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CD Review

Dmitri Shostakovich

DGG 4795059

Under Stalin's Shadow

  • Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Passacaglia
  • Symphony #10 in E minor, Op. 93
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
Recorded Live at Symphony Hall, April 2015
Deutsche Grammophon 4795059
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The lone evidence we have of Nelsons on disc with the Boston Symphony Orchestra to date is an excellent Sibelius/Wagner coupling on the orchestra's in-house label. That disc was released as soon as possible, and Deutsche Grammophon announced this Shostakovich series ("Under Stalin's Shadow") not long after. That Nelsons is a dynamic and fresh presence in Boston after waning years under Ozawa and Levine is without question. But whether Nelsons truly represents some kind of Soviet musical tradition is rather up for debate. Yes, he's one of the last conductors who will be able to say he grew up in the Soviet Union, but his date of birth – 1978 – means that he grew up in a very different world, even musically, than Mariss Jansons or Gergiev.

I only mention this because the notes make a giant fuss about the "connection" between Nelsons and the composer, and clearly outline the interpretive stance for this disc. Stalin was bad, and Shostakovich was inspired to write his creations out of fear and loathing. By the way, this is probably true to a large extent, but there is no subtlety from note-writer Harlow Robinson or the conductor. I imagine then, that the Symphony #5 (to be released later along with Symphonies #6 and #9) will almost certainly take the "tragic" ending, with little of Leonard Bernstein's triumph. In other words, if this disc is any indication, we will be in for a dark and terrifying ride indeed.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra sounds absolutely magnificent. They drench the work in stark colors, and appear more musically involved than they have in many years. The typically elegant woodwinds shed their French sheen for a Slavic tartness that suits this music to a tee. The climaxes of the first movement have a searing intensity; Nelsons seems to have gotten over my previous complaint, that he had occasional trouble letting it all hang out. Say what you will about the "connection" and its validity, but this music clearly gets under the conductor's skin. Nothing is droopy, and the searing intensity of the Boston Symphony is totally welcome. The coupling is not especially important, but shares the same gritty coolness of the Symphony. If this isn't absolutely a necessary purchase right now, it could become one later within the context of what I believe will be an excellent series. If nothing else, this is a reminder of just how great the Boston Symphony can be.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman