In a time when global tyranny and repression have reached levels of terror not seen since the Middle Ages, it makes sense to revisit two great antifascist works from a composer who narrowly managed to survive under one of the world’s most evil regimes. Only Dmitri Shostakovich’s popularity saved him from the fate so many of his friends suffered under Stalin. Fortuituously, maestro Ginandrea Noseda and the London Symphony Orchestra have just released a live album of two completely different but equally relevant Shostakovich symphonies, No. 9 and No. 10, streaming at Spotify. The former is from 2018, the latter from performances at the Barbican in January and February of 2020, just a few weeks before music there was banned by the Boris Johnson regime.
During his lifetime, Shostakovich explained away the savage irony, caricatures and stricken horror in his music as reflecting on the evil of the Tsarist regime, even though it was clear that he was taking shots at Stalin and then Krushchev. Symphony No. 9 is an oddball, the only one of its kind in the composer’s repertoire. It’s a goofy little piece of music whose sarcasm is almost completely deadpan. It’s impossible to imagine a more dispassionate celebration.
Written ostensibly in tribute to the Soviet victory over the Nazis, the blithe little flourishes of the first movement seem to ask, “So we aren’t going to find out if life under Hitler would be any better than it was under Stalin? It couldn’t be any worse.” Ultimately, history would validate that gruesome premise. Noseda leads the orchestra through a very individualistic interpretation, muting the turbulent undercurrent and practically turning it into a concerto for flute and violin.
The conductor takes the second movement slowly, letting the brooding reflection of Juliana Koch’s oboe speak for the weariness of millions of Russians. This depleted, exhausted waltz really drags. Then in the third movement Noseda really picks up the phony pageantry, a familiar trope in the Shostakovich playbook: trumpeter Philip Cobb’s facsimile of a martial Russian victory riff is a hoot.
But it doesn’t last. Timothy Jones’ sotto-voce, lightly vibrato-laden horn brings back the sullen atmosphere in movement four. The sober oboe introduction to the conclusion foreshadows a familiar, troubled hook from Symphony No. 10. The coda is appropriately rote, a whole nation bustling through the motions.
No. 10 might be the greatest symphony ever written: Noseda and the ensemble go deep into its innumerable layers for gravitas and historical impact. Grounded in the low strings, the vast expanse of pain and anguish in the first movement is visceral, a requiem for the victims of Stalin’s reign of terror. Noseda’s choice to mute the flickers of hope against hope, as a pulsing sway grows more and more harrowing, is an apt template for the rest of the recording.
The furtive chase scene of the second movement gains coldly sleek momentum as it morphs into a danse macabre: holocausts throughout history are always carefully orchestrated. Movement three, in contrast, seems especially restrained in its most desolate moments, setting up the iconic, eerily syncopated, Scheherezade-like theme at the center.. Individually voices of mourning rise over a grim hush in the fourth movement: that brief, bubbly respite may only be a coded message to the composer’s girlfriend at the time, and it isn’t long before it becomes a completely different kind of pursuit theme.
Ultimately, Shostakovich’s best-known symphonies are cautionary tales. Look what happened in my country, he tells us. Don’t let this happen in yours. How crushingly ironic that an orchestra from the UK – sufffering under one of the most sadistic totalitarian regimes in the world at the moment – would be responsible for such deeply insightful performances.