The popularity of Shostakovich’s music in the late 20th and early 21st century is due, in part, to its multidimensionality. On one hand, some of it is musically ‘accessible’ because of its use of Russian folk themes. On the other hand, recent controversy has revealed that underneath this veneer of popularity lies musical and political messages that disclose how upset the composer was at living in constant threat of death and musical suppression imposed on him by Stalin and Russian Communism. This fascinating subtext to the music has motivated critics to reassess his music as more substantial than originally thought. His work, especially the symphonies, are as much about the man’s struggles as the emotional and traumatic effects of war and Russian politics that everyone can relate to in today’s world.
Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony on the surface is a panoramic account of the abortive uprising of 1905 which preceded the successful 1917 revolution. Or is it? The work was written in 1957, only a year before the Soviets brutally smashed the Hungarian revolt of 1958. What was the composer referring to? If his statements in Volkov’s controversial Shostakovich memoirs in Testimony are true, it’s clear that the composer referred to both events in this symphony.
Ever since the stunning 1958 Stowkowski recording, this symphony has been a favorite of audiophiles because of its orchestral depiction of specific events of the 1905 uprising. Bychov’s stunning interpretation – in time for the Shostakovich centennial – cuts to the historical and emotional essence of the work by choosing brisk tempos over a slower, more sentimental interpretation. His performance is a full 13 minutes faster than Rostropovich’s recent London Symphony performance. In the Palace Square section he creates a menacing, sinister atmosphere that clearly communicates the violence that’s to come. There is atmosphere, but the recording is relatively close with a wide and accurate instrumental soundstage. The magnificent scherzo (the 9th of January), pregnant with revolutionary songs, comes alive in the Fugato battle scene. It’s a blood curdling depiction of the battle between the resurgents and the governmental troops that’s visceral, exciting, yet musically cogent. SACD’s extra dimension of depth communicates with emotion and clarity.
By muting the emotion of the opening of the Funeral March, Bychov emphasizes the anger and injustice of the uprising’s brutal suppression depicted in the middle section of the symphony’s third movement. It’s a musically brilliant strategy, made all the more impressive by the added emotion in the return of the Funeral March. The final movement’s call to arms (Tocsin) is played with a relentless truculence that foreshadows the successful 1917 revolution. The conclusion with its imposing bass drum and piercing bell of liberation provide a moving ending to this great work. No wonder Shostakovich commented on the premiere of this work in Leningrad in 1958: “For the first time in my life, I left a concert thinking of others rather than myself.”
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— Robert Moon