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Shostakovich sys FHR120
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Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 6 in B minor Op. 54
Symphony No. 9 in E flat major Op. 70
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Steven Lloyd-Gonzales
rec. 2021, BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, UK
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview

This new recording pairs two of the jokers in the Shostakovich symphony pack. I haven’t been able to track down any other recordings by Lloyd-Gonzales so if this is his studio debut then his career promises to be a major one as this is a cracking CD.

I tend to think of the sixth symphony as a wry, elliptical response by Shostakovich to his own supposed response to just criticism, the better known No.5. It does so by heading in two directions unacceptable to the Soviet regime in one work – the dark pessimism of the massive opening and the sardonic, caustic menace of the much shorter two remaining movements. To make matters worse, Shostakovich makes do with just three movements as if he were asserting his right to compose whatever music he pleases while basking in the temporary glory of the success of the fifth symphony. This unorthodox welding of such disparate elements has been the undoing of many performers on record and led to the work falling into relative neglect. I think this is a great shame as I, personally, believe it is a better work than the more famous symphonies which flank it in the DSCH canon.

Lloyd-Gonzales clearly has the measure of this tricky piece. He finds plenty of menace and darkness in the scherzo like second movement (listen to those stampeding drums just before the four minute mark) and in the tumbling gymnastics of the finale to tie up the structure of the piece. He starts off as he means to go with a terrifying and gripping account of the opening pages.

The Welsh horns excel in the weird atmosphere of this opening but it is the intensity of the string playing that really grabbed my attention. They are fully equal of those of Mravinsky’s Leningrad Philharmonic in his famous and famously badly recorded version. Lots of rivals from Haitink to Nelsons and Petrenko, take this opening in a broad, solemn manner, playing the long game as it were, but I prefer this more trenchant approach. There is real tragic grandeur to this opening. Lloyd-Gonzales is equally proficient in the long, meandering melodies that succeed this opening that are so crucial to Shostakovich’s longer movements. Most importantly for me, these melodies are really sung in a full throated and surprisingly Russian sounding way. Haitink, above all, has shown how well the Shostakovich symphonies respond to a more reserved, even severe approach but listening to this recording I find myself preferring a more emotive way with this music.

Lloyd-Gonzales is equally perceptive in the many moments of delicacy and terrified beauty in this work. Eleven and a half minutes into the enormous opening movement of No.6 a deep harp note transforms the atmosphere into one of tense, nocturnal menace. It is wholly typical of both performance and recording that this note is audible but in a way that feels wholly integrated into the symphonic argument rather than sounding like a conductor saying ‘Look what a clever chap I am for noticing this in the score!’

The Ninth is perhaps the riskiest score Shostakovich ever wrote. A Haydnesque joke in face of a demand for a Stalinist Beethoven 9 was not what the Party ordered. Like Haydn, the jokiness conceals depths and without the menace a performance of this work tells less than half the story. The grim tread of the recurrent sighing motif in the slow movement is surely meant to make the skin crawl. The brass fanfares of the fourth movement can’t help but conjure the hollow pomposity of Soviet officialdom. But this symphony is one of the most concise, well organised and classical the composer ever wrote. I am always put in mind of a passage in Elizabeth Wilson’s superlative and compendious book on the composer, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, where the composer is recalled delighting at the contrapuntal wonders contained in the finale of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony. It is this spirit that must preside over a good performance of the Shostakovich 9 and I found this to be a most enjoyable Shostakovich 9 indeed.

Anyone who understands Haydn knows that the most seemingly serene openings can conceal colossal reserves of power and that is how the opening of this Shostakovich symphony needs to go: bright eyed and razor sharp at the opening but capable of flexing its muscles in the development section – though all without upsetting the delicate balance of the sonata structure. All other recordings of this movement bend the knee to Kondrashin with the Moscow Philharmonic sounding better than they have any reason to on a 2017 Urania release: full classical concision with full power. Lloyd-Gonzales and his band can’t match that level of intensity but compensate with a rather lighter touch in the opening pages and at the climax of the development they unleash a terrific welter of noise. There is really no shame in coming up short next to Kondrashin- so too do fine accounts by Haitink, Petrenko and many others. In this opening movement only Barshai with the WDR Sinfonieorchester on Brilliant Classics or Wigglesworth’s 2007 BIS recording gets close to Kondrashin in terms of mordant wit.

Lloyd-Gonzales’ account of the haunting nocturne that forms the second movement is very slow indeed – nearly 3 minutes slower than Barshai and almost 2 minutes slower than Kondrashin. The tempo marking is Moderato and I can’t help feeling that Lloyd-Gonzales’ pace makes too much of a slow movement of it for all the keening intensity of his woodwind players. The result feels a little becalmed to my ears and knocks the delicate internal balance of the symphony’s five movements somewhat out of whack. My preference here is for the fleet footed but superbly minatory Barshai though the dogged Wigglesworth is equally commendable.

The brief third movement finds Shostakovich in Gogol mood, all irony and grimaces, before the clown slinks off into the shadows for the fourth movement. By contrast, Lloyd-Gonzalez is very fast in this movement but his orchestra are more than up for the challenge, playing with real flair even at top speed. The Welsh brass sound suitably Mussorgskyian in that fourth movement’s sombre chorale and whoever is playing the bassoon in between their musical decrees plays their socks off. Wigglesworth in the same passage goes for surprisingly wide, almost Soviet sounding vibrato from his brass where Barshai is particularly grand. Nothing on record sounds quite like Kondrashin with proper Russian brass.

I have not heard anyone as abrasive in the finale as Kondrashin, the sardonic tone that drips from his account seems almost on the verge of letting the mask drop. This feels like Shostakovich the musical dancing bear tortured by the regime. Kondrashin is absolutely electrifying here and frankly no modern rival can match him. Lloyd-Gonzalez is very good next to those modern rivals but, exciting though the virtuosity of his orchestra is, it lacks the obsessional convulsion of Kondrashin.

I haven’t yet mentioned the high quality of the sound, a cooperation between Radio 3 and First Hand Records, which is an immense success. I preferred the sound on this release even to the state of the art recording given to Wigglesworth by BIS.

What the listener will get from this recording is a real contender in No.6 and a very fine account of No.9. The best thing on this album as I hope has been clear is the opening movement of No.6 which bodes well for Lloyd-Gonzales tackling the similar big canvases which open No.s 5, 8 and 10. He has a real gift for Shostakovich and, if this is his debut recording, I have no doubt we will be hearing a lot more from him.

David McDade

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