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A review of Shostakovich's symphonies

A review of Shostakovich’s symphonies — Michael Walsh grades three of the late Soviet composer’s works

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A review of Shostakovich’s symphonies

Shostakovich, anybody? At his death in 1975, the Soviet composer was regarded by many critics as little more than a musical apparatchik who kept his head down, his mouth shut, and his pen busy. Such a view was always myopic, but how silly it seems today, when at least a third of the composer’s 15 symphonies have found their way into the orchestral repertoire, and his quartets are now considered to be among the glories of the string literature. The current vogue for Shostakovich may turn out to be as fleeting as the one half a century ago for Sibelius — or the Mahler craze of 25 years ago. Until posterity has had its say, though, expect conductors to keep testing their mettle in these magnificent scores.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10 Yoel Levi conducting the Atlanta Symphony (Telarc; CD)
The symphony that many critics feel is the composer’s masterpiece, the towering Tenth, was written in a white heat immediately after the death of Stalin in 1953. Indeed, Shostakovich himself secretly considered it to be his statement about the Stalin years, since he could express in music sentiments what he dared not utter aloud. The Tenth is the most Mahlerian of the Shostakovich symphonies, opening with a grim, ominous Moderato movement that lasts nearly half an hour, followed by a bitter four-and-a-half minute Scherzo that is a musical portrait of the monstrous dictator. The two concluding movements each last about 13 minutes and display the same deep disquiet — the fear of the midnight tread on the stairs, the knock on the door, and the muffled pistol shot in the back alley. The Atlanta Symphony is one of the better American orchestras, and under Levi it delivers a powerful, impressive reading that vividly captures the work’s feverish, nightmare qualities. The Tenth is a bad dream from which there is no awakening. We can’t help but listen and thank God we weren’t there. Not for the squeamish. B+

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 15; Symphonic Poem, ”October”; Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Folk Themes Neeme Järvi conducting the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon; CD)
Few Americans have ever heard of Sweden’s Gothenburg (or Goteborg) Symphony, but this disc serves notice that the game is afoot in Scandinavia. The Estonian-born Järvi, 53, is a no-nonsense music director whose strengths are his way with a long musical line and his willingness to let the music speak for itself. The Fifteenth, the composer’s last and most enigmatic symphony — what do the quotations from Rossini’s William Tell and Wagner’s Ring mean, anyway? — benefits from such treatment, as does the fiery patriotic tone poem ”October” (as in Bolshevik Revolution). The Gothenburgers give a good account of themselves, revealing a fine sense of ensemble: not the Berlin Philharmonic, to be sure, but not the Podunk Symphony, either. A conductor, and an orchestra, to watch. B

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 Eliahu Inbal conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony (Denon; CD)
The most popular of the Shostakovich symphonies, the Fifth fully deserves its renown. Under pressure from Stalin to produce something suitable to the Leader and Teacher’s notions of musical socialist realism, Shostakovich delivered a symphony that was 2 parts bluster and bombast and 10 parts genius. Filled with memorable melodies and surging with emotion, the Fifth packs a wallop every time you hear it. With this recording Inbal is embarking on a complete Shostakovich cycle, but he’s going to have to do better. The German orchestra plays well, but too often the conductor’s interpretation is flaccid and disinterested; how anyone can make the final pages of this symphony boring is beyond me, but Inbal manages. The rest of the cycle will be recorded with the Vienna Symphony. Maybe a change of location will help. C-