So, how does one approach conducting and recording the greatest symphony of the 20th Century? A strong and varied attack, I think. Attack may be too strong a word for a musical task, but faced with the daunting prospects of ‘competing’ with the Mravinksys and Karajans of this world, attack may not be strong enough. Karajan thought so much of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony he recorded it twice, analogue and digital. Both are supreme examples of the recorded arts and are easily the benchmarks by which all are measured.
In these uber digital and streaming days, the Russians have new champions of their greatest composer. Well, one Latvian. Valery Gergiev and Vasily Petrenko, the Russians, are fine interpreters Shostakovich’s works, and Petrenko has given us a dynamite modern recording in his complete set with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra on Naxos. I thought it might not be bettered for some time. It has all you need — a very good recording, a great interpretation, fine playing, with the rough and ready Shostakovich needs for a good Russian boot in the arse. If you have it and only require one recording, read no further. You’re set.
But if you are like me and ravage any new recording of the 10th ‘till the bits are sore, then read on. We have a masterpiece on our hands.
In purely recording terms, this new DG release, recorded live (4/2015) by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and their Music Director Andris Nelsons in Boston Symphony Hall, is a stunner. Warm, detailed, incredibly dynamic, and doing the elusive or impossible, capturing the brio, the excitement of a live performance.
The louder instruments all sound wonderful and will thrill you, but it is the quieter moments that really thrilled me. There are numerous moments in the symphony where a solo sits atop quiet, massed strings. I heard every section balanced by Nelsons to perfection, each with their individual timbres, be it violas, cellos or the fabulous basses. Audiophiles will love this recording. I listened via hi res digital download on my reference system and on Tidal HiFi via my SONOS system (streaming on the day of release. Bloody Bravo, Tidal!). Both sources were fantastic. I hope it gets released on vinyl.
Nelsons’ interpretation is superb. He wrings out as much drama as Karajan and Petrenko and adds some of his own touches that only serve the music. To perfection, I thought.
So, to the playing. Nelsons and his new band have received a lot of hype. A ton of promotional material. Even the ‘old’ BSO is getting into the digital promotion game. Behind the Berlin Phil or LSO, but certainly better than other American Big Five bands.
Where the BSO did score top of the heap was signing Andris Nelsons. He was, for sure, number one in the voting for the Berlin spot, but had just signed a long term contract with Boston. Unlike soccer stars who simply walk away from million dollar contracts, he’s staying with Boston. Good for him. After only one year, many pundits are hearing a new spring in the orchestra’s step. Nelsons is so good, back in 2007 the CBSO players begged the admin to hire him after one three hour rehearsal! And you know how brilliantly that worked. Lucky Boston, I say.
And here is the first recording that suggests how far the orchestra has come (through no fault of theirs or James Levine, who was dogged with injury through his tenure as their Music Director). If Nelsons stays for the long term, Boston may be in for a Charles Munch-like period. This recording will certainly stand the test of time.
So, does it better Karajan’s two efforts? Yes and no. As a recording, there is no contest between this DG and Karajan’s. I think his DGs were recorded in the Jesus Christ Church (analogue) and Philharmonie (digital). Both suffer from Karajan’s meddling, but are infinitely better than many of his recordings. ‘Glassy’ is the oft used term for DGs of that era. This new recording is magnificent. How can a bass drum sound ‘sweet’? Here it does.
As for the performance, the Boston Symphony matches the Berlin virtuosos of the 70s and 80s. Ensemble is cracker jack and they follow Nelsons everywhere he wants to go. Only when we get to solos (and they are numerous and very important in this symphony) do we have in my opinion a (very) slight differential in favour of the Berliners. Flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and solo violin have very important moments that halt or propel the symphony. Respectively, Berliners Karl Heinz Zoller, Lothar Koch, Karl Leister, Gerd Seifert, and Michel Schwalbe own these solos on record. Boston’s solo lineup is also superb, especially Elizabeth Rowe on flute and John Ferillo on oboe, but grabbing at straws for the pickiest listener, the clarinet and horn, wonderful players though they are, are not up to the stellar Berlin sounds.
That’s it, though. A slight sound preference on two instruments. Not bad when you are comparing a new recording with two of the greatest performances of any repertoire ever committed to disc.
As such, buy with confidence. Tidal HiFi streamers, you already have it. Do stay away from the iTunes download and be sure get the CD or arrange for a digital hi res download.
The release title has the added ‘Under Stalin’s Shadow’. I’ve ignored this marketing angle and, like Valery Gergiev stated recently in a long interview with Charlie Rose, just ignore the politics around Shostakovich, much of it is nonsense, and just enjoy the music. I did. Andris Nelsons and the BSO recordings of Symphonies 5 through 9 are scheduled for release.
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10; Passacaglia Interlude from Act II of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Boston Symphony Orchestra / Andris Nelsons
DG 0289 479 5059 2 [64:50]