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DSCH Journal

DSCH CD Review

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DePreist, Oregon SO, Symphony No 11

Symphony No. 11, The Year 1905, opus 103.
James DePreist, Oregon Symphony.
Delos DE 3329. DDD. TT 60:12.
Recorded live Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, Oregon, 18-20 January 2003.

De Preist, Helsinki PO More information ...

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Few 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.

The 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 silence throughout.

The 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.

Rostropovich, Symphony No. 11

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Stokowski, Moscow RSO

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Stokowski, Houston Symphony Orchestra

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Actually, 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.

Although 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.

But 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.

DePreist's 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.

As 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.

In 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.

While 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.

W. Mark Roberts
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