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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 in London 2018 (no. 10) and 2020 (no. 9)
LSO LIVE LSO0828 SACD [79:05]

Here are two consecutively numbered Shostakovich symphonies. But wait a moment; Shostakovich completed his six symphonies from no. 4 to no.9 in a nine year period between 1936 and 1945. Then there was a pause of no less than eight years before the premiere of the 10th. Why? I suppose it could be described as a matter of life and death.

Having survived his experience with the Soviet authorities in 1936, Shostakovich went on to become a Russian hero during WW2 with his two great wartime symphonies, the ‘Leningrad’ and no.8. When it became known in 1945 that he was working on a new symphony, there was speculation that it would be a great ‘Ninth’, with choral jubilations in praise of the Great Leader and Teacher, and the defeat of Fascism.

Except that when it appeared, the 9th turned out to be short, skittish and, as so often with this composer, enigmatic, and it was not appreciated in high places. Shostakovich was once more an ‘enemy of the people’; so for the next few years, he kept a very low profile, confining himself mostly to chamber music and songs. The 10th, when it appeared, turned out to be completely different in character from the 9th; nearly twice as long, it starts in the deepest darkness, and rises eventually to an almost hysterically ecstatic ending. No-one could possibly misunderstand; for Stalin had died while Shostakovich was putting the finishing touches to the work, and the Russian people could finally see a possible end to the terrible years of fear, hatred and suspicion.

Two great and important symphonies, then, yet totally contrasting. These performances by the LSO under Gianandrea Noseda are truly exceptional, and have immediately risen to the top of my own recommendations for these works – especially Noseda’s 10th. Despite the excellence of versions by Mravinsky (1954, now on Naxos), Neeme Järvi (1988 for Chandos) and Petrenko (2009, also on Naxos), Noseda characterises this work so vividly, bringing out every significant detail, and sustaining the emotional tension to an almost unbearable degree when necessary. In this, as in the 9th, he is helped by, firstly, the superb playing of all sections of the LSO, and secondly by stunning super audio recorded sound. There are just one or two places where the balance is not ideal – e.g. the climactic moment in the finale of the 9th (track 5, around 4:42), where the brass have the main theme against crazed rhythmic repetitions in the rest of the orchestra; strange to say, the brass are not heard quite as distinctly as they probably should be. And in the 10th, I miss the important pizzicato quaver in the first violins before the bassoon solo in the finale (track 9 at 2:15 is where that should be heard). But these instances are extremely few and far between, and in any case do no damage to the overall interpretations.

The opening Allegro of the 9th has a brisk Haydnesque theme, which might make us feel we’re in for something along the lines of Prokofiev’s ‘Classical Symphony’. Everything has delicious poise and clarity in Noseda’s hands, and he brings out the sardonic humour to perfection. More subtly, though, he also captures the unease that lurks behind the humour. The Moderato that follows, a melancholy waltz, benefits from the sensitive clarinet playing of Chris Richards, while all the woodwind are in scintillating form in the quicksilver Presto.

Then comes the extraordinary Largo, the sole moment of deep seriousness in the work. This is one of those passages in Shostakovich where he seems to be describing an incident in his own life – and this is, surely, an interrogation scene. Trombones and tuba make menacing accusations to a cowering solo bassoon, who responds with a pleading recitative, beautifully played by Daniel Jemison. Life goes on; and the bassoon recovers, to introduce, very slowly and quietly at first, the main theme of the finale. Timing is everything here; nothing must be hurried, every element must be allowed to make its full impact, and again Noseda and his orchestra come up trumps.

Timing is the secret, too, in the colossal first movement of Symphony no. 10. The music crawls painfully up from the almost inaudible basses, gradually but inexorably taking shape in the two main themes. Everything leads to the central orchestral tutti, a passage of harrowingly drawn-out symphonic drama, the like of which even Shostakovich had not achieved previously. Noseda has managed to give this wonderful piece the sense of a single span, yet all the details are beautifully in place.

The second movement, always said to be a ‘portrait’ of Stalin, is as terrifying and spectacular as it should be; then comes what is for me the most interesting movement of the four, a spectral, twilit Allegretto, with, it is widely believed, concealed references to a girl that Shostakovich was involved with at the time, a student of his by the name of Elmira Nazirova. The references to her name are contained in the repeated horn motif, though quite how this is done is really too complex to go into here (if you want to know more read Elizabeth Wilson’s fine biography ‘Shostakovich: a Life Remembered’).

But even more pervasive in this movement and the finale that follows is the musical ‘autograph’ that Shostakovich employed increasingly in this period of his work. Four notes, which are a kind of musical signature: D - E flat – C – B natural. The composer used German musical notation, so that it becomes D – Es – C – H, or DSCH, a clear reference to his own name. This motif emerges strongly at the end of the Allegretto, then comes to dominate more and more in the finale as it develops. Near the end, it is screamed out triumphantly in the horns, then taken up by the full orchestra, bearing the music forward irresistibly to its feverish conclusion. I have never known the unfettered joy and elation of this finale to be rendered with such passion. Equally, though, the place from which it grows, the slow introduction to the finale, is superbly done, with the most beautiful playing from all the LSO woodwind principals.

So this is more than a top-class issue; for me; this is surely the finest Shostakovich 10th recorded in recent years, plus a 9th which is absolutely of the same standard. For all lovers of the music of this very great 20th century musician, this CD is a ‘must-have’. And for those less steeped – well, I can’t think of a better place to begin…….

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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