More than ten years ago someone at PentaTone had the bright idea of capturing a sonically superior Shostakovich cycle from the Russian National Orchestra. Every maestro featured was to have been drawn from the impressive collegium then sharing its podium with founding avatar Mikhail Pletnev. Things have moved on since and not every member of the team is still with us. Meanwhile the market has grown ever more saturated with mainstream Shostakovich releases displaying such penny dreadful slogans as “Under Stalin’s Shadow” in an attempt to up the ante.
We might expect something more ‘authentic’ from Moscow’s revamped Philharmonia-2 concert hall in the city’s Olympic Village, only I’m not sure we get it. Put on the first of these discs – they’re inexplicably yoked together in physical format – and it’s clear that Pletnev is the quiet man who wants to stand out from the crowd. This is the most ‘neutral’ Fourth I have ever heard with no special attempt to simulate the timbral edginess of Soviet-era music-making over and above the orchestra’s customarily ‘national’ style of playing. Indeed its earliest recordings sounded less Western than this, only partly a matter of the better instruments and plusher surround sonics of 2017.
Interpretatively speaking, Pletnev goes for something so po-faced and world-weary that the results risk coming across as a half-speed first rehearsal inadvertently released in lieu of the finished performance. No doubt he recoils from the Western tradition of performing this music as a virtuoso showpiece – significantly perhaps, Ormandy, Previn, Chung and Nelsons all chose to record it with American orchestras. But then neither is he much interested in exploring the quixotic byways which animate a rendering as ostensibly sleepy as Gennadi Rozhdestvensky’s.
Something is remiss from the word go, the opening gestures oddly defanged. Was the intention to underscore the sheer tedium of life in Mother Russia, or, perhaps, the sheer unfeelingness of the Terror? Suffice to say, if you grew up with Kondrashin’s whirlwind account you’ll find the first movement almost unrecognisable, a literally spaced-out run-through clocking in at thirty-four minutes. At the opposite end of the work Shostakovich’s crazy, impossibilist climax is again muted. You certainly can’t hear enough timpani. No, it’s inescapable to resist the ‘B’-word. What the conductor presumably intends as a depiction of a world without hope is mostly just plain boring.
It is worth remembering that the usual stories about the work’s suppression as recycled in the liner notes don’t tell the whole truth. After the Second World War this music cannot have been entirely unknown to cognoscenti. A limited edition two-piano reduction was published in 1946 even if an orchestral performance had to wait until 1961 by which time Khrushchev’s Thaw for all its ups and downs was well entrenched.
The Tenth, in its day a harbinger of post-Stalinist liberalisation, is rather less somnambulistic than its companion here but again the grain is unexpectedly soft, the sound bass-light, the climaxes somehow reluctant, most taken at a dutiful plod. There’s a certain balletic luminosity about it all but little of Vasily Petrenko’s unerring sense of direction, let alone Karajan’s iron grip! Brass and timpani are rather reticent too, possibly a factor less evident in surround sound. There are pockets of poised beauty and unsabotaged brilliance, rather more than can be found on the companion disc. That said, while the Scherzo almost certainly has nothing much to do with the great dictator, its music can afford to live more dangerously and enunciate more crisply than this. Likewise the Finale’s self-assertive denouement: even if ironically intended should it not seem a bit more euphoric?
I found this Tenth thought-provoking in its way, the Fourth beyond perplexing. Perhaps audiophiles with the right equipment will be more receptive.