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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Symphony No. 11, Op 103 ‘The Year 1905’ (1956-57)
BBC Philharmonic/John Storgårds
rec. 2019, MediaCityUK, Salford, Manchester. DSD CHANDOS CHSA5278 SACD [66:45]
Like so much else about his music, the message behind Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony remains an enigma. Was it, as some commentators have suggested, a coded protest against the violent suppression of the uprising in Hungary in 1956? Or was it a dutiful celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution? The ambiguity is compounded because Shostakovich did not specifically commemorate the Revolution itself – that was done in his next symphony – but instead he focussed on an event that happened twelve years earlier but which almost certainly accelerated revolutionary ferment in Imperial Russia. The Eleventh not only commemorates but also graphically describes an appalling incident in January 1905 when a large cohort of workers and their families made their way to the Tsar’s Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Their intention was to petition Nicholas II to intervene so as to alleviate the dreadful economic conditions which they were experiencing. Their intentions were completely peaceful it seems – and the Tsar was not even there – but the soldiers guarding the palace panicked and forcibly dispersed the assembly, firing at them and killing or wounding many unarmed civilians. I learned from the notes accompanying Andris Nelsons’ recording of the symphony that it is believed that Shostakovich’s father was among the crowd that day. One very important feature of the score is the extent to which Shostakovich used well-known revolutionary songs as his thematic material.
The symphony has been much criticised for its alleged shortcomings. For example, there is no formal symphonic development across its four movements, which play without a break. Some have decried the work as little more than ‘film music’. The lack of conventional development can’t be denied and it is true that the music depicts the events mentioned above, but the musical depiction is of a superior kind and I find that the music has a great deal of conviction to it. Conductors seem to have warmed to it in the last couple of decades and not only is the work featuring more often, I think, in concert programmes but also there is a good choice of recordings – 26 versions by 22 different conductors are listed in our Masterworks Index and that’s just the recordings that we’ve reviewed over the years. I can think of at least one more recording – by Bernard Haitink – and there may be others besides. All of this interest is very much to be welcomed.
I don’t believe I’ve heard John Storgårds conduct the music of Shostakovich before so, as well as my admiration for the symphony, that was a good incentive to hear this new SACD. The first movement, ‘The Palace Square’ depicts in music of glacial stillness the wintry scene outside the Winter Palace as the crowds quietly assembled. In the first few pages very little seems to happen to disturb the chilly sustained string chords apart from soft motifs on the timpani. It’s a real challenge for the conductor to create and sustain tension when the musical material is so deliberately restricted. I think Storgårds does create tension and he sustains this throughout the opening minutes, though when I listened to the live recording conducted by Andris Nelsons (review) it seemed to me that there’s just as much tension, if not marginally more. Crucially, I think Nelsons characterises the music more strongly – though not excessively - through his observance of little accents and hairpin dynamics. This movement is a study in suppressed tension and requires eagle-eyed attention to dynamics; Storgårds does well. I should say that the crucial quiet timpani passages come across with excellent definition; on the Nelsons recording the notes are not quite as clear, which may be down to either the drums or the sticks that were used.
The cynic might object that nothing much happens in the first movement, though I believe that the truth is that we’re waiting for something to happen and that ‘something’ occurs in the second movement, ‘The Ninth of January’. Here, Shostakovich deals with the increased restlessness of the Imperial troops and then their brutal dispersal of the crowd. The escalating tumult comes across vividly on the Storgårds disc thanks to the incisive playing of the BBCPO and the very impressive engineering; the listener can readily hear the panic that ensues. The soldiers’ charge at the crowd is depicted by a frightening string fugue (11:58). Here, the BBC players dig in deep and they deliver striking results. Turn to Nelsons, though, and you experience something very different. He adopts a much faster tempo to hair-raising effect; the Boston Symphony players offer electrifying playing hereabouts. Mind you, Nelsons doesn’t have it all his own way: one particular detail that caught my ear in the Storgårds performance was some rasping, menacing trombone slides at 14:00, which are truly horrifying – and very effective. When the troops charge the percussion lead the way (14:51 in the Storgårds performance). The Chandos sound is potent here, the percussion thrillingly reported. The DG sound for Nelsons, though excellent, isn’t quite as confrontational as the Chandos (in this context I mean that word in a complimentary way) but his performance is stunning and he has one trump card up his sleeve: the BSO bass drum, which almost shakes the foundations at this point. Nelsons’ speed is still hell-for-leather - appreciably quicker than Storgårds – and I expect your view of their respective performances up to this point in the movement will be determined by whether you prefer weight (Storgårds) over urgency (Nelsons): both approaches have much to commend them. That said, the animal energy of Nelsons’ treatment of this passage means that when the violence cuts off abruptly and Shostakovich reverts to the icy ambience of the symphony’s beginning the contrast is even stronger with Nelsons than in Storgårds’ version. Over the next two or three minutes Shostakovich paints a scene of utter devastation, which registers all the more powerfully at the hushed dynamics he insists on. One can almost see the horror-struck scene with broken bodies and the snow stained crimson with blood. Both conductors bring off this conclusion successfully.
The third movement, ‘In Memoriam’ is a lament. The main theme is the revolutionary song, ‘You fell as a victim’ which is played by the viola section. The BBCPO musicians play with quiet, desolate dignity, their sound deliberately bleached, I suspect. The Boston violas have a richer sound and though I admire their results very much I wonder if the less full tone of the BBC players is not more appropriate. Darker, ominous material is introduced by the brass and low woodwinds (5:10 in the Storgårds performance). Nelsons is somewhat more expansive at this point, not so much in tempo as in the way he makes the music sound. Storgårds and his colleagues build this idea into an intense, extended climax (from 8:20) which benefits not only from their powerful projection but also from the strength and impact of the Chandos sound.
The finale, ‘The Tocsin’ begins with a short, abrupt call to arms which is repeated a minute or so later. Nelsons plays this motif slowly – not an effect I’ve experienced from anyone else – and I have to confess that I don’t really care for this gesture. Storgårds plays it up to tempo and uses it as the launch pad for an urgent, incisive rendition of the passage that follows. Once he’s got past that initial call to arms Nelsons is even more urgent than his rival, driving the tempo forward more swiftly. I have to admit that the first few minutes of this movement are perhaps the weakest episode in the symphony as we hear a cinematic stretch of music based on a succession of revolutionary songs and played at full tilt by the orchestra. I think that Nelsons ‘gets away’ with this through sheer energy and excitement; Storgårds is perhaps less successful in papering over the cracks. Another huge, extended climax is attained before, in a sudden abrupt gesture, Shostakovich reverts to the music and the cold, apprehensive hush with which the symphony began. This ushers in a long, desolate cor anglais threnody which the BBC Philharmonic’s player delivers with sad intensity – he or she ought to have been named. Nelsons takes this solo more broadly – a real test of the Boston player’s breath control - and the results that he obtains are very eloquent. The fast music returns in a dark swirl of low woodwind instruments and the symphony hurls towards its conclusion. But even here there’s ambiguity as major and minor keys conflict: this is no conventional Party-pleasing celebratory finish. In his perceptive notes for Chandos, David Fanning says that “the warning signals seem to be directed, allegorically and prophetically, towards the future, and the Crowd theme dominates the symphonic canvass like a swarm of vengeful bees” (my italics). The Tocsin of the title is, of course, an alarm bell and bells are brought into the score in the last few pages. On the Chandos recording Storgårds uses a set of church bells, borrowed from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. In this he is following the precedent set by Yevgeny Mravinsky in the work’s first recording (review) but, apparently, never subsequently followed on disc. The effect is interesting and at the end the bell is allowed to resonate for a good ten seconds. Nelsons uses conventional tubular bells and the bell sound is damped down at the end, as many conductors do.
There’s much to commend John Storgårds’ account of the Eleventh Symphony. He has a firm vision of the score and the splendid BBCPO executes this vision with incisive, committed playing. They’ve been vividly recorded by Chandos; the recording has great definition and impact as well as a fine dynamic range. I listened to this hybrid SACD using the stereo layer and was very impressed with what I heard. Overall, though, I think the performance led by Andris Nelsons is even more gripping and he obtains edge-of-the-seat playing from the Boston Symphony in a live recording, which is very well engineered by DG. His superb performance is coupled with the Fourth Symphony. That’s a key Shostakovich work in my opinion and the Nelsons performance is magnificent but not every collector will want it; Storgårds has the advantage of being a single-disc alternative.
I should mention also that the Chandos documentation includes an authoritative and insightful note by David Fanning, which is streets ahead of the DG notes. I wish, though, that Chandos would use a larger font in their booklets: I found it a struggle to read Mr Fanning’s essay, though it was worth the effort.