Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 ‘The Year 1905’ (CD)

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Mstislav Rostropovich, London Symphony Orchestra

“A superb performance with excellent sound makes this a benchmark recording and my top CD choice of the year. Shostakovich fans ignore this release at their peril !” (MusicWeb)

“A searing new live account by Rostropovich, well-recorded and unmissable – (he) has something unique to say about this work, transcending any doubts about his conducting … the finale is articulated with tremendous cut and thrust, the sheer heft of the strings mightily impressive … the brass project powerfully as they do in real life, the woodwind audibly composed of individual stylists, the strings sound virile. It’s all here … Play loud or not at all.” (Gramophone)

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  1. I. Palace Square: Adagio 20:18
  2. II. 9th January: Allegro 21:40
  3. III. In memoriam: Adagio 13:15
  4. IV. Tocsin: Allegro non troppo 17:19

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Rostropovich brings Shostakovich's 11th Symphony to life



Some recordings taken from live concerts make you hear a work differently than you've ever heard it before. I'm thinking of Martha Argerich's live Berlin performance of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto with Riccardo Chailly, for one. When the musical work is one without an exalted reputation, the results are even more startling.

This is one such recording. Shostakovich's 11th and 12th symphonies are generally regarded as his weakest. Both are depictions of important events in the official Soviet calendar. The 11th has the subtitle "The Year 1905" (the year of the first revolutionary uprising in Russia). No doubt Shostakovich went down this path for political reasons, despite the fact that his nemesis Stalin was dead by this time. He makes use of several folk songs and revolutionary anthems in the symphony, and the movements pictorially follow the events of 1905. The second movement is specifically labeled "9th January". To Western ears this work and its successor have always sounded discursive: the revolutionary tunes and historical details mean little to us and the music does seem to meander––especially after the structurally coherent and deeply personal 10th Symphony, possibly the composer's masterpiece.

In this live concert Mstislav Rostropovich brings tremendous commitment and virility to the work. Suddenly, the outbursts of brass and percussion and hushed string passages all contribute to a tense, unpredictable journey. The Gramophone review of the original issue said: "Play loud or not at all", and indeed the pianissimo at the start and elsewhere is very soft. If you turn the volume up to a decent level the loud passages explode at you, so wide is the dynamic range Rostropovich coaxes from his players. The London Symphony Orchestra, evidently inspired, show the same level of commitment in a performance that definitely has the 'wow' factor.