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Shostakovich sym9 900202
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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 9 in E flat major, Op. 70 [24:20]
Concerto in C minor for piano, trumpet & string orchestra, Op. 35 [21:57]
Yefim Bronfman (piano), Hannes Läubin (trumpet)
Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, March 2011, Große Musikvereinssaal, Vienna, Austria (symphony); October 2012, Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany
BR KLASSIK 900202 [46:17]

For this new Shostakovich release, BR-Klassik has coupled together recordings of the Symphony No. 9 together with the Concerto for piano, trumpet and string orchestra. These performances played by the Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks are conducted by the late Mariss Jansons who served as the orchestra’s chief conductor for seventeen years. Growing up in Latvia - then integrated into the Soviet Union - Jansons was a great admirer of the Soviet-Russian composer Shostakovich, expressing the view that ‘Shostakovich is one of the most serious and sincere composers of them all’.

Shostakovich was an accomplished pianist in music school but on his devoting his life to composition, performing took a back seat - although he still played, and at the 1933 premiere of the Concerto for piano, trumpet and string orchestra the twenty-seven-year-old composer was the soloist. His pair of piano concertos were written some twenty-four years apart and have become much loved works, established in the concert hall. The Concerto for piano, trumpet and string orchestra is more widely known as the First Piano Concerto; although written in the shadow of the oppressive Soviet regime, its sense of riotous amusement certainly doesn’t reflect the dark terror of those times and its uncommon scoring for two solo instruments accompanied by strings makes it redolent of a baroque concerto. The role of the trumpet is an essential factor in infusing the work with a distinctive mocking, impudent character. Music writer and Shostakovich specialist Ronald Stevenson astutely described the score as ‘a celebration of a Russian circus.’

Soviet-born, Israeli-American pianist Yefim Bronfman knows the First Piano Concerto well, having in 1998 recorded it for Sony an all-Shostakovich programme with the Second Piano Concerto and the Piano Quintet. Bronfman is here accompanied by German trumpeter Hannes Läubin and the duo is in impressive form, entirely responsive to the distinctive features of the score and clearly relishing its technical and expressive demands. The work shifts rapidly between character extremes, being spiked with cruel, witty mockery but also evincing heartbreak and helplessness. The joyless and ominous mood of the Lento stands out and adroitly realised by Bronfman and the Bavarian orchestra. Marked Allegro con brio, the Finale is a riotous showpiece with the playing of Bronfman and Läubin sparkling exuberantly from start to finish. Entirely supportive of the soloists, Jansons and his string orchestra provide a committed, spontaneous performance laced with personality.

Since their release on vinyl my first choice for both of Shostakovich’s piano concertos has been the exceptional 1983 London accounts performed by soloist Dmitri Alexeev with the English Chamber Orchestra under Jerzy Maksymiuk with Philip Jones as trumpet soloist. Released on the Classics for Pleasure label (EMI), its interesting coupling is The Assault on Beautiful Gorky for piano and orchestra from the Soviet film The Unforgettable Year 1919, Op. 89 (1951).
Soviet-Russia born conductor Vasily Petrenko began recording his complete Shostakovich symphony cycle with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 2010. Prior to a concert I interviewed him in the conductor room for ‘Seen and Heard’ and he talked about the Shostakovich symphonies: ‘With all of them we can follow the history of his biography and the history of Russia in the twentieth century because they are all closely related to the events of the years that they were written. They are evocative of the events of the political and cultural life of the time in Russia.’

Following the Soviet victory over Hitler’s Third Reich in the ‘Great Patriotic War’ (a propaganda title used by the Soviet newspaper Pravda in 1941) it was expected that Shostakovich would write a grandiose, triumphant symphony in praise of Stalin but the Ninth Symphony displays a mocking contempt for Stalin, his circle, and Soviet dogma. In retrospect it comes as no surprise that the neo-classical form and rather inconsequential nature of the Ninth was judged by the authorities as rebellious and attracted bitter criticism. It seems that in the Ninth Shostakovich was also acknowledging the anti-Semitism of Stalin’s Soviet Union, as it contains several Jewish features such as Hebrew and klezmer music. As a consequence, in 1948, Shostakovich and other composers were officially denounced for writing unsuitable and ‘formalist’ music. Shostakovich was threatened, had privileges withdrawn and was dismissed from his post at the Moscow Conservatory. Much of his music was banned, including the Ninth Symphony which wasn’t performed again until 1955.

This feels like a deeply personal reading from Jansons who undoubtedly understands the significance of the Ninth Symphony and the real danger into which Shostakovich, as the pre-eminent Soviet composer, had put himself by this audacious act of defiance. It is a score entirely devoid of victorious flag-waving grandeur and despite its five movements is relatively short, taking here just over twenty-four minutes to perform. Jansons’ interpretation is compelling and entirely authentic; his perceptive judgment of weight and tempi are outstanding. In Jansons’ hands, the opening Allegro movement is jocular and comical, inhabiting an uplifting, carefree mood. Amid the martial quality and the less serious side of writing, a point of curiosity to me remains the prominent use of the repeated trombone motif. Throughout the pervading melancholy of the Moderato Jansons reveals a cynical disposition in the writing. Marked Presto – Attacca, at just under three minutes the short, central Scherzo starts with sparklingly upbeat writing that evokes a Tchaikovsky ballet. Soon the character transforms into that of a grim and heavy, martial quality. Taking just over three minutes here, an ominous brass fanfare opens the compelling Largo - Attacca movement, although the prevailing mood is determined by a distinctively forlorn melody on the solo bassoon. It has been said that the bassoon here evokes a Kaddish, the hymn of praise to God found in Jewish services. Only a reprise of the ominous brass fanfare interrupts the bassoon. In the Finale, marked Allegretto, Jansons’ build-up to the climax is achieved marvellously. However, instead of the expected declaration of Stalin’s triumph, Shostakovich ensures that the climax is banal and uninspiring. No doubt the notion of praising Stalin as a hero was abhorrent to Shostakovich, hence the disingenuous jubilation, displaying his derision.

My first-choice recording of the Ninth Symphony is from Soviet-Russian conductor Rudolf Barshai with the WDR Sinfonieorchester in 1995/96 in the Philharmonie, Cologne on Brilliant Classics. The perceptive Barshai displays firm resolve, together with energy and brisk tempi. It is available on a single CD coupled with the Tenth Symphony, but his complete cycle of Shostakovich symphonies for that label is an essential addition to any serious collection. Another compelling account is Michael Sanderling conducting the Dresdner Philharmonie in 2018 in the Kulturpalast, Dresden. It may seem an under-charged performance compared to some, but Sanderling is an insightful interpreter of Shostakovich’s sound world, and his players demonstrate conviction and controlled power. It is part of his complete set of Shostakovich symphonies on Sony Classical consisting of recordings that are part-live and part-studio recorded. This Ninth is not one of the five symphonies in Sanderling’s Dresden cycle released separately as single CDs each coupled with a Beethoven symphony and is available only as part of the complete set.

These BR Klassik radio broadcast recordings were made a year and a half apart, the earlier live from 2011 in the Große Musikvereinssaal, Vienna, and there is audience applause at the conclusion of the symphony. The First Piano Concerto was recorded in the Herkulessaal, Munich, and is also given as being live, although there is no applause. The album profits from clear, satisfying, especially well-balanced sound quality and the booklet essay entitled ‘Circus, Circus’, written by musicologist Jörg Handstein, is very helpful. By current standards, at forty-six minute the playing time of this BR-Klassik album is extremely short. In the Herkulessaal concerts where this account of the First Piano was recorded, Rodion Shchedrin’s Self-Portrait – Variations for Orchestra (1984) was also on the programme, and one wonders why it wasn’t included on this album.

This first-class release of the Shostakovich Ninth Symphony and First Piano Concerto is a valuable addition to Mariss Jansons’ extensive recorded legacy. It is a compelling album, providing genuine competition to my favourite recordings in the catalogue without displacing them.   

Michael Cookson

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