Classical Music: Double play

Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson compare notes on...; Shostakovich: Symphony No 11 "The Year 1905" St Petersburg Philharmonic / Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca 448 179-2)
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The Independent Culture
Cold War politics have made it hard to see Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony clearly. The more Soviet official writers praised its Socialist Realism, the more Western critics grumbled about "overblown film music", comparing it unfavourably with the powerfully cogent and (fortunately) programme-less Tenth. Now we have the composer's putative memoirs, Testimony, to put us right: the title may refer to the brutally repressed "revolution" of 1905, but the work really illustrates "The Eternal Russian Problem" - cruel, tyrannical authorities, embittered people, pointless bloodshed.

The revisionist, post-Testimony version has one clear advantage; it has obviously inspired Vladimir Ashkenazy and the St Petersburg Philharmonic to give the symphony their emotional all, and the narrative thread seems stronger than ever in this performance. Intentionally or not, Ashkenazy and the orchestra actually underline the links with the cinema - the sense of the camera tracking slowly across Petersburg's Palace Square in the first movement, the sudden cross- cut from crushing violence to eerie stillness at the end of the second.

But narrative is hard to sustain in a 55-minute-long orchestral work, and when it fails, the Eleventh Symphony doesn't seem to have much to fall back on. The climax of the In memoriam slow movement still sounds overblown to me, especially the crudely insistent trumpet / drum triplets (please don't tell me they represent the crudity of Soviet repression - it doesn't make them any more musically convincing).

The finale, too, wears thin, especially in the slow passage towards the end - not the first, nor anywhere near the best elegiac cor anglais solo in Shostakovich. Granted, the end is terrific here, even if the bells don't quite manage to spell out the crucial G major/ minor. But it's a gesture, not the end of a sustained symphonic argument, or of a consistently gripping symphonic poem - and surely that's what matters. In our efforts to find the truth about Shostakovich's political allegiances, let's not forget that he was also a composer.


Who knows why the long cor anglais solo at the heart of the last movement is so moving, but it is. A remembrance, a benediction, a prophecy all in one.

Shostakovich was not yet born when the failed revolution of 1905 took its terrible toll - but he heard tell of it. And he was there in spirit. His Eleventh Symphony reads like a chronicle, the turning pages of a boldly illustrative Russian history book. Its themes are revolutionary songs "like white birds flying against a terrible black sky" (the words of the poet Anna Akhmatova.) But the subtext runs deep.

Beneath the colourful narrative is a state of mind over matter, an emotional reach that extends way beyond the depiction of specific events. That cor anglais solo (without its words: "Bare your heads! On this mournful day the shadow of a long night passed over the earth") has far wider implications. Despite all the sadness, the misery, the defeat it represents, there is something incredibly dignified - and hopeful - about it. It comes from the heart. If it didn't, we would know (look at the Twelfth Symphony - by comparison, so much hot air, propaganda, a big white lie).

Of course, the performance itself is a major contributing factor. And this one is pretty sensational. According to Ashkenazy, the work was completely new to many members of the present-day St Petersburg Philharmonic. Hence, a very real sense of seeing, hearing and believing for the first time.

Atmosphere is rare. That eerie calm - frozen in time - of the opening movement "Palace Square" with its rolling drums and nightwatch trumpets. So much conveyed with so little: the meditation before the massacre. Even at its most programmatic, filmic, this music has a raw energy, a conviction, all its own.

The stunning climax of the second movement "9 January" (the spontaneous combustion of a savage fugato depicting the deployment of troops against defenceless demonstrators) is frighteningly immediate in this vivid Decca recording, the fusillades of percussion as appallingly exciting as anything in Shostakovich. And to this day, no one has more chillingly evoked the numbing silence, the aftermath of such scenes - deafening fortissimi shockingly whited-out to a haze of sostenuto violins.

Then again, what could be simpler or more affecting than the slow movement's In memoriam, violas in dignified procession over a pizzicato bass. And beyond that, beyond the bowed but not broken cor anglais solo, the defiance of the finale, tunes of glory dashed by the minor-key clanging of the death-knell. Thrilling - and, yes, uplifting - stuff.