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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 1 in F minor, op. 10 [32:52]
Scherzo for orchestra in F-sharp minor, op. 1 [5:13]
Theme and Variations for orchestra in B-flat major, op. 3 [15:25]
Scherzo for orchestra in E-flat major, op. 7 [3:50]
Five Fragments for orchestra, op. 42 [11:00]
Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg/Gustavo Gimeno
rec. Philharmonie Luxembourg, June 2016
PENTATONE PTC5186622 SACD [68:33]

The current recording is part of a series made by the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg and Gustavo Gimeno. Similar to one of the other instalments where the first symphony was coupled with a number of earlier less known works by Anton Bruckner (also reviewed by me), the current disc consists of the first symphony and a number of relatively unknown works of the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

Written as a graduation work and when the composer was 19, the First Symphony in F minor is a minor masterpiece that foresees the later grotesque style of the composer, yet imbued with plentiful youthfulness and bite. With the inclusion of the piano in the main orchestra and a penchant for rhythmic storytelling, Stravinsky’s Petrushka looms much in the background.

For a work of youthful spirit as well as public acknowledgement of the avant-garde of the time, Gimeno’s account is rather timid and distanced, wanting in effective dynamic range. While the conductor is free from attention-seeking histrionics that young conductors often may get held by, the two main elements that constitute the impetus of the music, youthful belligerence and the grotesque, are difficult to find here.

We know that neither orchestral polish, sound-quality, experience of life during the Soviet times, nor tempo are what produce a great Shostakovich performance. The vastly diverse range of interpretational possibilities outlined by the likes of Barshai, Haitink, Rozhdestvensky, (Vasily) Petrenko, and (Kurt) Sanderling demonstrates this point. Each viewpoint contains its own convincing world, insofar as one takes on the music personally and with the inevitability of human drama – much as in the interpretation of the music of Mahler, a composer Shostakovich admired greatly. With the right spirit of intent, external factors such as sound quality become a matter of pedantry.

Take Rozhdestvensky’s slow and gritty account with the USSR Ministry of Culture Orchestra, for example. While the playing is often brash and the recording quality far from ideal, one is gripped by the physicality of untamed sincerity. The huge dynamic range is hair-raising, as can be felt in the last movement. A quite different account is offered by Haitink with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. If the vivid animation and hot-blooded execution of Rozhdestvensky’s version is absent, nervous incisiveness with expressive dynamics give the reading a latent and human force. Besides, the simple ampleness and strength of (the Decca) sonority create a sense of real occasion. It is at this point I feel that Gimeno’s somewhat distanced and subdued vision may not fulfil the emotional engagement and imaginations of many listeners.

As in the other Bruckner recording, released by the same orchestra-conductor coupling, the current disc programs a number of rarely recorded pieces. The Scherzo for orchestra in F-sharp minor and Theme and Variations for orchestra in B-flat major are student works written under the firm influence of the Russian school. The counterpoint-heavy texture of these works reminds one of the works of Tchaikovsky and Glazunov more than those of the Mighty Handful.

It is in the Scherzo for orchestra in E-flat major that Shostakovich appears to attenuate the absolute influence of past masters. Of anything I have heard from this composer, the resemblance to the music of Stravinsky is most striking – playful melodies surf the surface of a scintillating rhythmic base. As a note of pertinent interest, Shostakovich, like Stravinsky, seems to have felt most at home in the mould of the Scherzo, as both composers can be seen to have often adopted the form in their early compositions. Shostakovich’s admiration for Stravinsky’s music is hardly surprising. Yet for all these explicit influences, Shostakovich’s characteristic striving for the juxtaposition of academic integrity with heart-on-sleeve emotionality – the latter being something one wouldn’t necessarily associate with Stravinsky – can be heard. That Shostakovich was able to write something as mature and individual as the Largo of his first symphony is hardly surprising.

The Five Fragments for orchestra was written on a single day in June 1935. It is possible to hear Shostakovich’s experimentation in orchestral contour, some of which would make into the chemical compound of the mammoth Fourth Symphony. Especially notable is the eerie third piece (Largo); the haunting quietude is something that can be scented, for example, in the desolate final movement of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony. All these rarely recorded works by Shostakovich are conducted with little fuss by Gimeno and his orchestra.

Although being a SACD, the sound quality is not noticeably better than that of many non-SACD discs. This recording, then, is for those who are interested in excavating the earlier, less-well-known works of Shostakovich. If one gave me a minute to name all my favorite versions of First Symphony in a matter of urgency, I doubt the current disc would make it.

Young-Jin Hur
Previous review: Dan Morgan


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