Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47
The Isle of the Dead, Op.29
London Symphony Orchestra [Shostakovich]
USSR State Symphony Orchestra
Shostakovich recorded on 28 August 1978 in Usher Hall, Edinburgh; Rachmaninov recorded on 22 August 1968 in Royal Albert Hall, London
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: October 2007
CD No: BBC LEGENDS
Duration: 65 minutes
The Isle of the Dead follows the Shostakovich, not the best arrangement when the gloomy, turbulent and quiet-ending Rachmaninov would make a natural segue into the biting opening bars of Shostakovich’s most-popular if most misunderstood symphony.
I believe I am right to say that Evgeny Svetlanov replaced André Previn in two Edinburgh Festival concerts during 1978, of which the Shostakovich formed part of one. It’s a pity that the overture to Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” wasn’t included here (from the other concert of Beethoven – Alfred Brendel in Concerto No.3 – and Rimsky-Korsakov: Svetlanov took-over Previn’s programmes ‘as advertised’); if memory serves correctly, it wasn’t that striking a performance, but having Svetlanov conducting Bernstein would have been a nice memento.
As to what we do have, the Shostakovich is intense, direct and cohesive, not infallibly played but brought together by an orchestra knowing the symphony well, a conductor capable of inspiration, and a tried and trusted partnership willing to seize the moment. It’s a fine account, very much from the inside, and well-recorded too. Bit-by-bit in the first movement the tension increases, the wavelength of the music becomes clearer, and the gravitation pull towards the guts of the music is more and more exposed, Svetlanov co-existing the music in equal planes of subjectivity and objectivity – a ‘real’ symphony (as ‘real’ as the performance) underlined by circumstances and ciphers. Come the explosive march of the first movement, orchestra and conductor have developed something significant, which the trenchant scherzo is no funfair, the trio, free of mannerism, being a natural (and ironic) corollary.
The slow movement is most beautifully played and touches the heart as Shostakovich’s sad loneliness is exposed, woodwinds offering consolation to the Siberian chill of the strings. The climax is wrenching but not imposed. There is too long a gap before the finale – but it’s no doubt what happened on the night – and here fierce determination outweighs the dance, the middle section lamenting and clearing the way for the ‘victorious’ coda that is anything but – an ending beaten by Party sticks. If Svetlanov isn’t as breathtakingly monumental as Kurt Masur (on the London Philharmonic’s label) or, overall, as penetrating as Maxim Shostakovich (the composer’s son) on his first recording of this work, then his matter-of-factness way with the multifaceted conclusion is yet another way of looking at it.
From ten years earlier than the Shostakovich performance, that of the Rachmaninov is even finer; restless and timbrally ideal, high-drama enacted within the solitary atmosphere of mists and murky waters (Rachmaninov taking his cue from a black-and-white print of Böcklin’s painting). All over in 20 minutes (Svetlanov was regularly adding five further minutes in his final years) this is Russian music-making at its Slavic best, intense, expressive volatile and edgy – and, reproductively, the tape has survived the years well, the sound being well-focussed (and expertly re-mastered) in the pre-mushrooms Royal Albert Hall acoustic.
All in all, a fine document of Svetlanov’s inspiring artistry.