SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 11 in G minor “The Year 1905” – Russian National Orchestra/Mikhael Pletnev – Pentatone

SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 11 in G minor “The Year 1905” – Russian National Orchestra/Mikhael Pletnev – Pentatone multichannel SACD PTC 5186 076, 62:07 ****:

This spectacular surround recording of the 11th was made while the orchestra was on tour of Europe, in a fine hall in Brussels. The conductor will be better known to most collectors as a pianist, and he’s also a composer. He was a First Prize winner in the 1978 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition and became a friend of Mikhail Gorbachev.  Pletnev founded the RNO in l990 as the first independent orchestra in Russia’s history.

The 11th is a long, programmatic and atmospheric work describing the events of the First Russian Revolution of 1905, when Tsar Nicholas had his troops fire on 100,000 unarmed workers, women and children in the Palace Square of St. Petersburg.  Shostakovich – used to operating on the dangerous line between seeming agreement with the Soviet leaders’ dictates and expression of his strong opposition to the regime – revealed to U.S. readers in his 1979 Memoirs that although he had named it “the Year 1905, it refers to the Year 1957.”  That was just after the Soviet regime cruelly put down the Hungarian uprising.

The symphony is in four movements: The Palace Square, The Ninth of January, In Memoriam, The Tocsin.  The first movement sets the foreboding mood of the square before the massacre of thousands.  The second – the longest of the four – describes the actual day that became known as Bloody Sunday. There is extensive linking of themes throughout the four movements, and one critic called it actually a huge symphony poem rather than a symphony. I think there is a general feeling outside of its home country that it is simply too long. Leopold Stokowski made all sorts of cuts to fit the symphony on the two sides of a single LP.  A competing SACD version is that of the composer’s close friend Mstislav Rostropovich, with the London Symphony orchestra on their SACD series.  Perhaps due to his close emotional connection with the composer, the music and the general brutality of the Soviet period, Rostropovich adopts an almost Klempererian reverence for the score and totes up a ten-minute-longer performance than Pletnev’s at 72:24.

Pletnev may have made some cuts, but the work seems to more along better than any other performance I have auditioned, and the both the playing and sonics are beyond reproach. The RNO disc has richer sound, better surround ambiance, more sprightly tempi and more drama than the LSO SACD.  Dramatic is certainly the correct word for the entrance of the loud snare drum in the middle of the second movement, announcing the advance of the Tsar’s troops.  It is nothing short of startling, whereas just part of the orchestral fabric in the Rostropovich recording.

– John Sunier

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