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Lady Macbeth and Stalin
on 18 August 2015
This release is supposed to be the start of an eagerly anticipated planned project to record Shostakovich's symphonies 5-10 under Nelson's baton with the Boston SO for DG. I have to say that it starts most auspiciously with the Interlude from Act II of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the sound fairly leaping out of the speakers and grabbing the listener by throat, the ferocity and intensity of the Bostonians playing hugely impressive.
Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth was of course the work which set the composer on collision course with Stalin himself, with the infamous Chaos instead of Music article in the State operated newspaper Pravda written shortly after its first run of performances, causing Shostakovich to not only withdraw the opera from performance, but likewise his Fourth Symphony from rehearsals too. It was quite clever then to use this Interlude as a curtain-raiser to the main work on this disc, the Tenth Symphony, premiered in 1953 only a few months after Stalin's death. Whilst, as ever, it is unclear when it was actually written (some reports suggest it was finished as early as 1951), the blazing climax at the centre of the final movement, where the DSCH theme is all triumphant has long thought of as being the composer's own sense of triumph at the death of the dictator.
This symphony, perhaps the most "classical" of Shostakovich's, has long been considered his masterpiece, at least of all his works for orchestra and has inspired a long list of great recordings down the years. In particular one would cite those of Mitropoulos (New York PO/1953 - CBS) Konwitschny (Leipzig 1957 - a performance of blazing intensity), three Karajans (1967 and 1981 for DG, but especially live from Moscow in 1969 on Melodiya, all with the BPO), Mravinsky/Leningrad PO (1976), plus more recently those of Frank Shipway/Royal PO (orchestra's own label 2000) and Petrenko/RLPO (Naxos 2009). Unfortunately, especially in light of the frankly stupendous Lady Macbeth Interlude which opened the disc, I do not think Nelsons quite matches the achievements of those on this list. Not that he does anything especially wrong - the work in his hands is conventionally paced, if a bit on the slower side than usual, the only interpretive "quirk" being in the final movement, when after the blazing "DSCH" climax, the music once again turns reflective - Nelson's plays this section very slowly, as if reminding the listener of how this movement began, which I thought rather effective actually. Nor is it the sound, the engineers capturing the rich bass of the Bostonians wonderfully well (not least since this is a live recording), who also play as fine as anyone. No, what this particular performance lacks is intensity - which is what all the aforementioned recordings have in spades compared to this one. I'm reminded of Mark Wigglesworth's comment of how difficult it can be sometimes for him to persuade modern day orchestras just what despair and aching hunger can be like - it isn't just that you had to skip your lunchtime sandwich. And this is where, for me, Nelsons comes up short - it is all too warm and comfortable. Perhaps others may respond to this approach more sympathetically than myself, but the truth of the matter is that I will never choose this performance in preference to any of the others listed above. And I would advise you not to either.