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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 12 in D minor Op.112 “The Year of 1917”
Symphony No. 15 in A major Op.141
Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra/Eliahu Inbal
rec. live Suntory Hall, Tokyo 20 Dec 2011 (No.12), Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, Tokyo, Japan, 29 March 2016 (No.15)
EXTON OVCL-00605 SACD [79.23]

It seems Shostakovich has become the new Mahler, at least in Japan. The Japanese label Exton currently have three Shostakovich cycles in progress. There is one with the Japan Philharmonic and Alexander Lazarev, another with Michiyoshi Inoue and the Osaka Philharmonic (although only two symphonies so far, the Fourth and Seventh, it’s shaping into a mighty cycle) and this one with Eliahu Inbal and the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. Inbal's cycle is the first to reach these two symphonies – both it should be said difficult to bring off. He does so with some panache. This is down to the excellent playing of his Tokyo orchestra, to Inbal’s willingness to treat the Twelfth as a serious score (perhaps too seriously) and to treat the Fifteenth as the masterpiece it is. Often overlooked, principally because we rarely get a chance to hear Japanese orchestras on disc in the west, is the astonishingly beautiful playing. Typical of the TMSO, and Japanese orchestras in general, are a deep string tone and a beautifully cultured brass sound.

It’s often forgotten that the Twelfth comes from the same period as both the First Cello Concerto and the Eighth String Quartet, exceptional works. Probably because of the programmatic political landscape of the symphony it has not been especially popular in the west. Even though the first performance was given by Mravinsky on 1st October 1961, the last work he would premiere by the composer (a recording exists of this, and shattering it is too), the best performances come from British orchestras from the early 1960s. Inbal can’t hold a candle to either Rozhdestvensky or Boult. Rozhdestvensky and the Philharmonia Orchestra gave the first performance in the west at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival but even better was Sir Adrian Boult’s cataclysmic Royal Festival Hall BBC SO concert on 28th November 1962. Here orchestra and conductor are so unhinged from the score at times it’s a miracle the whole thing holds together at all; but what a technicolour and amazingly exciting performance it is (Intaglio, INCD 7431, now deleted). Masashi Ueda’s Tokyo Symphony Orchestra concert of the symphony from 1962 (the Japanese premiere of the work) shares similar virtues with these very early performances, a freshness and directness, that offers a better vision of the work than Inbal ultimately does (TBS Vintage Classics).

Inbal’s tendency to suddenly impose gear shifts in the tempo of the Twelfth deflects from its drama, notably in the final movement. There are more exciting tam-tams at the opening of the fourth movement than Inbal allows us to hear too but there is inexorable momentum in “Revolutionary Petrograd” that allows the orchestra to meticulously display its virtuosity. This is a Twelfth that ultimately feels like it wears its politics on its sleeve, that never fully rejects its biography and history, and thus feels weighted down and workmanlike. It often feels imposing rather than inspired, but this can often be a problem with Japanese orchestras where discipline overshadows an innate understanding of the cultural and musical significance of some works.

The Fifteenth, written in 1971, is a very different kind of performance indeed, one that is at its very best in the slowest music and which fully exploits the beautiful range of tone of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. The solo cello (0’43” – 2’25, first part) in the second movement is magnificently played, fully expanding from the instrument’s open bottom string to an ecstatic and treacherous thirteenth position. By any standards the playing here is deeply affecting and is entirely magical in drawing the listener in. The snare drum roll just before the huge climax on brass and strings at 9’30” is crushing and the brass chorales at 15’15” are given almost Brucknerian nobility. This contrasts with the parallel unison bassoons of the opening third section which are almost shockingly emphasized in Inbal’s hands. When we come to the Adagio opening of the fourth movement we are in full Wagnerian splendour, with Shostakovich using the horns to quote from the Ring. The climax to the movement at 8’05”, one of the most shattering in all his symphonies, has Inbal and his players stretching themselves to playing that is both intense and devastating. This is a performance to live with, beautifully played and crafted by an orchestra and conductor who seem, nearly five years after their performance of the Twelfth, to have developed a much greater understanding of instrumental balance and tonal colour. On almost every level this Fifteenth is an outstanding performance of one of Shostakovich’s more complex symphonies.

Marc Bridle



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