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CD Review

Dmitri Shostakovich

Symphony #11 "The Year 1905"

  • Symphony #11 "The Year 1905" in G minor, Op. 103 (1957)
  • Jazz Suites #1 & 2
  • Tahiti Trot
Philadelphia Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
EMI 55601
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WOW! Wow! wow! Those may be the most telling words in this review. I was totally unprepared for this. The first time I listened to it with headphones on. Every emotion in my body was wrenched to the nth degree. My notes were like some babble. The next night I turned it off 5 minutes into the symphony. I wasn't ready for that kind of emotional musical ride again. Tonight I compared it with Stokowski's stereo recording. I really hate to admit it, but Jansons' is the better stereo recording. To be honest I have never heard any other performance except Stokowski's. Never felt a need to. My all time favorite is still the monaural recording, in terrible sound, on Russian Disc with Stokowski as guest conductor in Russia. That live Stokowski recording is even more taut and riveting than Jansons' but they are very different, too.

After three more days of listening to this recording, my opinion remains as high as initially. Often this is not the case, infatuation passes. In this case, however, I hear more and more lovely detail. Jansons' phrasing is marvelous. The music emerges from a mist, taking shape slowly. In the finale, at around 7:30, the brass have a phrasing about it that casts a hollow, sanguinary shadow to events. The sudden 'end' to the massacre is greeted by the most haunting aural image I've ever heard. The chimes (?) at the close of the second movement is arresting. Then there is the bassoon in the third movement…how does Jansons get the player to produce that sound?? There is a seamless quality to the stings, as if Jansons was having them play 'bogen frie' (as Stokowski called it) or use free bowing. Regularly, my ear's mind sees what it is hearing. These are just some of the wonderful moments in this symphony.

Okay, this sounds like drivel, perhaps. Repeated listenings have created the same, intense response in me. This is the kind of disc reviewers live for: interpretation and recording have gone hand-in-glove to create an historic moment for me. I feel it can do the same for you.

The fillers on this disc may seem a bit odd at first. In fact, after the emotional wring of the 11th Symphony, listening to these bits of music is about the only realistic encore. The music reflects its jazz salutes, at the same time there is no doubt that this is "Russian" jazz. Sound in these items is as good as in the symphony.

I keep thinking about the impact this CD has had on me. The same conductor and orchestra recorded the Shostakovich 10th a year ago or so and I was not impressed with that recording, mainly because of the recording. I pulled it out to hear if my opinion of the sound had changed any. Nope. The earlier recording still sounds less transparent, is less involving. I noticed that there is a difference in recording venues. This is likely the reason for the difference in sound impact. Just thought I'd pass that along.

This is one of my desert island discs. I really think you ought to give it a listen.

Post Script: It is 29 August 1997. I wrote the above lines about ten days ago and revised them several times over that period. I just read a review in the August issue of Gramophone that pans this very recording. I am stunned. I cannot believe the reviewer was listening to the same recording. He damns the sound, preferring the one on Jansons' Shostakovich 10th . It is like we are coming at this from different sound worlds. I have no idea how he reached such a diametrically different conclusion than did I. I stick by my reporting here; this is one of the best recordings I have ever heard. I hope you will take the time to listen for yourself (if you can) because I think you will agree with me.

Copyright © 1997, Robert Stumpf II