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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906–1975)
Symphony No.11 in g minor, Op.103 ‘The Year 1905’ (1957) [58:38]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, December 2019. DDD.
Reviewed as streamed in 24/96 sound.
LPO LPO0118 [58:38]

Vladimir Jurowski once again proves himself one of the best current interpreters of Shostakovich. Recently, his account of the two violin concertos, with Alina Ibragimova and the Russian State Academic Symphony Orchestra earned praise all round (Hyperion CDA68313: Recording of the Month – review Retrospective Summer 2020, p.14).

In 2014 the LPO label released a live LPO/Jurowski recording of Shostakovich Symphonies Nos. 6 and 14, with Tatiana Monogarova (soprano) and Sergei Leiferkus (baritone). No.6 was recorded in the Royal Festival Hall, in 2013, No.14 in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2006 (LPO0080). In 2011, Robert Beattie enjoyed a recording of the two piano concertos and the Piano Quintet, with Martin Helmchen joining the LPO and Jurowski – review.

We seem to have missed that recording of No.6 and No.14, perhaps because the Petrenko series on Naxos, differently coupled, was taking up attention at the time, but I listened to it as streamed in 24/44.1 sound and was very impressed. It’s an odd coupling, the ‘little’ No.6 – here made to sound more imposing than usual – with the big vocal symphony, but it works well. If the coupling suits your requirements, it’s well worth considering and, at just over £9, LPO CDs are not much more expensive than Naxos these days. (Unless you choose the wrong purchase page at Amazon UK and end up paying £23.31.)

Jurowski and the LPO had already received high praise for their performance of Symphony No.11 at the Proms in 2017 – review – but this Festival Hall recording from two years later is, if anything, even more impressive. It’s certainly worthy of comparison with David Barker’s top 11 recordings of this symphony from 2009 and with anything produced since then, including the recent Chandos release from John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic (CHSA5278 – review). Without naming the Chandos as my top choice – that would still be Rozhdestvenky on Olympia, a strong candidate for reissue – I liked it very much, as did John Quinn – review.

I won’t rehash what JQ and I wrote about the alternatives, since the only thing that has changed in the interim is the appearance of the Jurowski recording, and that, while it hasn’t yet knocked the Olympia recording off my regular listening choices, will certainly be joining it.

Nor shall I be speculating about the links between the symphony and the Soviet repression of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, except to say that the LPO blurb gets it about right in saying that it ‘hints at Hungary’s anti-Soviet rebellion’. If it was intended as a protest against that event, it certainly makes its point powerfully, and nowhere more powerfully than in this new recording.

There is always a danger in listening to music which we know to have a finale with all the stops pulled out – the Symphonie Fantastique, for example – that the earlier movements seem something of an anti- (or pre-) climax. Colin Clarke seems to have felt that to some extent in his review of the Proms performance, finding the opening ‘Palace Square’ frozen in demeanour, but lacking in atmosphere. Be that as it may, I found a compensating sense of expectation in the RFH recording; perhaps it’s been tightened up in the meantime. Jurowski adopts a brisk but sensible tempo for this movement, taking it notably faster than Andris Nelsons (DG 4835220: Recording of the Month – review review) or Storgårds, yet never seeming to rush proceedings.

CC noted that the low string rumblings at the start of the second movement didn’t come over well. On record, that’s even more of a problem – the dynamic range chosen by the engineers means that the start of this movement needs to be played at a volume which is too loud for the finale. That’s my only complaint about the recording, however, and it’s one which I find myself making regularly, so not especially to be laid at the door of the LPO.

In this movement, again, the tempo is on the fast side; at a very swift 17:04, this is all of a piece with the power and excitement which Jurowski conjures from the music. With no sense of waiting for the finale, Jurowski gives us two powerful climaxes. He does, however, give due weight to his searing account of the threnody ‘Eternal Memory’, the third movement.

I’ve recently found myself much less thrilled than I used to be by the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony; when I said that some time ago, I sparked off a correspondence on the Message Board, pro and con that work. If well done, however, the finale of Symphony No.11 is still exciting. The marking is allegro non troppo and Jurowski tends more to the observance of the first part than the second, but the result is undeniably exciting. In fact, he’s not quite as fast as Nelsons, but, at 14:55, only seconds slower than Rozhdestvensky. Some conductors let the bells – the real thing here, not a glockenspiel – run on; I wish that Jurowski had.

Overall, this recording joins the very best. It made me wonder what if Shostakovich had been able to compose the music for the 1965 film version of Dr Zhivago? Maurice Jarre’s music is very good, but a Shostakovich score for the film … One can always dream what he would have made of the massacre of the protestors.

This most cinematic of symphonies requires a first-rate recording. While the Olympia is not quite that, the transfer has made the most of the DDD Russian originals. The Chandos comes on SACD and is also available as a hi-def 24-bit download. My review copy was in 16-bit wav, so not quite hi-def, but good enough for me to assume that the SACD and 24-bit are very good. I have subsequently been able to stream it in 24/96, and I’m pleased to report that Chandos review copies now come to me in 24-bit.

You might expect the LPO live recording not quite to reach the same standard but, as heard as in 24/96 quality, the only indication that it was made live comes with the well-deserved applause at the end – which I know will be a death-knell for this recording for some. The rest of us, who don’t mind a degree of applause will, I guarantee, regard it as part of the atmosphere of a concert which we would wish to have attended, but will have enjoyed from this recording as a very good second best.

We are coming close to having to decide on choices for Recordings of the Year. In a very different vein, I shall be very surprised if I don’t include the Linn reissue of Sir Charles Mackerras in the last Mozart symphonies and the Requiem, two 2-CD sets and a singleton, due for reissue as a 5-CD set (CKD651). Then there’s the latest and last of the Tallis Scholars’ recordings of Josquin (Gimell CDGIM051). This Shostakovich is likely to join those – or it might be the Hyperion violin concertos – so that’s half my choices made.

If you don’t feel knocked out by a performance of the searingly intense Symphony No.11, it hasn’t worked. This one definitely does work.

Brian Wilson

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