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 Recording of the Week  Andris Nelsons conducts Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony

Welcome to the first of our Friday newsletters! As a result of the record industry's standardising of release-dates, we've decided to change the day of our weekly newsletter so that we can tell you about all the latest releases on the day they come out.

So, with that in mind...

Today sees the launch of a major new project from Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon: Shostakovich Under Stalin’s Shadow will explore the volatile relationship between dictator and composer over a period of some fifteen years of conflict. Recorded live in Boston this April, this first instalment consists of two works which book-end that conflict: the Passacaglia from Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (the opera which became notorious for precipitating Shostakovich’s first denunciation by the Party) and the mammoth Tenth Symphony, premiered nine months after Stalin’s death in 1953. It’s an inspired pairing: not only does the Passacaglia segue into the opening of the Symphony so seamlessly that we found ourselves checking the track-listing in the office, but both works depict the reaction to the death of a hated oppressor (in the opera, the Passacaglia occurs just after the anti-heroine has murdered her brutal father-in-law).

Andris Nelsons
Andris Nelsons

They may not have been together long, but both Nelsons and his new orchestra have serious form when it comes to Shostakovich: he has recorded symphonies with the CBSO and Concertgebouw, among others, and Boston championed his music under Koussevitsky. This is already their second recording together, and many of the virtues which James located in their earlier disc of Sibelius are also in evidence this time round: Nelsons’s masterful grasp of the architecture of the work (particularly the epic 20-minute first movement, which almost feels like a symphony in its own right here), the slow-burn climaxes and the searing brass-playing all make their mark, but there’s something quite special going on here which transcends the technical side of things.

It’s always interesting (she says euphemistically) to compare opinions on new recordings in the editorial office, and James and I had quite different reactions to this one: whilst he found the orchestral playing almost ‘too good’ (and I will say that I’ve heard scratchier strings, raspier brass and screechier woodwind in this music), what intrigued me was the impact of Nelsons’s relatively restrained energy and his resistance to caricature.

It may sound perverse to praise an interpretation of this particular work for its introspectiveness, but bear with me: the nightmarish scherzo (viewed by some as an Enigma Variations-like depiction of Stalin) somehow speaks of internalised, psychological terror rather than Terror With A Capital T here, and the manic exchanges of the ‘DSCH’ motto (often read as Shostakovich’s frustrated attempts to assert his identity) come across as all the more futile for not being driven too hard.

It was only afterwards that I discovered just how all of this fits in with Nelsons’s own perspective on the composer. Coasting around for footage of his earlier Birmingham performances, I came across a short YouTube video of Nelsons talking to the CBSO’s Michael Seal back in 2012, where he speaks with his customary animation about his conviction that Shostakovich’s music (and this symphony in particular) are better understood as depictions of an intensely personal struggle between two men rather than what he calls ‘global political’ portraits of the conflict between artist and state. Much journalistic ink has been spilled about Nelsons’s closeness to Shostakovich in these ‘global political’ terms (he was born in Soviet Latvia, just three years after the composer’s death), but the man himself seems to see this affinity as something that’s almost uncannily personal: in the booklet-note he empathises with his shyness and naivety, and refers to a quite mystical connection between them.

Like many Midlands-based music-lovers, I can’t help feeling a certain degree of envy towards the Bostonians at the moment: each time I’ve walked past Birmingham’s Symphony Hall this month, it’s set me off musing on the miracles Nelsons worked there. Will the relationship with Boston yield similar magic? On this evidence, I’m pretty certain that it will.

Shostakovich Under Stalin's Shadow

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons

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