The subtitle for this album is "Under Stalin's Shadow." That's because the Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) premiered his Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 in 1953, just a few months after the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. As it was for many Soviet composers, trying to write music that conformed to the Soviet censorship rules of the 1920's through 50's was not easy. Stalin and his followers tended to take a dim view of modern music, describing Shostakovich's 1934 opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as "coarse, primitive, and vulgar," and an article appearing in the official Communist newspaper Pravda calling such material "Muddle instead of music." The opera soon after disappeared from the Soviet stage. With Stalin's death came a general liberation of the arts in the Soviet Union and a somewhat greater flexibility in what Soviet composers could write.
Shostakovich was tight-lipped about the Tenth. He said he wanted his listeners to come away from it with a meaning of their own, apart from any prescribed program. What we know about the symphony is that Shostakovich wrote it more than eight years after his Ninth Symphony, and he apparently intended the Tenth as a personal reaction against the old Stalinist restrictions on modern music, as well as an affirmation of the loosening bonds on artistic expression.
In his Deutsche Grammophon debut album with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Latvia-born Andris Nelsons (who began his duties as Boston's Music Director for the 2014-2015 season) conducts the work. As a person born under the Soviet regime and who later saw his country's independence, Nelsons seems well prepared to lead Shostakovich's music. Moreover, he does so with energy, incisiveness, and commitment.
Educated guesses suggest that the lengthy darkness of the opening movement probably echos the long, dreary years of Soviet repression. Maestro Nelsons takes a generally broader view of this movement than many other conductors, emphasizing its dark, gloomy aspects. However, the intensity almost never flags, and although this first movement is pretty stark, under Nelsons it is also rather enjoyable. He doesn't exactly soften the music's impact with slower speeds; rather, he uses a flexible tempo to emphasize various points in the score, so we get not just an unpleasantly severe landscape but a sad, pensive one as well. If I still have a preference for Karajan's slightly more concentrated approach, well, perhaps it's because I've lived with it longer. Give me a few more years with Nelsons and maybe it will grow on me further.
In the second movement, a scherzo, Shostakovich tried creating an unflattering portrait of the former dictator. Nelsons could have handled this movement even more brutally, particularly if one views it as a portrait of Stalin. Still, the conductor injects a modest dose of savagery into proceedings, enough certainly to keep our interest.
It's in the big closing movement we encounter an exultation, possibly a private victory, albeit a dark victory, and it's here that Nelsons seems at his best. He begins the music as quietly, peacefully, as one would want, then gradually adds the good cheer, building optimism as he proceeds. Finally, the piece culminates in the triumphant outbursts from timpani and orchestra we expect.
Maestro Nelsons has said of the symphony, "You never knew what could happen next. And even though Stalin has died, that fear remains. There is no immediate sense of joy or relief. With the frantic repetition of D-S-C-H, I hear Shostakovich saying to Stalin, with sarcasm and irony: 'You are dead but I am still alive! I'm still here!' After the Tenth Symphony, Shostakovich was finally free to explore other questions."
Coupled with the symphony, we get the Passacaglia from Act II of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the work that began all the fuss about Shostakovich. Nelson's interpretation of the music makes it as mysterious and brooding as any you'll find, though maybe not as menacing as possible. Still, it's a fine, atmospheric reading, with delicate gradations of color.
Producer and engineer Shawn Murphy and engineer Nick Squire recorded the album live at Symphony Hall, Boston, Massachusetts in April 2015. I have to begin by saying what I've said many times before: No matter how good the live recording, and this one is quite good, I've heard only a few that I thought sounded as good as ones without an audience.
Anyway, as we have come to expect from live recordings, the sound is fairly close up; yet it isn't quite in-your-face close, and, in fact, there is some moderate orchestral depth involved. The frequency balance is quite natural, giving no undue prominence to any part of the spectrum, except perhaps at the upper-midrange level. I would have liked a bit more lower-end warmth, too, although the deepest bass comes through admirably, strong and taut. As far as concerns clarity, transient response, dynamics, and such, they also sound fine. As I say, for a live performance this recording appears well above average, with almost zero audience noise that I could detect until the very end when an unfortunate eruption of applause spoils one's final contemplation of the music. I just wonder how much better it could have sounded given a bit more distance and with no audience present.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: