Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No.11 ‘The Year 1905’ Opus 103 [54.49]
Symphony No.12 ‘The Year 1917’ Opus 112 [39.14]
October – symphonic poem Opus 131 [12.30]
Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Folk Themes Opus 115 [9.50]
Hamlet Suite Opus 32a [21.45]
The Age of Gold Suite Opus 22 [16.02]
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. 1998 (Op.115,131), 1989 (Op. 22, 32a, 103), 1990 (Op.112), Gothenburg Konserthuset, Sweden
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 459 415-2 [77:30 + 77:21]
Although it is not unusual these days for single-conductor Shostakovich Symphony cycles to be spread over different orchestras (think of Maris Jansons’ multi-orchestra cycle for EMI-Warner, or Mark Wigglesworth’s on BIS, to name two) Neeme Järvi’s must be the only one also to spread over two record companies (Chandos and DG). I have been very impressed with some of this conductor’s Shostakovich in the past – his account of the Fourth Symphony with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on Chandos is, in my opinion, one of the very best of all. This double-CD under review is for Järvi’s ‘other’ record company with Shostakovich, Deutsche Grammophon, plus a different orchestra, the Gothenburg Symphony and I was keen to hear it again, released as a Presto Classics on demand item - not least for the generous couplings, too.
According to the musicologist and close friend of Shostakovich, Lev Lebedinsky, when interviewed by Elizabeth Wilson in her marvellous biography of Shostakovich (‘A Life Remembered’, Faber & Faber 1994), the composer actually wrote two No. 12 symphonies. It was the work that Shostakovich had long promised his Soviet masters to celebrate one of the most important members of the ruling Communist Party, namely Vladimir Lenin, under the title of ‘The Year 1917’, which was of course when Lenin successfully led the overthrow of Tsarist rule of Russia. If Lebedinsky is to be believed, the original version was not complimentary at all about Lenin, prompting Shostakovich, in a blind panic, to rewrite the whole thing at the last minute, resulting in the work we are familiar with today. Be that as it may – and, it has to be said, nobody has yet discovered the alleged ‘discarded’ score, although the original manuscript does look as if it was written in an enormous hurry - the Twelfth Symphony is notable for two reasons; first, it paved the way for the belated premiere and rehabilitation of the withdrawn Fourth Symphony; secondly, it is the least played and perhaps also the least understood of this composer’s later symphonies. It even appears to puzzle the Russians too – when Valery Gergiev presented a series of this composer’s late symphonies with the Mariinsky Orchestra at London’s Barbican a few years ago, he conducted all the symphonies without a score - except the Twelfth. For me, it is also a strange work, one where it seems as if a master composer is going through the motions, the musical equivalent of those impossibly muscled Soviet miners, celebrated in statues throughout Russia, sleeves rolled up, hammer and sickle in hand, gazing out to the distant horizon, noble and proud, selflessly devoted to furthering the cause of the Soviet Empire - but somehow divorced from reality. The BBC also used the opening fanfares of its fourth movement, The Dawn of Humanity, as the theme music when they covered the World Chess Championships in the late 1980’s, where it seemed aptly to sum up the mystique of the Soviet grand masters, but in a game that you could never describe a passionate and full-bloodied. Perhaps it’s the conductor, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who comes closest to explaining it:
“It is not a portrait of Lenin and the revolutionary events connected with him; rather, it is a portrait of ‘Lenin propaganda’, or the ‘Lenin God’, the monstrous idol created at Stalin’s command. This is why the style of writing is ‘propaganda placard’ like and, hence, the parodying titles of the movements. What alone is worth ‘The Dawn of Humanity’ ?!”
There are two ways of playing the music. The first is perhaps represented best by Bernard Haitink on his still magnificent-sounding 1982 Decca recording where, aided by spectacular sonics and playing from the Concertgebouw Orchestra, the music emerges as proud and noble as those statues, even if they still cannot rescue the repetitive banality of the final pages. The other way is best represented by Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, who gave the premiere if the work in 1961 and who, in both their live recordings from 1961 and 1984, play it fast and hard, bashing the bejesus out of it. Neeme Järvi, in this studio recording from 1990, cunningly tries to incorporate the best of both worlds, by playing the loud music fast and hard, with the more meditative sections taken very slowly. My own view is that while that is an interesting approach, the conductor doesn’t quite pull it off, insofar it makes the more reflective sections sound dull and never-ending, whilst the more interesting and exciting parts go by too soon. That probably doesn’t quite do this well-played and well-meaning performance full justice, but the other problem is that the sound, which, while perfectly acceptable, is no match for the sonic splendour achieved by the Decca engineers a few years earlier for Haitink, nor is the Gothenburg orchestra a match for the powerhouse playing of either the Concertgebouw Orchestra for Haitink, or the super-intense Leningraders in both the Mravinsky performances on Melodiya. For me, then, this recording therefore is no competition to my aforementioned favourites, nor to Petrenko (Naxos 2009) and Wigglesworth (BIS 2005).
I’m not sure if Järvi is any more successful with his take on the Eleventh Symphony, either. This work, subtitled ‘The Year 1905’, is supposed to depict the “failed” revolution of that year and is a composition that has sometimes been dubbed a ‘film score without the film’, sniffily dismissed as no more than an agitprop broadsheet, lacking both substance and depth. I believe this view is wrong. On the surface the music may well appear to be portraying the terrible events of 9th January 1905, when a peaceful crowd gathered outside of the Tsar’s Winter Palace on a freezing Sunday morning to air their grievances, even singing ‘God Save the Tsar’, before being mown down by machine gunfire from over-zealous and nervous soldiers. The third movement, a lament, takes its main theme from the revolutionary song Vy zhertvoyu pali ("You fell as victims"), and likewise seems to follow the narrative to honour those fallen, whereas the last movement quotes themes from various revolutionary songs. However, its coda is not a glorious call to arms, foretelling the subsequent successful revolution of 1917 – how could it be when the tonality is still resolutely in the minor key? Likewise, the revolutionary song quoted in the final bars is Besnuytes, tyranny (“Tremble, tyrants") whose final line is “Shame on you, you tyrants! Shame!”. This is the key. On 25th October 1956, just before the composer began work on the piece, a build-up of local protests resulted in thousands of Hungarians amassing in Budapest’s Parliament Square to demonstrate against their (Soviet-sponsored) government. When the secret police turned their machine guns on the crowd, leaving an estimated six hundred dead, Soviet tanks then had to be despatched to quell the subsequent uprising. Shostakovich and his friends were appalled and found it hard not to draw parallels with the similarly tragic events of 1905, where a peaceful demonstration was again put down by Russian guns. Of course, in Soviet Russia, these types of views were dangerous to air publicly and such were the glaring similarities between 1905 and 1956 – and Shostakovich’s depiction of them in his Eleventh Symphony, with that damning final line of a well-known [in the USSR] revolutionary song - that during the dress rehearsal the following year in 1957, the composer’s own son urgently whispered to his father: ‘Papa, what if they hang you for this?’. Mstislav Rostropovich, a friend of the composer, made two recordings of the work, in Washington and London, and while they may not be the most successful overall, the way he ends the symphony in both recordings, with bells tolling over a roaring orchestra in G Minor, is presented not as a rousing cry to revolutionaries, but rather as a dark and ominous warning for the future and means he understood the piece better than most. He commented on it as: “a symphony written in blood, a truly tragic work. It is unremittingly tragic, and not so much about 1905, or 1956 perhaps, as about the persistently tragic pattern in human events”. As Russian guns once more bear down and crush innocent folk in 2022, Shostakovich’s symphony reveals its true identity and message that, as with Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony, mankind never seems to learn from the mistakes of the past.
I have always been fascinated with the divergences in approach to tempo in Shostakovich’s symphonies, perhaps more than with any other composer (once you have removed Celibidache from consideration!). Approaches veer from fast, ferocious and intense, to slow and implacable, with grinding, crushing power. The Eleventh Symphony is no different and I note on my shelves that there is a recording lasting just over 53 minutes by Kirill Kondrashin all the way to 72 minutes with Mstislav Rostropovich - two conductors who were both close to the composer and who also lived during, and experienced, the turbulent times he writes about. That Neeme Järvi’s account lasts only a few seconds longer than Kondrashin’s may lead you to think he too takes a swift approach to a score which itself recommends a playing time of around 60 minutes, but I felt his conception was, at times, ill thought through. There are two instances that especially prove this, the first of them occurring in the second movement entitled ‘The Ninth of January’ where, midway through the icy stillness of the air, distanced fanfares from the barracks are suddenly and violently interrupted by the machine gun fire of the snare drums, the point in the symphony describing the start of terrible massacre that day in 1905/1956. At this point, Järvi puts pedal to metal and tears through the music faster than anyone I have ever heard; it is undeniably exciting but, on the other hand, too fast to convey the terror and horror of the events the music is depicting. Similarly - and far more ruinously - he does something the same in the coda of the fourth and final movement, the ‘Tocsin’ where the fast tempo means the two revolutionary songs are all but buried within the generalised uproar of the orchestra – it is all fast and furious, signifying nothing. Once upon a time, not that long ago, when recordings of this work were not as common as they are today, this well-played and finely recorded account may well have earned an important place in the catalogue, but today it is no match for the sonically superior 1983 Decca recording for Haitink, nor is the interpretation finer than one of the best of Haitink’s very considerable cycle of the all the symphonies. Furthermore, the Gothenburg players are no match for an inspired Concertgebouw Orchestra. Likewise, since Järvi’s recording was released in 1990, there have also been other much better accounts, which I include as my favourites: once more, Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on Naxos, and as Mark Wigglesworth on BIS, this time with the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra. However, none, absolutely none, have come close in my experience to the studio account given by Mravinsky and the Leningrad PO from February 1959 (NB: this has occasionally been issued as a ‘live account’ complete with coughs and applause from 1967 – no such concert took place), where the sheer intensity of the playing, married to conducting of supreme authority, results in a reading of terrifying power and in the third movement (‘In Memoriam’) overwhelming compassion, making this Järvi recording, in my opinion, surplus to demand.
Unsurprisingly from this super-prolific conductor, the symphonies come with generous couplings. It was a neat idea to include Shostakovich’s only symphonic poem October in this set of two symphonies devoted to Russian revolutions, although perhaps the Second Symphony, subtitled To October could have been equally, if not more, appropriate. Written at the beginning of Shostakovich’s career, the symphony commemorated the tenth anniversary of the 1917 revolution, whereas the symphonic poem is from very near the end, for the fiftieth anniversary – both refer to October as this is when the Bolsheviks (later to become the Communist Party) were able to seize power that year, rather than the point the ruling Tsar and his family were overthrown (April 1917) and subsequently executed (July 1917). When writing the Second Symphony, the composer grumbled at having to set music to the over-patriotic and banal words of the choral final movement (“Oh, Lenin! You forged freedom through suffering, You forged freedom from our toil-hardened hands. We knew, Lenin, that our fate, Bears a name: Struggle.” etc) and there are clues that he was equally unimpressed with having to compose the later work, too. This would include the brooding opening which quotes from his Tenth Symphony, Shostakovich’s thinly veiled “celebration” of the death of Stalin, whereas the whole piece, which usually runs to around twelve minutes in performance, is in the minor key, save for the final bars where the trumpet fanfares sound as if they are sarcastically mocking the glorious revolution, rather than celebrating it. Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t been recorded that many times, but I am aware of decent recordings by Ashkenazy and the Royal PO on Decca, as well as Gianandrea Noseda with the BBC PO on Chandos. I think this Järvi recording is probably more convincing than either of those, largely because of the superior sonority of the Gothenburg players, but the best performance I have come across on record is by the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Veronika Dudarova on Melodiya. She was born in 1916 and remained active as a conductor until her death aged 92 in 2008; readers may be surprised to learn of a female conductor who made a successful career for herself on the podium from the early 1950’s onwards in, of all places, the Soviet Union. In this work, she paces this score very well and, at a slower tempo than the aforementioned performances, the opening broods far more menacingly, whilst the stormy central sections have more swing and panache - the players genuinely sound as if they are giving their all and believe in the music. Whether they should be believing in music ‘celebrating’ the Russian Revolution, is a question I’ll leave to readers to decide for themselves, but the music making is certainly all the better for it. In comparison, it has to be said Järvi sounds merely efficient and business-like, but some listeners may not enjoy the obligatory Soviet swimming pool acoustic of the Melodiya sonics, in which case Järvi would be the recording for them.
It has recently been said somewhere other than MusicWeb International, that Neeme Järvi does not get the respect he deserves, simply because he has not made a career performing the core repertory pieces of the (mainly) central Germanic repertoire. I believe this to be wrong. From my experience speaking to MWI readers here and elsewhere, there is indeed huge respect – and even gratitude – for Järvi’s championing of less well-known composers, as well as the pieces which lie on the fringes of the repertoire. However, there is also a tacit acknowledgement that whenever this conductor does venture into more central repertoire, whether German or not, and is therefore in direct comparison with a much more competitive legacy of recordings and concert hall history, he falls short – as this compilation under consideration repeatedly demonstrates. Even with the comparative rarity of the Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Folk Themes included in this collection, the point is reinforced once again. Personally, I am very fond of this short ten-minute work, which opens broodily before later on taking on a much more rumbustiously good-humoured mood; yes, it is noisy - but it is such good noise! I am therefore happy to see Järvi performing and recording it here, but once more when faced with heavy-weight opposition, again Haitink with the Concertgebouw Orchestra on Decca, I feel that he falls short. The Gothenburg orchestra lacks the burnished mahogany sound that Haitink seems to be able to effortlessly command in this music from the Concertgebouw, plus Järvi’s opening phrases sound four-square by comparison to the Dutch conductor, whilst later on he and his players just cannot match the flair and swagger Haitink and the Amsterdam ensemble bring to the music. How often do we say in this industry that the great is the enemy of the merely good?
Looking at photographs of Shostakovich and his dour, almost haunted expression behind the oversized glasses, it seems hard to comprehend that he was in fact a very passionate football fan. Indeed, he was also a qualified football referee (although not physically fit enough to officiate) who was respected and knowledgeable enough to write match reports for the Soviet national sports paper, Krasny Sport. A keen follower of his local team, FC Zenit (now Zenit St Petersburg), one happy afternoon he was able to host tea for that entire team in his flat. So perhaps with this in mind, it isn’t surprising to learn that he composed two pieces of football inspired music; one, entitled Russian River, now rarely heard, was commissioned in 1944 by Lavrentiy Beria, the notorious Chief of Police/KGB to whom you just didn’t say ‘no’ to, but was also a keen football player. The other, written some 15 years earlier was the large-scale ballet, The Golden Age, that depicts the exploits of a Soviet football team invited to play a match in a ‘decadent’ Western European city and portrays their experiences there, from corrupt officials and police to corrupting femme fatales. The score attempted to contrast the two cultures with decadent “Western” bourgeois dance music pitted against more upright “Soviet” music, culminating in a football match that starts with the sound of a referee’s whistle! You would never know this from listening to the Suite which lasts some 16 minutes containing four numbers: “Introduction”, “Adagio”, “Polka” and “Dance”. In this music, the competition for Järvi is far less intense and as such he delivers as fine a performance as one could wish.
The knock-about humour of the Hamlet Suite – not to be confused with the later film score of the same play – also seems to suit Järvi’s bright, breezy, exciting approach to this composer better than the more heavyweight pathos of the other works in this collection. The music in the Suite Op.32a was written for an adaptation of Hamlet in 1932, where the brooding claustrophobia of the castle at Elsinore was replaced by parody and slapstick, qualities easily discernible from the music here – and as far away as can be from the terrifyingly intense 1964 film score penned by the composer. Once more, with minimal competition elsewhere, this well-played and recorded, spiritedly performed account is recommendable.
Overall, then, this set can be recommended only to those who are either starting their collection, or need to “plug holes” with some of the rarer pieces included here. The playing of the Gothenburg orchestra is uniformly fine, if not absolutely of the first rank and the sound is decent too - and within the booklet are a set of superb notes by David Fanning, which I’m tempted to say are alone worth the price of acquiring this. However, with nearly all the works, listeners are advised to seek out the alternative versions listed throughout this review to hear greater performances of these great works.