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Views And Reviews: Shostakovich - Symphony No 1

...What really brings you up short about this music is not so much the oft-voiced “astonishing accomplishment for one so young” – as a symphony, it’s as short on structural integrity as it is long on youthful bombast (and that’s not a grumble!) – but that, like Mahler’s equally youthful Das Klagende Lied, it already contains all the key elements of his maturity bar only one, and that is the ability to “carry the line”. Not that we should worry – here’s a burgeoning genius, revelling in a Brave New World of Cultural Revolution, singing his socks off at the top of his voice (it would be quite a few years yet, before he had to sing his socks off to save his life)...

Paul Serotsky, writing his socks off, introduces us to Shostakovich's First Symphony.

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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 – 1975)

The Symphonies (Complete) –
Nos. 1, 2 “To October”, 3 “First of May”, 4, 5, 6, 7 “Leningrad”, 8, 9, 10, 11 “The Year 1905", 12 “The Year 1917" (“To the Memory of Lenin”), 13 “Babi Yar”, 14, 15.
WDR Symphony Orchestra/Rudolf Barshai, with WDR Chorus (Nos. 2, 3), Sergei Aleksashkin (bass, No. 13), Moscow Choral Academy (No. 13), Alla Simoni (sop., No. 14), Vladimir Vaneev (bass, No. 14)
Brilliant Classics 6324-1/11, Box of 11 CDs in individual cardboard sleeves, with booklet.
Recorded at Philharmonie, Koln, 10/94 (Nos. 1, 3), 1/95 (No. 2), 4/96 and 10/96 (No. 4), 7/95 and 4/96 (No. 5), 10/95 (No. 6), 9/92 (No. 7), 3/94 and 10/95 (No. 8), 7/95, 9/95 and 4/96 (No. 9), 10/96 (No. 10), 5/99 (No. 11), 9/95 (No. 12), 9/00 (No. 13), Sometime in 1999/2000 (No. 14), 6/98 (No. 15)
[670 mins.]

Symphony No. 1 op. 10 (1926)

Having hit the mat in Maternity only in 1906, Shostakovich was still in short pants when Lenin and Co. hit the streets in 1917, and not overlong out of short pants in 1926 when he presented his graduation thesis for the scrutiny of his professors at the Petrograd (or Leningrad, or St. Petersburg) Conservatory. It’s hardly overwhelming news that in this “thesis”, his First Symphony, the young Shostakovich exposes his influences as blatantly as any young lad might his underpants through torn breeches. They are all there: Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Mahler, and Glazunov, his teacher at the Conservatory. What is perhaps surprising is that there is relatively little of Rimsky-Korsakov, who taught both Glazunov and Prokofiev, and was Stravinsky’s mentor. That’s because, by the time he wrote this landmark op. 10, the precocious youngster had already worked his way over that particular hurdle (try Shostakovich’s Scherzo, op. 1, or Theme with Variations op. 3 to be found on a Melodiya-sourced BMG twofer, cat. no. 74321 59058 2 – shades a-plenty of Rimsky-Korsakov there!).

What really brings you up short about this music is not so much the oft-voiced “astonishing accomplishment for one so young” – as a symphony, it’s as short on structural integrity as it is long on youthful bombast (and that’s not a grumble!) – but that, like Mahler’s equally youthful Das Klagende Lied, it already contains all the key elements of his maturity bar only one, and that is the ability to “carry the line”. Not that we should worry – here’s a burgeoning genius, revelling in a Brave New World of Cultural Revolution, singing his socks off at the top of his voice (it would be quite a few years yet, before he had to sing his socks off to save his life). That it’s “not bad for starters” has been borne out by the music’s enduring, and richly deserved, popularity.

On went CD1. The Moment of Truth. After all the expectation-building, would my face fall? No, it didn’t; instead it was my jaw that dropped. A clear, bright trumpet, a cuddly bassoon, a clarinet tone to die for! Oh, and beautifully judged chamber-music textures, clearly etched against a warm acoustic – and I could hear all the percussion, from the black bumping of the bass drum right up to the tingle of the triangle. Doughty points out a Petrushka-like “grotesquerie”, but Barshai finds more than that. Within the confines of a sprightly basic allegretto, he uncovers a delightful whimsicality interweaving the brash buffoonery, a perception he carries though to the allegro of the second movement, where Shostakovich substitutes athleticism for buffoonery. By the time I got to halfway through the lento third movement, Barshai had me dubbing this symphony “Ode to Youth”. He laces the throbbing adolescent passion with spoonfuls of syrup that bring out the tang of bitter lemon in Shostakovich’s gauche trumpet-and-snare-drum fanfare figures. The eruption of the finale’s opening, basses shovelling the tam-tam up and over, is superbly done. Shostakovich adds to his brew the impetuosity of a young man, all fired up but as yet with nothing on which to vent his brimming bellyful of crackling energy, exposed nerves twitching and pulsing because they haven’t quite learnt how to insulate themselves from the raw stimuli of Life. There may be Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Mahler looking over his shoulder. Ignore them – this is Shostakovich, rearing up, kicking at the traces, and raring to go!

If, in bringing out the youthful buffoonery, zest, and unbridled passions, Barshai misses a single trick, then I didn’t spot it. His only misjudgement would seem to be the rapid-fire repeated notes at about 2'17 into the finale, which are that damned quick that they are smeared into tremolandi, though whether through imprecise articulation or “saturation” of the warm acoustic it’s hard to say. Yes, every now and then there are little lapses or awkward corners in the WDRSO’s playing, but these are nothing to write home about, particularly when compared to the spirit of their music-making, which positively bristles with vitality and (dare I say it?) commitment. Stunning.

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