Dmitri Shostakovich would find no small irony in that one of the most chilling recent recordings of his Symphony No. 11 would be released by a British orchestra during the (hopefully short) reign of the most brutally repressive regime in that nation’s history. The composer titled the symphony 1905, to commemorate the massacre of over two hundred unarmed Russian protestors by Tsarist militia in the St. Petersburg city square that year. In reality, it’s a requiem for the victims of Stalin’s genocide and possibly the martyrs of the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary The gold standard for recent recordings remains the Mariinsky Orchestra’s 2012 performance under Valery Gergiev. But this one – by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski and streaming at Spotify – is also stunningly vivid.
This undated live performance from London’s now-shuttered Royal Festival Hall doesn’t have quite the dynamic range of the Mariinsky recording, and if anything, it’s more hushed in places. But it’s hardly any less haunting. In Jurowski’s hands, this comes across as more of a series of grisly memories than any kind of linear narrative.
As the morose first movement slowly rises from a doomed predawn ambience, the foreshadowing leaves no doubt that these brave souls don’t have a prayer. Faintly hopeful twin flutes and a solemn solitary oboe give voice to variations on a sturdy worker’s song, which immediately grows more and more defeated over a grimly looming backdrop. Could this be an indictment of Stalin’s bastardization of Marxist ideology, maybe? Meanwhile, the sentries’ trumpets are lurking and don’t hesitate to make their presence known. Jurowski’s resoluteness in maintaining a vast, distant expanse behind them enhances the impact considerably.
Forces mass on each side as a standoff develops in the second movement, lustrously drifting and swirling strings against marching brass hitting a cruelly heroic peak. Are those furtive, muted pizzicato strings going to succeed? Or is the bronzed return of the suicidal opening theme the real portent here? By now, we know where all this is going. Shostakovich doesn’t even acknowledge Stalin by giving him as much as a simple tune: the massacre itself is all drums and cymbal crashes.
But this isn’t half over yet. The contrast between the almost inaudible, massed basses and violins behind the funereal chimes as the smoke clears (and those sentries with their trumpets, who just refuse to shut up) is viscerally intense. The third movement’s long dirge of a folk song, its muted, syncopated bassline and macabre low brass quietly remind the listener to grasp the consequences of this horror. Shostakovich wants us never to forget that fascists don’t just kill once: they do it again and again until we get rid of them.
A slightly different view emerges in the conclusion: amid its richly grim textures, some of these freedom fighters seem considerably more adrenalized and disciplined than what we’ve seen earlier on. In 2021, we will need such energy and discipline as we resist the enticements behind the lockdowners’ genocidal agenda: we can have our orchestras and concerts again, if only we take their needle of death. Obviously, if we do, there won’t be any orchestras left by then anyway.
Like many symphonic ensembles these days in parts of the world which haven’t yet broken free of the lockdown, the London Philharmonic have been releasing a steady stream of archival live recordings and this is one of their very best, reason to keep a close eye on what else they may have in the vault for us.