BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 4; SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 10 – Leningrad Philharmonic Orch./ Yevgeny Mravinsky (1955) – Praga Digitals

by | Oct 21, 2016 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Two Mravinsky performances from the Prague Spring 1955, of which the Shostakovich seems “definitive.”

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60; SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 10 in e minor, Op. 93 – Leningrad Philharmonic Orch./ Yevgeny Mravinsky (1955) – Praga Digitals PRD 350 115, 79:28 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Praga Digitals restores two performances from the 3 June 1955 Smetana Hall concert of the Prague Spring Festival, here featuring the esteemed Russian conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky (1903-1988). Already known for the intense discipline he instilled into the Leningrad ensemble, Mravinsky gleans alert responses from his woodwinds – especially his principal flute and bassoon – for the opening Adagio – Allegro vivace first movement in the Beethoven B-flat Symphony. No less commanding, Mravinsky’s tympani reveals the new power Beethoven had brought to the percussion of the Classical symphony. Once the mysterious and even ominous b-flat minor Adagio passes us, the ensuing Allegro assumes frenetic and unbuttoned energies, volatile as they are irreverent.

The capacity for direct lyricism in Mravinsky’s color arsenal reveals itself in the Adagio second movement, a fervent song in sonata-form, sans development.  Winds and strings converge in massive – although not particularly warm – harmony. What makes the Mravinsky reading noteworthy occurs in the restless bass patterns that emerge even in the midst of a most cantabile outpouring.  The scoring of the woodwinds and tympani near the coda may well adumbrate the colors of the Pastoral Symphony. The last two movements shine with earthy – what Schumann called “Falstaff” – humor. The Minuetto – Allegro vivace hardly resembles anything of its courtly origins. Mravinsky drives its energy hard, and the repeated Trio section bristles with impatience. The Allegro ma non troppo finale seems a direct homage to Haydn and his own brand of frothy humor, a raucous moto perpetuo. The sixteenth notes quite bubble over and through the blazing sforzato effects, which rollick and even threaten via Mravinsky.  Once more, the woodwinds – especially the flute and bassoon – make points, and the Leningrad tympani has had a field day in asserting Beethoven’s impishly martial designs.

Beethoven’s jubilant high spirits could not find a darker contrast than the 1953 Tenth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, which many commentators perceive as an emotional portrait of the terrors of the Stalin regime. Epic in scale, the work embraces the tragic expansiveness of Mahler, rife with quotations from Mussorgsky and chromatic lines that resemble Liszt and Bruckner.  The presence of the Shostakovich DSCH motif implants a decisive note of autobiography into the sufferings of the music. Commentators have argued for an “Elmira” (Nazirova) motif, a kind of compassionate love theme based on the character of a courageous pupil of the composer.

To my mind, there have been two dominant performances of this work: this reading by Mravinsky and the New York Philharmonic performance led by Dimitri Mitropoulos. The first movement Moderato embraces a huge canvas, but its mood remains sullen and anguished, brooding in the low strings, the clarinet, and moving into a muffled march that oversees a wasteland. The piccolo flute part whimpers rather than sings, and the brass – inciting the flute and strings – become hysterical.  The level of performance has assumed virtuosic proportions, each choir urged to the peak of extreme expression. There are moments of relative relief, characterized in waltz impulses and bits of chorale, but the dominant sensibility remains tragically oppressive. The low bassoon might invoke the opening theme of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique. The harmonies in the strings achieve the eerie quality of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo. The coda provides less a resolution than a shadow on the grave.

Mravinsky unleashes the very Devil in the Allegro second movement, a nightmare march that encapsulates a vision of Stalin’s tormented soul and the victims he claimed. The Allegretto in c minor introduces the anagram of Shostakovich (D-E-flat, C, B), in flutes and clarinets, while the “Elmira” motif comes forth in the horn: E-A-E-D-A, and so becomes a kind of “eternal feminine” leading Shostakovich onward. The presence of the English horn warrants comparisons with Tristan and The Swan of Tuonela.  A grotesque march-waltz ensues, brutally convulsive rather than conciliatory. The Andante finale permits a guarded optimism, moving a la Mahler from b minor to E Major then g minor, with triple fortes as part of a manic Allegro serving as moments of frenzied self-assertion – in the guise of the motto D-E-flat-C-B – in the face of calamity. There are early moments that sound like Tchaikovsky, others like Bartok. As the composer’s most direct and intimate spokesperson, Yevgeny Mravinsky imparts a sense of the “definitive” on this realization, certainly a monumental testament in sound, no matter the power of equally sincere and compelling other interpretations.

—Gary Lemco

Related Reviews