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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 54 (1939) [31.26]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (17701827)
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 ‘Pastoral’ (1808/09) [40.17]
Dresdner Philharmonie/Michael Sanderling
rec. 16-17 March (Shostakovich); 27-28 August 2015 Lukaskirche Dresden, Germany
SONY CLASSICAL 88875 164052 [72.55]

On Sony Classical the theme of this Dresdner Philharmonie release under Michael Sanderling is ‘sixth symphonies’ from Beethoven and Shostakovich; works written some 130 years apart.

It was uncommon for Beethoven to journey into programme music but he did so with his ‘PastoralSymphony, one of the most enduringly popular works in the repertoire. Completed in 1808 and dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz and Count Rasumovsky, Beethoven saw the five movement work as praise to God. “More of an expression of feelings than painting” the music suggests an eventful and picturesque journey through countryside scenes. In 1991 on the Radio 4 programme ‘Desert Island Discs’ Sue Lawley’s guest was Klaus Tennstedt who for his first work selected Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6Pastoral’ explaining that although the score was not technically difficult for the players it was extremely challenging for an orchestra to bring off well.

Sanderling and his Dresden players provide a stunningly beautiful in a captivating reading that vividly portrays this life-enhancing score. Gloriously impressive is the opening movement an ‘Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country’ with playing that easily evokes an appealing Viennese countryside scene. Engagingly performed under Sanderling ‘The scene by the brook’ develops an evocative near-Arcadian setting. Wholly satisfying is the orchestra’s playing of the Scherzo ‘Merry gathering of country folk’ with such delightfully sprung rhythms recalling rustic dancing and merriment suggestive of a scene from say a Pieter Bruegel painting. Sanderling ensures the penultimate movement Allegro titled ‘Thunder and Storm’ has impact and a steady potency. Impressive is the uplifting finale ‘Shepherd’s song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm’ a splendidly paced Allegretto.

Noticeable throughout is Sanderling's sense of controlled engagement drawing from his dedicated players a most beautifully polished, well rounded performance in a reading that avoids extremes of expression and dynamics. Sanderling’s reading evokes looking at nature through a window but rarely has the image been so crystal clear.

Beethoven continues to be wonderfully served by a substantial number of excellent recordings of his symphonies. Klaus Tennstedt’s commanding 1985 Abbey Road, London account of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony with the LPO on EMI is more than a match for any in the catalogues. Tennstedt said glowingly of the LPO that he could think of no orchestra in the world that could play better. Another remarkable recording is the powerful drama of the ‘classic’ 1971 Musikverein, Vienna account from Karl Böhm with the Weiner Philharmoniker on Deutsche Grammophon.

Shostakovich after his alarming denunciation by the Soviet authorities restored his reputation with his Fifth Symphony. Conscious of continuing his rehabilitation at first Shostakovich was unsure how to follow its great success and concentrated on other works such as film scores and the Suite No. 2 for Jazz Band. Written in 1939 during the insecurities of an intense phase of Stalinist tyranny the Sixth Symphony is quite a contrast to its predecessor. In it Shostakovich promised he would “express moods of spring, of happiness and youth.” It was Evgeny Mravinsky who introduced the work with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra the same year in Leningrad.

Right from the opening bars of the substantial first movement Largo Sanderling’s interpretation evokes a picture of a cold, barren wasteland together with a spine-chilling sense of desolation that might be a reflection of the composer’s mental turmoil. In the uplifting central movement Allegro Sanderling provides a tremendous sense of vivid colour and good humour rather like a child exploring a toyshop. This mood never quite feels genuine owing to an undercurrent of tension. Outstanding is how Sanderling astutely develops the central episode of powerful turmoil. In the Finale impressive is the resolutely explosive power growing out of smaller ideas. A sense of risk-taking is present in the magnificent writing as well as liberal sardonic wit. Rather than a predictably triumphant ending Shostakovich offers a touch of ambivalence. In Sanderling’s reading despite all the power and passion he remains in control and the playing feels fresh and polished.

Of my two preferred recordings the first, although relatively new to me, is the riveting and forceful 1979 Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin account from the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester under Kurt Sanderling on Berlin Classics. Praise too for the passionately committed playing of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Vasily Petrenko recorded in 2009 for Naxos.

Recorded for Sony at the Lukaskirche, Dresden the warm, clear and well balanced sound quality is excellent. There are two interesting essays in the booklet ‘Two composers in conversation’ by Martin Morgenstern explaining that “neither work its typical of its genre” and ‘The alpha and omega of symphonic music’ by Michael Sanderling who puts forward that Beethoven and Shostakovich are “the first and last great symphonists of our music universe.”

Michael Cookson



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