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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No 9 in E-flat major, Op 70 (1945)
Symphony No 10 in E minor, Op 93 (1953)
London Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. 24 June, 2018 (10); 30 January and 9 February, 2020 (9)Barbican, London. DSD
Reviewed in stereo
LSO LIVE SACD LSO0828 [79:05]

Shostakovich was originally planning a grand choral symphony to celebrate the end of World War II, but decided instead to write a light, cheerful and witty work. The result was this five-movement Ninth Symphony, without doubt, among the most underrated of the composer's symphonies. It is the briefest after the Second, and in scope arguably the most modest of the fifteen—or so it would seem. Shostakovich invested it with neither the expressive depth nor life and death struggles of the Eighth and Tenth, but he deftly imbued it with a sassy, lighthearted character—and maybe something else too: it is more than likely that he revelled in the thought that Stalin and his lackeys in the arts, high on expectations of a glorious choral “Ninth”, would get their comeuppance with this subtle little nose-thumbing salvo instead. Moreover, deciding to compose a “little Ninth” would satisfy any concerns Shostakovich had about unfavorable comparisons with that granddaddy of choral Ninths by one Ludwig van Beethoven.

In any event this SACD account of the work on LSO Live is excellent. Shostakovich made the first movement reminiscent of music from the Classical period, with the spirit of Haydn and Mozart hovering. It's been compared to Prokofiev's Classical Symphony, but where Prokofiev is elegant and satiric, Shostakovich is comical and mischievous. The exposition and repeat are energetic and joyous, but dabbed with slapstick humor. Here, Maestro Noseda and the LSO give the music a lean and busy character, as strings play with zest and woodwinds and brass add color in their subtle shadings of dynamics and deft accenting. Noseda's tempo choices always seem perfectly fitting in their brisk but not rushed manner. The development section is brilliantly brought off, striking the listener as a humorously nightmarish take on the thematic material of the exposition, menacing brass and percussion italicizing with spirited menace, and rhythmically kinetic strings deftly attempting to play the straight man to keep a semblance of balance.

The second movement's seemingly serious nature actually sounds more like “night music” than anything tragic. It is filled with haunting, dark moods and although some tension develops, we never hear an angry outburst or notice a sense of angst. If it is meant as some kind of lament (as the fourth movement supposedly is), clearly Shostakovich tightened the emotional reins to keep the mood mostly subdued. Here, Noseda and the LSO players deliver a convincing account of the music, with Chris Richards turning in fine work in his clarinet solos, particularly in his many subtly applied gradations of dynamics. The next three movements are played without pause and and the first of them comes across brilliantly in the spirited manner the LSO players deliver its slapstick wit and breathless mischief. The mournful ensuing panel offers stark contrast here to the music in the movements that bracket it. Noseda and company subtly build the finale from a subdued opening to a bitingly boisterous and frenetic climax, which is as sardonic as it is happy. This is a very compelling Ninth then, and while there are many other fine versions from Kondrashin, Bernstein, Barshai, Haitink and others, this one can challenge the best. Moreover, it features excellent sound reproduction that surpasses that of the older efforts cited above.

The Tenth Symphony is an entirely different kind of work, as Shostakovich partisans are aware. It is grim, tragic and intense but ultimately life-affirming. Here, where many other conductors choose to brood over the music, Noseda wisely adopts tempos that are generally in the moderate to slightly brisk range. The performance is alive with passion and energy, Noseda's phrasing almost always capturing every shift in mood, from the emotional nadirs to the joys and high drama.

The first movement's struggles and triumphs, its sorrows and anxieties, all emerge with plenty of impact as the orchestra plays with total commitment and feeling throughout, Noseda mostly allowing the music to speak for itself. My only complaint, and it's a minor one, is that the anxious flute theme (6:37) which introduces the second thematic group, is played very softly at the outset, almost as if coming from a sonic mist as it then gradually grows in dynamics. Both climaxes in the ensuing development section come across powerfully, the first with martial impact and the second with heart wrenching emotion, both convincingly hitting their target.

Noseda and the LSO players give the second movement all the menace, bluster and freneticism necessary to heighten the impact of this frightening roller-coaster ride. At one time the word was that this Scherzo was a depiction of Joseph Stalin, but that assertion is regarded as highly questionable today, and with good reason. For one thing, there is no widely accepted reliable source to document the claim, and for another, the music doesn't strike the listener, at least this one, as depicting evil, but rather the flight from evil or from danger. At any rate, this performance is brilliant and well played, Noseda wisely avoiding the tendency to go overboard into recklessness.

The conductor captures that mixture of charm and uncertainty in the opening pages of the third movement, the strings playing elegantly but with a little hesitancy. One notices Noseda doesn't shortchange passages that are often treated as less consequential in other performances: listen to the flute solo (1:53–2:14) as the music fades slowly away and hear the subtle phrasing that imparts a dubious feeling about what's ahead. Of course, one must allow a good portion of the credit to go to flutist Alex Jakeman. The whole movement is well conceived and well played here, as is the finale. After making the best of the long introduction (to me, the least effective part of the symphony), Noseda and the LSO deliver a most impressive account of the witty and joyous music that follows. The outer sections of the Allegro music are full of vitality and color, and the LSO players deliver an ecstatically triumphant ending.

There are many great recordings of the Tenth Symphony, including those of Ormandy, Barshai, Petrenko, and Haitink. This performance can stand with these fine accounts, but the Karajan on DG (his second recording of the work, from 1982) has the edge over the competition. But, alas, the Karajan contains no coupling, unless you purchase either of two costly multi-disc box sets. Thus, this new performance by Noseda and the LSO is a prime contender for the best choice, not least because it also has splendid sound reproduction and 79 minutes' worth of fine Shostakovich.

Robert Cummings

Previous review: Gwyn Parry-Jones

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