Shostakovich Symphonies Nos 1 and 6

Author: 
Michael Oliver

Shostakovich Symphonies Nos 1 and 6

  • Symphony No. 1
  • Symphony No. 6
  • Symphony No. 1
  • Symphony No. 6

Jarvi's continuing cycle of the Prokofiev symphonies with the SNO is proving to be one of the most absorbing and important of current recording projects; this new coupling suggests that a Shostakovich series from the same artists would be scarcely less rewarding. There is more competition, of course, but both these performances have a quality that makes comparison with other readings both difficult (even after a preliminary hearing one hates to break off in mid-movement to check how another conductor phrased that passage or built that climax) and even, in a way, irrelevant. That quality is consistency, the way that these performances are conceived as unities from first bar to last: there is not the slightest anomaly, here, between the vast, brooding Largo of the Sixth Symphony and the two very fast movements that follow it—the Largo knew all along that they were coming, you might say, and both the brutal climax of the central movement and the frighteningly ferocious humour of the finale's clog-dance coda are given a sense of outrage by this perception. It is the stoic severity of the Largo, the feeling of bitter cold that enwraps it and the patient endurance that maintains it which make the wildness of the later movements inevitable.
Jarvi finds a similarly binding image in the First Symphony, that of silence. One is more aware in his reading than in most others of how much this music depends on tense, brooding or sombre quiet, on a feeling of uneasy waiting. Shostakovich's famous ambiguity is demonstrated to have been inherent, even in what can seem a confident and gawkily exuberant work. The frequent retreats into hushed suspense throw the climaxes into jarringly harsh relief; the scherzo is nervously brittle; the coda to the finale has a hectic 'now, or jubilance will be too late' quality to it.
In both works the orchestra deliver all that Jarvi demands of them, and that at times means tempos of almost alarming urgency, string playing of brilliant agility, and formidably precise attack from everyone. Even the densest climaxes have their bones showing, so to speak: they are never merely raucous or opaque, and they gain in ferocious impetus thereby. The one respect in which the SNO give point to a few of their rivals, the slight lack of sheer density and richness in its string sound, the lower strings especially, is turned into an expressive resource in itself, adding bitterness to a poignant melody, transparency to a dark texture, athleticism to a tense presto.
In the First Symphony this new reading easily withstands comparison with Haitink on Decca by reason of its very consistency, and it no less easily eclipses Ormandy's virtuoso but shallower account (on CBS). Previn's sheer eloquence in the Sixth, the bitter vehemence of his Largo especially, is in a class of its own, and the directness of the HMV recording is still startling (Kondrashin on Philips puts himself out of the running by taking the Largo at a hasty andante, reducing its playing time by no less than five minutes); but Jarvi's more sombre intensity strikes me as being in a class of its own as well, and in terms of building an expressive arch from the first bar to the shocking coda he may even have an edge over Previn. The Chandos recording is a little cautious (each symphony is accommodated on a single side, each plays for over half an hour and is at its loudest when those treacherous final grooves are reached), a little recessed, which makes for slightly reduced presence and for a slight understatement of such a point as that in the second movement of the Sixth Symphony where Shostakovich impossibly demands that the high woodwind play sfffz. At such moments, despite somewhat papery strings, I found the cassette preferable but both are quite acceptable, especially when played at a high level; I look forward to the CD with eagerness and to future Shostakovich recordings from these artists with impatience.'

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