Shostakovich: Symphony No 12 'The Year 1917'; Symphony No 15. BBC Philharmonic / John Storgårds. ℗ 2023 Chandos Records Ltd

CD Spotlight

Insightful and Compelling

GEOFF PEARCE is impressed by this Chandos recording of Shostakovich's Symphonies Nos 12 and 15

'The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra is totally committed to these works and the playing, both solo and in ensemble work, is of the highest order.'


This is a very fine Super Audio CD from Chandos and features two of my favourite Shostakovich symphonies: No 12 ('The Year 1917') and his last one, No 15.

Many people do not particularly like the twelfth symphony because it appears as if it takes a step backwards compared to other works written immediately preceding and it has been mentioned that perhaps the composer was adopting a conciliatory pose more in the Communist Party line. Perhaps this is so, but I think this is a very powerful work that portrays a particularly turbulent year. The symphony is Shostakovich's Op 112 and was completed in 1961. It was dedicated to the memory of Lenin.

The first movement is inspired by the arrival of Lenin in Petrograd in April 1917, and he is soon at work inspiring and directing revolutionary activities. After a slow, broad introduction, the movement is charged and florid, with martial moments, and one of almost frenzied activity. The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra is in fine form and helps maintain the dramatic terseness, and also the grander moments, and the dynamic and emotional contrast is impressive. The movement is entitled 'Revolutionary Petrograd' and the tension is palpable, but so is the feeling that something very grand will be accomplished.

Listen — Shostakovich: Revolutionary Petrograd (Symphony No 12)
(CHSA 5334 track 1, 6:47-7:35) ℗ 2023 Chandos Records Ltd :

The Second Movement, 'Razliv', is a sombre, brooding movement that commemorates the site in North Petrograd where Lenin was forced to retreat to. There is a sadness to this movement, but also an undercurrent that is stolid and brooding. The ending of the movement is ominous, like a rather ghostly fog.

The third Movement, 'Aurora', is the briefest of the moments, and depicts the ship firing on the Winter Palace after emerging from the fog at the end of the previous movement. This was the beginning of the October Revolution. One can imagine the ship picking up speed as it emerges from the fog, and the guns firing on the palace. For my money, it is one of the most exciting battle scenes of all music.

Listen — Shostakovich: Aurora (Symphony No 12)
(CHSA 5334 track 3, 2:48-3:41) ℗ 2023 Chandos Records Ltd :

This leads into the last movement, 'The Dawn Of Humanity'. The music is triumphant as the revolution has been a success and the older order swept asunder, and like with most revolutions, it is always hoped that something better will emerge. For all its surface joyousness and optimism, there is a feeling of disquiet that is not quite dispelled.

Listen — Shostakovich: The Dawn Of Humanity (Symphony No 12)
(CHSA 5334 track 4, 5:40-6:22) ℗ 2023 Chandos Records Ltd :

Symphony No 15, Op 148 was Shostakovich's final symphony and unlike the previous four, was not programmatic or based on text. It also contains a couple of prominent quotes and many partial ones - one from Rossini's Willam Tell Overture in the first movement, and a quote from Wagner's Götterdämerung - the fate motif and the rhythm of Siegfried's death scene. Shostakovich did not shed any light at all on the reason for these quotes, and there have been many ideas put forward since his death. I think of it as the composer's rather wry reflection, looking back over his life, and leave it as that. For some strange reason, this symphony is the one that most appeals to me.

The first movement opens delicately with a glockenspiel and a flute theme that is jaunty, and has strings playing short notes as a bass. It is an unusual and rather whacky opening, a feeling of perhaps being a little drunk, or delirious. It is almost circus or pantomime music in places but there are moments almost of terror too. Actually, this is quite an unsettling piece.

Listen — Shostakovich: Allegretto (Symphony No 15)
(CHSA 5334 track 5, 2:06-2:46) ℗ 2023 Chandos Records Ltd :

The second movement is slow, profoundly sorrowful and at times quite bleak. Somehow, I think it is a cortège as the heaviness can be almost overwhelming. I truly love Shostakovich slow movements and sometimes, with extended rests, one almost feels the suspension of time. Special mention must be made of the very fine cello and trombone solos in this movement.

Listen — Shostakovich: Adagio / Largo (Symphony No 15)
(CHSA 5334 track 6, 5:17-6:02) ℗ 2023 Chandos Records Ltd :

The third movement is a short sardonic movement with clarinet, bassoon and later violin mocking the cello tune of the previous movement. Whilst the general mood is dancelike, there is a blackness and the movement is macabre.

The last movement is the longest, and it is very slow and again ominous. There are moments of a black humoured light heartedness and even moments of tenderness with dance-like figures. I really puzzle over this movement, and I am left with a feeling of desolation at the end of it. It twists and turns a lot, with a lot of contrast in mood, tempi, orchestral registration etc, and I find this almost a symphony in itself, even though it is only just over sixteen and a half minutes long. There are moments where I can feel this is the end of a journey, much as like the first symphony is the beginning, and there are many parallels - I feel they are kindred spirits. I think you would need to be a very jaded person indeed not to be affected by this piece.

Listen — Shostakovich: Adagio / Allegretto (Symphony No 15)
(CHSA 5334 track 8, 9:01-9:43) ℗ 2023 Chandos Records Ltd :

There is nothing about this disc that I do not like. The recorded sound is sumptuous, crisp and never overblown. The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra is totally committed to these works and the playing, both solo and in ensemble work, is of the highest order. John Storgårds is a conductor that I have always been impressed with and his direction here is insightful and compelling. I have other fine recordings of both these works, but am most impressed with this disc.

Copyright © 18 April 2023 Geoff Pearce,
Sydney, Australia



 << Home              Next review >>