Symphony No.1 in F minor, Op.10
Symphony No.9 in E flat, Op.70
Adagio for Strings
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded live on 2 & 3 June 1994 (Symphony No.1), 9 February 1990 (No.9), and 19 & 20 January 1992 (Barber) – Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: July 2005
CD No: EMI 5578552
Duration: 74 minutes
This release – and indeed many others which EMI are now making ‘officially’ available – belies the notion that Sergiu Celibidache’s repertoire consisted of heavy teutonic scores, invariably delivered in a weighty, measured manner.
In fact, these performances of two of Shostakovich’s symphonies are, I would suggest, important additions to the discography of that composer.
But the piece which might raise eyebrows still further, is that placed last on the disc – Barber’s ubiquitous Adagio for Strings. To be sure it makes a slightly odd pendant to the symphonies, but it is no exaggeration to say that Celibidache’s reading is quite revelatory. What can, in other hands, seem a rather lachrymose, sentimental tear-jerker, is given a performance devoid of excess and soupiness – and becomes all the more moving for it. To Barber’s benefit, Celibidache reads ‘adagio’ as a flowing direction rather than one of stasis.
Both Shostakovich’s first symphonic essay and his Ninth have often received readings which emphasise the ‘helter-skelter’ or perceived ‘burlesque’ elements. Celibidache’s approach is to focus on the symphonic import of both scores – to their undoubted advantage.
The pithy phrases with which Shostakovich’s First Symphony begins here sound as if they are ripe for development – as indeed they are – rather than being isolated, colourful fragments. When the main body of the first movement gets underway, the ‘allegro non troppo’ indication is well-observed, even if the (contradictory)metronome marking of “crotchet = 160” is not taken literally.
Here, and throughout, thematic and instrumental details are given time to register, and the whole conveys the impression of serious, considered symphonic thinking, as opposed to a youthful work ‘in reaction’ to which the listener might be more inclined to smile at the nineteen-year-old Shostakovich’s compositional fecundity.
One particularly noteworthy feature is Shostakovich’s impressive and assured handling of the orchestra, and Celibidache encourages his players to bring out salient features without undue exaggeration. The piano, for instance, does not sound like a manic refugee from a cinema; its contributions are key to the development of the thematic material. In the second movement scherzo, the ‘meno mosso’ is finely contrasted with the more impetuous ‘allegro’ music which surrounds it. In the former, the woodwind phrasing and shaping are exemplary, whilst in the slow movement, there is a lyrical refinement which points towards more reflective passages in later Shostakovich works.
Withal, the whole work, in this performance, seems much less mercurial than is often the case, and, rather like Karl Böhm’s conducting of early Mozart symphonies, Celibidache conveys a sense of what is to come – musically – for the young Shostakovich.
This is an unusually impressive, convincing and moving rendering of a work which is not at all easy to ‘bring off’ in performance.
Shostakovich finished his First Symphony in 1925. Twenty years later, the composer’s Ninth was anticipated as being grandiose, in the manner of Beethoven’s, with chorus, to celebrate both the ending of the Second World War (called in the USSR the Great Patriotic War) and Stalin’s leadership of the nation.
However, Shostakovich provided nothing of the ‘tub-thumping’ ortriumphalism that was expected. Instead, this symphony isenigmatic, allusive, shot through with ambiguity and seeming high jinks. Predictably, it was not received in ‘official’ circles with acclaim.
Celibidache was an early champion of the symphony, and there are ‘pirate’ issues of his leading the Berlin Philharmonic in the late1940s; additionally, Deutsche Grammophon has issued a 1971 reading with him conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra.
This Munich performance is more considered than either and, as in the First Symphony, musical matters take priority over a subtext – real or imagined.
The first movement opens the argument purposefully, though not without a degree of restrained wit, but with the ‘circus’ elements played down and musical argument played up. The slower second and fourth movements acquire a disconcertinglyunsettled feel in this performance, with the bassoon launching almost reluctantly into the apparent light-heartedness at the start of the finale. The third movement scherzo is dazzling and one must pay tribute to the unfailing and consistent integrity of the Munich players.
For anyone who thinks these symphonies are ‘lighter’ members ofShostakovich’s symphonic canon, these performances will suggest otherwise, and I recommend this release without reservation not only to Celibidache collectors but also to devotees of the music of Dmitri Shostakovich.