I'm old enough to remember a time when Shostakovitch's lesser-known symphonies, the 8th and the 11th in particular, were largely invisible, especially when compared to works like the popular Sixth and Ninth, and the ubiquitous Fifth. But the Eighth and the Eleventh rarely, if ever, turned up on the programs of major orchestras, and the only available recordings came from the Soviet Melodiya label — records that were heavy as bowling balls and sounded as if they'd been recorded in the break room of an iron foundry on wax cylinders.
Though "revelatory" is not the first word that springs to mind when I think of Andre Previn's conducting, his still exciting EMI performance of the Eighth with the London Symphony in the 70's was the first recording to suggest the true spiritual dimensions of the work. As for the Eleventh, there was a groundbreaking recording by Stokowski and the Houston Symphony that hasn't held up well over the years. I had to wait until the performance by Paavo Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony (again for EMI) to learn that the Eleventh was more than "film music without the film."
We are now in the midst of a deluge of Shostakovitch recordings, only partially explained by the fact that it's his centenary year. (The belated recognition that Shostakovitch is the Twentieth Century's greatest composer, that not even Bartok or Stravinsky come close to matching the variety, richness, and profundity of his output is, I think, a more plausible explanation.)
These days there's an embarrassment of riches when it comes to recordings of the Eighth and Eleventh symphonies. By my count, you can now choose from among forty recordings of the Eighth and twenty-nine of the Eleventh. So it's hardly surprisingly that all of this month's symphony recordings come from ongoing cycles. Caetani's Eighth and Eleventh take us into the home stretch of a series of recordings that began so auspiciously in 2001 with a justly and universally praised pairing of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. Pletnev's Eleventh, a live recording made at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 2005, is the third release in a Pentatone cycle that features the Russian National Orchestra led by different conductors. So far we've had Vladimir Jurowski in the First and Sixth and Paavo Berglund in the Eighth.
Oleg Caetani's New Eighth
It was clear from the first that Caetani's interpretive model was his teacher; the unquestionably great but often exasperatingly erratic Kiril Kondrashin. Which is to say, his approach tends to be fierce, unsentimental, and full of bitter humor. Like Kondrashin, Caetani eschews both the more hot-blooded approach of Leonard Bernstein and the smoothed-over international style of conductors like Haitink and Jarvi. Instead, he offers us a "militarized" vision of the symphonies, interpretations grounded in the historical context in which they were written. For Caetani, the Eighth is plainly and simply "a dramatic, sorrowful voyage through the tragedy of war."
Those used to Kurt Sanderling's more spacious and deliberate approach to the first movement of the Eighth will be surprised by how much kinetic energy and tension Caetani generates in the same music (while also managing to shave seven minutes off Sanderling's timing). As you'd expect from earlier recordings in this series, Caetani captures the martial pomposity of the allegretto, the blind panic and desperation of the trio. The third movement allegro alternates brutal, heavy accents with a blaringly ironic episode for trumpet that Caetani describes as "Death swinging a great scythe on the battlefield." Other conductors have found solace in the largo, and sometimes too an almost pastoral serenity in the final allegretto, but Caetani keeps tightening the screws. His largo is more tragic than elegiac; and at the end the exhausted restlessness of the allegretto trails off into empty desolation. In brief, this is one of the great recordings of the work.
Competing Takes on "The Year 1905"
Written in 1957 and subtitled "The Year 1905," the Eleventh Symphony is Shostakovitch's most overtly programmatic work, a lament for the peasants who died on "Bloody Sunday" when Czar Nicholas ordered his troops in to suppress an otherwise peaceful protest in Palace Square. (An interesting sidebar: On his deathbed the composer claimed the work was less about 1905 than 1957, the year Soviet authorities brutally crushed the Czech rebellion. So the work can legitimately be seen as a protest against all forms of political oppression.)
There are two basic approaches to this sprawling, hour-plus composition. In his most recent recording (part of the "LSO Live" series), Rostropovich treats the work as a huge symphonic poem, highlighting the programmatic content with operatic relish. At 72", his Eleventh is easily the slowest available; and as you'd expect, it's proven controversial: critics either love it or hate it. I'm in the former camp. Rostropovitch uses his slow tempos for the sake of color and atmosphere; he definitely knows how to build and sustain a mood, and he presents each movement as a heroic tableau vivante.
Caetani (at 66") and Pletnev (at 62") both pay closer attention to structure, to giving the music a truly symphonic shape. Choosing between these two performances is not easy. Caetani is definitely the more dramatic interpreter. His is the kind of conducting critics used to call "hell-bent for leather." Pletnev can sometimes be a frustratingly willful pianist; but on the podium he is more often than not direct and unmannered. If he can't quite match Caetani's fierceness, Pletnev's performance is nevertheless robust and full of character; indeed, his scrupulous attention to detail and color lend the work a bracing spontaneity.
Which of these two performances of the Eleventh should you own? If sound is a major factor, you might opt for Pletnev. These days Pentatone is putting out sound that's as spacious, warm and detailed as anybody's, and the Russian National Orchestra plays with characteristic power and virtuosity. Still, the Arts production is almost as good, and the (oddly named) Giuseppe Verdi Orchestra of Milan is equal to every challenge the music presents. And there's something else to consider here. A mid-line release, the Caetani costs less than half the price of the Pletnev. Personally, I wouldn't want to be without either of these recordings. (Or the Berglund.)
And now, for those of you who want something completely different, I have just the thing. This new Naxos release contains the only available versions of three unusual scores that are attractive, compelling and thrillingly played by Gerard Schwarz and his Seattle forces. Written in 1964 to a text by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (who also provided the poems for the composer's Thirteenth Symphony), The Execution of Stepan Razin is an oratorio for bass-baritone, mixed chorus and orchestra. The music is full of excitement and color, one of Shostakovitch's most unashamedly Romantic scores. Think Tchaikovsky (or Boris Godunuv). October, the composer's last orchestral composition, is uncharacteristically terse: a thirteen-minute work as concentrated and intense as a Sibelius tone poem. Never having heard this powerful work before, I was very grateful to Naxos for having provided the opportunity. No less fascinating, the Five Fragments date from 1935 (just prior to the composition of the Fourth Symphony) and suggest what Shostakovitch might have sounded like had he enrolled in the Second Viennese School and followed along the path of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. These tense, aphoristic pieces — alternately spiky and dreamlike — are haunting. The Naxos sound is on the dry side, but very detailed and involving. Even if it weren't being offered at a budget price, this disc would still be highly recommended. For fans of the composer — or seekers of listening adventure — this is a must-have release.
Caetani: Symphonies 8 and 11
Pletnev: Symphony No. 11
Schwarz: Shostakovitch Collection