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]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. Symphony Hall Boston, USA October 2015 (No.9), November 2015 (No.5), February 2016 (Hamlet), March 2016 (No.8)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 5201 [2 CDs: 157:35]

This is the second instalment in Andris Nelson's survey of the central Shostakovich Symphonies collected under the title "Under Stalin's Shadow". In terms of the recorded catalogue, these are still early days in Nelsons' tenure as the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, so aside from any interest in the repertoire per se it is also valuable in gauging the relationship between players and podium. By that measure alone things would appear to be in excellent shape. For me, the main delight in this pair of discs is the uniformly superb quality of the playing both technically and expressively. Elsewhere, I have read glowing reviews of Nelsons' interpretations which I find remarkably 'straight'; eminently sane and perfectly well-judged but rarely grabbing me by the throat in the way that I want this music to do.

There is a valuable train of thought that says that Shostakovich's music should not be viewed exclusively as a commentary upon the Soviet era through which he lived. Instead, in a purely abstract way his works are fine pieces of absolute music too. Undoubtedly this is true, but there seems to be enough documentary proof that the zeitgeist defined the man. It is hard not to extend that to include the interpreters, too. By that measure, there are few 'old-school' Russian/Soviet conductors still performing today with first-hand experience of those times. Certainly, alongside classic Mravinsky, Kondrashin, Svetlanov, Rozhdestvensky Soviet-sourced recordings, these performances are less searing experiences. Does that matter? Not when there is as much quality on show as there is here, but I do have a nagging suspicion that for the heart-of-darkness that lies at the centre of much of this music you need to go elsewhere. The 2-disc set opens with the sly elusive 9th Symphony. As is well-known, not the heroic/epic Stalin expected and wanted. Nelsons starts the work absolutely bang on the metronome marking of minim/half-note = 132. These opening pages showcase the remarkable brilliance and precision present throughout. Nimble, neat, perfectly articulated with superb ensemble - and these are live concert recordings to boot. An early joy sustained through both discs is the sustained imperious quality of the wind soloists in particular. The piccolo plays with supreme nonchalance matched by interjections from the clarinet and blowsy brass. Interpretatively I find that Nelsons steers a somewhat neutral path. The players reproduce the score to perfection but a great performance conveys a sense of bonhomie curdling into sour forced jollity – an overloud laughter track in a second-rate comedy.

Gorgeous clarinet and flute solos are highlights of an impressively poised second movement Moderato. This is followed by a spectacular rendition of the third movement Presto. Again, following the metronome mark exactly (dotted crochet = 126), this is as virtuosic performance of this movement that I have ever heard – staggeringly good as a technical display. Few other performances get as close to this in simple tempo terms and with the control that is required at this headlong. But – and I find this very curious – the very control that is so remarkable, both by Nelsons and his super-virtuoso orchestra, works against the mania that lurks here. Kondrashin injects bursts of irrational energy, Rohzdestvensky's trumpeter seems to be playing some gleeful last trump. Jansons in Philadelphia and Gergiev are right on the printed marking too – Jansons to my ear more sucessfully – Gergiev somehow plays this as 'just' a showcase for his fine Kirov orchestra. Jansons finds the nightmarish helter-skelter mania that chimes for me. The heart of the work in every sense is the fourth movement Largo and at the centre of it is an extended soliloquy for bassoon. I would recommend hearing this performance for that solo - searingly eloquent and laden with emotion. The liner includes a list of the players so Richard Svoboda, the principal bassoon, can take full credit for the superb playing of this passage. It is probably one of the most moving bassoon solos in the repertoire and it receives a performance to match any I have ever heard. Moving attacca into the closing Finale Nelsons is again very good at grading the tempo changes as the pace gradually builds, again helped hugely by the neat alert playing from all the Boston sections. But again, although superbly executed, I miss the underlying sense that as the tempo builds, so the hollow vacuum at this music's heart is ever more exposed. Right down to the crude 'celebratory' brass convulsions at letter I in the score [track 5 - 4:55], Nelsons makes these crescendi almost tasteful phrase markings – it takes a Rozhdestvensky with his old-school Soviet brass section to make these cock-a-snooking raspberries impact fully. Nelsons' closing pages are every bit as invigorating as one might expect and again played with exceptional skill. So a performance of great brilliance and control which misses for me the deeper message.

I really should not read colleagues reviews before writing my own. Dan Morgan raved about the performance of the 5th Symphony here - and clearly the audience loved it too. Rather perversely for four live performances, the applause is only retained for Symphony No.5. My feelings about the performance of No.5 are much the same as for No.9, but more so. Again, wonderfully expressive, technically poised playing. I'm thinking here of stunning horn solos in the outer movements, excellent string ensemble playing in the third movement Largo but ultimately I'm none the wiser as to whether Nelsons sees this as "a reply to just criticism" – the Soviet symphony par excellence – or a carefully layered ironic comment on a soviet Symphony. Working backwards; should the last pages heave themselves agonisingly through seemingly endless mire of D major battering away as Rostropovich does in Washington [here really is an orchestra struggling to stay the pace] or Barshai in Cologne, or skip with celebratory bright-eyed ardour as Bernstein in his early New York - the fastest ever? – or Previn in Chicago. Nelsons is neither extreme – perhaps slightly steady but without that imparting any strain emotionally or technically on his players. So actually it does end up being what on paper alone it looks like – a rather over extended D major peroration. Along the way are many delights all of which centre on the quality of the playing. Apart from a sense of superb technical control and a clarity of execution, I have to say I take almost nothing from the interpretation of the work as given here. Of course this is great music and it is wonderful to hear it played this well, but when there are as many performances available of very similar levels of excellence, is there anything extra here that will have me reaching for this again before other versions? The simple answer is no. Even those versions – such as Bernstein's earlier take – which seem to miss the deeper meaning so spectacularly. At least it is done in typical Bernstein manner with no holds barred.

The Eighth Symphony, which occupies most of the second disc, is quite possibly the hardest of Shostakovich's instrumental symphonies to bring off. In scale and scope, it demands enormous concentration and control; it lacks the bash and bang glamour of No.7, the obvious compositional brilliance of No.10, the popularity of 5 or the relative concision of 6 & 9. 11 & 12 have cinematic appeal and 15 is simply quirky. In some ways, I think of no. 8 as the embodiment of the enduring spirit of the Soviet/Russian people and their country. But has a C major chord – on which the symphony quietly ends – ever sounded more bleak? Solti, coming late to Shostakovich, recorded an impressive version in Chicago. The scale of the work and its unforgiving pages of bleak landscapes seem to have struck a chord with him, as they did with Haitink in Amsterdam. Both those recordings benefit from good Decca engineering, which helps in a work where the dynamic and instrumental range goes to opposite extremes of numbers and noise. Perhaps by now, back in Boston I was hoping for more individuality from Nelsons. Again, by any technical measure alone this is beyond reproach, but I miss the sense of a hard-won journey, an implacable fate that the finest performances elucidate. Oleg Caetani's live cycle recorded on SACD with his Milan orchestra remains a set I find myself listening to often. His No.8 is a good example of the difference I hear between that cycle and Nelsons' set. The Milan playing is good but simply not as good or polished as Boston. Caetani is less scrupulous in his attention to the detail of the score than Nelsons, but ultimately Caetani makes a musical statement that is more individual, more personal. If his choices chime with one's own perception of the music then by definition the response will be more deeply felt. Nelsons makes good sane choices which are executed to perfection but ultimately it feels generalised.

The Eighth is generously coupled with excerpts from the Op.32a incidental music to Hamlet. True to how I respond to Nelsons' approach to the more 'important' symphonies, I found these excerpts to be the most wholly successful music on the disc. The flamboyant irreverence of the score finds perfect partners in the performers here – there is less ambiguity in the score and the humour is direct and obvious. I am not sure the Eighth Symphony needs a coupling and I am not sure this is the right coupling if it does, but in its own right this is a delightful performance of a substantial selection – perfectly alert and easily the best performance – for the movements given – I have heard.

I have deliberately not mentioned anything about the recording itself to this point. Although released as a DG set this was licensed to the label by the orchestra. I have never heard Symphony Hall in Boston myself so I cannot judge what an accurate presentation of the acoustic this is. As recorded, these discs did give my mid-upper range system some trouble. The bass end of the orchestra is very present indeed – to the point of booming. The lower instruments – double basses in particular – are very audible. Take the opening of the 2nd movement of the 5th Symphony, where they crunch through with overly large impact. Likewise the very audible and exciting trombone/low brass work-out in the central movements of No.8. Predictably in this case, any bass drum or timpani contribution is verging on the explosive. All of which is fine except that this balance skews the sound spectrum down so that in tutti passages the upper strings can sound recessed and relatively weak in comparison. Where Shostakovich writes passages featuring those string or wind in isolation there is no problem at all and the sound – with the warmth of Symphony Hall to bathe in – is very beautiful. I found simply found it very hard to obtain a balance between the various sections of the works. This was true listening both through speakers and headphones. I do not remember ever hearing the hall so present in any of the older DG/Phillips sourced discs recorded there over the years. Perhaps other systems would 'control' this lower spectrum sound more effectively. An adequate tri-lingual booklet completes the package.

I must admit I was expecting more of this set, given the praise the initial release of No.10 garnered, and the enthusiasm the current pair of discs has garnered elsewhere. I will remember it for a witty selection from Hamlet and the superlative playing of the Boston orchestra. My instinct is that Nelsons needs to take his considerable technical skill and musical intellect and use it to forge something rather more individual and risky. This is brilliantly safe.

Nick Barnard

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~ John Quinn (Recording of the Month)

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