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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No 9 in E-flat major, Op 70 (1945) [26:29]
Symphony No 10 in E minor, Op 93 (1953) [52:36]
London Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. live, 24 June 2019 (Symphony 10), 30 January & 9 February, 2020 (Symphony 9), The Barbican, London. DSD
LSO LIVE LSO0828 SACD [79:05]

This is, I believe, the fourth instalment of Gianandrea Noseda’s Shostakovich symphony cycle with the LSO, though it’s the first one to have come my way. Looking back, I think it would be fair to say that my colleagues’ reactions have been mixed. First up was the mighty Eighth, which Roy Westbrook liked a lot more than Simon Thompson. William Kreindler admired the Fourth, but Dan Morgan was distinctly underwhelmed by Noseda’s account of the Fifth, though he found more to like in the coupling, which was the First Symphony.

The Tenth symphony is one of Shostakovich’s finest achievements and it’s dominated by the towering first movement. Noseda gets off to a good start; the brooding nature of the opening is well conveyed. When we reach the slightly nervous flute solo (6:18), Noseda correctly presses forward a bit. However, I began to have doubts when, at the end of that rather more agitated section, the bassoon section takes us back to the material of the very opening. The use of the bassoon choir at this point gives the music the character of a lament and surely the tempo should revert to that with which the symphony began. It seemed to me, though, that Noseda is rather quicker than at the movement’s start. The difference is not great, though it’s noticeable, but then Noseda moves the music on more and more, sustaining a swift pace through the movement’s massive climax. The effect is that the climax has great urgency – which is no bad thing in itself – but, crucially, the music lacks breadth when the absolute crisis point is reached (13:08). Fundamentally, the music lacks the implacable character that it should have. I was struck by a comment in Andrew Huth’s excellent booklet note where he speaks of the first movement unfolding “all within the same basic tempo”. Though there are, of course, some tempo modifications during the course of the movement, Mr Huth’s basic point is correct, but we don’t really experience that effect on this occasion. I’m afraid that I was distinctly underwhelmed by Noseda’s account of this magnificent movement; I don’t feel he really conveys its stature

Just to give myself a different perspective I turned to Andris Nelsons’ 2015 DG recording with the Boston Symphony, which, like Noseda’s performance, comes from concerts (review). What a difference! Nelsons’ initial speed is very similar to Noseda’s but, crucially, he reverts to that speed when the bassoon lament starts. Then in the passage that follows, though he moves the music on a bit, he’s by no means as fast as his Italian colleague. As a result, in the Nelsons performance the main climax sounds as if it’s hewn from granite and the music has all the rhetorical power that’s absent in the LSO Live version. The greater spaciousness that Nelsons consistently brings to the music means that in his hands the movement plays for 25:39 compared to Noseda’s 22:53. You might feel that so lengthy a traversal of the first movement is a bit too much of a good thing but the Nelsons performance reveals the stature of the movement in a way that, frankly, eludes Noseda.

Happily, after this very disappointing traversal of the first movement I found a great deal more to admire in the rest of Noseda’s performance. The second movement is punchy and excitingly driven. I don’t find much to choose between him and Nelsons; both are very good indeed. However, I do have a distinct preference for the sound on the Nelsons recording, both here and elsewhere. The DG engineers achieve far more space around the sound of the Boston Symphony Orchestra whereas at times I found the much closer sound on the LSO Live disc almost suffocating. Noseda judges the Allegretto opening of the third movement very well indeed, as does Nelsons. Noseda is also extremely convincing in the Largo section, where he’s very well served by the LSO’s principal horn who makes a terrific contribution. The passionate climax is thrust home with great power while Noseda and the LSO manage the withdrawn last couple of minutes of the movement superbly.

The Andante opening to the finale is marvellously done; the eloquent oboe and bassoon solos are a particular highlight. Noseda and the orchestra distil a powerfully tense atmosphere before releasing that tension at the start of the Allegro (4:42). For the remainder of the finale the playing is spirited and full of life, except where Shostakovich slams on the brakes and revisits momentarily the mood of the Andante. Noseda handles this little section very well before bring the symphony to its powerful conclusion.

The LSO plays the symphony magnificently and, interpretatively, the last three movements are very successful. Unfortunately, I can’t get past my disappointment with the first movement but other listeners may well not share my reservation.

The performance of the Ninth symphony strikes me as an unqualified success. In the first movement Noseda and his players are adept at bringing to life Shostakovich’s deadpan, wry humour in their sprightly rendition of the opening pages. The development section is suitably muscular, the strident scoring strongly projected. In his notes, I think David Nice hits the nail on the head when he says that the Moderato second movement is not so much a slow movement as a “limping waltz”. I think Noseda gets this shadowy movement exactly right, aided by highly refined playing from the LSO.

The remaining three movements follow each other without a break, as in the massive Eighth symphony. I love the scampering, light-footed rendition of the opening pages of the Presto but the strident trumpet solo (1:11) is at odds with what appear, superficially, to be the festivities elsewhere in this short movement. The heavy brass opening to the Largo is like an ominous summons before a court of law. Pursuing that analogy, does the extended recitative-like bassoon solo (here, the excellent Daniel Jemison) represent the accused pleading his case before the might of the judiciary? If so, he earns another implacable intervention from the bench before resuming his defence. It seems, though, that the defendant is able to extricate himself from his predicament and the bassoonist tentatively at first, and then more jauntily, makes his way out of court and into the bustle of the finale. I love David Nice’s assertion that in this last movement Shostakovich is “once more the Soviet Till Eulenspiegel”. It’s a brilliant way of describing the sardonic humour and sarcasm that’s abundantly on display in this movement. We should surely not take this music at face value. Noseda and the LSO offer a performance that is splendidly incisive, bringing to a close an excellent account of this perplexing symphony.

I listened to this SACD using the stereo layer. The recorded sound for the Ninth is very good: I suspect the lighter scoring, as compared to the Tenth, may have been less challenging to engineer in the Barbican’s acoustic. The booklet contains excellent notes by David Nice (Ninth symphony) and Andrew Huth.

Gianandrea Noseda’s account of the Ninth is excellent but I’m afraid he doesn’t shake in any way my loyalty to Andris Nelsons – or several other conductors - in the Tenth.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Gwyn Parry-Jones ~ Robert Cummings



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