SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 11, Op. 103 "The Year 1905"
Houston Symphony Orch/Leopold Stokowski, cond.
EMI CLASSICS 65206 (M) (ADD) TT: 62:38

Originally issued by Capitol in a 2-LP set, this historic recording has long been treasured by collectors for both its musical and sonic values. The symphony is highly programmatic, a large-scale tribute to the "victory" of the Great October Revolution of 1917, composed on the 40th anniversary of the occasion. The mass demonstration of 1905 ended in the brutal slaughter of thousands of peaceful peasants and workers rising against the rule of Nicholas II. The first of the four movements is called "The Palace Square," setting the sombre scene where the violent events of the day would occur, and Shostakovitch includes two Russian prison songs. The second movement, "January 9th," pictures the workers' march through the streets and their slaughter. "Eternal Memory" is the title of the third movement, a pensive requiem, and in the last movement, "Alarm," the spirit of revolt returns, with militant songs and a triumphant, percussive finale.

This symphony was premiered in Moscow October 30, 1957, with the USSR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nathan Rakhlin. The American premiere was March 17, 1958, with Stokowski and the Houston Symphony; the following month this recording was made. November 3, 1957 Yevgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic performed it, and this was recorded (Russian Disc 11 157). The same conductor and orchestra can be heard in another live performance, recorded at the 1967 Prague Festival (Praga 254 018). Both are of demonic intensity, magnificently played; the latter is a touch more introspective. In 1958 EMI recorded the symphony with André Cluytens and the French National Radio Orchestra, with the composer present, issued on LP mono only, but actually recorded in fine stereo and issued in that format on Testament (STB 1099).

Oliver Daniel's fine biography of Stokowski states that Stokowski wrote to Capitol Records regarding the taping of the Shostakovich. "This music is very dramatic and exciting. It needs an extremely extended dynamic range and powerful lows....Unless we give it a full dynamic range and powerful lows, its sometimes overwhelming impetuosity will not be immaculate. I hope the committee in Hollywood (Capitol's main office) will keep this in mind and will not restrain us to a less extended dynamic range than some of our competitors are using." R. D. Darrell's review in High Fidelity said, "From the first ominously brooding bars of this Eleventh Symphony one might think that Shostakovich had written solely to furnish Stokowski with one of the most dramatic showpieces the latter has ever reveled in.... I must admit that -- with Stokowski's giving it his all -- it is a potent sonic intoxicant."

And indeed it is. No question there was much "adjustment" with levels, but the overall effect is remarkable, brilliantly conveying the stunning performance. Stokowski conducted the symphony on his Russian tour that year, and the performance with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, with the composer in the audience, is available on Russian Disc (15 100). It is about five minutes faster than the Houston recording; the introspective interludes are not as poignant as in the latter.  

Admirers of Stokowski—and audiophiles as well—must have the Houston recording. Those who want the Eleventh Symphony should also investigate the second Mravinsky Leningrad recording.

R.E.B. (Oct. 2000)