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Friday, July 6, 2018

Recordings Review: This is (Double) Jeopardy!

Boston's Shostakovich cycle with Andris Nelsons continues with No. 4 and No. 11.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Andris Nelsons at the helm of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Photo by Marco Borggreve.

Some Shostakovich symphonies are more popular than others. The Fifth (more on that in a minute) and the Tenth (a reaction to the death of Stalin) are relatively optimistic and are programmed by larger orchestras. The Seventh's reputation rests on the occasion of its birth. (It was written under fire as the Nazis attacked Leningrad.) Of the remainder, it is rare indeed to hear an orchestra tackle No. 4 and No. 11, so Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra are to be accoladed for releasing these two very different and very difficult works together as the latest entry in the conductor's ongoing project: a recorded cycle of the complete Shostakovich symphonies.

The Fourth is Shostakovich's first mature symphonic statement. (The First was a student work, Two and Three are choral propaganda works.) Written in 1935-6, it was shelved by the composer when his music was attacked in Pravda. It was not performed until 1961, when Stalin was safely in the grave and the cultural climate had cooled. Even so it is an afterthought in his catalogue, programmed only by the bravest of conductors. (The Fifth, which redeemed Shostakovich's reputation with the Soviet government, is heard much more often. That work is constructed from some of the same musical building blocks. Listening to these two symphonies together is a revealing and worthy experience, but that's another column.)

Shostakovich packed enough thematic and musical ideas for seven different symphonies into a hectic opening movement, turning on a dime between a bustling little march tune, circus percussion, and a traditional Russian lament that is a window to the composer's inner torment. The second half of the first movement (helpfully divided on this disc into a separate cue) is marked Presto and starts with a crazed, skittering fugue. The percussion and brass charge hard into the contrapuntal texture and bang out a series of climaxes that somehow returns to the opening thematic ideas. It's comical and passionate, the great complexity of life bursting on the ears.

The Mahlerian tone returns in the bridge movement, a tiny musical fuselage between the two great outer wings. The woodwinds hold sway here, twittering, bleating and moaning an odd, off-kilter folk dance, as if a celebration in a country farmhouse keeps getting interrupted by the secret police. The third movement begins hesitantly, with a flute and piccolo over a dirge-like figure. (This idea would get reworked, more slowly into the "frozen" Adagio of the Fifth.) A menacing Andante tread leads to alarms in the woodwinds, introducing the movement's apocalyptic second half. This is an exhausting twenty-two minute Allegro: a terrifying roller-coaster ride that finally grinds to a halt.

In the sure hands of Mr. Nelsons and his disciplined Boston forces, this is great stuff. Yes the players stretch themselves to the utmost, with particularly heavy lifting done by the flutes and oboes. The overall effect, once the ratcheted tension is finally released, is simply thrilling, a musical and emotional payoff in each of those big fortissimo peaks. Along the way are heroic solos for piccolo, trombone and bassoon, Shostakovich's circus clowns that bring a dark humor to the proceedings. Even though the home listener has the luxury of the pause button (that one does not have in the concert hall) but the experience is still a thrilling, terrifying and intense one, especially as the work winds to its dark, uncertain finish.

Those three adjectives are also good descriptors for the Symphony No. 11, subtitled The Year 1905. Although this work was the composer's greatest success in Russia (after the Seventh) it was dismissed in the West as an empty work of political propaganda. It is a rich and detailed account of the massacre of unarmed protesters in front of the Winter Palace in January of 1905, an event that triggered the first phase of the Russian Revolution. It is a traditional four movement symphony with a brutal second movement depicting the gunning down of the protesters on that fateful day. One might interpret this as is Shostakovich's critique of the brutish tactics used by the Communist Party during Stalin's reign of terror.

This work tells its story like a film soundtrack in four contiguous movements. Mr. Nelsons maintains expert control of the icy textures of the opening, capturing the desperation and determination of the protesters as they plod grimly forward. Trumpet calls echo and sound, leading into the confrontation of the second movement. There, the sound of murder and mayhem is heard in the rat-a-tat of the snare drum, which moves suddenly from the background to the fore depicts the systematic slaughter with pounding, relentless fury over bass drum and gong. The orchestra screams its distress, only to end in sudden, sickening silence.

The last two movements are powerful. "Eternal Memory" is an elegy in the mold of other "frozen" Shostakovich adagios, a folk song set over plucked accompaniment. Careful control is kept over the pace, and the strings sing their anguish with richness of tone. The brass announce the fourth movement: "Tocsin", which is a series of military marches culminating in the sound of an alarm . The finale has the orchestra arguing between G major and G minor, an irreconcilable musical divide that will not find its solution until the pages of Symphony No. 12. 

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