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Jansons' Latest in Shostakovich

available at Amazon
DSCH, Symphonies Nos.2 & 12,

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DSCH, Symphony No.13,

available at Amazon
DSCH, Symphony No.4,

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DSCH, Symphony No.8,
Pittsburgh SO/Jansons

Mariss Jansons wraps up his ‘global’ EMI Shostakovich cycle (Vienna, Oslo, Pittsburgh, Munich, London, Philadelphia, Berlin) with his new band, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. It was his unbelievably good 4th (reviewed here) that pointed this cycle-in-the-making out to me and even if critics have not unanimously warmed to his Shostakovich recordings (the 4th remained curiously unmentioned in a recent large Shostakovich Symphony overview in the American Record Guide), the issues I have heard so far make it difficult not to want to sample earlier outings. I have found the 8th (CHOC from Le Monde de la Musique) to be as good as any modern rival (reviewed here) while his Grammy-winning 13th, (“Babi Yar”) which I have not yet heard, won acclaim in Gramophone and was a Financial Times record of the year. Now his second to last installment is out, coupling the often neglected 2nd (“To October” – arguably the weakest in the cycle of 15) with the great 12th, “The Year 1917” op.112.

Mon Dieu. Or rather: Bozhe moi. If the earlier symphonies in this cycle really are lukewarm, Jansons might best be advised to keep going around the block one more time with this orchestra. This is good stuff! (The BRSO will record the Shostakovich Violin Concertos with Arabella Steinbacher soon – perhaps Jansons will lend his baton to that project? It would be an exciting proposition even amidst plenty recent Shostakovich concerto recordings.) The second symphony, one movement with a nervous, neurotic wreck of a second scene and the somewhat impressive choral final scene to a text that makes any Russian speaker wish they didn’t understand the meaning of the heavy-thumping prose (“O Lenin: / Ty vykoval volyu stradanye / Ty vykoval vloyu mozolistykh ruk. // My ponyali, Lenin, shto nasha sud ba nosit imya: / borba! borba! / Borba! Ty vyela nas k posldenyemu volyu. […] Vot znamya oktyabr / Vot imya zhivykh pokolyenii i Lenin. / Kommuna i Lenin.”*), actually comes across as a mini-glorious overture to the symphony that follows. No small achievement right there, in a work from which Shostakovich distanced himself (in embarrassment?) later in life.

The fanfare that dominates the 12th symphony (here at 3'00") is full of wild strings, perfectly executed brass, riveting snare drums marching unforgivingly underneath. When things quiet down a minute later, it makes the mood only more threatening. Shostakovich perfects one of his trademarks in this symphony. Long, winding melodious fragments that sound as if near-minimalist building stones that are way to long to actually work. Instead of being Bruckner- or Philip Glass-like self-contained blocks they are actually prolix, wandering musical lines that bite each other in the tail and form a chain. They shouldn’t-- yet, for the most part, do work in luring the listener in to follow them, only him or her to be suffocated by the continuously ratcheted up tension and pressure. It’s something Shostakovich uses in almost every of his better symphonies and just as some don’t like the repetitive terrace structure in Bruckner, there must be those who tire of that trick in Shostakovich. But those who take to his symphonies, the 4th, 5th, 7th and 11th in particular, will revel in the superb control that Jansons exerts over his superbly playing forces – all in the rich sound that EMI captured in the Herkulessaal in Munich. This is not as fire-spitting, about-to-fall-apart as Kondrashin or as smoothly stirring as the (excellent) Barshai – but it combines the polish of Haitink with a velvety, rich feeling for sound, all awhile asserting a solid grip on every element in the score.

In the second movement, strings and woodwinds (flutes, especially) melt into each other as they take over the themes from another. Empty bombast and glorious thunder live directly next to each other in the third movement (really just a short lead-up to the finale) titled “Aurora” and the fourth, “The Dawn of Humanity”. It 'proclaims to proclaim', rather than actually having say antyhing… but that shouldn't surprising in a distinctly Bolshevik symphony about Lenin. Perhaps it is even sly intent (the old argument, again). But given that the next symphony of Shostakovich’s was the devastating “Babi Yar”, there can be legitimate questions what kind of a “Dawn” that humanity was in fact marching to. But whatever cause or goal, march they do - and gloriously. The bold effects and blunt statements that Shostakovich strings together actually add up to a very effective finale. Sumptuous and determined, Jansons earns himself highest honors in the pursuit of that symphony… regardless of whether that be a place in the Shostakovich pantheon or an honorary membership in the communist party or, at the very least, a quarter-inch on your CD shelf…

EMI 3 35994 2

* “O Lenin: / You forged freedom from our torment. / You forged freedom from our toil-hardened hands. // We understood, Lenin, that our fate has only one name: Struggle (fight / strife), Struggle. / Struggle, you led us to ultimate freedom. / Struggle, you gave us the ultimate freedom. […] The slogan: October and Lenin. / The new age and Lenin. / The commune and Lenin.”


Anonymous said...

The 12th, unfortunately, has always seemed the one Shostakovich symphony where the music couldn't overcome the agitprop 'message' (indeed it seemed to me the composer didn't even try to). Based on this good review I will give it one more chance: but I hope Ionarts readers will give an even more serious look at No. 2, experimental Shostakovich on the 'road not taken' that ended with the 4th; fascinating blend of modernism-and-propaganda which Boris Schwarz (perhaps exaggerating) likened to Soviet constructivist painting. You can even hear the music evolve from 'pure' sound experiment to poster art along the way. Thanks for bringing the Jansons to my attention.

George Pieler

jfl said...

It's all too easy to give the 2nd short shrift - simply being influenced by everyone else doing so. Sloppy, on my part, probably. I should examine more carefully. Thanks for bringing that to my attention.