Album review: Compelling Shostakovich double bill from the LSO and Gianandrea Noseda

Principal Guest Conductor Gianandrea Noseda performing Shostakovitch with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall, London. © Mark Allan / BBC

Begun in 2018, the ongoing cycle of recordings of the Shostakovich symphonies by the London Symphony Orchestra and their Principal Guest Conductor Gianandrea Noseda has reached its fourth release. 

On the new album, two interconnected, yet, in many ways, diametrically opposed symphonies are featured, namely the witty, quasi-classical Symphony No. 9 in E flat Major, Op. 70 (1945) and the brooding Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 (1953). 

Yet, as is well-know, both the Haydnesque Ninth and the Mahlerian, fifty-minute Tenth stemmed from the suffocating, all-encompassing shadow of Stalin, the arch-enemy of Shostakovich and the entire Soviet cultural life. 

Of course, the whole concept of ninth symphony was blown out of scale way before the Stalinist era, with composers struggling to come into terms with the idolized figure of Beethoven as their artistic benchmark. 

As the leading composer of the Soviet Union, Shostakovich must have felt thoroughly cornered by both the artistic obligation and the Stalinist pressure to produce the ultimate Ninth Symphony, celebrating the Generalissimus’s triumph over Hitler. The composer’s response was a twenty-five-minute blast of irony, clad in neoclassical guise, something more akin to Shostakovich’s film and theatre scores than any of his other symphonies.

The five-movement symphony is scored for an orchestra of duple winds, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba and strings, augmented by percussion. Dubbed as ”a joyful little piece” by the composer, there is perhaps more in the multi-faceted score than meets the eye. 

While the symphony was obviously conceived as an anti-ninth, the music yields far beyond its apparent parody. The outer movements do have their share of romp and cinematic comedy, as does the spiky central scherzo, marked presto. However, the moderato second movement yields to a gripping lament to the victims of the war without much victory to celebrate. 

In similar vein, the hollow largo fourth movement opens to a sonic wasteland, with its hollow brass chords and a lonely bassoon lamenting over a wintry rumor of the static string pedal-points.

More often than not, conductors familiar with the context of Shostakovich’s Ninth have sought to underline its prevailing sarcasm, sometimes with rather counterproductive  results. On the new LSO Live disc, Noseda does nothing of the sort. Rather, the LSO Principal guest Conductor seeks to present the symphony as-is, to a thoroughly compelling effect. 

Recorded at their Barbican Centre home in conjunction with the concert performance on 9 February 2020, the LSO and Noseda come up with a tremendously engaging and well-balanced performance of this wonderfully peculiar score.

Shostakovich’s symphonic satire comes off without exaggeration, resulting in its full-scale absurdity with brilliant musical insight from the dedicated LSO players. With Noseda, both slow movements build up to stirring sonic canvases of keep-calm-and-carry-on anguish. Contributions from the LSO clarinet, flute, horn, piccolo and bassoon soli are all top-class, adding to the wonderful reading of this most unexpected of symphonies.  

Scored for a large orchestra of triple winds and brass, alongside full strings action and a large array of percussion, the Symphony No. 10 in E minor marks Shostakovich’s return to his large-scale symphonic statements, begun with the ill-fated Fourth Symphony in 1935-36. 

In the manner of the Sixth Symphony (1939), Shostakovich opens his Tenth with an extended slow movement. However, apart from that, the two symphonies are based on different architectural schemes. The Tenth is in four movements, with a fiendish scherzo, a nocturne and dark-hued dance finale following the moderato first movement. 

The LSO and Noseda performance of the Tenth comes from rehearsals and a concert performance at the Barbican on 24 June 2018, with the symphony originally paired with Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77/99 (1948/1955), with Nicola Benedetti as soloist.

Busy times for the LSO, the all-Shostakovich concert was followed by Tate Modern performances of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen (1955-57) and the Trafalgar Square outdoor concert with Music Director Sir Simon Rattle on the following week. 

Committed as always, the orchestra delivered such memorable performances of vastly diverse repertoire within those couple of days, as the Shostakovich symphony recorded here resoundingly demonstrates.  

The symphony comes into being with a twenty-three-minute slow movement, worthy of late Mahler. The musical material revolves around the DSCH-motif, or the composer’s acronym, without ever quite landing on it in the course of the entire movement. Rather, the whole symphonic arch of the moderato is conceived as an orchestral quest into darkness, both external and innate. 

With Noseda on the podium, the LSO musicians appear as masterful narrators, unraveling the symphonic narrative with poignancy and compassion. Should the music be perceived within in the context of the postwar austerity of Shostakovich’s days or as a part of our current pandemic wasteland, the performance makes a forceful effect on both occasions.  

Interestingly, there is some uncertainty regarding to when exactly the symphony was composed. While it is usually assumed to have been written in the summer and fall of 1953, some of its sketches can be traced back to as far as 1946. 

In Solomon Volkov’s controversial Testimonies, Shostakovich is quoted describing the scherzo as a musical portrait of Stalin, written right after his death in October 1952. While the authenticity of the statement has been questioned, Shostakovich’s infernal dance fits the description quite well, with hindsight, at least.  

On disc, Noseda and the LSO plunge into the hellish score with formidable steadfastness, giving rise to a truly powerful performance. Naming no names, associations to various autocrats, both present and bygone, are spurred by the music. 

A sequence of nightmares is evoked in the third movement. Pierced by sorrow and downright terror, its sequence of dances paints a bleak landscape, not alien to our contemporary pandemic-ridden realities. 

Again the LSO and Noseda hit right on the nerve with their fabulous music-making, manifested by their enthralling outing of the third movement. 

The nightmarish textures carry on into the finale, with echoes of the dance macabre scherzo interwoven into the phantasmal symphonic closing. Guided by Noseda, the LSO ventures deep into the dark-hued realm of Shostakovich’s closing statement, providing the listener with an eery symphonic fresco.

A noteworthy addition to the LSO and Noseda cycle, the new disc comes off with fine-tuned sonics from the LSO Live team. With the pandemic upon us, who knows, when the cycle will reach its conclusion. Be that sooner or (much) later, the next chapters will be enthusiastically awaited.       

London Symphony Orchestra

Gianadrea Noseda, conductor 

Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 9 in E flat Major, Op. 70 (1945) 

Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 (1953)

Recorded at the Barbican Centre, London on June 2018 (Symphony No. 10) and January-February 2020 (Symphony No. 9)

LSO Live LSO0828 (2021), 1 SACD

© Jari Kallio

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