Symphony No.11 in G minor, Op.103 (The Year 1905)
WDR Sinfonie-Orchester Köln
Recorded 19-23 November 2001 in Kölner Philharmonie
Reviewed by: Michael Quinn
Reviewed: July 2006
CD No: AVIE RECORDS
Duration: 59 minutes
“Shostakovich is one of those composers who make you see life”. So said Semyon Bychkov to Classical Source’s editor late in 2004 in advance of a performance of the Leningrad Symphony at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Using the same telling formula, it is just as apt to say that ‘Semyon Bychkov is a conductor who makes you hear Shostakovich’.
This deeply-felt reading of the Eleventh Symphony, is the third instalment in Bychkov’s Shostakovich cycle for the ever-impeccable Avie Records (the Seventh and Eighth already issued, the Sixth and Tenth in preparation) and it stays with you long after that troubling ‘minor third’ punctuation mark that brings the piece to its ambiguous conclusion.
Set against Bychkov’s previous recording of the Eleventh, with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1987 on a long-deleted Philips disc, this new account of Shostakovich’s ‘problem symphony’ is marginally swifter with the largest difference to be found in the opening Adagio (The Palace Square), faster here by almost a minute. Indeed, overall, this account is one of the shortest on disc. Strikingly so when compared with the much-admired LSO Live reading from Mstislav Rostropovich in 2002, which takes 13 minutes more!
Bychkov’s vision of the work is no less epic than Rostropovich’s wide-screen account, even allowing for his relative brevity. But it lays decidedly less importance on the Technicolor surface of the writing, choosing instead to penetrate deeper to the darker hues and troubling complex of undercurrents that imbue this work with its lasting, if intractably ambiguous, merit. Which is not to say that there aren’t fireworks aplenty here, rather that Bychkov is not interested in mere spectacle and never allows the surface bombast to dictate.
Indeed, what particularly distinguishes this recording is Bychkov’s ability to see past the celebratory grandiloquence of the music (it had been commissioned in 1957 to mark the 40th-anniversary of the October Revolution) and to understand that Shostakovich’s score is as much a critical commentary of then current events (only the year before the Red Army had entered Hungary to crush an anti-Soviet uprising) as a Socialist Realist fanfare for past glories. It’s this inherent contradiction in the very fabric of the work that Bychkov identifies and articulates so meaningfully. The result is a reading in which rhetoric and brute reality (and Shostakovich’s reaction against them) combines to moving effect.
Throughout, the Cologne orchestra plays with an incredible command of the music’s sweeping grandeur and its provocative, guerrilla-like detail.
The opening of the symphony is measured out with an organic but meticulously phrased and understated pulse – as if Bychkov was delicately unwrapping gauze from a wound – that tells us much about how he wants us to listen. In ‘9 January’, the second movement, the Allegro delirium soon gives way to agitation offering as it does a chilling snapshot of the brightest day turning to darkest night. ‘In Memoriam’, too often treated as a maudlin interlude, is the most compassionate of statements here, one stirred briefly into terrible excitement.
In the much-misunderstood finale, Bychkov treats the music’s intimidating military bustle with a telling degree of distaste for its plastic stridency. A moment of reflection, brittle and still and all too vulnerable, follows; the ironic calm before the storm still to come already stirring itself – a totalitarian whirlwind that would make the sacrifices and great victory of 1905 seem all too bittersweet.
Avie’s hybrid SACD recording sounds great on a standard stereo set-up, and simply stunning, vivid, vital and fiercely alive, in surround sound – as you would expect from one of the most enterprising and imaginative of labels to have emerged in the last decade. Next year Bychkov and the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne will celebrate their tenth anniversary together. This highly recommendable recording (as with so many recent collaborations on Avie) clearly reveals them now to be a fully-fledged and formidable force: one set to create one of the defining partnerships of their generation.