CD Reviews: Toronto Symphony delivers a bracing dose of symphonic Shostakovich

Shostakovich Symphony No. 11 “The Year 1905” (tsoLive)

There’s been a mini-boom of interest in the music of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich in these first dozen years of the 21st century, and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has joined the recorded fray in the latest release on its in-house tsoLive label: a bracing, transparent reading of his Symphony No. 11, completed in 1957.

Although the TSO and music director Peter Oundjian performed the symphony subtitled “The Year 1905” recently, this live recording was made at Roy Thomson Hall way back in October 2008.

Although all of the orchestra’s live recordings are hampered a bit by the hall’s acoustics, which tend to make upper instruments sound a bit thin and gives low instruments and timpani a boomy quality, this performance highlights the overall elegance that Oundjian brings to the podium.

Despite writing many operas and symphonies on a grand scale, Shostakovich was a remarkably economical composer who used the bare minimum of instrument combinations for maximum effect.

The music, here as elsewhere in Shostakovich’s output, uses traditional harmony and counterpoint to introduce and develop clearly stated themes using means that have as clear an aural signature as, say, Mozart’s sympnonies or Verdi’s operas.

In his Eleventh, the programme is to depict a large popular protest in 1905 that czar Nicholas II’s guards brutally repressed. The symphony’s four movements trace a narrative arc from foggy foreboding to revolt, to slaughter, ending in a redemptive call to solidarity.

Along the way, the composer dips liberally into Russian prison and military songs to underline the people’s plight.

Soviet authorities loved the patriotic, pro-people themes so much that they awarded Shostakovich a Lenin Medal. But the accepted verdict is that the composer was really writing about the excesses of Soviet totalitarianism.

This hardly makes for summer beach-blanket listening, nor a suitable backdrop for a backyard barbecue. But the music is so powerful in how it builds and releases tension, carrying the listener from despair to exaltation in the space of a few minutes, that this is a very satisfying dramatic journey for someone willing to invest their aural attention.

The orchestral work here is impeccable — rhythmically dead-on, well-balanced and expressive without dynamic excess.

There are several other good recordings of this work out there (most notably one made by Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons and the Philadephia Orchestra in the late-1990s), but this effort by our hometown heroes doesn’t need to make any apologies.

For more information, click here.

For a taste of the music, here is Valery Gergiev and his fluttering left hand leading the Pacific Music Festival orchestra in Japan, eight years ago:

Shostakovich Film Music (Warner Classics)

Back in the 1980s, Uraguayan conductor José Serebrier set out to record the most important pieces of film music written by Shostakovich (whose first paying job was as an accompanist for silent movies).

Warner recently reissued Serebrier’s work with the Belgian Radio Symphony Orchestra in a 3-CD box that reveals the composer’s amazing stylistic range.

I have to confess that I can’t get into film scores because they are by necessity episodic and evocative of a single emotion or narrative twist. I get little satisfaction in jumping from vignette to vignette.

But, in trawling through this box set, I realised that its best use is an an educational tool. For fans of symphonic music or aspiring composers, these 3-plus hours of miniatures lay out every trick in Shostakovich’s repertoire with amazing clarity, each little bit of music an example of how to set mood and tone with the simplest, quickest means possible.

Serebrier and his orchestra deliver vivid, compelling performances throughout.

There are many musically satisfying moments in this reissue, but the finest surprise was a riotous 7-minute organ concerto buried in the score of a 1931 Soviet propaganda film, The Golden Mountains. Modestly identified as “Fugue,” this intense creation, which opens with a rollicking organ cadenza, would make a fabulous symphonic concert-opener.

You can find details and audio samples here.


For fun, there is a small sample of Shostakovich’s work in Michurin, which dates from 1949 (and also included in the box set). In these opening 10 minutes there are bits of English dialogue, but no music after the peasant chorus:

John Terauds


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