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Shostakovich sy9 900202
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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, Op. 35 (1933) [21:57]
Symphony No. 9 in E flat major, Op. 70 (1945) [24:20]
Yefim Bronfman (piano)
Hannes Läubin (trumpet)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 15-19 October 2012, Herkulessaal, Munich (concerto) and 21 March 2011, Musikvereins, Vienna (symphony)
BR KLASSIK 900202 [46:17]

What an extraordinary work Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto is! You could leave it playing while you were doing the ironing and think nothing of it, but give it your full attention and it turns into something both gripping and elusive. Shostakovich was a fan of the circus, and there is plenty of circus in the outer movements of this concerto, along with vaudeville, music hall, cinema … the excellent insert note, presenting the finale, evokes Tom and Jerry. Yet the two inner movements are completely different. The insert note, again, refers to ‘Their sometimes powerful, Late Romantic pathos’, and wonders if ‘the feelings here [are] merely being feigned?’, a fair question given the high spirits and general foolishness of the two movements that surround them.

There seems to be no doubt in the minds of the present performers that the inner movements are very serious indeed. There is great depth of feeling here, with not the slightest hint of pastiche or assumed melancholy. The trumpet’s interlude is treated with such sensitivity that had Shostakovich come to a different decision and written the passage for the horn there could have been no greater depth of feeling. The short third movement is even more impassioned, even more convincing. The outer movements are hilarious, and more so for being pin-neat in execution. Few things are less funny than over-acted comedy. I do not say that this music is played with a straight face. I do say that when the notes are played as brilliantly and as accurately as they are here, with nothing added and nothing underlined, the comedy comes out all the more powerfully.

I think this is the finest performance I have ever heard of the First Concerto. Hannes Läubin’s playing is a miracle of clear articulation and profound musicianship, and I can do no greater homage to Yefim Bronfman’s pianism than to say that it is on the same exalted level. Jansons, as always, is a superb accompanist. Three fine musical minds have come together here and devoted serious attention to what can seem a slight work, revealing it thereby to be a quirky, equivocal masterpiece.

We read in the booklet that the Ninth Symphony was ‘enthusiastically applauded’ at its first performance in November 1945. Embarking on a new symphony to follow your eighth, with Beethoven’s towering achievement in mind, might be thought sufficiently daunting in itself. That the work’s purpose is to celebrate a great military and patriotic victory can only have added to Shostakovich’s apprehension. He had made considerable progress with a work which, if completed, would probably have been as monumental as his two preceding symphonies. But he did not complete it. Indeed, he abandoned work on it and produced, instead, this extraordinary Ninth, a work of not even 25 minutes’ duration. As the first rehearsals were taking place, we learn from the booklet that Shostakovich ‘kept on chanting “Circus, circus” to himself, as if to make the conductor understand the character of the music’. There is, indeed, just as much of the ‘circus’ in the symphony as there was in the concerto of more than two decades earlier. A final quote from the booklet offers a powerful clue to the appreciation of this extraordinary work, and to the composer’s output as a whole: ‘In Shostakovich’s ambiguous world one can never precisely predict where the fun ends and bloody seriousness begins.’

Mariss Jansons truly had the measure of the Ninth Symphony. Many passages are undeniably comic, and these are delivered with an irresistible lightness of touch that is clearly part of the conductor’s vision but which requires the stunningly virtuoso playing of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra for its delivery. The leader’s first movement solo, ridiculous in itself, is given with a refinement and attention to detail and articulation that is totally convincing. Textures are of the utmost clarity throughout, even in the most heavily scored passages. The melancholy of the second movement – a kind of disabled waltz - is perfectly expressed, and the first bassoon’s solos in the short fourth movement are played with the utmost eloquence. And how typical of Shostakovich that it is that same solo instrument that launches the knockabout finale, where Jansons and his magnificent musicians prove to us once again, if proof were needed, that serious and weighty matters are likely to be hiding behind the most uproarious comedy.

I have quoted extensively from Jörg Handstein’s booklet note because it is excellent, informative and lucid, a model of its kind. The audience in the concerto – these are concert performances – is all but imperceptible; its members shift (but not cough!) between the movements of the symphony, and they burst into enthusiastic applause at the end, as they should. The recorded sound is terrific.

William Hedley

Previous review: Michael Cookson

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