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Dimitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 11, ‘The Year 1905’, Opus 103 (1957)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/John Storgårds
rec. 2019, Media City, Salford

It is typical of Shostakovich that the 'meaning' of this remarkable symphony remains equivocal. The public references to the 1905 Revolution, which duly earned him the accolade of a Lenin Prize, hid the work's private links to contemporary events. In particular, these related to the abortive Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which was so bloodily suppressed by the occupying Soviet forces. Be that as it may, the Symphony No. 11, like all the best programme music, transcends its programme and exists as a masterpiece of symphonic integration and searing emotional commitment. That is precisely why its standing grows stronger with each passing year.

Shostakovich composed the work in 1957, for the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution. It is outwardly based upon the tragic revolt of the St Petersburg workers in 1905, the year in which the disastrous defeats in the war with Japan combined with intense economic problems, to drive the people to an open expression of discontent. For at the centre of the conception is an event as notorious in Russia as the Peterloo Massacre is in Britain: the 'Bloody Sunday' assault on the workers who were demonstrating in the Square of the Winter Palace, in which hundreds of men, women and children were killed.

There are four movements, which are closely linked by the careful symphonic integration of the material. The first, entitled The Palace Square, sets the scene and introduces the most important of the musical ingredients, a motto theme which is immediately presented in bleak outline, with the addition of sinister timpani patterns. The producer Mike George has created a suitably atmospheric context, with Storgårds’s steady tempo generating the depiction of the scene amid its surroundings. The addition of the side drum roll to the restrained extended string lines is particularly effective, and it is crucial for a conductor to clearly outline this initial context, of course, since it will prove pervasive in symphonic as well as atmospheric terms. The standard of the playing of the orchestra matches this vision, with its rapt intensity and close attention to dynamics: principal flute and trumpet both acquit themselves with distinction in this slow-paced music during which the quality of sound is a prime consideration. The performance, as most recorded performances do, succeeds in capturing the remarkable concentration of this movement, as the impersonal atmosphere of the empty palace square becomes obsessive.

The second movement, 9th January, follows without pause, and relates the very development of the massacre. Initially the lower strings outline a distinctive tune, 'Bare your heads', deriving from Shostakovich's own Choruses on Revolutionary Poems, composed a few years previously in 1951. As if to portray the scene with the gradually gathering crowd, the tune is insistently repeated over and over, intensifying until the first movement's trumpet call cuts through the texture, reflecting the moment when the conflict turns into crisis. There is now the release of a terrific intensity, which at length generates the depiction of the infamous massacre. At this point all recording engineers will be put to the test, a test that with modern technology they will always pass. The event itself is graphically represented, through the exciting rhythmic conflict between fours and threes, and the principal timpani will make his mark in cutting through the texture. Storgårds’s tempo is insistent and never rushed into excitement for excitement’s sake, while his balancing of the material is skilfully articulated without compromising the ‘edge of the seat’ nature of this thrilling music.

When it arrives, the climax is a masterstroke, which has been prepared by the intensifying direction of the musical development, with the sudden transfer to the pianissimo presentation of the palace square music with which the work had begun. Again the super audio Chandos recording does full justice to the challenging requirements of the dynamic range, before the return of important symphonic recollections: the trumpet call of hope, along with subdued references to other potent themes.

Out of these poignant images there now emerges the third movement, In Memoriam, whose slow pizzicato pulse sets the tone for the dignified elegy which is introduced by the violas, whose rich tone sounds perfect for this noble music. Extended presentations of its basis, another Revolutionary tune, 'You fell as victims', frame the movement, which has a big contrasting climax at its centre. These contracts are admirably drawn in this performance.

The finale, The Tocsin, builds in its insistent vision: that determination and hope must result in eventual victory. This is a direction of travel which has suited so many symphonic agendas since Beethoven’s time. Here the music takes the form of a march-like moto perpetuo cast in three parts: a call to action, then a meditation, then the struggle ahead. As expected by now, the principal theme derives from another Revolutionary song: 'Rage, you tyrants'. To bring relief there is a slow interlude, in the form of a beautifully played cor anglais lament which is based upon the first movement’s motto, and after this has run its course the concluding phase is brief and therefore the more potent for it. Shostakovich builds his final massive and resounding climax for the full orchestra, which makes a suitable impact thanks to the outstandingly fine SACD recording. The sound of the tocsin bell, not the usual tubular bell, is hugely effective, and it makes an enormous impression when it is allowed to resonate to eventual silence as the symphony comes to an end. This effect works so well in a studio recording such as this, whereas in a live concert hall performance it can be a dangerous ploy, since the final diminuendo out of the climactic chord is so often interrupted by a single insensitive idiot shouting out ‘bravo’.

There is more than one way of performing a great symphony, of course, and in that sense the best performance must by definition be ‘the next one’. However, Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic stand up as worthy members of what is becoming a particularly crowded assembly of compelling recorded performances of the Symphony No. 11. His tempi are well judged throughout, in both the slower and faster sections if the score, while there is never any lack of power and sheer weight when it is required. Among other performances, Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw bring an attention to details of dynamics that sometimes leave others behind, though on the other hand in his performance there are moments, especially in the finale, when the torch of intensity might have burned more brightly. On EMI Paavo Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra remain a personal favourite. The sound of this 1980 performance wears its age well and the rugged determination of Berglund’s approach to tempi has much to commend it, particularly in the ‘massacre’ music. The older Russian recordings by Mravinsky and Kondrashin achieve great power and authenticity too, although by comparison their sound quality is rough and ready when compared with what modern technology can produce in this richly colourful score. Additionally there is an excellent 1995 Russian performance, on Chandos with the Russian State Orchestra conducted by Valeri Polyansky, which perhaps combines the best of all these features. In the context of these comparisons, this new Chandos recording fares very well indeed.

Terry Barfoot

Previous reviews: John Quinn ~ Brian Wilson

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