01 June 2005
The International Records Review
Carl Rosman

Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony poses some thorny challenges. Its prominent programmatic content might be seen as facilitating the interpretative task for both performer and listener - whether one subscribes to the traditional programme or to its post-Testimony reinterpretation (or indeed both, as David Fanning does to same extent in his booklet note). In fact the work's overt imagery requires more, not less, work from all concerned if this ‘film music without the film' is not to be deprived of its music as well. The first recordings of the symphony were extraordinarily vivid. The likes of Cluytens, Mravinsky and Kondrashin had the distinct advantage that their performing forces - and with the work required to bring off such then unfamiliar music - the atmosphere come almost by itself. Nowadays most of the Shostakovich's symphonies are an orchestra's bread and butter. That certainly brings greater technical security, but not enough has been done in this new recording to compensate for what it takes out. The timpani are well tuned in their opening triplets, and merge nicely into the string sound. The dull thud made by their counterparts in the Cluytens and Kondrashin versions is in itself hardly attractive - but in differentiating the two elements of the opening texture it provides a layer of contrast that is vital if the work's opening paragraph is not to be unendurably long, especially  for the CD listener. (The quarter-hour opening movement is hardly overburdened with material). The generally fine intonation of the treacherous woodwind passages in octaves unfortunately highlights the few exceptions. (In a rather cruel irony, the early recordings succeed better by being out of tune throughout!). The first movement's repeated triplets are in general much too prosaic; the flutes do all right at 5'38'' but their colleagues in the brass later don't do nearly enough to animate their lines. Perhaps, worst of all, ‘In memoriam' is simply too fast - 8'50'' against Mravinsky's 11'30'' or Cluytens 13'59''). In the best performances (and the uniquely convincing Cluytens, recorded in Shostakovich's presence, remains probably the best of them all) this is the intimate heart of the symphony, coming close to providing a counterbalance to the other, more ‘public' movements; here it is an opportunity missed. The same must be said for the recording as a whole, which seems unlikely to win this problematic work very many new friends.

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