SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 11 in G Minor, Op. 103 “The Year 1905” – London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Vladimir Jurowski – London Philharmonic LPO – 0118 (58:43) (7/18/20) [Distr. by PIAS] ****
Shostakovich enshrined the events of “Bloody Sunday,” 9 January 1905, in a programmatic symphony equally the musical counterpart of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. Shostakovich worked on his 11th Symphony during the summer of 1956, meaning to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Revolution of 1905. He wanted it to reflect, if not copy, “the Russian revolutionary songs” of the era, the time of the first popular uprising against tsarist tyranny. On that fateful day, the Tsar’s palace guards gunned down 200 unarmed demonstrators – a procession of workers led by Orthodox priest George Gapon to deliver a petition to the Tsar – outside of St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace. That the premier in 1957 coincided with Russian suppression of Hungarian patriots in October and November 1956, intensified the composer’s implied message that Soviet brutality and atrocity – Soviet troops took 2000 Hungarian lives – could engender a similar resistance to oppression.
Shostakovich casts his four movements as a psychological and physical, theatrical continuum that will depict the progression from icy stillness to active horror. The live performance from Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, London (11 December 2019) captures in Palace Square: Adagio the ominous, the lingering dread of the calm prior to the storm, haunted strings and distant, muted brass fanfares, flute and side-drum, intrusive tympanic beats under a pastoral song. By movement’s end, the woodwinds seem to be bleating like sheep, while the tympany beats out a militant tattoo of inevitability.
We who know our Eisenstein recall his vivid recreation of the Odessa Steps. Shostakovich in movement two, The 9th of January: Allegro, will, to use Shakespeare’s timely phrase, “Cry havoc!” and lets loose the dogs of war. At first, a sense of peace and possible reconciliation with the powers of government sings out fervently, only to be engulfed by dissonant, destructive forces in the side-drum, diviso strings in canon, blaring brass, tympani and cymbals, and whirling woodwinds, a phantasma of murder and madness. The epic violence breaks off to leave us a winter scene, a kind of delicate silhouette of the opening, now beset by ghosts.
For his third movement, Eternal Memory: Adagio, Shostakovich intones the song of the period, “You fell as victims,” a direct elegy or requiem first enunciated in the muted violas. Jurowski builds this grueling movement slowly to a fierce climax in tympani, anguished strings, and brass, rife with a vengeful aspect that must have burned in the hearts of a wounded populace. The grim, plucked notes return as the music subsides into the original lachrymosa.
At last, the people proceed to march, The Tocsin movement, with the brass having incited an alarm. The high flute adds a sense of mania to the convulsive drama, which has quite assumed the character of a film score. We might wonder if shades of Liszt’s Mazeppa infiltrate the action. The percussion invokes recollections of the opening movement, augmented in color by the English horn. The various choir entries make me recall the gathering of the angry Paris poor – led by an aroused Thomas Mitchell – as they converge on the cathedral in the 1935 The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Shostakovich utilizes a constant shift of major and minor to add an undercurrent ambivalence as to the effectiveness of any “triumph.” Jurowski elicits mighty tuttis that broil up from the LPO, especially as tolling bells on G in both major and minor thirds leave the Russian soul devastated of any faith in the “divine right” of monarchs. But has the catastrophe truly passed, or does the future bode another evil?
A solid performance to add to some illustrious readings, by Mravinsky, Stokowski, and recently, Petrenko.