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Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No.10 in E Minor, op. 93
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Snow Maiden Suite, op. 12: “Melodrama” (#)
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh: “Hymn to Nature” & “Tartar Invasion & Battle of Kerzhenets” (¤)

USSR State Symphony Orchestra, Evgeny Svetlanov (conductor)
Recorded at Royal Albert Hall, London (21, 22 [#] & 30 [¤] August 1968) – 62’17
ICA Classics: ICAC 5036 – Booklet in English

A new release from ICA CLASSICS of the USSR State Symphony Orchestra’s live performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 10 has a cover photo of conductor Evgeny Svetlanov with his finger to his lips. From his attire, he’s obviously in rehearsal, but it could be an editorial reference to the events that took place on the evening of 21 August 1968 when the USSRSSO performed in the Royal Albert Hall in London for BBC Proms.

The recording starts with angry shouts, and sounds of confusion of, reportedly, other audience members trying to quiet the protesters. Obscuring Shostakovich’s already disquieting strings, the orchestra plays on, flawlessly. No, the audience wasn’t responding to the appearance of maestro Evgeny Svetlanov, he was one of the few artists from the then Soviet Union who was appearing regularly in the West. Unbeknownst to the conductor and the musicians, those were shouts against the Soviet regime’s Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia to halt the Prague Spring occurring that very day.

All of that was seemingly settled by Shostakovich’s first progression a minute in, because there is complete silence as soon as the first symphonic bloom is heard, the hall is consumed by the music. ICA touts “ambient mastering” and the transfer of this live recording is first rate, evident in the orchestral striations, the vaulted sonority of the lower strings (that distinctiveness Russian bowing) the instrument accents- not to mention registering the electricity in Albert Hall.

This performance adds to the legend of this work that was premiered in 1953, six months after Stalin’s death and Shostakovich’s second official denunciation. Shostakovich may in fact have composed it several years earlier, when he was out of favor for being too formalist in embracing western expressionism. Stalin himself humiliated the composer while attending a performance of his opera Lady Macbeth, a double blow after the work was trashed in Pravda.

In 1968, the scale just grabs you by the throat. It is like hearing a great performance of Hamlet, this isn’t merely tragedy, it is a statement of humanity, full of questions, mysteries and unresolved conclusions. Exploiting the drama in Shostakovich’s orchestral pulse, Svetlanov crisply articulates the subtle rhythmic tension in the mis-en-scenes. The unusual structure of the 22-minute first movement, characterized as a rough sonata form, is almost stand alone, is gorgeously rendered by USSRSSO.

Through this towering performance it is hard to believe that there is any editorializing by Svetlanov in this performance, it transmits such sincere investment in the music. If anything it tamps down the theatricality, lest it be interpreted as a political statement, but doesn’t back off of its integral romanticism.

The vertigo of the second movement swings from balletic Prokofievean swirls to a clutching militarism that is more primal than period nationalistic. The rumbling timpani swells vanishing away into fiery, charging strings, the 3rd movement provides the darkest atmospherics, the haunted French Horn and woodwinds searching for truth in a world of unrelenting brutality and strife. The Andante is a dizzying fireworks of unresolved metaphysics, all conjured with diamond clarity by Svetlanov and his magnificent Russians.

The bonus tracks are fine encores to this stunning night. Tchaikovsky’s Snow Maiden Suite was recorded the following night (August 22), and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh the next week (August 30).

This is a must hear.

Lewis Whittington




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