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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No 1 in F minor, Op 10 (1926) [35:12]
Symphony No 14 in G minor, Op 135 (1969) [49:15]
Symphony No 15 in A major, Op 141 (1971) [48:03]
Chamber Symphony in C minor, Op 110a arr. Rudolf Barshai (1960) [24:52]
Kristine Opolais (soprano) Alexander Tsymbalyuk (bass) Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. live, Symphony Hall, Boston February 2018 (14) November 2018 (1) April 2019 (15) and January 2020 (chamber symphony)
Transliterated texts and English translations included
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 486 0546 [83:15+74:07]

It’s been a long wait for the fifth instalment of Andris Nelsons’ Shostakovich symphony cycle. I reviewed the fourth release in the cycle, consisting of the Sixth and Seventh symphonies, as long ago as March 2019. No doubt the lengthy interval has been caused by the Covid pandemic although all the performances included here were safely ‘in the can’ prior to the emergency. This very well-filled pair of CDs is intelligently packaged: on one disc we have the first and last symphonies together, which makes a revealing coupling, while the second disc has two works in which the string section is to the fore.

Annotator Harlow Robinson describes the First Symphony as “manic and melancholy” and I think that’s especially true of the first movement, which contains wildly oscillating mood swings. In the opening movement Nelsons and his orchestra bring out the youthful precocity of the writing. The playing is very alert, and the woodwind are especially impressive and incisive. The Till Eulenspiegel-like gawky humour is well conveyed. The waltz-like episode, led off by the flute, has a nicely bashful air to it; Nelsons shapes the music well. There follows a fine account of the second movement; on more than one occasion I felt that the spirit of Petrushka was not all that far away.

At the start of the Lento, I greatly admired the highly expressive oboe solo, as I did the cello solo which follows. After the fragile opening, though, it’s not long before Shostakovich begins to pile on the power and Nelsons responds eagerly. The composer was youthful when he wrote this music and he had yet to experience the troubles of his adult life which, inevitably, coloured his music. However, this slow movement, and the sentiments expressed therein, would not be out of place in one of his later symphonies. The movement plays for less than 10 minutes but its emotional span seems much broader than mere time might suggest. I was seriously impressed by the present performance. The transition to the finale and the Lento introduction to that movement are highly charged. The main body of the movement is convincingly interpreted and performed; the fast, skittish episodes are despatched with élan while there’s appreciable tension in the slower episodes. The strikingly rhetorical timpani solo is imposingly delivered and it’s bang in tune, something which doesn’t always happen. This is a very fine performance of the First symphony.

As I’ve commented, I like the juxtaposition of Shostakovich’s first and last symphonies on the same disc. The way Shostakovich weaves into his final symphony a number of self-quotations and quotations from other composers is fascinating – and very revealing. It’s one of his most enigmatic scores. One of the enigmas is the description of the first movement which was printed in the programme when the symphony was premiered. The movement was said to depict a toyshop at night when all the toys come to life. Well, all I can say is that this nocturnal toyshop seems to me to be an emotionally dark place. I’m far from sure, for example, of what lies behind the surface jollity of the quotation from the William Tell overture; I suspect there’s something more subversive in the composer’s mind. To reprise Harlow Robinson’s phrase, the first movement includes both manic and melancholy elements and both of these traits are brought out very well in this present performance. The pert, on-point orchestral response does full justice to the tongue-in-cheek, gawky humour; one is put in mind of medieval gargoyles thrusting out their tongues in derision.

At the start of the long slow movement, the solemn, sombre brass chorale takes us back to the Eleventh symphony, a score pregnant with sub-surface meaning. The choral is intoned superbly by the BSO brass. Particular praise is due to the principal cellist, Blaise Déjardin, who delivers the crucial cello solos with keening eloquence. Eventually (at 6:19) the flutes usher in a desolate funeral march which really gets into its stride when it is taken up by the solo trombone (7:18). Nelsons builds the tension incrementally until he arrives at the movement’s piledriver climax (10:46). This extended climax is gaunt and forbidding in nature and it’s brought off superbly here. In the concluding minutes of the score, we experience the hushed, brooding tonal weight of the BSO string section, and an interesting addition to the scoring is a haunting part for a vibraphone (is this the instrument’s only appearance in a Shostakovich symphony?) Nelsons brings breadth and gravitas to this movement and the results are highly impressive.

The third movement is the last of the composer’s nose-thumbing symphonic scherzos. The textures are deliberately raw. The BSO really delivers the goods in this movement. There are more quotations in the last movement, not least the Wagner quotation. This is supremely revealing: I believe it’s the series of brass chords heard in Die Walküre immediately before Brünnhilde warns Siegmund that he will perish when he fights Hagen. It’s a sobering premonition of death, which clearly had a great importance for Shostakovich; here, it’s delivered with grave intensity. The melancholy lyrical music that follows shortly afterwards is expertly shaped by Nelsons and, indeed, he makes a fine job of the movement as a whole. The towering climax (from 9:34) is tragic yet defiant and the BSO thrusts it home with tremendous power. The end of the symphony (from 16:08) is quite remarkable. Against a hushed, long-held string chord the percussion section, in the words of Michael Steinberg, “clack and ping and patter away”. This is highly reminiscent of the Fourth symphony and I wonder what the significance is. Could it be that Shostakovich was looking back to that Mahlerian symphonic edifice and musing on what direction his symphonic output might have taken had he not been compelled to withdraw the score and offer instead symphonies which, at least on the surface, were in keeping with the Party line? It’s a last enigmatic gesture and it’s expertly done here, rounding off a considerable account of the Fifteenth.

The Fourteenth is one of Shostakovich’s most challenging scores, both in terms of its emotional content – which is almost unremittingly bleak – and its musical language. Arguably, it’s not a symphony at all but rather a sequence of settings of 11 poems on the subject of death by a variety of European poets. The poems are sung in Russian translations (to the best of my knowledge, Bernard Haitink’s 1980 Decca recording is the only one in which the poems are sung in their original languages, a course of action of which the composer approved).

For this performance Andris Nelsons has the Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais and the Ukrainian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk as his soloists. Both prove themselves well suited to the assignment. Tsymbalyuk makes an immediate impression in the setting of Lorca’s ‘De Profundis’. Nelsons provides a glacial chill in the accompaniment and the singer’s sepulchral voice does the rest. I was less sure of Kristine Opolais in the next song, another Lorca setting; this time the poem is ‘Malagueña’. She and the orchestra deliver powerfully the poet’s nightmarish vision of Death and his horses; the trouble was that I found it very difficult to discern her words. Happily, Ms Opolais’s diction is not an issue in the remainder of the work. I was very impressed with her account of Apollinaire’s ‘Le suicide’; her singing is very intense and she evidences significant engagement with the words and music. If anything, she’s even more compelling in the following song, another Apollinaire setting (‘Les Attentives’). Alexander Tsymbalyuk sings another Apollinaire poem, ‘À la Sainté’. This setting is the dark heart of a symphony of almost unrelieved bleakness. Tsymbalyuk’s performance is riveting, his voice commanding and black in tone. Nelsons’ conducting matches his soloist’s intensity in a performance that is utterly compelling.

The Fourteenth symphony is a very uncomfortable work to hear. This is a performance that does justice to its stature. The two soloists are very fine and convincing while Andris Nelsons gets a magnificent response from the strings and percussionists of the BSO.

The Chamber Symphony, Op 110a is an arrangement for string orchestra, made by Rudolf Barshai in 1967, of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet. The composer wrote the quartet after paying a visit to Dresden in 1960 when he was profoundly affected by the sight of the war-ravaged city; much of the destruction had still not been repaired. Rudolf Barshai was ideally equipped to make this arrangement. For one thing, he was a renowned conductor of the Shostakovich symphonies, of which he recorded a highly regarded complete cycle (review). Even more relevantly in the present context, between 1945 and 1953 he was the founding violist of the Borodin Quartet, celebrated for their performances of Shostakovich’s quartets. Though Barshai had long since left the ensemble by the time he made this arrangement, he brought to the assignment a profound insider’s knowledge; that’s evidenced, for example, in the way that he knows just when to allocate a line to a solo instrument for heightened effect. I believe I’m right in saying that the arrangement met with the composer’s approval.

There are five movements, which play without a break. Of course, in an arrangement for full string band, one loses the intimacy and the sparse textures of the original. However, the weight of tone, especially in the bass line, adds a different dimension to the music. In this performance, though there’s impressive power when required – the series of three slashing chords which punctuate the fourth movement, for example – Nelsons and his musicians are extremely sensitive in the quieter passages. This is a performance of subtlety and eloquence. Be assured, this is no mere ‘fill-up’ on this set; rather, it’s a magnificent performance of Shostakovich’s profoundly introspective and often angry music.

This is a highly distinguished set, containing four compelling and superbly played performances. As such, this latest release maintains the very high standards of the series to date. Nelsons has been recording contemporaneously for DG a Bruckner symphony cycle with his ‘other’ orchestra, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. I’ve been following that cycle too and there’s been much to admire in it. However, I think over time it will be this Boston Shostakovich cycle which will come to be regarded as the more significant contribution to the discographies of the respective composers

DG have captured these performances in excellent, realistic sound. Indeed, detailed, impactful sound with an impressive dynamic range has been a consistent feature of this cycle to date. As with previous releases, the woodwind cut through, the brass sound magnificent, the strings have sheen and, where appropriate, plenty of power, while the percussion are recorded with exciting realism. The booklet includes the full texts and translations for the Fourteenth symphony; I just wish a larger font had been used as it’s quite hard to follow the transliterated text when the typeface is so small. Harlow Robinson’s notes are adequate.

I look forward to the conclusion of the cycle and, in particular, to hearing what Andris Nelsons brings to the mighty Thirteenth symphony.

John Quinn

Previous review: David McDade

MusicWeb International reviews of the Andris Nelsons Shostakovich cycle on DG
Symphonies 4 & 11
Symphonies 5, 8 & 9
Symphonies 6 & 7
Symphony 10

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