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Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 -1975)
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43 (1936)
Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103 ‘The Year 1905’ (1957)
BBC Symphony Orchestra (4), BBC Philharmonic (11)/Gennady Rozhdestvensky
rec. live, 9 September 1978, Royal Albert Hall, London, ADD (4); 4 October 1997, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, UK, DDD (11)
ICA CLASSICS ICAC5169 [62 + 64]

I am well aware that for many of my music-loving friends and colleagues Shostakovich is the greatest twentieth century symphonist, but despite my being a reviewer of a certain age and experience, it is only in recent years that I have started to warm up to his music and even now there are for me certain of his symphonies which remain no-go areas.

These two symphonies do not fall within that category – indeed, I would not otherwise have the temerity to review a recording of them – but I am sure that I am not alone in finding that there are aspects of both which are…challenging (to employ a favourite modern euphemism).

My previous acquaintance with them has been through Petrenko’s recording of the Fourth and Haitink’s Eleventh – both of which came to me highly recommended. However, Gennady Rozhdestvensky had a special status as an interpreter of Shostakovich, being his great friend and champion and performing his works worldwide. These two performances, although separated by nearly two decades, present the advantage of retaining the impact of live performances by a passionate advocate of the music – and the disadvantage of some persistent coughing. Otherwise, the sound in both is quite tolerable but the Fourth, in particular, cannot compare with the depth and brilliance of the sound on the Naxos disc, which has great immediacy, whereas there is a certain distance between us and the BBC SO, considerable ambient creak and rustle and a bit of the aforementioned coughing. Nor, it must be said, does that orchestra attack the opening with as much vehemence as Petrenko’s Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, whose percussion, in particular, is so aptly prominent.

Rozhdestvensky had recently been appointed chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra when this performance of the Fourth Symphony was recorded in the Albert Hall. He takes all three movements somewhat faster than Petrenko but not, I would say, to any particular dramatic gain. His dynamic shading is an asset, especially in the eerie central movement, but Petrenko is just as subtle and insinuating. I also think that his steadier pace captures the macabre, ironic, Mahlerian aspect of the Largo funeral march in the opening of the third movement more completely, too, as well as helping to diffuse the accusation of the “banality” of some of the themes. And what of the first thunderous, then haunting, glockenspiel conclusion to that finale? Petrenko is the more memorable and distinct, immeasurably aided by the clarity of the digital engineering, whereas the older, live analogue recording is a bit mushy; the huge orchestra sometimes sounds like a wash of sound. Finally, as good as the BBC SO is, the modern RLPO comes across as the better orchestra.

I personally find that the vivid programme music of the Eleventh makes it much the more approachable work. The advantage of sound that Petrenko has does not of course necessarily apply here, in that this is a digital recording made fourteen years later than Haitink’s – but once again the Decca studio recording is superior this live performance in Manchester, which, again, has quite a lot of ambient noise. Both conductors capture the menace and foreboding of that the atmospherically “Mussorgskian” chill dawn depicted in the opening, Rozhdestvensky taking that introduction more slowly than Haitink but not, I think, necessarily to any great profit. Contrariwise, Haitink takes the Adagio funeral march considerably more slowly at 11:23 than Rozhdestvensky at exactly nine minutes, establishing a greater – or, at least, a more obvious - contrast between the sombre, folk-song opening and the insistent, percussive conclusion; I prefer both his pacing and the sonority of his studio sound and the pounding ending hits home harder – but Rozhdestvensky’s transition without a break into the wild opening of the finale is the more gripping and that excitement is sustained through to end, with some wonderful digging deep by the BBC Philharmonic’s low strings from three minutes onwards. If anything will sway you to prefer these live performances over a studio recording such as that by Haitink, it is the virulence of this movement, its last notes hailed by immediate, tumultuous applause. This was obviously one of those occasions people remember. Having said, that the Concertgebouw is predictably incisive and virtuosic and they, too, provide the necessary volume and drive to make that ending equally thrilling; the enormous climax and sudden default to the drone opening the symphony is magical.

There is nothing to choose between the respective performances of the terrifying second movement; both are overwhelming with the snare drum, bass drum and tam-tam all brutally suggestive of carnage. Yet again, only the clarity of Haitink’s studio sound distinguishes the two – and perhaps that to some degree mitigates the chaotic impact of the music compared with the glorious din of the live performance.

For all that Rozhdestvensky’s performances reek of authenticity, on balance – and despite that magnificent peroration to the Eleventh - in the end if I want to hear these symphonies, I am more inclined to turn to the finest studio recordings such as those I use for comparison above – but the conductor’s adherents will still want to hear this double bill.

Ralph Moore

Published: November 10, 2022

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