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 Recording of the Week  Andris Nelsons conducts symphonies by Shostakovich

In July last year, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra embarked upon a new recording project, entitled Shostakovich Under Stalin’s Shadow, with a splendid performance of Symphony No. 10. Today sees the release of the next instalment, with a further three symphonies (5, 8, and 9), all recorded live during the BSO’s 2015-16 season.

Andris Nelsons
Andris Nelsons

Completed in August 1945, Symphony No. 9 is often considered to be one of Shostakovich's lighter works (indeed, there was some criticism of it at the time for being rather too flippant regarding its celebration of the end of the war), but what for me makes this performance interesting is how Nelsons takes care to temper any potential frivolity by bringing out the shade as well as the light, particularly in the second movement with its searching string writing and lonely, wandering solos for flute and clarinet. Having said that, there's no shortage of blithesome gusto in the third movement, including a fantastically impertinent trumpet solo. Despite moments like that, I did wonder if Nelsons was deliberately playing down some of the work's more whimsical gestures in order to present it as more of a serious piece, getting away from the idea of it as a sort of palate-cleansing jollity between the relative profundity of 8 and 10.

This intent seems to carry through into the Fifth Symphony also. A case in point is the first entry of the piano in the opening movement, immediately followed by all four horns playing in their very low register. Usually this moment is full of menace, fuelled partly by the horns often having a slightly rough edge to their sound, but Nelsons removes any crudeness to make them smoother and more rounded. It's fascinating to hear how this changes the mood from the usual one of open terror to something more quietly unsettling. This polished approach pays off in the third movement also, where there's a warmth to the string sound that is most affecting. It's desolate and brooding when necessary, though, and the end of that movement, with its bare celeste and harp writing, is powerful stuff.

Another great strength of these performances is the characterful contributions from the woodwind, not least in the second movement of the Eighth Symphony, which has plenty of chirping piccolo and E flat clarinet, and some pleasingly gruff contrabassoon. I’ve definitely heard more raucous performances of this movement, but as in the other symphonies Nelsons seems keen to keep things at the refined edge of the spectrum.

I should really take a moment to comment on the virtuosity of the Boston players: in the third movement of the Eighth, for instance, there are some impressive contributions from the violas, trombones, and tuba, and the jaunty, “circus band” interlude for solo trumpet and oompah brass is very well done. The passage for four flutter-tonguing flutes accompanied by pizzicato upper strings in the fourth movement is also a hugely effective moment.

As if all of that wasn’t enough, Nelsons also includes music from the Hamlet Suite which Shostakovich wrote for Nikolai Akimov's 1932 production of the play. It’s not the entire suite (seven out of the usual thirteen movements), but it’s all beautifully played, including a tender Cradle Song, a suitably sombre Funeral March, and a rousing rendition of The Hunt.

Originally this recording project was intended, as its name suggests, only to cover works produced under the influence of the Stalin regime (i.e. Symphonies 5-10), but we have just heard exciting news from Deutsche Grammophon that this endeavour will be expanded in scope to include live recordings of all fifteen Shostakovich symphonies, as well as the opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: I look forward very much to hearing these future instalments!

Shostakovich Under Stalin's Shadow: Symphonies Nos. 5, 8 & 9

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC