First the good news: This Shostakovich album by Nelsons is better recorded than the previous releases in this set (symphonies 5, 8, 9 and 10). But even though improved, the sound leaves something to be desired and the interpretations could be slightly more robust. Having said that, the playing of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is charismatic and faultless. From the velvety strings to the finely realised complex percussion (castanets, etc.), there are no complaints.
Play album on Spotify:
With the beginning of the 4th symphony, Nelsons knows how to propel this music forward and understands the importance of rhythmic force for this work. And all goes really well, in excellent fashion, but what is perhaps lacking is the manic energy needed for this symphony. In the climaxes, for instance, when all hell breaks loose, things could have been even wilder. Then there are a couple of dynamic manipulations. Listen, for example, to the climax following the fugue in the presto. There is a curious diminuendo from 1:41 to 1:42, occurring within a second, the effect of which is a sudden lowering of volume, which lets you wonder whether this is the conductor’s choice or whether a recording engineer tinkered with the passage. And while the recording is not as muffled as in the previous releases of the Nelson/Shostakovich cycle, the sound could have been more upfront with more emphasis on the percussion, something that is missing most in the final movement.
As for the 11th, the first movement has all the mystery one could ask for with some impressive and lyrical pianissimo playing from the strings. It is in the 2nd movement climax again where things could have been slightly better, especially in the snare drum march section: Nelsons opts for faster tempi (nothing unusual here, Jarvi, Bychkov and others do the same), but the reverb acoustics are not in full agreement with this choice, with some instrumentation not being as reinforced as needed for the fortissimo sections to have an impact. Same can be said for the odd-sounding celesta throughout or the percussion in the third movement, even though the strings are once more exemplary in the Adagio and make up for any other misgivings. The finale is impressive on its own. Despite some odd tempo choices, like the really slow, emphatic introduction, the atmospheric slow parts are chilling.
There are a few minor reservations but this is impressive Shostakovich, just short of exceptional. There are times when I sense that I am listening to a foreign orchestra that doesn’t have the Russian frenzy (like the force behind the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with Rattle in the 4th or the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra with Wigglesworth in the 11th – Wigglesworth’s possibly being the best sounding set in terms of recorded sound).
The album trailer:
For a newcomer to the music of Shostakovich, this release has plenty to leave one impressed and it will. A connoisseur, however, will demand just a tad more.
Shostakovich, Symphonies 4 & 11
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons (conductor)