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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103 ‘The Year 1905’ (1957)
London Symphony Orchestra/Mstislav Rostropovich
rec. live, 21-22 March 2002, Barbican, London
Reviewed as a stereo DSD64 download from NativeDSD (also available in multi-channel).
Pdf booklet included
LSO LIVE LSO0535 SACD [72:24]

No, this isn’t a new release, but it is the first time the album has been available as a DSD download. Also, it’s a recording of the Eleventh that I’ve managed to overlook. Reading the enthusiastic reviews by Marc Bridle and Michael Cookson – which date back to 2002 – makes that omission even harder to explain, especially as this is a symphony that I hold in high regard. And following a recent Building a Library feature on BBC Radio 3, I caught up with another two versions that I’d missed: Semyon Bychkov’s 1987 account with the Berliner Philharmoniker, and his brother Yakov Kreizberg’s 1997 one with the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR, which I reviewed in tandem. Both are well worth hearing, but only one is a must have.

I’ve also heard or reviewed other memorable versions, not least those of Vladimir Ashkenazy and the St Petersburg Philharmonic (Decca), Dmitri Kitaienko and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln (Capriccio), and Mark Wigglesworth with the Netherlands Radio PO (BIS). The latter, which I described as ‘deeply satisfying’, is still my go-to recording of the piece. I reviewed the SACD, but the 24/44.1 eClassical download sounds just as spectacular. And in the wake of Paavo Järvi and the Russian National Orchestra’s ‘paradigm-shifting performance’ of that other Cinderella symphony, No. 7, I’d very much to hear their take on No. 11 (Pentatone). Again, I reviewed the SACD; the DSDS64 download is available from NativeDSD.

But, as the Ts & Cs always remind us, there are others out there. Shostakovich fans will surely know Kirill Kondrashin’s Moscow Phil account, part of a Melodiya box or a superbly remastered set from Aulos. I have the latter, which, given its limited release, is now very hard to find; for some reason, the Melodiya reissue – the one with the wire-rimmed spectacles on the cover art – isn’t readily available either. Among the recordings I can’t recommend are: Roman Kofman and the Beethoven Orchester Bonn (MDG), Bychkov’s 2001 remake with the West German Radio Symphony (Avie), and Vasily Petrenko’s, with the RLPO (Naxos).

Like No. 7 (‘Leningrad’) and No. 12 (‘1917’) No. 11 (‘The Year 1905’) has a direct appeal that’s been labelled it as crudely filmic and/or nakedly populist. True, No. 11, which ‘depicts’ a massacre outside the Winter Palace in 1905, invites such tags; not before time, conductors are now finding that behind the programme lurks a score of immense vitality and interest. In my review of the Kitaienko version, I suggested he and Wigglesworth have done much to rehabilitate this symphony. Ironically, it was almost certainly the revolutionary theme, rather than the work’s musical merits, that earned the composer a Lenin Prize in 1958.

Rostropovich, like Kondrashin, Evgeny Mravinsky, Rudolf Barshai and Kurt Sanderling before him, knew and worked with Shostakovich, and that gives him special authority where this music is concerned. Take his extraordinary EMI-Warner recording of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which is now a classic. He’s also recorded all the symphonies, mostly with the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington DC. Naturally, I’ve chosen the Eleventh from that box, recorded in 1992, as my comparison here. You can find the single Elatus disc online for around £18, but why bother when the 12-CD set is offered at less than £30? (Incidentally, at the time of writing, I couldn’t find lossless downloads of either the single CD or the complete set.)

I started with the Washington performance. The first movement, ‘The Palace Square’, is cleanly played and recorded, but it lacks the growing tension that, say, Bychkov and the BP find here. Still, there’s plenty of telling detail, and things do tighten up in ’The 9th of January’. I sense that Rostropovich is striving for a more symphonic approach, as opposed to a strictly descriptive one. I’m all in favour – as is Wigglesworth – but some may feel that blunts the score’s dramatic edge a little. That said, the battle scene is mighty impressive – the timps, bass drum and tam-tam especially well caught – and the stunned aftermath is as gaunt as it gets.

Forget those minor caveats, for this performance grows in stature as it unfolds. I was particularly struck by the committed, highly focused playing of this American orchestra, those dark pizzicati wonderfully expressive. Indeed, it’s in such passages that Rostropovich is most intense and profound. ‘In memoriam’ is superbly paced and articulated – what a fine recording this is, too – and how well Rostropovich reprises those spectral tunes. As for the finale (‘Tocsin’) it has all the clarity and dramatic edge – the sheer physicality – that the music demands. The closing pages are thrilling, and, as sometimes happens, the bells linger after the music has died away.

Rostropovich’s London Eleventh, recorded a decade later, has much in common with his Washington one. The timps in ‘The Palace Square’ are just as measured, the frigid landscape just as brooding. As expected, the dynamic range is wider, but balances and the difficult Barbican acoustic conspire to create a rather close, airless sound. That said, the multi-channel mix might help to ‘open out’ the soundstage. Of course, this is a live performance, and that generates an electricity all of its own. Alas, that counts for very little when compared with the freshness and focus of the earlier reading; in short, I much prefer Rostropovich’s earlier approach to this atmospheric opener.

As both performances demonstrate, a broader, more deliberate approach may not seem ideal in the first movement, but it can work. Again, the second movement is taut, the strings especially well caught. The slow-burning build-up is also well managed, but the presentation is a problem; for example, the jumbo-sized bass drum is both unconvincing and unnecessary. Moreover, that slow pan across the field of battle exudes little of the marrow-piercing chill that makes the Washington account so effective (and affecting).

‘In memoriam’ isn’t quite as intense either; also, the lower strings are too far forward here, as is the all-important side drum in ‘Tocsin’. And although the finale is reasonably exciting, I find it strangely synthetic, the overall effect just too impulsive for my taste. What a stark contrast between this and the sensibly proportioned and intuitively paced Washington finale.

Time to look at the ledger. Had I listened to the LSO Live recording in isolation, I might have been more forgiving of its foibles. However, heard in such close proximity to Bychkov and his Berliners – not to mention Rostropovich and his Washingtonians – those shortcomings loom large. Bottom line? The Warner release outclasses the LSO Live one in every respect. Indeed, I’m so impressed I’ve now ordered that box; even allowing for a couple of duds – assuming there are any – that strikes me a terrific bargain. I shall report my findings in due course.

Uncompetitive; the notorious Barbican acoustic doesn’t help.

Dan Morgan

[The CD version of this recording is due for release on budget-price Alto ALC1366 in February 2018.]



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