Shostakovich’s symphonies are notable for the striking contrasts between most of them but also in the spectacular variability between each: the wunderkind first, composed when Shostakovich was still in his teens, contrasted with the banality of the Second and Third, contrasted with the batshit craziness of the Fourth, the epic Fifth and the cryptic Sixth, the bloated Seventh and the masterpiece Eighth etc.

 

The great challenge of a Shostakovich symphonic cycle is to breathe air and “meaning” into the weaker links –  for me Nos. 2, 3, 11 and 12, all of which are also the least popular and three of which are featured in this, the final instalment of Andris Nelsons’ Boston Symphony Orchestra cycle. It’s a pity that this last instalment of what has been a highly distinguished cycle should be a grab bag of pretty awful fare, but in for a penny in for a pound, I suppose.

The Second Symphony (subtitled To October (1917)) is a two-movement affair divided into four sections with a strangely meandering introduction which appears to flirt with atonality (How did that get past the Commissars?) The rot really sets in with the vocal sections (a choral setting of Alexander Bezymensky’s text praising Lenin) which comes across (mainly) as agit-prop bluster. The climax at around the six-minute mark should be the end, but the work ploughs on to an anti-climactic orchestral conclusion. The playing here by the BSO is technically fine but sounds a touch tentative.

The performance of the Third Symphony offers more of the same, but at greater length. The sub-title and depicts key events in the Revolution. The problem here, as with so much of Shostakovich’s music is to convey either a concealed profundity or the essential hollowness, a sort of constructive ambiguity. But there’s also a distinct element of vacillation between the natural expression of his own somewhat introverted genius and the sincere attempt to identify his music with the Zeitgeist. The BSO is superb, although even here there isn’t enough visceral playing (i.e., it’s too sophisticated and civilised with and not enough of the “mongrel”).

The Twelfth Symphony (another named after The Year 1917) is regarded even by Shostakovich scholars as his weakest and must represent the most extreme example of composition with an eye to creative survival. Here, Nelsons sounds as though he’s simply trying too hard with tempi which labour a message of portent, which simply isn’t there in something so creatively bereft.

At 45 minutes, it’s two minutes slower than Haitink (another conductor for whom Shostakovich’s scores presented a personal challenge). I have a rare EMI recording from 1963 with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by George Prêtre (of all people) which gets through it in 36. The two internal movements – Razliv, where Lenin directed the Revolution from a peasant’s hut, and the third, Aurora, the name of the battleship which fired the first salvo of the Bolshevik Revolution, are more convincingly dispatched.

The final work is cut from much finer cloth, although I’d hesitate to call even this a masterpiece. It’s a song cycle very much in the style of Mahler’s The Song of the Earth with a bass-baritone soloist and men’s chorus and based on the poems of Yevgeni Yevtushenko. It’s often subtitled Babi Yar, (which is also the title of the opening song referring to the notorious massacre of Jews in World War Two. One of Yevtushenko’s points is the antisemitism existed also as virulently in Soviet Russia as it did in Nazi Germany.

Mathias Goerne captures the mood of each song masterfully and the Tanglewood Festival Men’s Chorus display superb attack and are alive to every nuance. The second song, Humour, ironically and not uncheerfully points out that humour is nimble, irrepressible and can open iron bars and penetrate stone walls. The third At the store is pervaded by a prosaic melancholy and depicts women waiting in freezing weather for the meagre supplies at a store. In the fourth, Fears, the lower strings and tuba solo see the BSO at their finest, remembering the “fears of the informer, the KGB etc.”

The finale is A career. Here the poet muses on the moral expediency of pursuing a “career: at the expense of truth and decency.” The fluttering passage of the upper woodwind is suffused with a wistful delicacy and the gently lugubrious bass clarinet at the conclusion. At last, you feel, the orchestra has been given something interesting to do (although again, tempos are slow throughout). Overall, a rather disappointing conclusion rather than climax to an otherwise excellent traversal.

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Composer/Title: Shostakovich
Works: Symphonies Nos. 12, 13, 2 & 3
Performers: Matthias Goerne b, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood Festival Chorus/Andris Nelsons
Label: DG

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