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