BSO Shostakovich Cycle Continues: Nelsons Adds 6 & 7

Andris Nelsons has reached the midpoint of his complete cycle of Shostakovich symphony recordings with the Boston Symphony. (Photo: Marco Borggreve)

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7, Incidental Music to King Lear, Festive Overture. Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (conductor).
Deutsche Grammophon B0029674-02, two CDs. Total time: 132:02

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW – Historically, the Boston Symphony did not have much of a Shostakovich tradition on recordings. There is a Serge Koussevitzky recording of the Symphony No. 9 from 1946-47, but nothing much after that aside from a couple of concertos under Seiji Ozawa. Nor has Deutsche Grammophon ever recorded all 15 symphonies under one conductor, although you can patch together a pretty good cycle over several decades by combining the DG recordings of Neeme Järvi in 2 and 3, 11 and 12, and 13-15; Leonard Bernstein in 1 and 7, 6 and 9; Esa-Pekka Salonen in 4; Mstislav Rostropovich in 5; André Previn in 8; and Herbert von Karajan in 10.

But both the BSO and DG are catching up in a hurry with Andris Nelsons’ ongoing cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies. While the project originally was limited to the Symphonies Nos. 5 through 10 – works written “Under Stalin’s Shadow” as the slogan on DG’s yellow cartouche proclaims – the initial entries turned out so well that the project was expanded to take in the entire cycle.

So far, the most electric performances have been of two symphonies (4 and 11) from outside the initial mandate. The Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7 were actually recorded before 4 and 11, but not released as a pair until this spring. Strike while the iron is hot, goes the old cliché, and I’m guessing that’s why 4 and 11 went out first (although the Sixth made a sneak preview in 2017, buried in a 57-disc BSO box). The performances of 6 and 7 are very good, but not quite as white-hot as those of 4 and 11.

The Symphony No. 6 is a really schizophrenic work of lopsided proportions, with a long opening movement of sullen pessimism and terror that the second movement mocks with feathery flippancy and the finale finishes off with a galloping circus. Nelsons starts the first movement with broad, heavy on-the-string playing, the weight paying off in the impressive first climax. What we don’t feel is much tension in the ominously quiet string trills that underpin much of the movement. The swiftly-paced second and third movements are more satisfying, with the BSO low brasses and timpani sounding spectacular at fortissimo levels. Still, once you’ve heard the brash exuberance of Bernstein in New York and Vienna, or the ferocious drive and anger of Kirill Kondrashin in Moscow and Amsterdam, or the slashing wit of Previn with the LSO, Nelsons just misses those marks, though not by a lot.

Nelsons gets the Symphony No. 7 – subtitled “Leningrad” – off to a brisk start. Then the notorious long march that so annoyed Bartók and various critics over the decades is propelled by a snare drum that can barely be heard at first; the rhythm is subdued, doesn’t jump out. But it eventually develops weight and momentum toward the peak of the march, with tremendous bass within the resonant walls of Symphony Hall.

Shostakovich, still under Stalin’s shadow, in 1950. (Deutsche Fototek)

Elsewhere, Nelsons does not quite tie the rest of this symphony’s massive, sometimes drifting structure together as well as some others (Bernstein, Kurt Masur, Karel Ancerl, Evgeny Mravinsky, to name a few). The lyrical sections can sound neutral and uninvolved, though all of the martial episodes and whirlwinds do come off well. Ultimately, the BSO is the star of the show over the Seventh’s 78-minute-plus haul (a bit slow on the average) with its magnificent blending of sections powerfully captured by the engineers.

As in all but one of the previous volumes, Nelsons offers some bonus pieces – one a rarity, the other not – to fill up the space on the CDs. A suite from Shostakovich’s incidental music for a Soviet production of Shakespeare’s King Lear contains short episodes of portentous gestures, fanfares, hunting and martial music. It’s really a patchwork trifle in his catalogue but contains enough idiosyncratic moments that will satisfy the composer’s fans. (Not included is a set of “buffoon songs” written for the production; one of them has a bass singing “Who has divided his kingdom piece by piece may join the fools” to the tune of “Jingle Bells”!). Then, after a weighty opening, the popular post-Stalin Festive Overture proceeds at a moderate pace with just enough in the way of high spirits and vigor, the polished BSO speaking for itself.

Overall, this issue is good enough to make me want to hear the rest of the Nelsons cycle as it emerges. Visitors to Tanglewood this summer will get an earful of things to come July 26 when Nelsons and the BSO tackle the wild, rarely-performed, avant-garde Symphony No. 2, with its choral finale extolling Lenin and the October Revolution without a hint of irony. The Symphonies Nos. 1 and 15 are already in the can, and the Symphonies Nos. 2 and 12 are due to be recorded in November during the BSO’s 2019-20 season, recorded live like all of the issues in the cycle.

[The BSO’s online web exhibit called Shostakovich: Under Stalin’s Shadow, an archival companion to the BSO/DG Shostakovich recordings, is available here.]

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide, the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America, and contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America. He also wrote the Shostakovich orchestral music discographical essays in The Third Ear Essential Listening Companion: Classical Music (Backbeat Books, 2002).