at the top. That said, the bass drum and cymbals are simply sensational, the music shaped and projected with uncommon authority and skill.

As that Mravinsky Eighth so amply demonstrates, this is a virtuoso score, but it’s Nelsons who reveals its tonal range and subtlety. Indeed, the more I hear these symphonies the more I’m reminded of just how willingly they yield to different interpretations. I found that with Paavo Järvi’s recent account of the Leningrad Symphony, which flies in the face of those who think the piece shallow and bombastic (review). I had a similar epiphany with Warner Japan’s reissue of the Previn/LSO Babi Yar, recorded in 1979; there, too, we glimpse a quiet sophistication that many conductors, in their dash to dazzle, simply don’t look for, let alone find.

That CBSO Seventh notwithstanding, Nelsons isn’t of that ilk. The Allegretto of this new Eighth has plenty of pith and point, but again it’s the inner detail that’s most potent here. The firm, clear drums are tinglesome, and the deep-digging strings in the Allegro non troppo aren’t far behind. Nelsons is a good builder of shape and tension, so this movement – with its transported trumpet and supporting side drum – is as convincing as it gets. Not in the Mravinsky class, perhaps – more like Wigglesworth, I’d say – but hugely satisfying nonetheless.

The introspective Largo is beautifully detailed, the bassoon solos are superbly floated and the music breathes in a way I’ve seldom heard it do. I’m reminded of just how lovely Shostakovich’s writing can be, as indeed I was listening to Previn’s recalibrating performance of Babi Yar. Back to Boston, and the finale of the Eighth is as accomplished as you’d expect; the playing is first rate, the pace never flags and there’s no want of drama, either. Wigglesworth is particularly memorable here – his perorations are truly staggering – but Nelsons runs him close. Both are splendid in the enigmatic coda, whose impact is all the more ethereal for being so well played and recorded. There’s no applause to break the spell and spoil the effect.

The Ninth Symphony, intended as a celebration of Russian victory in World War II, morphed into something else entirely. Instead of a Beethovenian behemoth – complete with soloists and choral finale – it’s terse and teeming with subversive wit. Compared with Kondrashin – and Haitink especially – Nelsons takes a rather soft-edged view of the piece. Still, the Allegro has plenty of swagger, and the Moderato is invested with a very pleasing glow. Indeed, for sheer beauty of shape and line this reading would be hard to beat.

Shostakovich said this symphony would be very different from those that preceded it, but even taking that comment at face value I’m not sure that Nelsons’ oddly contained, measured approach is the right one. As before he’s in forensic mode, sifting through the score and bringing new things to light; that worked well before, but in this instance I sense a loss of focus, of essential energy, and that makes for a surprisingly subdued performance. That may have something to do with the recorded balance, which seems quite distant. That said, Nelsons makes amends with a bright, wonderfully pointed Presto.

One of the joys of Nelsons’ Fifth and Eighth is the depth of personality he finds in those works. Perhaps the Ninth is a little more opaque, less keen to divulge its identity; however, Kondrashin and Haitink do manage to crack the carapace, and the resulting performances are so much more vigorous and engaging than this one. As ever the BSO playing is immaculate and the recording is warm, weighty and refined. What a marked contrast with the irrepressible flounce and flourish of the Hamlet excerpts. This is a terrific filler, with conductor and players really letting their hair down. There’s no applause, but I’m sure the audience loved it.

A first-choice Fifth, a top-echelon Eighth and a treat of a suite; roll on the Seventh.

Dan Morgan



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