Boston Symphony Orchestra: Recording of Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 – Get it and Listen. For Real.

On April 2nd – 4th, 2015,  the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed selected works by Dimitri Shostakovich. This performance led by newly elected Music and Artistic Director, Andris Nelsons.  In the begging of the BSO season, only Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto were the only two pieces to be performed. Later on in the season, Nelsons added Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth Act II: Passacaglia. I wanted to attend these performances, but I was unable to since it was Easter week.

Before this concert took place, the BSO Press Office announced a new partnership with Deutsche Grammophon, a classical music label company since 1898. The symphony agreed to record live performances under the direction of Andris. The project focused on all Shostakovich’s symphonies 5-10, and music from King Lear and Hamlet. All of these pieces will be performed at symphony hall in Boston, MA.

BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons
BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons

“I am completely thrilled and honored to be leading this very exciting collaboration with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Deutsche Grammophon. It is an immense privilege to focus on the music of Shostakovich, a composer of such great personal courage and virtue, whose extraordinary work transcends even the circumstances in which it was written and is timeless on many levels. At the same time, with my formative years spent in Soviet Latvia, the music of Shostakovich, in particular, speaks to me personally in a distinctive way, and I’m sure that special affinity will be communicated in these recordings.” – Andris Nelsons

This record was sold on July 31, 2015.

Lady Macbeth is an opera in four acts. The piece was Shostakovich’s 29th work and was premiered on January 24th, 1936 in St. Petersburg, Russia.  The opera is about a lonely woman in 19th century Russia, who falls in love with one of her husband’s workers and is driven to murder. In the second act, Boris, unable to sleep due to unease about thieves being on the prowl, is walking in the courtyard in the pre-dawn darkness. He, remembering his youthful days as a rake and knowing Zinovy’s low libido, is considering reducing Katerina himself to fulfill his son’s marital duties. He spots Sergei climbing out of Katerina’s window. He catches him and publicly whips him as a burglar, then has him locked up. Katerina witnesses this but cannot stop him because she remains locked in her room. When finally she manages to climb down the eavestrough-drainpipe the other servants restrain her on Boris’ order.

Joseph Stalin, a dictator of the Soviet Union, attended the performance and was unimpressed. It was rumored that he condemned Shostakovich’s opera in a newspaper and the Soviet Union banned his opera for more than thirty years. It was then Stalin would give Shostakovich a bad reputation and haunt his musical career.

The BSO gave a haunting and bone-chilling performance in this recording. I have never experienced Shostakovich’s operas, but reading and researching this opera gave it a grim and dark production.

Over the years, Shostakovich wrote more symphonies. His 4th was withdrawn and never premiered since the music reflected the horror and dark times Russia and the Soviet Union was going through. His 5th was a success to the point where the audience gave a standing ovation for more than thirty minutes.

Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin

By the time of his 10th, Stalin had passed away. Shostakovich had the feeling of liberation to reflect Stalin’s years as a dictator and executed more than 30 million people in his country. If the citizen were suspected of fascism, they arrested or killed under Stalin’s orders and strict laws.

Yes. Shostakovich wrote almost like what Adele would do after a hard break up with your crazy ex.

Boston Globe Review of Recording 

Symphony No. 10 in e minor was composed in 1953.

The first and longest movement is a slow movement in rough sonata form. It is a huge arching slow waltz that builds to a climax as inevitably as it recedes away from it is an amazing journey that, despite apparently ending where it began, has travelled an enormous distance (Wigglesworth, 2015)

The second movement reflects Stalin’s heinous violent behavior.It begins fortissimo and is followed by no fewer than fifty crescendos. There are only two diminuendos. The effect is self-explanatory. The emotion is not so much a depiction of Stalin himself, but an anger that he ever existed. In fact, such was his hold over the people, that the hysteria greeting his funeral cortege was so great that hundreds of people were crushed to death by tanks trying to keep order and protect the coffin. It is typical of Stalin that he should have continued to be responsible for people’s deaths even from beyond the grave (Wigglesworth, 2015).


The third movement is a waltz more macabre and is based on a theme that is the first four letters of the composer’s own initial and sumarne. When the letters DSch are turned into Gennan musical notation, they spell the notes D-E flat-C-B. But defining his identity like this does not seem to get him anywhere. The music keeps falling back on itself. There seems no way out until the cellos and basses, in a desperate crescendo, stumble as if by chance upon an an initially enigmatic horn call. This five-note theme appears no less than twelve times – every time almost identical – and bears a striking resemblance to the opening horn fanfare of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The message of this genuinely optimistic work would have undoubtedly struck a chord with Shostakovich. Despite all the horrors, life itself is beautiful and will always be so despite man’s attempts to ruin it. The world will always renew itself (Wigglesworth, 2015).

0002894795061_230The finale opens in a Siberian landscape with lone woodwind voices trying to communicate with each other across the barren plains. It is the slowest music of the whole symphony, a timely reminder of the desolation that the prisoners were experiencing. To survive the camps was a miracle. It was not uncommon for forty men to be kept in a cell built for four. In fact, many were shot as their sentence came to an end on the presumption that if they were still alive, they had either worked less than they should have or eaten more than their share. At home, life goes on, and the ensuing Allegro depicts the humdrum and meaningless existence of people trying to avoid their deportation. The symphony is not sure which is worse. At least the prisoners were allowed to cry. The fast music never really gets going. As Shostakovich said, ‘it is very hard to run free when you are always looking over your shoulder.’ You can pretend to be playing games, but you will always be playing them in a kind of prison. The poet, Osip Mandelstam’s description of the time, is haunting: ‘We were capable of coming to work with a smile on our face after a night in which our home had been searched or a relative arrested. It was essential to smile. If you didn’t, it meant that you were afraid or unhappy. Nobody could afford to admit this.’ (Wigglesworth, 2015).

Overall, I believed the symphony nailed this piece. At first, when I heard the second movement, I was kind of disappointed with how slow Andris took it since I’ve listened to a previous recording by the London Philharmonic Orchestra led by Bernard Haitink. But, as I listened to it more, I actually can sense the chaotic character than reflected Stalin. Usually, the E-flat Clarinet sticks out before reaching the end of the movement with the flutes, piccolo, and oboes. In this case, the orchestra blended very well in this recording. There were beautiful solos by Elizabeth Rowe (Flute), Cynthia Myers (Piccolo), John Ferrillo (Oboe), Richard Svoboda (Bassoon), concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, and a strong brass section.

Andris Nelson conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in his ingural concert as music Director, 9/27/14. Photo by Chris Lee
Andris Nelson conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in his inaugural concert as music Director, 9/27/14. Photo by Chris Lee

Andris is a perfect match for Shostakovich and is excited to bring the composer’s music back the BSO. The symphony rarely touched the composer’s music for a while. Recently, the symphony performed the composer’s 9th Symphony on Oct. 1st, 2015. The last time the group performed the work in 1962.

Shostakovich has grown on me. It is important to listen to his music and understand the chaos he was going through. Get this album. You won’t regret it.

For more information:

Boston Symphony Orchestra 

Andris Nelsons

Boston Globe Music

WGBH On Demand Recording of Concert 

References:

Wigglesworth, M. (n.d.). Mark Wigglesworth Marks notes on Shostakovich Symphony Nos 5 6 10 Comments. Retrieved October 6, 2015, from http://www.markwigglesworth.com/notes/marks-notes-on-shostakovich-symphony-nos-5-6-10/

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