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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 (1953)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 4 March 2010 Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany
BR KLASSIK 900185 [53.48]

On BR Klassik, following a recent release of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7Leningrad’ from the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Mariss Jansons, the label now turns its attention to a live performance of Symphony No. 10. The link between Shostakovich’s music and Soviet politics is inexorable. This was highlighted in 1936 when Stalin attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Stalin’s disgust and offence at the content of the opera quickly led to the now infamous, condemnatory article titled ‘Muddle Instead of Music’ appearing in Pravda. Placed in a state of disgrace by the Soviet authorities Shostakovich was frightened for his life, the opera was condemned as formalist and banned, and the Fourth Symphony was withdrawn before its première. Severe censure occurred again in 1948 with Shostakovich and other leading composers experiencing scalding rebukes for failing to write the type of music the Party thought Soviet audiences should hear. Consequently, Shostakovich’s teaching posts were withdrawn and some works banned, including the Ninth Symphony of 1945 although it had earlier been nominated for the Stalin Prize.

The death of Stalin in 1953 was a watershed for Shostakovich and stimulated an inevitable change of fortune. His response was to present his Tenth Symphony; his first in eight years. Some commentators have said that the Tenth Symphony contains a hidden programme. In Solomon Volkov’s controversial book Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, the composer is reputed to have said that he did portray Stalin in the Tenth Symphony with the Scherzo being a depiction of the powerful dictator. However, the book’s authenticity as being Shostakovich’s actual memoirs is much disputed. According to conductor Valery Gergiev, ‘with the Tenth Symphony Shostakovich was finally speaking about Shostakovich.’ Conductor Vasily Petrenko has explained that in the 1990s a close association between Shostakovich and an Azerbaijani pupil of his, Elmira Nazirova, was revealed in the symphony. In the third movement Elmira’s name is represented by a five-note motif on the horn repeated twelve times and answered by the composer’s own personal motif DSCH. Premièred at Leningrad in December 1953 by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Yevgeny Mravinsky the Tenth Symphony is undoubtedly a pivotal work, considered by many as the greatest of Shostakovich’s fifteen symphonies. Overall, it’s a tautly designed and cohesive work, yet profoundly expressive.

The vast first movement marked Moderato, which is almost half the length of the whole work, always evokes to me a desolate, bitter landscape. I love the opening section with its curiously unconvincing sense of wellbeing, with an undertow of foreboding from the sonorous Bavaria basses. Jansons ensures the music swells with significant weight and force together with a biting degree of tension that feels so convincing. From points 12.14-12.50 a powerful martial character develops an effective sense of fear which sends a shiver down the spine. From around 15.22 to the conclusion after the events that have gone before, Jansons imbues a sense of world weariness to the writing. Short in length but highly concentrated, I believe the martial-like, brutality of the second movement Allegro (Scherzo) is likely a representation in music of the malevolence of Joseph Stalin as asserted in the book ‘Testimony’. Immediately from the opening and right to the finish, Jansons ensures a ferocity and sense of pent up aggression, which Shostakovich musicologist Robert Dearling describes as ‘a study in concentrated fury rarely equalled in music.’ Marked Allegretto the third movement, at turns alarming and contemplative, is notable for the recurrent use of Shostakovich’s renowned DSCH motif and the Elmira motif. With its number of prominent but short woodwind and horn solos the writing imbues a sense of uncertainty, as if searching for direction. From around 7.20 to 9.40 impressive is the way Jansons, whilst maintaining focus, ensures a penetrating feeling of savagery to the music. In the closing movement Andante - Allegro the writing evokes to me the fresh shoots of spring after a harsh, merciless winter. Following its calm introduction (Andante) Jansons demands a significant momentum from his players, communicating a distinct sense of expectation and rejuvenation in a rather ebullient mood. I have heard more powerfully resounding conclusions but Jansons still drives hard, providing substantial impact. Recorded live at Herkulessaal with its renowned acoustic, I have no problem with the sound quality which is notably clear and well balanced. Written by Vera Baur, the booklet essay ‘Music After Stalin’s Death’ is quite detailed and informative but it doesn’t emphasise the widely disputed authenticity of Volkov’s ‘Testimony’.

I place this compelling live account of the Tenth from Jansons up there with the finest recordings. Janson’s Bavaria players are on splendid form, displaying their qualities of character and controlled power combined with precision and unity. It is hard to fault the effectiveness of the numerous solo sections notably the woodwind and horns. Yet, if I had to choose just a single recording of the Tenth it would probably be the thrilling 1996 Cologne account with Rudolf Barshai conducting the WDR Sinfonieorchester. Barshai’s account is available as part of his complete cycle of Shostakovich’s symphonies on Brilliant Classics (11 CDs) and I noticed the single CD of the Tenth can still be found.

Michael Cookson

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