In classical recordings, as in classic movies, remakes only infrequently live up to the quality of the original. Sure, the technical aspects may have been updated, but can one really say that the new The Day the Earth Stood Still is better than the original, or that the remake of Solaris eclipsed Tarkovsky?
Bernard Haitink's Shostakovich series from the 1970s and 1980s, with the London Philharmonic and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, provided a benchmark for many collectors (myself included) getting to know all of the symphonies. I think familiarity has tended to breed contempt, and I confess that I don't pull Haitink's Shostakovich off the shelf much any longer.
Nevertheless, the Tenth Symphony probably is my favorite Shostakovich symphony of all, and when I saw that the London Symphony and the BBC had issued a live recording of it with Haitink, my curiosity was piqued. This performance was recorded on August 28, 1986, in the Royal Albert Hall, so it really isn't that new. One wonders, in fact, why it is seeing light of day more than two decades later. (Note that the recording is analogue – not a problem for me, but it may be for some.)
The reason one is attracted to live recordings is for the sense of occasion and drama that they provide, at their best. Haitink is generally not a fiery conductor to begin with, and his studio recordings have many virtues, but seemingly spontaneous excitement is not one of them. What we have on the present release is a Haitink unlike the Haitink familiar from the studios. Tempos remain fairly relaxed, but there's a welcome tension in all of the music-making here, even rawness, and the vague sensation that even the London Symphony is a little surprised at various points in this performance. The brutal second movement, for example, really catches fire once the orchestra realizes that Haitink is in an inspired mood. Interpretively, this is one of the better Shostakovich 10ths available right now.
Two factors move the disc a bit lower in the preference list, though. One is that it is a little short. The more serious issue is the sound. First, because this is a live recording, there is some audience noise. This, in and of itself, doesn't bother me, but the enthusiasm at the symphony's end, while I share it, comes too quickly. Also, between hall noise and audience noises, there isn't a silent background from which the music can rise up; there's a bit of sonic "fuzz" present even when the orchestra is not playing. The orchestral balance isn't bad, though. It doesn't sound like much knob-twiddling went into the sound; while not perfect, it is very believable.
This is a gripping performance of a gripping work, and it shouldn't disappoint anyone who isn't overly demanding about sound quality.
Copyright © 2009, Raymond Tuttle