Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 11 “The Year 1905”

IMG_1136.JPG

This July 2018 release is the third of Andris Nelsons' DG Shostakovich Symphony cycle and contains live performances of the 4th [1936, but withdrawn 'till 1961] and 11th [1957] Symphonies. Nelsons is performing his Shostakovich cycle with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The first two instalments were remarkable successes, with definitive performances of the 5th and 10th Symphonies.  The 5th was paired with the 8th and 9th, the 10th stood alone. To be fair, not much could follow the 10th, what I consider the greatest symphony of the 20th Century. And therein lies the problem with a complete Shostakovich symphony cycle. Of the fifteen symphonies, I think six (1, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10) are masterpieces interspersed with lesser patriotic or dramatic works, and even a couple of jingoistic duds (2 and 3). 

So, on this recording, come for the 11th, which receives a very fine performance of what is no more than a film score with orchestrations of revolutionary songs (commemorating the Bolshevik Revolution of 1905), but stay for the 4th, one of the greatest orchestral works of the 20th Century. 

The recordings of both the 4th and 11th are as spectacular as DG afforded the previous cycle instalments. Beautiful sound from Symphony Hall, Boston, one of the great halls of the world. The blend of the orchestral sections is gorgeous—what an orchestra Boston is, and shining so brightly under Nelsons' thoughtful guidance. 

Both symphonies require the brass to broker almost unlimited power, along with some help from the percussion. I've heard only a few 11ths, but can't imagine a better recording than this. Playing, too. Magnificent. 

The Symphony No. 4 is an altogether different nut to crack. Many conductors have tried, and with some of the world's finest orchestras (Haitink/LPO/Decca; Previn/Chicago/EMI, Haitink again with Chicago). While they are not failures, the work is so episodic and unwieldy, it is a supreme challenge to get an over arching sense of structure let alone solve some of the counterpoint and balance problems. Happily, the work is of such stunning genius, any stab at it is welcome. 

I'd count Nelsons' performance the finest since the first Western recording—Columbia/Philly/Ormandy [1968]. Ormandy's is a mesmerizing performance saddled with a typical of the time Columbia repressed recording. Nonetheless, it's a marvel of a performance. This DG matches the Ormandy in many ways, but Nelsons' DG recording is in another league. And Nelsons and his players relish the connective tissue holding on for dear life to make this symphony whole. 

The BSO can handle all the musical tantrums Shostakovich throws and with apparent ease. Even the first movement string fugue, reckoned to be among the most difficult passages in orchestral music, is handled as if a student exercise. 

Tempos in all three movements are mainstream. I do find a few tempos (1st movement's opening and woodwind toccata, especially) too fast. The opening speed has the trumpets and trombones tonguing the triplets so fast that articulation is a little blurred. That's about it, though, for criticism. 

The myriad of solos are played with exceptional vitality and style. Just about every instrument has a chance to shine, but the solo flute, solo piccolo (amazing high Cs), bass clarinet and bassoon really get to strut their stuff. The last movement features a lengthy trombone solo played by Toby Oft. I've heard this very difficult solo played a hundred times and there's always something in this churlish conductor that funds fault.  Here is well nigh perfect, with Shostakovich banality and circus style thrown in for good measure. 

I'm obsessed with this symphony. I have been ever since my father bought home a copy of the 'new' Philly LP in 1969. I was confused as a child by the cover (and the music). 

fourth.jpg

But, it'll be in my collection forever. It's Shostakovich unleashed, if you can imagine that? Fearing all the Stalin nonsense, he withdrew the symphony before the scheduled premiere, but time has been very kind to this work. Its stature has grown and grown, and while listening, you'll realize what cloth-eared idiots Stalin and his cronies were. 

This symphony is now in the domain of youth orchestras (check out the Portland Youth Philharmonic on YouTube. It'll remind you of just how spectacular youth really is). For those of you waiting for the 'it' recording of the 4th, buy this CD with a flourish. Kudos to all concerned. 

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH

Symphonies Nos. 4 & 11

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons

2 CDs / Download 00028948352203

Int. Release 06 Jul. 2018