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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1799/1800) [26.39]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10 (1924/25) [33.41]
Dresdner Philharmonie / Michael Sanderling
rec. 2017, Lukaskirche, Dresden
SONY CLASSICAL 88985492782 [60.27]

As part of its ongoing cycle of the complete symphonies of Beethoven and Shostakovich for Sony the Dresdner Philharmonie under chief conductor Michael Sanderling recently released volume 4 consisting of the fifth symphonies (review).

Now I’m glad to have received for review the previously issued volume three of the cycle containing performances of the first symphonies which are certainly worthy of acclaim and maintain the excellence of this ongoing cycle. I have also reviewed the first two volumes (review ~ review) in the series.

In the composer’s respective circles, the premičres of the first symphonies of both Beethoven and Shostakovich were eagerly awaited. Who could have known that these talented composers, one who had lived over half his life and the other who was just nineteen, would go on to produce arguably the greatest symphonic cycles in music history. These are not just mere firstlings to be sidestepped but gloriously bold and often petulant works that embrace the creative powers of these composers.

Beethoven’s epic cycle of nine symphonies is revered as one of the greatest legacies to music culture with each symphony inhabiting its own individual world. Daniel Barenboim explained “It’s one of the greatest adventures in music that we play the same pieces again and again – and that, despite their constant repetition, they sound different every time”. I have a number of complete Beethoven cycles of the symphonies and also hear individual symphonies in concert performance and remain astonished at the number of new things there are to hear.

Here the Dresdner Philharmonie players under Michael Sanderling get off to a flying start with the often overlooked Symphony No. 1, the shortest in length of Beethoven’s cycle. Completed in 1800 the score bears a dedication to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, Beethoven’s early patron. The symphony was premičred in 1800 at the Burgtheater, Vienna and it’s thought that the composer himself may have conducted. Something immediately noticeable here is the unstinting freshness and liveliness, with an uncommonly achieved unity from the Dresdner players with Sanderling’s judicious tempo selection. In the brisk and spirited opening Allegro Sanderling establishes an exhilarating mood, contrasting with the ingrained warm, rustic character of the graciously played Andante. The level of unbridled joy produced in the uplifting Menuetto is infectious. In the Finale, the serious mood of the short opening Adagio is confidently swept away by the vigour and buoyancy of the upbeat Allegro. Sanderling’s impressive account of the Beethoven bears favourable comparison with those recordings that I play most frequently albeit without displacing them. Foremost, is the captivating live 2015 account at Philharmonie, Berlin from Sir Simon Rattle with Berliner Philharmoniker, part of a complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies on the orchestra’s own label. Also praiseworthy is the glowing and powerful 1961 studio account from Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Herbert von Karajan on Deutsche Grammophon.

Shostakovich, a pupil at Petrograd Conservatory (now St. Petersburg Conservatory), studied composition under Rimsky-Korsakov’s son-in-law Maximilian Steinberg. Commenced as early as 1923 Shostakovich completed his Symphony No. 1 in 1925 whilst working for much needed family income as a cinema pianist. Submitted as his graduation piece the symphony was premičred auspiciously in 1926 by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Nikolay Malko. At the Petrograd Conservatoire Shostakovich had a generous number of influences, in particular Tchaikovsky whose music he revered while Petrograd conservatoire director Glazunov (who had also been a student prodigy) would also have been a substantial influence. Certainly, Shostakovich would have known his older contemporary Prokofiev, whose Symphony No. 1Classical’ was premičred in 1918 at Petrograd. Shostakovich had become captivated with the music of Stravinsky, which he came to quite late, especially the ballet Petrushka that had been premičred in 1911. Shostakovich biographer Ian Macdonald declares that “the First Symphony is an excited spin-off from Stravinsky’s Petrushka, a score of mesmerizing originality”.

Like Petrushka it has been suggested that in his symphony Shostakovich also uses the madcap antics of a puppet. The Petrushka inspiration is marked in the opening movement with playing which in many ways adopts the character of a children’s toyshop and possibly a circus with its sardonic irreverence, abrupt and unexpected climaxes. Sanderling is certainly not afraid to produce wide dynamics which I’m pleased have not been smoothed out in the studio. In Sanderling’s hands the short and boisterous Scherzo feels like a reckless rollercoaster tide with more unpredictable events leading to an exhilarating climax. The notably extended piano part is possibly a reflection of the composer’s cinema playing duties. The influence of Tchaikovsky is palpable in the intense writing of the Lento, which under Sanderling evokes a dense mist of tragedy and despair. The Dresdner players revel in the Finale’s contrasts from the lachrymose soliloquy of the cello solo to the raw energy of the martial-like climaxes. In the Shostakovich symphony Michael Sanderling and his Dresden players are in impressive form with a searing performance of the same elevated level as my two preferred and firmly established recordings. Firstly from Rudolf Barshai with WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln from 1994 at Philharmonie, Cologne on Brilliant Classics and also Michael Sanderling’s father Kurt Sanderling, conducting Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester in 1983 at Christuskirche Berlin on Berlin Classics.

The Dresdner Philharmonie was recorded under studio conditions in the Lukaskirche, Dresden just before the orchestra’s new home, the refurbished Kulturpalast, opened its doors. It’s rare to hear such clarity of detail in the winds; a quality which testifies to the excellence of the sound engineers. The recording has realistic presence and is well balanced too. In the booklet Michael Sanderling has provided a helpful note titled ‘Two Firsts’ and there is also an informative essay ‘New Times, New Symphonies’ by Wolfgang Stahr.

This is a thrilling series and the performances of these first symphonies of Beethoven and Shostakovich make an exhilarating listening experience.

Michael Cookson



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