Here is the kind of record that will make you want to take all your heavy vinyl classical pressings and put them in storage.
It’s also proof positive that Decca’s choice of Kingsway Hall as a recording venue was a good one. The full range of colors of the orchestra are here presented with remarkable clarity, dynamic contrast, spaciousness, sweetness, and timbral accuracy.
If you want to demonstrate to a novice listener why modern recordings are so consistently unsatisfactory, all you have to do is play this record for them. No CD and no Heavy Vinyl pressing ever sounded like this in our experience.
The richness of the strings, a signature sound for Decca in the Fifties and Sixties, is on display here for fans of the classical Golden Age. It’s practically impossible to hear that kind of string sound on any recording made in the last thirty years (and this of course includes practically everything pressed on Heavy Vinyl).
It may be a lost art, but as long as we have these wonderful vintage pressings to play, it’s an art that is not lost on us. I don’t think the Decca engineers could have recorded this music much better than they dhave here — it has all the orchestral magic one could ask for, as well as the clarity and presence that are missing from so many other vintage Golden Age records.
Symphony No. 1 In F Minor, Op. 10
Written at the age of eighteen, Shostakovich’s First Symphony was the graduation piece that completed his studies at the Leningrad Conservatory. It has been likened to the opening chapter of a novel, setting the tone for all that follows. The composer’s trade-mark musical gestures are all immediately obvious. Nervous tension and sarcastic wit, passion and intelligence, contemplation and action, nobility and banality – all expressed with an economy of means that is simultaneously subtle and direct.
The symphony opens with a virtuosic brilliance heavily influenced by Stravinsky’s Petrushka. But perhaps it was not only that work’s orchestration, with its soloistic piano part, that fascinated the student composer. Like Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, another piece he admired, the disconcerting idea of human beings as puppets, with their actions manipulated by unseen string-pullers from on high, was one that stayed with the composer right the way through to his final symphony, written almost fifty years later.
After composing the first two movements, Shostakovich wrote to a friend that it would be more fitting to call the work a ‘symphony-grotesque’. But the style was about to change. ‘I am in a terrible mood,’ he continued. ‘Sometimes I just want to shout. To cry out in terror. Doubts and problems. All this darkness suffocates me. From sheer misery, I’ve started to compose the finale of the symphony. It’s turning out pretty gloomy.’
The second half of the piece is certainly much more tragic in vein. Now the influences are more old-fashioned than contemporary, with Mahlerian string sonorities and Tchaikovsky-like descriptions of fate and death.
The directors of the conservatory, excited by the genius they felt they had nurtured, arranged for the symphony to be performed by Nikolai Malko and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra. The première, on 12th May 1926, was an enormous success, and it was not long before the work gained worldwide recognition.
Shostakovich himself called the première his ‘second birth’. The Soviet Union had discovered its first international star, the first to be trained solely under the new system rather than old imperialist Russia, and the authorities proclaimed him as an exaltation of the new at the expense of the old. In time, this much repeated role would become as much a burden to him as it was a saving grace.
- 1st Mov. Allegretto
- 2nd Mov. Allegro
- 3rd Mov. Lento
- 4th Mov. Allegro Molto (Introduction)
Symphony No. 1 In F Minor, Op. 10 (continued)
- 4th Mov. Allegro Molto (Conclusion)
The Age Of Gold – Ballet Suite, Op. 22
Shostakovich extracted this suite from his unsuccessful 1930 so-called athletic ballet, The Age of Gold, about the adventures of a Soviet soccer team abroad. The suite’s four unnamed movements last a mere 16 or 17 minutes.
The opening movement, “Introduction,” derives from the work’s overture. It is vigorous and colorful, sassy and sarcastic, auguring the music in the composer’s 1936 Symphony No. 5.
After a playful, mischievous opening, a parade of themes and light moods ensues, with numerous tempo shifts, the whole sounding episodic in its generally comic character.
The ensuing Adagio, fully half the entire length of the suite, begins with a lovely, if slightly sour theme on soprano saxophone, representing a cabaret singer in the ballet. The middle section turns darkly intense, but the outer panels are dreamy and nocturnal.
The ensuing Polka, satirizing League of Nations politicians, is humorous if a bit overdone, and the concluding rambunctious “Dance,” whose music is associated with the soccer team in the ballet, clearly exhibits the influence of Stravinsky’s Petrushka.
A powerful feeling of ineptness can greet musicians when performing Dmitri Shostakovich’s First Symphony. Technically, it is extremely difficult, and contains a musical sophistication that is quite staggering. The symphony was offered to the jury of the Leningrad Conservatory as his graduation exercise! Even today, the wealth of invention continues to amaze, more so when one recognizes that young Shostakovich’s unique musical voice was already formed – a voice that continued to speak and develop in all his work, one representative of the essence of the gigantic struggles of the Soviet people.
This particular recording of the work is splendid. In fact, Jean Martinon and the London Symphony Orchestra present one of the finest renditions. Their personification of style, interpretation and ensemble are a trinity of near perfection. From the opening clarinet solo (Gervase de Peyer, perhaps?) to the closing orchestral fortissimos, the late fifties LSO shines gloriously. Strings have a beautiful golden sheen, woodwinds glow and brass resonate thrillingly.
And the recording – simply spectacular! The Decca-sourced RCA displays Kingsway Hall to perfection, with its requisite Holborn/Aldwych “tube” rumble. By this account, London Transport were on time, the regular deep growling adding visceral pleasure to the audiophile need quotient.
As a filler, the Ballet Suite from The Age of Gold is representative of Shostakovich at his sarcastic best. The piquant orchestration is, again, performed with reckless abandon by the virtuosos of the London Symphony, with the famous oblique-styled Polka played especially well.
James Walker and Alan Reeve get the somewhat tricky acoustics of Kingsway just right. Imaging and the soundstage are exemplary, both adding to the splendor of the presentation. This is an example of what art as recorded sound should strive to be. A triumph for all participants.