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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op 54 [33:14]
Suite from the Incidental Music to King Lear, Op 58a [14:09]
Festival Overture, Op 96 [6:15]
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op 60 ‘Leningrad’ [78:24]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. live, February 2017 (7); April-May 2017 (6, Overture); May 2017 (Lear)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 483 6728 [53:38 + 78:24]

This is the fourth instalment of what I hope is to be a complete cycle of Shostakovich symphonies from Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. With this release they pass the half-way point. Only the first three symphonies and numbers 12-15 remain unrecorded.

Most of the Shostakovich symphonies are new to the Nelsons discography but the Seventh is one of the few that he has previously set down. Orfeo issued a live 2011 performance given when he was still Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. That release received a mixed reception in these pages from Simon Thompson and Dan Morgan. I also had reservations, not least about the recorded sound (review). I deliberately refrained from making any comparisons until I’d listened to the Boston performance a couple of times but even then, relying on memory, I was pretty sure that this newcomer would supersede its predecessor and once I began comparative listening, I was sure.

I was disconcerted by the briskness with which Nelsons opened his Birmingham performance. Six years later, in Boston, I’m pleased to find that while the strong sense of purpose is undiminished the pace is less frenetic and that’s hugely to the music’s benefit. When the slower, lyrical theme is reached (2:07) this is tenderly voiced by the Boston violins and subsequently by the woodwind, led by the plaintive oboe. Nelsons is broad here but I don’t find the tension sags. The infamous ‘Invasion’ theme (from 6:55) is judiciously paced and Nelsons builds the section impressively and excitingly. At the key change (15:32) the tone of the performance becomes more brazen – rightly – with everything driven along by that incessant side drum. The passage that follows is a real tumult – with the BSO percussionists, superbly recorded, having a field day - until the colossal climax arrives (17:26). This is delivered with the full weight of the Boston Symphony. In Birmingham the climax arrives nearly a minute earlier and I’m afraid it’s too in-your-face, as recorded. The Boston recording has terrific punch but the sound has rather more distance on it so that the listener feels that some of the climax is being absorbed, quite naturally, in the space of Symphony Hall. The long bassoon threnody that follows once the tumult has subsided (from 21:09) is delivered with fine feeling. Nelsons and his orchestra manage the quiee conclusion to the movement very successfully.

There’s not much of a gap – 6 seconds – before the second movement begins; a longer pause would have been preferable. The music is innocent at first and the Bostonians play it with real refinement. The CBSO plays the opening pages very well too but the more immediate recording vitiates somewhat the delicacy of their playing. When the tempo speeds up (at 4:45 in Birmingham) the E flat clarinet is strident and piercing. No doubt that’s exactly what Shostakovich had in mind but the Orfeo engineers exaggerate the point. Things are better managed in Boston (5:08): the woodwinds are just as raucous but we hear a better integrated sound. The Bostonians offer plenty of pungency and the rhythmic profile is very strong. When the gentler music of the opening returns (7:30) the Boston performance exudes nostalgia – Shostakovich’s folk memory of happier times? – and the BSO’s bass clarinettist, Craig Nordstrom, makes the most of his moment in the sun; what a lovely sound he produces during his extended solo.

I first heard the slow movement in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio a few weeks ago. In this movement, the Bostonians are magnificent, both corporately and in individual solo work, and I find the flutes and bassoons are particularly distinguished. Nelsons sustains the tension expertly. At 9:09 there’s an abrupt change of gear and the pulse quickens significantly. Nelsons delivers this passage with plenty of thrust and the episode is built to a potent climax. When the music from the start of the movement is revisited the Boston strings make it clearer than ever that this movement is an elegy, though the long viola melody (from 14:09) is calmer and more redemptive. In these last few minutes of the movement the BSO strings dig really deep and the results are most impressive. At the very end of the movement, as it segues seamlessly into the finale, tam-tam and bass drum combine with three soft, deep pulses. The effect is superbly caught in the Boston recording, creating a genuine fission. Ironically, in view of the closer focus of the Orfeo recording, the moment isn’t quite as spine-tingling in the Birmingham performance.

In the finale Nelsons is broader overall than he was in Birmingham – and the effect is beneficial. As the movement begins in Boston there’s terrific suppressed tension; one has the sense that the music is like a coiled spring. Once the main allegro arrives Nelsons and his orchestra invest the music with great energy and incisiveness. Midway through the movement (6:19 – 10:04 in Boston) there’s a passage that’s well described in the notes as a “reflective Sarabande”. The Boston performance is suitably weighty at first and then, when the mood becomes more subdued, the tension is still maintained. In Birmingham Nelsons was too forceful – and marginally quicker – at the start of this passage: I’m sure his treatment of it in Boston is better. At the end of this episode the long build-up to the symphony’s conclusion begins. Nelsons controls this lengthy passage expertly and from about 15:30 he achieves genuine grandeur – the Boston brass section is magnificently sonorous hereabouts. The symphony ends with an apotheosis of the theme with which the work began nearly 80 minutes earlier. On the surface it sounds like a triumph but both Shostakovich and Nelsons ensure that we’re aware that the triumph has been hard won.

This Boston traversal is a tremendous performance of the ‘Leningrad’, one of the best I’ve heard. Nelsons’ interpretation of it has deepened and matured since 2011 and I much prefer his latest thoughts on the work. In 2011 the CBSO played extremely well for him but it has to be said that the Boston Symphony are even finer. And there’s no doubt in my mind that the engineering team behind this Boston recording give their Orfeo colleagues an object lesson in live recording. There’s absolutely no compromise on clarity or impact in the DG recording yet one doesn’t feel suffocated by the sound: the Orfeo recording is oppressive by comparison and it certainly does the CBSO few favours. Furthermore, the DG recording has a very impressive dynamic range so that while the climaxes are tremendous there’s ample presence, too, in the many soft passages. No, in every respect Nelsons’ new ‘Leningrad’ supersedes his previous recording.

The companion disc has as its main component the Sixth symphony. Despite its many qualities - not least the marvellously atmospheric first movement – this is a work about which I always feel a bit ambivalent. For me, it’s curiously unbalanced and the second and third movements always seem a bit of a let-down. That’s not because the music in either movement is inferior; it’s just that one feels that they ought to be followed by another substantial movement to complement the opening Largo. In his notes Harlow Robinson says that Shostakovich said of the Sixth; “Here I wanted to express feelings of springtime, joy and youth”. I’m not sure of the source of this quotation but, frankly, I find it hard to detect those feelings in the substantial first movement.

Nelsons is impressively spacious at the start and, indeed, throughout the Largo and he maintains excellent focus. His players deliver the long, brooding phrases marvellously. There’s only one climax during the movement’s nineteen-minute span and even that is fairly brief. In this performance it’s projected strongly (6:58 – 7:47). The plaintive cor anglais threnody that follows is played with great expression. At around 11:40 an extremely soft string passage is an ideal illustration of the exemplary dynamic range both of the BSO and of the recording. That ushers in a long, very sparsely scored passage (to 15:11). The effect is glacial and the control of the players is something special. Played with terrific focus and discipline, this is a gripping traversal of the movement.

In the Allegro movement that follows the composer’s ironic humour is well brought out and the playing has terrific agility. The delivery of the music is acutely pointed and the rhythms are razor sharp. Then the cheeky Presto finale receives an extrovert performance, full of bite and brio. As a whole, this account of the Sixth is fully up to the exalted standards we’ve come to expect in this series.

There are two ‘fillers’. The choice of Shostakovich’s suite from his incidental music to King Lear is apposite given that the Seventh symphony is part of this set. He wrote it for a production of Shakespeare’s play by the director, Grigori Kozintsev (1905-1973) and the production opened in Leningrad only a matter of months before the German army laid siege to the city. I don’t know how much music was discarded when the suite was formed; for example the notes refer to five fanfares though only four of them are included in the suite – and then not in numerical order. There are eleven movements in all of which the first, at 4:34, is by far the longest. The individual numbers are interesting – though the pithy fanfares for trumpets, horns and side drum, are each over in less than 30 seconds. Everything is played with bite and precision here.

To conclude we hear the Festival Overture. It’s a bright and breezy piece which was composed in 1954, to a commission, to mark the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. I played in performances of this piece years ago and remember it as great fun but one would have to classify it as ‘B’-grade Shostakovich. We are told in the notes that the composer “tossed the piece off within a matter of hours”. The present performance is extrovert and exciting.

This is another significant addition to what is fast becoming a notable Shostakovich series. I read a little while ago that DG had decided to expand the series into a full cycle of the symphonies and I very much hope that this is the case. The present set is superbly played and very well conducted. The performances have been captured in terrific sound. Harlow Robinson’s notes are satisfactory

The Boston Symphony’s website carries a very interesting conversation between Harlow Robinson and Andris Nelsons. It’s a wide-ranging discussion but the music of Shostakovich and its importance in Nelsons’ upbringing are key topics.

John Quinn

MusicWeb International reviews of the Andris Nelsons Shostakovich cycle on DG
Symphonies 5, 8 & 9
Symphonies 4 & 11
Symphony 10

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