Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 11 "The Year 1905" (CD Review)

Andris Nelsons, Boston Symphony Orchestra. DG B0028595-02.

By Karl W. Nehring

If you paid much attention to the recent Grammy Awards you would already know that this two-CD set from DG was honored not only as the best classical recording of 2018 but also as the best-engineered classical recording of 2018. Of course, there was the time that the Grammy for Best Heavy Metal Album was bestowed upon Jethro Tull, so perhaps we might want to consider this Shostakovich recording a little more closely before automatically running out -- or more likely these days, sitting down at our keyboards -- to pick up a copy.

Shostakovich composed his Fourth Symphony in 1936 during the same time period when his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtesnsk District gained popularity with the public but disfavor from the Communist party. The composer, fearing for the safety of his family, tucked the manuscript away. It finally received its premier in Moscow in 1961.

It is a large symphony, in many ways a brash symphony, not the kind of work that most of us can just casually audition and immediately be drawn in. Indeed, although I have owned several recordings over the years, I never heard one that I can really say that I liked. The music always just sounded too hard, too brittle, both in performance but also in sound. I had a Haitink version on CD for quite some time, and a Jarvi, but they got taken to the used-CD store to be traded in during one of my infrequent shelf purges (poor Shostakovich!) when I would rid myself of CDs that I had little or no interest in ever playing again. I had subsequently added to my collection a version led by Ormandy, but seldom played it -- it was part of a set that also included the Tenth, which I was much more inclined to listen to on the rare occasions that I pulled that particular boxed set off the shelf.

Andris Nelsons
However, as an avid Shostakovich fan I could never quite get the Fourth out of my mind, so when this new recording appeared, I decided to give the piece a fresh hearing. What a revelation! No longer did it strike my ears as hard and brittle. Brash, yes, but in a bold and exciting way. From the opening notes, the music just pulled me in, with a warm sound that was both powerful and deep. At less than half a minute into the work, the sheer power of the music and recording are already made mightily manifest -- my goodness, what a bold introduction!

The mood of the Fourth is martial. This is music of conflict, turmoil, heat, passion, and power. As intense as his Fifth, Eighth, and Tenth Symphonies might be, it is the Fourth that captures Shostakovich at his most powerful and passionate. Like Mahler on steroids washed down with Red Bull. The liner notes refer to the work as "immense, confident, and extroverted." The conductor, orchestra, and recording engineers have done their best to underline that assertion. If you are a fan of Shostakovich and/or of Mahler, this recording is something you must hear.

The Eleventh Symphony, subtitled "The Year 1905," was composed in 1957, when the USSR was observing the 40th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. There had been an uprising in 1905 that came to be regarded as a kind of "dress rehearsal" for 1917, so Shostakovich composed a symphony that reworked the melodies of some revolutionary workers' songs plus a couple of songs that he had previously written as part of his 1951 composition, Ten Poems. Although there is still an undercurrent of tension in this music, the overall mood is more subdued that in the Fourth.

Indeed, the Eleventh could almost be taken for a movie soundtrack. It is moody, reflective, occasionally flaring up into a kind of smoldering tension. Overall, it is easier to listen to than the Fourth, but not as rewarding. Still, it is an interesting symphony, well recorded, and certainly a worthy disc-mate to the Fourth. Both symphonies were recorded in concert performance, but there is thankfully no audience distraction to be heard.

Whether this release truly is the best classical performance and recording of the year is an open question, but there is no doubt that it is certainly in solid contention for both honors. To listen to it on a good system is an ear- and mind-opening experience not to be missed by Shostakovich fans (and those whose could be).

KWN

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:


2 comments:

  1. I find the recording quality weak (too congested at times, the celesta sounds weird in the 11th) but Nelson's has some interesting tempo choices especially in the 4th. None would be my top-choice, I think the 11th and 4th really need much more energy than here, nut an interesting release nonetheless.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I am glad you found them at least interesting. I would love to hear your top choices for both works -- I am always on the lookout for good recordings. Thanks for commenting!

    ReplyDelete

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For over 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me--point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

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I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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