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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43 (1936) [64:27]
Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, ‘The Year 1905’ (1957) [62:37]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. live, 22 March 2018 (No. 4) & 28 September 2017 (No. 11), Symphony Hall, Boston
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 483 5220 [2 CDs: 127:04]

When DG first announced a series of live Shostakovich recordings with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony the project was entitled ‘Under Stalin’s Shadow’. Whilst welcoming news of the series I was rather disappointed that it was only proposed to record symphonies 5-10, omitting the Fourth. If ever there was a work that could be said to have been composed under the baleful shadow of the Soviet dictator it was surely that symphony, withdrawn prior to its first performance in the wake of Stalin’s displeasure over the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Happily, the decision to expand the series into a full cycle of the symphonies means that we now have a recording of the Fourth. I’m just as pleased that Nelsons has been able to record the Eleventh, a memorable performance of which I saw him give with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in February 2015 as his tenure in Birmingham drew to a close (review).

The Fourth became Shostakovich’s most ambitious orchestral work to date when he completed it. The score is far longer and more complex than the precocious First Symphony and, in my opinion, it far outstrips in every way the Second and Third symphonies. Yet its creation seems to have been far from straightforward. It seems that the composer started the work, only to go back to the drawing board. Only recently I heard an off-air recording of the original opening of the first movement which Mstislav Rostropovich played with the LSO at a Shostakovich Festival at the Barbican in February 1998. About seven minutes survive, the opening of a desolate Adagio, which the composer discarded completely. What eventually emerged as the Fourth’s first movement bears absolutely no relation to Shostakovich’s first thoughts. The Fourth is, in many ways, a searchingly experimental work but the first draft was, if anything, even more radical. Goodness knows where the inspiration might have led had Shostakovich not been so dissatisfied with it.

As it is, the Fourth stands as a monument to the direction in which Shostakovich’s symphonic canon might have progressed had it not been for the intervention of a dictator. The Fourth was complete and awaiting a first performance when the furore over Lady Macbeth erupted. The composer decided to withdraw the symphony and it was not until 1961 that the belated premiere took place; the score was entrusted to Kirill Kondrashin and the Moscow State Philharmonic. In 1966 they went on to make what I think was the first recording of the work. I remember, as a teenager, buying the Melodiya LP and being utterly perplexed: why was the symphony so radical and so different to the Fifth? How little I knew! With this Boston Symphony recording we have, amazingly, a direct link with the 1961 premiere. One of the BSO’s second violins, Vyacheslav Uritsky, who has been a member of the BSO since 1975 and who plays on these recordings, actually took part in the first performance of the Fourth. He must have been right at the start of his membership of the Moscow orchestra then because according to the BSO website he was sacked by the orchestra, after fourteen years of membership, when he applied to emigrate from the USSR in 1975. Though we’re not told specifically, I think it must be likely that he also played on Kondrashin’s 1966 recording. Incidentally, Uritsky has ‘history’ with the Eleventh too. As a student at the Odessa Conservatory he played in the first performance of that symphony in Odessa, which was attended by the composer. What memories these Boston performances must have brought back for him.

Nelsons really makes you sit up at the start of the Fourth. After those agonised shrieks on high woodwind the Allegretto poco moderato sets off at a real lick. I can’t recall hearing it taken this fast before – the Kondrashin recording is a bit steadier – and initially I was taken aback. I was soon won over by Nelsons’ urgency, however. In this performance the first couple of minutes, before Shostakovich eases off a little, are scalding. Equally scalding is the strident, complex quick march that begins around 4:00. At 6:42 there’s a very uncomfortable brief climax before we hear a desolate recitative-like bassoon solo. That ushers in an extended episode of slower music and here I was struck by the intensity with which Nelsons imbues the music; the playing is superb. Nelsons’ conducting evidences compelling concentration.

DG divide the vast first movement into two separate tracks, which is helpful. Track 2 starts with the frenetic Presto – a demented fugue – on the strings. The Boston strings play this passage as if their very lives depended on it. The next few minutes are frankly rather scary, so intense are the feelings Shostakovich seeks to convey and so powerfully do Nelsons and his orchestra put that vision across. Eventually (at 8:08) a calmer, yet still restless violin solo ushers in a passage which, in context, is a rare oasis of something approaching tranquillity before the bassoons lead us towards the movement’s subdued but pretty troubled end (listen to the softly oppressive gong strokes underneath the music!) This movement contains unsettling, subversive, dissonant – dare I say dissident? – music. I’ve heard some fine performances of it, not least the pioneering Kondrashin recording (review), but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a performance to match this one.

The much shorter central movement is a tart, often pugnacious scherzo which is here delivered with razor-sharp playing. The nagging, insistent rhythms, with which the music abounds, are enunciated with great precision. Right at the end of the movement (7:52) the tick-tock percussion, accompanied by deep tolling piano and harps, bring the movement to a spooky end.

The third movement is as massive a conception as the first, and once again DG split it into two tracks – the break comes after 6:52 where the music quickens into an Allegro. The opening Largo is taken very slowly and deliberately by Nelsons – he’s slower than Kondrashin (who reaches the Allegro a full minute earlier, at 5:48). This Largo – effectively a funeral march - seems to me to be the passage in the work that most strongly reflects a Mahlerian influence. It’s all delivered with great intensity by the Bostonians and nowhere more so than in the lead-up to the Allegro where the sheer weight of sound produced by the double basses is truly arresting. The start of the Allegro has great urgency; the BSO are formidable, both in terms of tonal weight and precision. The more subdued section (3:50 – 5:40), which is a weird waltz, is deliciously pointed by strings and woodwind. In the extended sardonic passage that follows special plaudits are due to the solo bassoonist and trombonist though, in truth, all the woodwind are superb in this section. Presaged by dreadfully ominous percussion, the colossal climax arrives at 13:32. The entire performance has been intense but, believe me, nothing can prepare you for the power with which this extended climax, surely one of the most doom-laden that the composer ever penned, is thrust home. The strength and might of the BSO’s playing is simply staggering. (The Kondrashin climax is pretty elemental but it doesn’t match the tonal depth of the BSO’s playing.) Then, from 15:40, the long, drained and exhausted closing section is controlled in a masterly fashion by Nelsons. It’s essential that tension is maintained if this close is to achieve its effect and never does the tension flag for a moment. It’s worth noting that Nelsons takes some seven minutes to play this passage. By contrast, Kondrashin takes just under five minutes. Furthermore, his performance isn’t as shadowy as Nelsons’ account, though that may be due, at least in part, to the quality of the respective recordings. I hope there was a stunned silence in Symphony Hall, Boston at the end of the concerts from which this live recording was taken; the performance that we hear on this disc demands nothing less.

I’ve heard some fine recordings of the Fourth over the years. The pioneering Kondrashin has a visceral rawness (I mean that as a compliment) which marks it out and, of course, Kondrashin, as its first conductor, had unique authority in this score. Mark Wigglesworth’s BIS recording is a fine one (review). One that could easily slip under the radar, but shouldn’t, is the live recording conducted by Daniel Raisken. I bought that on the strength of Dan Morgan’s review and found that his praise for it was justified. However, I think that this Nelsons performance, superbly played and recorded, is in a class of its own.

The Eleventh is a very different proposition. For one thing, the musical language is rather less challenging than anything we hear in the Fourth. Furthermore, there’s a case to be made that this is ‘programme music’. That’s true in the sense that Shostakovich here depicts – and comments on – an historic event. He doesn’t indulge in true symphonic development in this score; rather, he uses a number of Soviet revolutionary songs and subjects them to variation in order to illustrate the events he is describing.

The symphony was long misunderstood. Commissioned, I believe, by the Soviet authorities to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the failed Revolution of 1905, the symphony took quite some time to compose and it was not completed until 1957. By then an important event had taken place: the abortive Hungarian uprising of 1956, suppressed with the help of the Red Army. Many people have come to believe that in the Eleventh Symphony Shostakovich was commenting on that event at least as much as on the 1905 Revolution. If you read Mark Wigglesworth’s essay accompanying his recording of the symphony you’ll find that view very persuasively argued.

The event depicted in the Eleventh Symphony can be briefly summarised as follows. On Sunday 9 January, 1905 a large crowd of ordinary Russians gathered in front of the Tsar’s Winter Palace in St Petersburg. They had been enduring terrible economic conditions for some time and wanted to present their grievances peacefully to Tsar Nicholas II. However, the Tsar was not there and, in his absence, troops guarding the palace opened fire on the citizens, killing many. Among those present that day was Shostakovich’s father, who survived the massacre. So, irrespective of the Hungarian uprising, Shostakovich had a very personal connection with the events of 1905.

The first movement, ‘The Palace Square’, which here plays for 17:15, is quite extraordinary in the sense of how little seems to happen. Over long, quiet string chords, muted trumpets and flutes intone themes drawn from revolutionary songs. Here, the strings and harps sound glacial and the performance conjures up a palpable sense of brooding apprehension, the quiet timpani full of foreboding. You can almost visualise the frozen scene, aptly described in the booklet as ‘a haunting evocation of autocracy, cold, and the austere expanse of stone around the Winter Palace.’ Detractors might well say that over the ensuing minutes nothing much happens but surely that’s the point: we are waiting for something to happen – and the music already tells us that what will happen isn’t going to be good. In fact, it’s only at about 8:30 into this performance that we hear a loud dynamic. The music becomes more impassioned – and even more pregnant with tension before reverting back to the hushed chill and the spare scoring of the opening.

The four movements play without a break so we are now plunged into ‘The Ninth of January’. The pace picks up and so, soon, does the level of dynamics: the forces of repression are in sight and the full force of the BSO is unleashed for the first time. You can hear palpable panic. At 11:18 the side drum heralds a fast passage for the strings, here played at a terrific pace and with great precision: is this a depiction of people running in panic? That’s graphic enough but the music that follows dwarfs it. At 13:20 the gunfire is depicted and here the BSO percussion makes a stupendous contribution. Most notable of all is the sound of the bass drum. Some listeners might think that the bass drum is over-prominent, but I don’t; the sound is cataclysmic. Wigglesworth on BIS is pretty potent here also but even with the benefits of that label’s engineering he can’t match this. The sheer volume of sound that’s produced, frightening in its intensity, means that when Shostakovich suddenly cuts off the tumult, replacing it with numbingly chill music, the effect is all the sharper on this occasion. Nelsons conjures up a desolate prospect; we can all too readily imagine the sight of the blood-soaked square, empty save for bodies, dead and half-dead, strewn across the snow-covered terrain.

The third movement., ‘In memoriam’ is a deeply felt elegy. Over an irregular pizzicato from the double basses the violas play the song ‘You fell as heroes’. The restraint and quiet dignity with which this is voiced stands in stark contrast to the musical carnage we have just experienced. At 5:05 low brass and woodwind introduce new material and the sonorous sound of the BSO is admirable at this point. Shostakovich builds this material to a climax, underpinned by pounding drums, (8:20-9:28) which is at once both noble and defiant. Eventually (11:04) we hear again the subdued viola lament, drawing the movement to a close.

In his notes Harlow Robinson describes the last movement, ‘The Tocsin’, as ‘the celebratory, rousing finale’. Respectfully, I think this is way off the mark and, furthermore, it’s a description that sits very oddly with the performance that Nelsons leads. It’s true that this movement contains rather more extrovert music than we’ve previously heard, but the idea that this is in any way celebratory strikes me as superficial indeed. There’s considerable darkness in much of the music and even at the end there’s a real and ambiguous tension between major and minor. Andris Nelsons leads a performance that is gritty and determined – and superbly played. For me, there’s a genuine sense of struggle in the towering climax from about 7:00 before an abrupt return (8:14) to the music of the symphony’s very opening. This leads directly to what is arguably the key point of the entire symphony: the long lament for cor anglais. The Boston player, Robert Sheena, is outstandingly eloquent here, especially when the melody moves up an octave, and it’s evident that his expressiveness is matched on the podium. Mind you, Mark Wigglesworth also has a wonderful cor anglais player at his disposal and I wonder if his soloist isn’t even more nuanced and expressive, though margins are fine. Who is Shostakovich lamenting here? Is it the Russian dead of 1905 or the Hungarian dead of 1956? Or both? Whoever he is mourning, he clearly feels their suffering at the hands of tyranny very deeply. At 11:40 that Boston bass drum is in evidence again as the tempo and volume picks up once more and as far as I’m concerned, the dull thumping percussion and the shrieking woodwinds only underline that this is no celebratory finish. Nelsons drives the symphony to its darkly ambiguous conclusion, rounding off a magnificent account of this vastly underrated score.

You may wonder why I’ve not mentioned the 1973 recording by Kirill Kondrashin when I rated his Fourth so highly. Sadly, his version has to be ruled out of court on a couple of counts. For one thing, his recording is definitely showing its age. More seriously, though, he seems disinclined to give the first movement the space it needs. He gets through it in just 12:32 whereas Nelsons takes 17:15 and Wigglesworth 16:23. I’m in no doubt that the more expansive approach of these younger conductors conveys the tension in the music and, thereby, its stature. I admire the Wigglesworth recording greatly but I think Nelsons shades it. For one thing he’s readier to take risks – for example in the headlong passage for strings midway through the second movement. Wigglesworth’s slightly steadier approach to this passage allows his strings to sound even weightier than the Bostonians – and there’s much to be said for that – but I think Nelsons conveys even more graphically the fear at that point in the drama. At the start of the third movement, unless you crank the volume right up Wigglesworth’s performance verges on the inaudible, at least until the violas enter; DG’s sound is much more satisfactory. So, whilst I shan’t for one moment consign the excellent Wigglesworth performance to the dark recesses of my CD shelves Nelsons wins the palm as far as I’m concerned. I should add that I have not heard the recordings by Semyon Bychkov (with the Berlin Philharmonic) or Yakov Kreizberg (with the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR). The former was recently the library choice on BBC Radio 3’s Record Review. Dan Morgan, a shrewd judge where Shostakovich recordings are concerned, was recently very complimentary about both versions (review). All I can say is that both will have to be very special indeed to eclipse this superb Nelsons performance.

In both symphonies I can vouch for the excellence of DG’s recordings, engineered by Shawn Murphy and Nick Squire. The recorded sound allows the superlative playing of the Boston Symphony to make its maximum effect.

The BSO was said by some to have slipped somewhat in standards before Andris Nelsons arrived. On the evidence of this pair of performances the orchestra is back to its best. They will be playing the Fourth Symphony at the 2018 Proms on Monday September 3, a concert which will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.

The next instalment of this DG cycle will feature the Sixth Symphony and the ‘Leningrad’. Bring it on! In the meantime, this exceptionally fine pairing is certain to feature on my shortlist for Recordings of the Year.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month)


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