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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No.10 in E minor Op.93 [47.44]
Prague Symphony Orchestra / Václav Smetáček
rec. live Royal Festival Hall, London, 6 March 1968

The Tenth is Shostakovich's most popular symphony after the Fifth, so any new disc is of interest. This one is particularly interesting because it is live from a 1968 performance at the Royal Festival Hall. It was performed as part of a concert by the Prague Symphony Orchestra conducted by the great Václav Smetáček, a close contemporary of the composer and whose reputation has long stood high in the pantheon of Czech conductors. This was twelve years after his compatriot Karel Ancerl made the first great recording of the Tenth with the Czech Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon in 1956. Despite being in mono this still stands as one of the finest ever, even when measured again the now-classic Karajan recording. The recorded catalogue is now very large indeed and it is fair enough to ask whether this clear but historic recording needs adding to the other performances one already owns.

As I have said before, live recordings of touring orchestras have an edge because they often capture the performers giving of their best. The Prague Symphony may never have had the reputation of the Czech Philharmonic but they have a long recording history, especially under Smetáček, and the cheers of the audience at the end of this tense and exciting performance speak volumes as to their quality. It might also speak volumes as to the event itself. A Czechoslovak orchestra performing a great Soviet symphony just weeks into the so-called Prague Spring. This is just a few weeks after it all started in early January 1968, when reformist Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and a few months before the invasion that ended this brief Spring in August 1968. Shostakovich's Tenth is renowned as portraying the dark side of Joseph Stalin and is still in so many ways seen as a statement of personal integrity against repression, containing as it does the most blatant statements of the famous DSCH motif. The Festival Hall audience would have had much of this in mind, as would the musicians. Possibly that is also why this recording should be heard, as a small reminder of the tensions of the time.

The orchestra play well, the recording, though obviously not as smooth as one prepared in the studio, is perfectly acceptable. The brass and strings have a penetrating sound that suits this work. The audience is only slightly bronchitic and that is minimised by the twin microphone placement being much closer to the orchestra than the audience. The notes are useful and the linked website provides lots of interesting technical information explaining why this sounds as good as it does. The disc is not as full as it might be but the work is important enough to stand alone and that should not put off purchasers.

Dave Billinge

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf



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