RECORDING REVIEW | Shostakovich | USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra/Rozhdestvensky | "any reading would find it difficult to top the upfront and ambitious execution of the Third Symphony"

Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 1 in F minor, op. 10
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, op. 20 ‘First of May’
USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra/Gennadi Rozhdestvensky
rec. Moscow 1984 (3), 1985 (1)
ALTO ALC1344 [66:55]

Much as the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms are central repertoire for conductors from the West, the symphonies of Shostakovich have become such for conductors of Soviet backgrounds. This has been the case Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, even if he premier any of these pieces as did the likes of Mravinsky, Kondrashin and Barshai.

On the current disc, two early symphonies of Shostakovich, namely the first and third are programmed. Despite being written before the composer turned 30, these works contain a substantial level of individuality. Present in both works are characteristics of what can be called the early style of the composer; a certain fearlessness and grotesquery is attempted. Importantly, they reveal Shostakovich’s early exposure to film music. Catchy themes form a rhetoric that is both emotionally direct and deeply felt. With each piece lasting around half an hour, the durations, too, are undemanding.

For a graduation work written by a 19 year old student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the Symphony in F minor, has an immense range of experimentation. Stravinsky’s rhythmic exploitation is complemented with a daring sense of bite in the first two movements. The second half of the symphony displays the young composer plunging into emotional depths reminiscent of Mahler's and Myaskovsky’s symphonies. As much as the work is technically noteworthy, its emotional contours are mature as well as multifaceted.

Rozhdestvensky leads the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra in a furious and spirited account of this work. Rozhdestvensky is a master of expression. Already in the first movement, the solo violinist can be heard thrashing onto the notes whilst the timpanist engages his art with great force; the sheer physicality of the sound evokes something far beyond the notes. Whilst the tempo may be on the slower side as compared to, for example, Barshai’s account with the WDR Sinfonieorchester, a slow tempo does not necessarily indicate relaxation. Silence has never felt emptier between the piano outbursts at the end of the Allegretto. The Largo – far slower than any other accounts I have listened to – is pained in its lugubrious stillness. Enter the fourth movement; the intensity is hair raising and the dynamic range extreme, which can still take listeners by surprise. What we get overall is a performance of white intensity. One could have hoped for a less neurotic view. After all, this is a work of a 19 year old, who has yet to understand the oppressive forces of life and nature. In a sense, Kondrashin’s view with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra may strike a more ideal balance between the grotesque and youthful aspects, whilst still retaining the authentic Soviet orchestral sound. Having said this, Rozhdestvensky’s account is far above the recent, rather plainly argued, reading by Gimeno and the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, released in May. Rozhdestvensky and his team also achieve better results than the lukewarm Barshai account mentioned above.

The Symphony in E flat major ‘First of May’, being accessible and – if I may put it this way – rather unashamedly ‘Soviet’ as it were, has always been a minor favorite of mine. It is a work that is rarely performed. If this has nothing to do with the quality of the musical ideas themselves, it may be the practical baggage of hiring a full choir to sing for a mere five minutes of an already short piece that has hindered its staging. Also likely to have been problematic is the text of the sung chorus of the finale for its overt endorsement of Bolshevik ideals. Shostakovich himself is known to have wished to “portray peaceful construction in the USSR.” It may be pertinent to note that this politically correct work was written more than half a decade before the composer suffered officially from public denunciation. Whatever the case is, the work is nostalgic, sweet, brooding, propulsive and ultimately victorious. If Stravinsky’s Petrushka is brought to mind, especially in the later sections of the central Allegro, Mahler’s influence is also never far away, with the symphony portraying a whole spectrum of emotions and activities. And if a choral symphony was a thing of the 19th century Romantics in central Europe, Shostakovich has effectively created an ephemeral choral genre that oozes the scent of the time in Soviet Russia; a darkness-to-light rhetoric is achieved with hopes of a new social order.

Rozhdestvensky does exactly what is expected in such a ‘revolutionary’ work. Like in the First Symphony, taking a slower pace than his Soviet colleagues Kondrashin (Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra) and Barshai (WDR Sinfonieorchester) have done, there is formidable grit and intensity in the earthly brass-and-timpani driven attacks. A sense of rugged monumentality is achieved. Comparatively, Barshai’s rounded and bass-heavy tone is too well mannered and Kondrashin’s account, although lyrical and well-balanced, sounds shaky at times due to the immense speed at which it is driven. Especially effective in Rozhdestvensky’s reading are the slow sections, where a sense of desolation and melancholy is effectively painted. As if to further emphasize a poetry of emptiness, the conductor takes the liberty of replace the entire string section with a solo violin in the Andante.

In fact, it is the non-Russian conductor Haitink, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, that creates an account that is almost a contender to that of Rozhdestvensky (In fact, Haitink was not unknown in Moscow at the time and after concerts there, Shostakovich is known to have approved the Dutchman’s performances). While the studio recording may lack the fire and anxiety central to Shostakovich’s soundworld, each note’s expression is sincere and deeply felt. If there is a real caveat, however, it takes place in the last choral movement where the tempo drags rather than emphasizing the nature of the celebratory occasion. One may critique Rozhdestvensky’s approach as wanting in subtlety and refinement, of which Haitink is a true master. However, when an orchestra play together with such confidence as is done in the current performance, one cannot but admire their masterly understanding of the score and the evoked sense of communal spirit.

Overall, while both readings by Rozhdestvensky are no doubt top drawer material, there are a large number of fine accounts of the First Symphony to explore in the market. However, any reading would find it difficult to top the upfront and ambitious execution of the Third Symphony.

Both recordings suffer from poor sound quality. The acoustics is dry, grainy, and treble-heavy; these defects can especially be noticed during climaxes. At the same time, it is a style of music making that is long gone in the 21st century. Just as much as people are fascinated in abandoned places, there is unique beauty that rugged things can conjure – within this eerie and mysterious landscape lies an evocative relic fully contained within its own milieu.

[The article was originally published on MusicWeb International]

Young-Jin Hur