About the Author
Dmitri Shostakovich is the quintessential Soviet-era Russian composer, having scored dozens of films and created 15 Symphonies. You can use the blog search bar on the right to find our other posts about his work.
About the Music
Shostakovich’s 9th, like his 5th, is fraught with Stalinesque atmosphere. Having composed Stalin-pleasing No. 5 to return from official censure, Shostakovich followed with three “serious” symphonies through the 2nd WW. As the war drew to a close, Stalin reportedly expected Shostakovich to compose a triumphal, domineering, boasting announcement of the triumph of the Soviet system over its foes.
Having read Shostakovich’s letters to Isaak Glikman, amongst other biographies, I remain unconvinced that Shostakovich embedded anti-communist codes into his music. Was Shostakovich anti-Stalinist? Definitely. Anti-Communist? Hardly.
So I have little trouble believing the story which tells us that Shostakovich prefered to tweak Stalin’s nose and so composed a light, exuberant symphony. Within 2 years, Shostakovich again faced official censure…and could only breathe relief after Stalin’s death in 1953.
I find Symphony No. 9 to be the most immediately likeable of Shostakovich’s symphonies. Compare No. 9 to No. 5 in which Shostakovich did penance by giving Stalin the required braggardly pomp, or No. 13 “Babi Yar” which deals with painfully serious issues in a strong and difficult choral form.
About the Discs
To thoroughly appreciate the work, I built a playlist of 6 different recordings available on the Naxos Music Library. First, I listened to them all in sequence to generally re-acquaint myself with the piece. Then, I re-arranged the tracks in movement order, so I could hear the 6 recordings of each movement back-to-back. This helped me hear differences in recording quality and interpretation.
The following orchestras were represented. I’ll assign them an abbreviation in ()s and note the Record Label in s:
- Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (SRSO) [Naxos] *
- Belgian Radio and Television Philharmonic Orchestra (BRTPO) [Naxos] *
- Scottish National Orchestra (SNO) [Chandos]
- Russian State Symphonic Orchestra (RSSO) [Chandos]
- Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra (NRPO) [BIS] *
- Russian National Orchestra (RNO) [Pentatone Classics]
Links with an “*” lead to the Naxos Web site, where you can listen to excerpts after completing a free registration. Otherwise, the links lead to the Naxos Music Library (NML), which requires a subscription (or institutional access).
Each of these discs presents a competent performance of the work. Any performance mistakes are hidden well enough to escape notice.
Quality and Interpretation Highlights
However, the discs vary in recording quality and interpretive appeal. A few thoughts on recording quality:
- I found the two Naxos recordings somewhat muted, particularly the SSRO disc.
- I liked the acoustic spaces captured on the SNO and RNO recordings.
Interpretive highlights: Some performances differed in the strength of tuba underlying the trumpets, the means by which a trombone might cut off or fade, and whether the director opted for a muted cymbal crash rather than a brassy cymbal crash. But, within the context of each piece I felt each offered successful performances that were well interpreted.
Differences in track lengths, as caused by differences in interpretation, also caught my attention. I noticed that for the Allegro (Mvmt I), Presto (Mvmt III), and Allegretto (Mvmt V) the variation in tempo between the six recordings amounted to about a 10% difference between extremes. In none of these movements did I feel that variation made a tangible difference. However, I was surprised by significant tempo variances amongst performances of the Moderato (Mvmt II) and of the Largo (Mvmt IV).
Moderato (Mvmt II): The spread between extremes in the Moderato amounted to 32% of the longer track. In other words, the longer track was nearly half-again the length, 47% longer, of the shortest performance. We’re talking about the NRPO turning in a 6m03s performance compared to the BRTPO delivering an 8m54s recording – a 3min spread. Moderato is a challenging tempo indicator and could mean moderately slow or moderately fast. The NRPO started with the slowest Allegro and essentially kept that pace with a fast Moderato. Alternatively, the BRTPO opened with one of the fastet Allegros, drew the tempo contrast by turning in a slow Moderato, and then lept into one of the fastest Prestos.
Largo (Mvmt IV): Peformances of the Largo presented narrower divergence with the SSRO offering a 3m08 rendition compared to the 3m56s from the RSSO. This spread amounts to 20%-25% but is less noticeable since we’re only talking about a 1 minute difference in 3 to 4 minutes rather than a 3 minute difference in 6 to 9 minutes.
- I found the CSRO recording lethargic during the Largo. The interpretive choice to deliver weak horn/cymbal crashes in this movement may have been intentional, but the appeal was lost on me.
- The BRTPO peformance bogged down in the Moderato (see above discussion regarding Mvmt II), but was otherwise enjoyable.
- I liked the SNO performance the best. I recognize that most people prefer a jaunty pace over a lethargic one, so I’m trying not to base my favorable judgement of this recording merely on the fact that it’s generally the shortest. The rapid Allegro, Moderato, and Presto are beautifully contered by a moving Largo. This recording offers one of the longest Allegrettos, which gracefully builds from the pathos of the largo to a jaunty Allegretto. I also liked the clarity of the horn solo in the Presto.
- The RSSO turned in a solid performance with little to disgtinguish itself.
- The NRPO’s tempo didn’t vary enough, but marched along. This results in the longest Allegro, shortest Moderato, and almost longest Allegretto. In other words, it moves at a nice clip, but I would have preferred a more variation.
- I also liked the RNO rendition. While the Moderato at times bordered on lethargic, I liked the horn solo in the Presto (similar to my impression of the SNO’s offering here) and the brass sustains in the Largo (though I wonder if a Tuba goes missing on the 2nd sustained intro?)
Reading back over my thoughts, I can’t help but laugh a bit at myself as being more than a bit nitpicky. So, let me assure you that every one of these recordings will serve you well.
If I were to own one of these recordings, I’d pick the Scottish National Orchestra under Neemi Jarvi’s baton. My second choice would be the Russian National Orchestra led by Yakov Kreizberg.
There you have it!
If you have a chance to listen to these tracks, let us know what you think in the comments (below). If you have a chance to compare the SNO or RNO’s performances to those led by Bernstein or Rostropovich or Haitink (for example) please offer a comment below as to how you think they fare.