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Shostakovich’s atmospheric Eleventh Symphony recounts the events surrounding the First Russian Revolution of 1905, while reflecting on the brutality of the later Soviet regime. Its cinematic depiction of winter cold and military might is utterly compelling, and never more so than under the baton of the composer’s friend Mstislav Rostropovich.

Producer: James Mallinson
Engineering: Tony Faulkner (Green Room Productions)
Recorded: Live in DSD, 21-22 March 2003, Barbican Hall, London

Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony, written in 1957 to mark the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution, had a mixed reception. Soviet officialdom praised it as a fine example of ‘socialist realism’ and awarded the composer a Lenin Prize; dissident Russians found it far too ‘official’; Western critics damned it as glorified film music. In the years since Shostakovich’s death, however, the Eleventh Symphony has come to be considered in a very different light: not as an ‘official’ work written to satisfy the Soviet authorities, but a deeply moving reflection on Russian history.

The Symphony commemorates the events that led up to the first Russian Revolution. While Tsar Nicholas II and his ministers maintained the principle of rigid autocracy, Russian life was increasingly riddled with incompetence, corruption and oppression. On 9 January 1905 a huge demonstration of workers and their families converged on the square in front of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. They carried a respectfully worded petition, and icons and portraits of the Tsar. Troops opened fire on the defenceless crowd and hundreds were killed.

The titles and internal references of the Eleventh Symphony refer directly to St Petersburg in 1905; but the issues it deals with are just as valid for any other time or place where protest is crushed by violence. The four movements of the Symphony are played without a break and are linked in a number of ways. There are two particularly important recurring motifs: the sustained opening music on strings, and the quietly menacing timpani figure that follows it. This reappears in differing forms in all the movements, sometimes as a theme in its own right, sometimes as part of the accompaniment. Much of the score is based on music of the period: songs of 19th-century political prisoners, and popular songs of the 1905 Revolution. Shostakovich also quotes from his own Ten Choral Poems on Revolutionary Texts, written in 1951.

The recording is one of three the orchestra made of Shostakovich’s symphonies under the baton of the late Mstislav Rostropovich, during some of his last performances on the podium. Rostropovich’s friendship and working relationship with Shostakovich gave him unique insights into this music, which are brought to life by the London Symphony Orchestra in fine form.

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