Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 (1953)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 4 March 2010, Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany
BR KLASSIK 900185 [53.48]
By the saddest of coincidences, I listened to this disc for the first time on the day it was announced that Mariss Jansons had died. He would have been 77 on 14 January 2020.
Pauline Fairclough, of Bristol University, has recently published a short biography of Shostakovich in the fascinating ‘Critical Lives’ series from Reaktion Books. A highly readable account of the composer’s life and career, it also presents a sober analysis of the various controversies that have developed around his reputation. She is very fine, in particular, when discussing his dealings with the Soviet authorities and the means he used to maintain the conditions in which he could continue to work, and even to live. The book is also useful on the subject of Shostakovich’s surprisingly complicated relationships with women. One of these, a young musician named Elmira Nazirova, is enshrined in the Tenth Symphony: the five-note horn motif from the third movement is constructed out of some of the letters of her name. (These notes, incidentally, are the same as those, also played on the horn, that open Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, a work Shostakovich said he would choose to hear if he had only one hour left to live.) Elmira’s theme is heard several times, on one occasion resolving onto a major triad, probably the symphony’s sweetest moment. At the end of the movement it appears in juxtaposition with a motif based on Shostakovich’s own name, DSCH (D, E flat, C, B in English parlance) though the two are in different keys and cannot, therefore, be conjoined. Extensive use of the DSCH motif throughout the work establishes the symphony as an important assertion of the composer’s own identity. Elmira’s presence is a further demonstration of the importance of personal circumstances in the work.
This is a live performance recorded in the orchestra’s home in Munich. The opening of the first movement immediately establishes a mood of dark foreboding, mysterious and anticipatory. The climaxes are stunning, woodwinds alternately screaming or chattering, the strings searing in their intensity. The control of the ebb and flow of tension over the near-24 minute span of this immense movement is masterly, so that the listener is already in thrall when the second movement is launched. One searches in vain for satisfactory synonyms to describe this movement and this performance of it. You could call it ferocious, but the word is inadequate to describe the brass interjections, marked sfff in the score, and delivered here in just that way. It’s a very fast performance, but speed is only part of it. Tension is delivered through the virtuosity of the playing and through control of dynamics. Much of it is loud, even very loud, but listen how Jansons and his brilliant orchestra deploy crescendo as a tool to add on layer upon layer of tension, though always at places where the composer demands it. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so overwhelmed by a performance of this extraordinary music. You need a lie-down – or a shower – once it’s done.
There has been much polemic as to whether or not this movement is a portrait of Stalin. Pauline Fairclough tells us that many documents are still sleeping in Russian archives. Maybe once they are awakened we will have answers to such questions. In the meantime we can perhaps be content to hear this movement as an expression of molten anger. The opening of the third movement comes as something of a relief, but quite soon these players transform the mood, with prominent timpani bringing anger back into the mix. The arrival of Elmira brings some calm, but that cannot last, with the orchestra hammering out its fury once again, before Elmira’s theme defiantly calls a halt, the principal horn superb here. It is left to Elmira and DSCH himself to wind the movement to a close, peaceful but provisional, given the two different keys.
The slow, searching introduction to the finale sounds almost improvised in this performance. The main part of the movement is launched at a cracking tempo, and for a while we might think we are in for something cheerful. At the height of everything, though, DSCH silences all, with a terrifying following crescendo just when you would think the players had nothing left to give. A brilliant first bassoon, only one member of the highly characterful solo wind team, comically leads us to the final passage. In the race to the finish, Jansons pushes the pace forward, so slightly as to be almost imperceptible. The effect is exhilarating, though we are left with the feeling that there is more to this finale than triumph at adversity vanquished.
I first learnt this symphony from the earlier of Karajan’s two recorded performances. I was bowled over by it, but subsequent performances have persuaded me that Karajan, for all his brilliance, smoothed over much of the conflict in the music. I’m aware that I’m bucking a trend when I find something of the same in the recent reading from Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on DG. Petrenko with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (Naxos) is very fine, as is, going back a generation, Karel Ančerl on DG (1955). There are others too, but I agree with Michael Cookson who, in his review, recommends the performance by the WDR Symphony Orchestra under Rudolf Barshai (Brilliant Classics). This is an essential component of any decent Shostakovich collection, preferably as part of the superb integral cycle.
Previous review: Michael Cookson