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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906–1975)
Symphony No.11 in g minor, Op.103 ‘The Year 1905’ (1956–57)
BBC Philharmonic/John Storgårds
rec. MediaCityUK, Salford, Manchester; 8 and 9 August 2019. DDD/DSD
Reviewed as lossless (wav) press preview

After the Tenth Symphony, Shostakovich turned in a very different direction with this evocation of one of the early stirrings of the Russian revolution when thousands of demonstrators trying peacefully to present a petition to the Tsar were mown down by the cavalry, with hundreds dead and injured. For a dramatic visual image of what happened, think of the scene in the film of Dr Zhivago where a massacre in a Moscow street becomes a metaphor for the violent repression of pre-revolutionary stirrings.

The Chandos catalogue was lacking a really good performance of this symphony; their earlier (1995) recording, from the Russian State Symphony Orchestra with Valeri Polyansky, has been relegated to their archive service, where it’s available as a special order CD-R, or as a download (CHAN9476). That recording has had its admirers – Terry Barfoot thought it combined the best features of several performances, in reviewing a Linn recording – but Neeme Järvi, who made several fine Shostakovich albums for Chandos, moved to DG for No.11.

Among the front-runners are two recordings which Dan Morgan liked, from Semyon Bychkov and Yakov Kreizberg – review – the Netherlands Radio Orchestra and Mark Wigglesworth (BIS-1583 SACD: Recording of the Month – reviewreview), the RLPO and Vasily Petrenko (Naxos 8.572082: Recording of the Month – reviewreview) and the much-awarded Andris Nelsons in Nos. 4 and 11 with the Boston Symphony (DG 4835220: Recording of the Month – reviewreview). Bychkov followed his earlier Philips recording with one with the WDR Symphony Orchestra for Avie, which is also well worth considering (AV2062). The Nelsons recording is especially valuable in coupling the symphony that presented the greatest challenge to the Soviet authorities and No.11 which, ostensibly, was just what they had been looking for.

Or was it? One theory which has some traction is that the symphony, and especially the adagio third movement ‘In memoriam’ or ‘Eternal memory’, is a lament for the victims of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, which was forcefully put down by the Soviet authorities. Or for the victims of all repression. Perhaps with that in mind, some conductors lend considerable weight to that movement. Polyansky takes 16:19, but Storgårds, at a much faster 12:17, captures the threnody just as effectively without overdoing things, as do Bychkov, Wigglesworth and Nelsons at an almost identical tempo. As with all the best accounts of this movement, Storgårds’ tempo allows the music also to encompass a sense of hope.

The earliest recording, from the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra and Yevgeny Mravinsky, in 1959, is even faster, but that may reflect the conductor’s unwillingness to upset the authorities. Both he and Petrenko make a timing of just over 11 minutes convey the spirit of the movement, but I prefer the tempo chosen by Storgårds and others.

That Mravinsky recording was reissued at budget price by Regis in 2012 (RRC1387: Recording of the Month). John Quinn thought that an authentic experience – review – but, though I enjoyed hearing it, it hasn’t found a regular slot in my listening experience, whereas Gennadi Rozdestvensky continues to do so. If you want a recording with a genuine Russian Soviet-era conductor, you are better off with Rozhdesvensky and the USSR Ministry of Culture Orchestra, if you can find a copy of the deleted Olympia CD (OCD152).

In one important respect, this recording takes the symphony back to its roots. Mravinsky, in 1959, presumably with the composer’s blessing, featured the use of church bells rather than the usual orchestral tubular bells at the end of the finale. In this case the bells have been borrowed from the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and John Storgårds also allows them to play on after the end of the movement, as Petrenko also does. As in the finale of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, there’s a small but important gain from this. Storgårds had bells sounding in the gallery of the Royal Albert Hall for this symphony in a performance at the Proms, also with the BBC Philharmonic, in August 2019, the aural equivalent of the famous concerts there which conclude with the 1812 Overture, filling the hall with the smoke of real cannon, and he repeats the trick to splendid effect here.

Storgårds takes the finale (‘Tocsin’) at a cracking pace, but Nelsons, almost a minute faster, is even more exciting. Both are helped to achieve their effect by a wide-ranging recording; if anything, the DG has slightly more impact. Both are more effective in conveying the power of the movement than Mstislav Rostropovich on his disappointingly sprawling1 LSO Live recording (LSO0030) which drags the movement out to 17:20 against 15:45 (Storgårds) or 14:10 (Nelsons). Paradoxically, the Melodiya recording once available from Olympia, though labelled DDD and sounding very much in-your-face, makes Rozhdestvensky even more exciting here, at 14:44.

I’ve put the cart before the horse by dealing with the last two movements first. The brooding tension of the opening movement is very well captured, with first rate pianissimo playing.

If Storgårds takes slightly longer on paper than most of the other top-rate recordings in the second movement, ‘The Ninth of January’ (actually 22 January by Western reckoning), he’s very effective in practice in this most dramatic music, depicting the massacre itself, with plenty of contrast between sections and, again, some highly impressive playing from the BBC Philharmonic.

As heard in the lossless download from Chandos – the press previews come in wav rather than flac format like those available from the Chandos website – the recording is very good. The very wide dynamic range won’t be to all tastes; set the volume to hear the opening of the first movement and the end of the finale will knock you off your chair. I presume that the SACD and the 24-bit downloads are even more spectacular. Paradoxically, the Rozhdestvensky on Olympia, which flattens out the dynamic range, doesn’t present the same problem.

Overall, this is one of the best recordings of this symphony. Petrenko on Naxos may be more tempting for its budget price, especially in download format, with lossless sound available for just over £5. Nelsons is very special because he combines No.11 with its very different predecessor, No.4. Like the Wigglesworth recording on BIS, the new Chandos comes as a hybrid SACD and all but the Petrenko are available as 24-bit downloads. If you can find a second-hand copy of the Olympia at a reasonable price, go for it; the Melodiya sound is not ideal, but has come up well in the remastering. I can’t give you an outright winner, but I shall certainly want to hear the Storgårds recording in future.

1 Pace Marc Bridle’s Recording of the Month review and Michael Cookson’s ‘top CD choice of the year’ – review. The LSO Live recording is now download only; Alto are in the process of reissuing many CDs from this series at budget price, with No.11 on ALC1366.

Brian Wilson

Previous review: John Quinn

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