Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Music Webmaster Len Mullenger:

SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 10 (1953)
Symphony No. 11 (1957)
No. 10: Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Franz Konwitschny (rec June 1954, Leipzig Kongreßhalle)
No. 11: Staatskapelle Dresden/Franz Konwitschny (rec May 1959, Dresden Lukaskirche)
Documents series.
BERLIN CLASSICS 0090422BC 2CDs (CD1 50.42; CD2 64.11)
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Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony, with its knockabout high spirits, has about it more of the circus than of the heroes' battlefield. At its premiere it was met with consternation and then suspicion. Was this levity aimed at Stalin or did it in some way suggest disrespect to the millions who had died in the war with Germany? Official condemnation followed and the composer retreated from the public eye producing two scores that helped in rapprochement with the powers that were. These, the film score for The Fall of Berlin and The Song of the Forests, both were spotlessly patriotic.

Stalin died in March 1953 and the Tenth Symphony was premiered by Mravinsky in December 1953. Konwitschny made this recording only six months later. His standpoint involves an approach broader in the slower movements and furiously fast in the allegros. The Stalin portrayal in the second movement is over and done with in 3.54; Kondrashin's 1973 Melodiya takes 4.07; Mravinsky's 1976 BMG version 4.05. Konwitschny is aided by a mono recording of arresting clarity and weighty impact - listen from 11.53 to the end in the Andante-Allegro. By the way I owe it to Konwitschny version for pointing up the strong stylistic parallels with the orchestral Prokofiev at this point in the finale. Going by the stunning sound quality of a number of Berlin Classics releases the East Germans from the 1940s onwards had top-flight engineers and matériel. The orchestra is in good though not virtuoso form (at 5.10 in the Andante-Allegro the flute cannot articulate the composer's cruel flurrying figures). The Tenth, by the way, is the first of his works to use the composer's musical paraph DSCH.

The Eleventh I was able to compare with Mravinsky's 1967 Praga, Berglund's EMI from 1978 and Kondrashin's BMG. Kondrashin is driven and coarse grained with the symphony despatched in 53.57, Mravinsky in 60.49 and Konwitschny in a grave 64.11 though still quicker than Berglund's very successful version which takes 66.37. Here the conductor swaps orchestras to the Dresden Staatskapelle and this time (though not so declared) the recording seems to be in two channels. It is technically wonderful having probing depth exploited to the full in a performance in which every one of the four movements is taken at an expansive pace. This stretches cogency to breaking point in The Palace Square (16.20). Note as a positive point, among many, the squat barking brass at 7.10 in the 9 January movement. The pictorial aspects of the symphony are emphasised by Konwitschny's towering deliberation. This purposely expansive epic approach - think of Konwitschny in this work as a pre-echo of late Bernstein - is belted out or whispered with concentration and conviction.

A musical coincidence: Has anyone noticed how the first two bars of the Tenth sound uncommonly like the rocking glittering motif from Bax's Tintagel.

The Berlin Classics notes are by Hans Bitterlich and are well worth a second look.

Berlin Classics used No Noise technology in the digital remastering of both symphonies. Each sounds clean, strong and natural.

Konwitschny and the Leipzig and Dresden orchestras freshen and fill out our vision. The Tenth is good but lacks the gripping mordancy of Mravinsky. The Eleventh goes well with such an expansive controlling hand and I would recommend it for those jaded with Haitink, Kondrashin or Mravinsky. The de Preist/Helsinki version on Delos and the EMI Berglund remain as the versions of single choice.

It is worth hearing what artists from an Eastern Bloc satellite made of such ikonic works of the 20th century. Konwitschny shows himself just as adept and engaged in these bitter symphonies as in his 'trademark' Beethoven and Schumann.

Rob Barnett

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