I've long been a fan of Elizabeth Wilson's mighty tome 'Shostakovich - A Life Remembered'. In it, she quotes Lev Lebedinsky (a friend of the composer and musicologist) as saying this about the Eleventh Syphony, which perhaps may show Mr Barkhoff's conclusions in a different light:
"The Eleventh Symphony was upheld as an example of how music can reflect ideology. True, Shostakovich gave it the title '1905', but it was composed in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. What we heard in the music was not the police firing on the crowd in front of the Winter Palace in 1905, but the Soviet tanks roaring in the streets of Budapest. This was so clear to those 'who had ears to listen' [a favourite saying of Shostakovich], that his son, with whom he was not in the habit of sharing his deepest thoughts, whispered to the composer during the dress rehearsal, 'Papa, what if they hang you for this?'
Ms Wilson herself continues:
"Ostensibly the Symphony's programme was absolutely orthodox, but ironically the very use of popular revolutionary songs (even in a purely instrumental form) imbued it with an ambiguous meaning. It is enough to recall some of the unvoiced texts, for instance the first prison song, 'Listen', used throughout the first movement, whose words pronounce:'The autumn night is black as treason, black as the tyrant's conscience. Blacker than that night a terrible vision rises from the fog - prison'. And similarly, the words of the famous revolutionary song used in the last movement of the Symphony: 'Rage, you tyrants -/Mock at us./ Threaten us with prison and chains / We are strong in spirit, if weak in body!/ Shame, shame on you tyrants".
When Shostakovich was consulted some years later about a proposed ballet set to the music of the Eleventh Syphony, he told igor Belsky the choreographer: "Don't forget I wrote that symphony in the aftermath of the Hungarian Uprising ........"
Like Mr Morgan, I too find this symphony to be gripping and compelling in equal measure. The only point at which I perhaps part company with him is in the omission of Haitink's splendid recording of the work from his review, where (in my opinion), the combination of a magnificent orchestra allied to spectacular engineering, lead by a very fine conductor of Russian music yields my go-to recording of the piece. Indeed, the same team's rendition of the Twelfth almost makes that work great too ! I was not present on the night of the LSO recording that was the subject of this review, but I did see Rostropovich conduct it with the same orchestra a few years previously. I don't depart much from Mr Morgan's conclusions, but what stayed in my mind from the earlier performance which was repeated again in the recorded one, is the coda of the final movement, in particular bringing the symphony to a close full of anger and dark foreboding. It is as if Rostropovich understands the significance of the Revolutionary Song mentioned by Ms Wilson above and as a consequence makes much more of it than any other conductor in my experience. It is that reason why his LSO recording stays in my collection !
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