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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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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
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from Presto
Pdf booklet included
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 483 5220 [2 CDs: 127:04]

This, the third tranche of a DG/BSO collaboration entitled Under Stalin’s Shadow, has been long promised and most eagerly awaited. I’ve already welcomed the first instalment, which couples the Tenth Symphony and the Passacaglia from Shostakovich’s ill-starred opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. As for the second, comprising the Fifth, Eighth, Ninth and the Hamlet suite, it may be a tad uneven – No. 9 especially – but in mitigation Nelsons gives the most moving account of the No. 5 finale that I’ve ever heard. The Boston Symphony, recorded live, are at their considerable best in both releases; the engineering is top-notch, too.

Nelsons, who became music director of the BSO in 2015, is no stranger to this repertoire. Before taking up that post, he recorded an electrifying Eighth with the Concertgebouw; alas, his Birmingham Seventh is crudely played and recorded. As always in these symphonies, the competition is fierce. I’ve found No. 4, at once subversive and strangely spectral, a particularly difficult work to calibrate properly. Among the finest versions I know are those of Kirill Kondrashin in Moscow and Dresden (Melodiya/Aulos and Profil respectively), Mark Wigglesworth (BIS), Dmitri Kitaienko (Capriccio), and, a real surprise, the relatively unknown Daniel Raiskin (C-Avi). Fearsomely febrile – not the whole story, of course – the latter is still mandatory listening; indeed, it was one of my top picks for 2011.

As with the programmatic Leningrad (No. 7), The Year 1905 is, I feel, unfairly maligned. True, in some cases both works can seem rough and bombastic – Nelsons’ grim Seventh springs to mind – but these days I sense a much-needed re-evaluation of these Cinderella symphonies. For a ‘paradigm-shifting’ view of the Leningrad, I urge you to hear Paavo Järvi’s performance with the Russian National Orchestra (Pentatone). That was one of my Recordings of the Year in 2015. Wigglesworth’s account of No. 11, also well played and recorded, is similarly revealing (BIS). Oh, and there’s more: I’ve recently discovered two more essential versions, from Semyon Bychkov in Berlin (Deutsche Grammophon) and Mstislav Rostropovich in Washington (EMI-Warner). The latter was my comparative version when assessing Slava’s London remake (LSO Live).

But first, the Fourth. Completed in 1936, but only premiered in 1961 because Shostakovich fell out of favour with the Party, it’s a fertile seedbed for all that was yet to come. I must admit my heart sank when I heard the huge bass drum at the start of Nelsons’ Allegro poco moderato, although any misgivings were quickly dispelled by the astonishing power and authority of what follows. Having recently had the misfortune of auditioning Mikhail Pletnev’s new RNO recording for Pentatone – it’s both facile and flaccid – I was only too pleased to be pulled into this taut, dynamic and persuasively paced Boston performance.

From the outset, the BSO play with immense precision and character, the recording detailed, spacious and so very present. Unlike Raiskin, Nelsons reveals a raft of colour and incident in this arresting opener; more important, he strikes a much better musical and emotional balance, tempering excitement with insight. He doesn’t pull his punches, though, building to bold, excoriating climaxes with a sense of drama – of theatre, even – that few rivals can match. But it’s the reflective passages – the soft, silken strings unspooling most beautifully, the brass and winds so haunting – that make this such a memorable reading. The tonal sophistication of this recording, engineered by Nick Squire, certainly adds to the sense of a live occasion, the soundstage as wide and as deep as one could wish.

What really distinguishes Nelsons’ Fourth is its expressive range, from broad, incisive gestures to piquant, ear-pricking details, such as that barrel-organ-like passage about thirteen minutes in. And what a virtuoso band, every section responding to the conductor’s meticulous demands with alacrity and a sure sense of idiom. As for those rabbit-punching drums in the Moderato con moto, they will knock you flat (as, indeed, they should). Goodness, how expertly Nelsons prepares for these big moments, and how glorious the BSO sound in their untrammelled splendour. He really cranks up the tension, while the engineers ensure that all those seat-pinning outbursts are encompassed with nary a hint of strain.

Then again, this is an admirably proportionate performance, its public moments perfectly offset by its very private ones, especially in the symphony’s strange, even surreal, sections. At times it’s like the accompaniment to an Expressionist silent – Caligari, perhaps – with stark, canted sets and grotesque characters (cue some spooky strokes on the tam-tam). I simply can’t recall hearing these flickering ‘scenes’ so imaginatively done. And it just gets better, the rhythms and dynamics of the Largo - Allegro handled with such precision and pliancy. How crisp and colourful it all sounds, the lower strings made to sing more eloquently than most.

Adding to his many talents, Nelsons is at pains to amplify the score’s Stravinskian echoes, Petrushka in particular, not to mention Mahler in those dancing tunes. With so much going on here, one might worry that the performance is in danger of being diverted. Fear not, for this conductor’s grip and vision are never compromised, as that final, crushing climax and enigmatic coda – the celesta beautifully caught – so amply demonstrates. For me, though, the music’s elliptical charm – its defiant otherness – lingers long after the rumbling storm has passed. In that respect, this really is a complete performance, as thorough and thoughtful as any I know. There’s no applause, although a few more seconds of ambient noise before the fade would not have gone amiss.

As its subtitle suggests, the Eleventh, for which Shostakovich was awarded a Lenin prize, is based on the abortive 1905 Revolution that included a massacre outside the Tsar’s Winter Palace. That pivotal event appears to toe the Party line, and that’s why some regard the piece with such disdain. Yes, it would be idle to pretend this is one of the composer’s greatest symphonies, but then I’ve heard enough performances to convince me there’s music of real strength and substance behind the (programme) notes. Indeed, I’d even go so far as to say the same is true of the Second, To October, an apparent prole-pleaser best heard from Mark Wigglesworth (BIS) and Sir Mark Elder, the latter on a cover-mounted CD from BBC Music magazine (also available to buy online). Both conductors find far more of interest in that tub-thumper than most others could be bothered to look for.

The first movement of No. 11, The Palace Square, is a brooding adagio that’s so clearly pictorial. That said, the writing is immensely assured – surprisingly subtle, too – and that’s rarely a feature of strident propaganda pieces. As ever, Nelsons builds tension very well, the quotes from Revolutionary songs and the composer’s filmic flourishes nicely judged. As with Rostropovich in Washington, but emphatically not in London, Nelsons is relatively ‘straight’ here, and that’s no bad thing in a score that can so easily be otiose and/or overdriven (pace Bychkov’s dismal West German Radio remake for Avie). Of all the Elevenths I know, this newcomer is one of the most musical; it’s also the best recorded, with plenty of fine detail, authentically martial timps, and immaculate – but still earthy – brass playing.

Nelsons’ account of the second movement, The 9th of January, is no less compelling, that precipitous air of impending action conveyed with consummate skill (and good taste). Even the battle, cymbals flaring, that Big Bertha of a bass drum thudding away, has an exemplary focus that illuminates the score just as much as it advances the narrative. Have those plucked basses in the third movement, In memoriam, ever sounded so alone, the upper strings so heart-piercing? Crucially, Nelsons, judicious as ever, doesn’t overplay his hand here – or anywhere else, for that matter. As for the poise and unanimity of this great orchestra, it’s a constant source of wonder; then again, this exceptionally vivid, naturally balanced recording does them full justice.

Indeed, this confluence of talents has produced as powerful and persuasive a reading of this symphony as I’ve ever encountered. Not only that, Nelsons confirms his credentials as a great Shostakovich conductor, fully deserving of a place alongside Kondrashin, Mravinsky, Rostropovich, Barshai, Wigglesworth and Kurt Sanderling. It’s all about passion and good judgment, and Nelsons’ crisp, unexaggerated finale – the very antithesis of Slava’s overblown LSO version – is a perfect example of his clear-eyed, yet remarkably expressive approach. And how naturally the closing pages sound and feel, the bells not allowed to linger at the end. No hollow triumphalism here, just first-class musicianship and an unassailable, unwavering sense of purpose. But, above all, Nelsons confirms – with quiet, unassuming pleasure – the intrinsic quality of this remarkable score. And that, surely, is the greatest gift of all.

Performances of great strength and stature, peerlessly played and recorded; the pinnacle of Nelsons’ cycle thus far.

Dan Morgan




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