The 10th symphony is probably my favourite piece of Shostakovich. It is not unique - far from it - among his works in possessing power, anguished emotion and nobility of expression, but it has a coherence and unity of style that I don't always find in him. The construction is less episodic and more 'durchkomponiert' than he often is, and the long first movement in particular rises to great heights through its sustained symphonic logic, of the kind I associate more with Beethoven and Brahms. As often, the influence of Mahler can be felt strongly, this time in the third movement; and the ostensibly 'positive' conclusion is no triumph at all but a piece of noble and bitter irony. Stalin was not long dead when this symphony received its first performance, and I expect his monstrous incubus still lay over Soviet art of every kind during the period of its composition. Whether this led the composer to trim his artistic sails I don't know, nor do I really much care. The musical idiom is not especially radical, but I can well imagine that Shostakovich might have had some explaining to do to the cultural commissars when they heard that fierce and outraged second movement. I can rarely hear Shostakovich as 'absolute' music - it is nearly always telling us something - but in the great first movement of this symphony his inspiration transcends his circumstances, much as Beethoven's did when he composed the Emperor concerto with pillows over his ears to protect the remnants of his hearing while his fallen idol Napoleon bombarded Vienna. The performance strikes me as flawless. I am not in general an enthusiast for Karajan, and even here I don't catch the special individuality that made Toscanini, Beecham and Furtwaengler who and what they were as interpreters. Nevertheless if I had heard this performance without knowing who the conductor was I could only have been struck forcibly by the power, commitment and discipline of the reading. I gather there is a later account by the same conductor and orchestra, costing more but allegedly better recorded. I have no complaints about the recorded quality of this one, and given the nature of the music that is not the consideration uppermost in my mind anyhow.Read more ›
Well, Shostakovich 10, generally regarded as one of the finest 20th Century symphonies, receives here a truly wonderful rendition from the Berlin Phil. As someone who until a few months ago regarded 20th Century classical music as awful, incoherent, discordant rubbish to be avoided at all cost, Shostakovich has come as a complete revelation to me. This is the second of his symphonies I have heard (the first being No. 7) and it has quickly become one of my favourites of any period, rubbing shoulders with Beethoven 6, Mendelssohn 3, Rachmaninov 2 etc. This symphony absolutely bowls me over, in so many ways. Firstly, the intricacy of it. It isn't an exaggeration to say you notice something new every time you listen to it. Just recently, I noticed a theme from the first movement cropping up in the third, which had escaped me on the previous umpteen hearings. Not to mention the enigmatic symbols (the DSCH and Elemira motifs), and form (why do three bleak movements lead to a supposedly joyous one?). Second, meaning. Look at the time it was written (around the time of Stalin's death). Solomon Volkov maintains that Shostakovich intended the symphony to be about the Stalin Era, and the second movement to be a portrait of Stalin himself. I don't care if that's true or not, to be honest, because it describes it very well! Just listen to the desolate twisting of the first movement, and the terrifying intensity of the second and think of what Shostakovich as a person and his country as a whole went through under Stalin. This is without a doubt music from a deeply troubled mind, that is trying to express something beyond words. Thirdly, and most importantly, the writing itself is endlessly captivating. The growling of the cellos, delicacy of the clarinets, shrieking violins, crashing percussion, all conspire to make the first movement quite unlike anything else. Conceived as a huge crescendo followed by a huge diminuendo, this movement conveys the impression of hopeless despair rising to fury and back to despair again. Special mention in this recording goes to the clarinettist, whose solos are absolutely spot-on - languid and resigned. The second movement hits you with the force of a runaway train, coming as it does after the massive quiet span of the end of the first. Moments of this movement are really quite terrifying, a wild orgy of fury and bitter sarcasm. I recently heard this symphony in concert, and this movement made me feel intensely uncomfortable - a mixture between horror and deep sadness, which I have never experienced before listening to any music. Although this recording doesn't quite have that emotional clout, it can certainly cause the hairs on the back of your neck to stand on end! The final two movements are more straightforward, musically and emotionally. The third I heard described as a "puppet dance", which is a good description of its jerky waltz nature, which is interrupted by repeated horn calls (all beautiful on this disc). The fourth starts slowly, but ends up in a slightly manic whirl, and the symphony ends in a major key - unexpected considering the preceding movements. A short description like that cannot of course come close to describing all the details and emotions packed into this intricate work. All I can say is that Karajan et al provide a wonderful recording of it, veering as it does from suicidal despair through anger to wild "joy". All the tempos are excellent, the solos are flawless, the dynamics nicely managed to produce maximum effect. Well, what else would you expect from the Berlin Phil?Read more ›
Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony - his "optimistic tragedy" - is an explosive cocktail of emotions and pent-up frustrations; unleashed after the death of - "Uncle Joe" - Stalin it reflects on an era of gross injustice and grim hardship for the Russian people. Censorship was rife and artistic freedom an alien concept under the Communist regime! In March of 1953 the dictator passed away and in December of that year Shostakovich's response to the Stalin years had its premiere - the Tenth emerged into a "brave new world" and the shackles were off - well, almost!
Herbert von Karajan conducts a First movement of staggering intensity; slow, dark, brooding and menacing with an ominous sense of foreboding generated by the violins' repeated main theme in the extended climax - the Berlin Philharmonic's articulation, precision and incisiveness is all one would expect of a virtuoso orchestra. The Second movement - savage and brutal - is a veritable outpouring of implacable, relentless rage and defiance - a "blitzkrieg" of anger and emotion, if you will. Some believe it to be a "portrait" of Stalin - I wouldn't disagree! Karajan coaxes some wonderful playing from the orchestra - incredible woodwind articulation, suitably clattering percussion, stellar brass playing and virtuosic strings. All are combined in an energetic display of controlled mayhem! Karajan keeps a tight rein on the orchestra in the Third movement which alternates between quiet contemplation and bursts of manic energy. Karajan presents dynamic contrasts with deft precision and the music's insistent rhythms are sprung with authority! The many Mahlerian moments - horn calls, delicate, bird song-like woodwind, etc - are atmospheric and well-judged by Karajan. The Andante section of the finale is taken at a slower tempo than is usual, but Karajan brings a poetry, mystery and elegance to this music that few other maestros match! When the ebullient Allegro section erupts, exploding with energy, its brimming with life is all the more telling after Karajan's masterful restraint in the Andante section. The symphony concludes in quiet repose and Karajan has once more delivered a performance/recording of unassailable greatness.
The later digital recording of the Tenth - part of DG's "Originals" series - is not quite the damp squib some would have you believe, but it is no match for this analogue recording which is fuller in the bass with instruments having more body and natural timbre than the glassy remake. Don't hesitate - this recording is one of the finest achievements of the BPO-Karajan partnership and, despite the passing of time, there is no worthy successor in sight ... it's that good!Read more ›