There was a time when I considered this Shostakovich Symphony a great work, perhaps even a masterpiece. It isn't either, I now believe. It can have its moments, to be sure, and I'm certain it has its partisans, those who will claim masterpiece status for it. What this symphony needs is a brisk, dramatic approach to capture its cinema-like persona – the Eleventh has rightly been called a film score without a film.
Kyrill Kondrashin's 1960s Melodiya recording made the best case for the piece. With an overall timing about eight minutes quicker than Pletnev's 62:07 and with an approach that eschewed anything ponderous, it could be riveting at times. Pletnev is ponderous and, to my ears, borders on the lethargic in the first movement. But for the rest of the symphony he's quite alert to the work's drama, even to its ersatz revolutionary sympathies. Järvi, Haitink, Barshai, Slovak, Stokowski, Berglund and many others have turned in fine accounts of this work, leaving Shostakovich devotees a banquet of choices, where several helpings would seem the only solution. Personally, if I had to choose three, I would opt for Kondrashin, Barshai, and probably Haitink.
But I feel a little guilty leaving out Pletnev, who may actually end up as the first choice with some, especially with those who have a higher opinion of the work than I do. That is, if you see a good measure of depth to be plumbed in this music, you'll likely find Pletnev's ponderous manner to your liking in the first movement and elsewhere. The playing by the Russian National Orchestral is quite good and Pentatone's sound, if a bit reticent, is vivid and clear. The audience is so quiet in this live concert that you'd think you're listening to a studio performance.
Copyright © 2006, Robert Cummings