No. 11, The Year 1905, opus 103. James
DePreist, Oregon Symphony. Delos
DE 3329. DDD. TT 60:12.
live Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, Oregon, 18-20 January 2003.
recent Shostakovich CDs have generated as much anticipation as James DePreist's
new recording of the Eleventh Symphony, updating the 1988 release that
many regard as a benchmark for this opus (Delos DE 3080). DePreist considers
this symphony to be very close to his soul, and his interpretation is
informed not only by study of the score but also of other key recordings,
both historic and contemporary. It is of no small interest, then, to hear
how his conception has changed in the intervening 15 years.
record label remains the same, but the Helsinki Philharmonic are here
replaced by the Oregon Symphony, an ensemble DePreist has directed since
1980 (he relinquished the reins to Carlos Kalmar this season, but remains
the orchestra's Laureate Music Director). Another difference is that whereas
the Helsinki performance was set down in studio, this recording is compiled
from three live concerts. Not that one would ever guess this, mind; Portland
concertgoers must be the best mannered anywhere, judging by their blessed
most obvious change to DePreist's interpretation is his contraction of
tempo. Track timings imply that the Oregon performance is eight minutes
shorter than the expansive Helsinki recording, with the first movement
(Palace Square) accounting for half of the total time savings,
and the second (Ninth of January) and third (Eternal Memory or In Memoriam) shaving off around two minutes apiece.
one could argue that the overall difference is closer to nine minutes,
because, like Rostropovich in his critically acclaimed live recording
with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live LSO0030; reviewed in DSCH No. 18), DePreist now allows the final tam tam clash to
resonate long after the symphony's final bar. Although Shostakovich's
score calls for the tam tam to sound only a quaver in unison with the
last note of the other instruments, DePreist cites a venerable precedent
for this tweak: "In 1976 I obtained a copy of Stokowski's score for
the symphony. The score is fascinating for the markings of Maestro Stokowski
and his personal indications. Among the markings was an indication to
let the tam tam vibrate. In my new recording I used this 'Stokowskiism'.
It is not effective in concert performance because of applause."
Indeed, audience applause following hard on Stokie's 1958 concert with
the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra engulfs any resonance that the shoddy
recording might have transmitted (Russian Disc RD CD 15 001; deleted).
Stokowski's studio recording with the Houston Symphony Orchestra from
the same year offers far better acoustics, and the tam tam is audible
for three seconds after being struck (EMI CDM 5 65206 2). But DePreist's
parting blow (which must have been recorded in a patch session rather
than in concert) takes an awe-inspiring 42 seconds to decay, making even
Rostropovich's 18-second reverberation seem half-hearted by comparison.
my preference remains for the tam tam to sound as originally scored -
and as played in DePreist's Helsinki recording - allowing it to resonate
imparts an intriguing change to the aftertaste of the symphony. As scored, The Year 1905 closes with a peremptory challenge, defying the tyrants
alluded to in The Tocsin's revolutionary song quotations. There
are no emotional shades of grey and a victorious outcome is inevitable.
In contrast, the resounding gong perturbs this cathartic experience, introducing
more disquiet the longer it lingers; now one doubts that the conflict
prophesied in the symphony's closing bars will be so decisively resolved.
what of events before this final note? On its own terms, DePreist's new
Eleventh is a persuasively structured interpretation that supplies steady
forward momentum. It also boasts some fine individual performances; highlights
include the bare-fanged growls of the cellos and double basses in Ninth
of January, the fabulously dark flute reprise of the Listen theme at Fig. 95/18:15 of the same movement, and the haunting English
horn in the finale.
new entry does not, however, compete in the same league as his Helsinki
recording, which crackled with higher voltage despite its more deliberate
tempi. I am reluctant to ascribe this to a difference in the emotional
engagement of the two orchestras, although I imagine that the Oregon players
appear to more easily accept the casualty list in Eternal Memory.
Less subjective reasons relate primarily to the outer movements. Palace
Square is not only more spacious in DePreist's earlier recording but
also chillier by several degrees, due to a high-frequency frosting on
the Helsinki strings that eludes their Oregon counterparts (or perhaps
the recording engineers). The warm, almost pastoral tone of the Oregon
violins fails to generate the requisite frissons, most regrettably after
the trumpets draw their line in the snow at Fig. 25/12:15.
for The Tocsin, again I miss the ability of the Helsinki performance
to raise the hairs on the back of my neck. In the countdown to the final
climax, the Oregon percussion expend too much power too soon with fortissimo
strokes at Fig. 167/12:19. Here Shostakovich's dynamic indication is only mf, clearly intended to allow the progressive swelling of noise
and tension that one hears to such terrifying effect in the Helsinki recording.
Without an equivalent ramping up of volume, the Oregon Symphony's climax
is significantly less gripping. Those vital bells in the closing bars
are also quite indistinct on the new Delos disc.
short, DePreist's earlier account remains my top recommendation in this
opus; it is one of those rare recordings where everything clicks, completely
immersing the listener in its unique world from first to last note. As
an Eleventh to live with, I do not believe it has been equalled, let alone
surpassed, by any of the recordings that have appeared in the decade and
a half since it was first released, including DePreist's own remake. Rostropovich's
risk-taking LSO version is larger than life in scale, scope and decibels,
an innovative and undeniably exciting reading that deserves the praise
it has received in our pages and elsewhere. Ultimately, however, I find
its steroid-enhanced bulk less appealing than the more aesthetic muscularity
of DePreist's Helsinki performance.
the annotation to the new release is decent, it does not replicate the
useful musical examples included in Delos' previous booklet. It is not
unprecedented for a label to decide it needs only one recording of a particular
symphony by a particular conductor in its stable; if Delos entertain such
thoughts, I strongly urge them to stick with DePreist's 1988 Eleventh.