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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” [48:45]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 10 [56:05]
Dresdner Philharmonie/Michael Sanderling
rec. 8/10 September 2015 (Beethoven), 24/25 June 2016 (Shostakovich) Lukaskirche, Dresden
SONY CLASSICAL 88985408842 [48:45 + 56:05]

With this double CD set, the Dresdner Philharmonie under Michael Sanderling continues its survey of the symphonies of Beethoven and Shostakovich for Sony. In my view, the theme of the pairing is that of feared dictators, namely Napoleon Bonaparte in Beethoven’s “Eroica” and Josef Stalin in Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 is frequently heard in the concert hall. It is well known that Beethoven originally dedicated it to Napoleon Bonaparte before tearing up the relevant page and replacing it with the title “Eroica”. Completed in 1804, the score was written in the midst of the famous “Heiligenstädter Testament”, a letter that Beethoven wrote to his brothers Carl and Johann in 1802, when he contemplated suicide. The “Testament” reflects the composer’s deep depressive state provoked by the loss of hearing, and maybe exacerbated by a failed love affair. Beethoven introduced the score publicly in 1805 at Vienna. In this Lukaskirche, Dresden recording it is evident how Sanderling fully appreciates that this progressive score is music of extensive concentration, intensity and—as the designation—might suggest heroic power. Naturally flowing and stimulating with an undertow of mystery in the Allegro, the Dresden players’ performance conveys a sense of defiance in the face of adversity. The conclusion is especially thrilling. Underpinned by the rich low strings, the angst-ridden and world-weary tread given to the renowned Marche funèbre is both resolute and respectful. A character of unbridled joy imbues the Scherzo with some arresting horn playing. With striking immediacy in the Finale, it feels as if the spirit of life has broken free with Sanderling’s swirling and dramatic power. This makes a compelling impact.

Sanderling’s remarkable account can bear favourable comparison to several recordings of Symphony No. 3Eroica” that I play most frequently. First, the stirring live 2015 account at Philharmonie, Berlin by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle, part of a complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies on the orchestra’s own label (review). There is also the equally stirring live 2012 performance in Herculessaal, Munich by the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Mariss Jansons, part of complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies on BR Klassik (review). Commendable too is the glowing and powerful 1961 accoiunt at Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Karl Böhm on Deutsche Grammophon.

It was a second severe censure by the Soviet Authorities in 1948 and the death of Stalin in 1953 that stimulated a change of fortune for Shostakovich. The composer’s response was to present his Tenth Symphony, his first in eight years. Premièred in Leningrad in December 1953 by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Yevgeny Mravinsky, the Tenth Symphony is undoubtedly a pivotal work, arguably Shostakovich’s greatest out of his fifteen symphonies. It is a tautly designed and cohesive work, yet profoundly expressive. According to conductor Valery Gergiev, “with the Tenth Symphony Shostakovich was finally speaking about Shostakovich”. Conductor Vasily Petrenko has explained that in the 1990s a close association between Shostakovich and his Azerbaijani pupil Elmira Nazirova was uncovered in the symphony. In the desolate landscapes and dark foreboding of the massive opening movement Allegro com brio, nearly half the length of the whole work, Sanderling directs with innate proficiency. He allows the music to build impressively while generating an unsettling undertow of nervous anxiety. In the short but highly concentrated second movement Allegro, the martial-like brutality could easily be a representation of the malevolent evil of Joseph Stalin, as contentiously stated in Solomon Volkov’s book Testimony. Dramatically and thrillingly, Sanderling captures the savage violence that was described by Shostakovich musicologist Robert Dearling as “a study in concentrated fury rarely equalled in music”. Maintaining steadfast concentration, Sanderling’s interpretation of the third movement Allegretto is engagingly penetrating, at turns menacingly dark, bitterly sardonic and majestically uplifting. Notable here is the use of Elmira’s name, represented by a five-note motif on the horn repeated twelve times and answered by the composer’s personal DSCH motif. In the atmospheric closing movement Andante – Allegro, Sanderling communicates a strong sense of optimism, like a spring-like renewal after a severe winter, whilst maintaining the relentless momentum towards the awesome drama of the conclusion. I feel compelled to mention the consistently brilliant playing of the Dresden brass section, certainly worthy of special praise.

Sanderling’s account of the Tenth Symphony is one of the finest I know. It can join the ranks of recommendable recordings that I most admire. Heading the list for its dramatic power is the 2009 account at Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool by the RLPO under Vasily Petrenko on Naxos. There is a thrilling live 2015 account at Symphony Hall, Boston by Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon; it won a Grammy Award for best orchestral performance. There also is a striking 1996 Köln account by WDR Sinfonieorchester under Rudolf Barshai on Brilliant Classics.

Characteristically stylish and entirely compelling under Michael Sanderling, the Dresdner Philharmonie demonstrates its prowess in these Beethoven and Shostakovich masterworks. Characteristically polished, compellingly resilient and glowingly expressive, the Dresdner Philharmonie is recorded in studio conditions in the renowned acoustics of Lukaskirche, Dresden. In the booklet there is a preface written by Michael Sanderling, and a helpful essay titled To the Quick and the Dead by Wolfgang Stähr. In both works, the engineering team has achieved excellent sound quality, clear and detailed with all the climaxes captured within the sound picture.

Michael Cookson



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