SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 15 in A, Op. 141. Piano Concerto No. 2 in F, Op. 102. "Romance" and "Folk Feast" from The Gadfly, Op. 97a
Mikhail Rudy, pianist/London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Mariss Jansons, cond.
EMI Classics 56591 (F) (DDD) TT: 74:56 


Three home runs in a row by Jansons and the London Phil (of which he's principal guest conductor), the current best orchestra in Britain's capital on the basis of this evidence. As a bonus, producer John Fraser and engineer Mike Hatch have contributed a superb recording from Studio 1 in Abbey Road.

This last symphony to be completed by the Soviet Union's premiere composer (he had begun a sixteenth, however) has puzzled annotators and critics ever since his son Maxsim introduced it in Moscow in 1972. A brief excerpt from Rossini's William Tell in the opening movement, two quotations in the finale from Wagner's Götterdämmerung (including the "Fate" leitmotiv) plus a song by Glinka, and throughout the work quotations from his own music have turned analysts into Sherlocks ever since, but without concensus.

On this side of the Atlantic, for example, the Rossini quote is indelibly linked with "The Lone Ranger," yet originally in the opera depicted the uprising of Swiss peasants to overthrow the tyrant Gessler and rescue Tell. The entire opening movement has been likened by most to a child's playroom (even Yevgeny Mravinsky's 1976 recording with the Leningrad Philharmonic falls into the trap). Jansons has disregarded received opinion, and found instead a sinister circus in the music -- a subversive derision of the entire Soviet construct, from Lenin to Brezhnyev by way of Stalin and Krushchev.

A 17-minute slow movement follows -- Adagio, Largo, Adagio, Largo -- no less sorrowing than those in the Fourth, Eighth and Eleventh Symphonies. It is a sustained outpouring of grief, resignation, despair at the waste of lives and freedom, and quotes (often just fragments) from his most pessimistic music.

A brief scherzo (just under four minutes) is merry only by comparison; actually, it suggests a puppet show on a pan-national scale. The finale is another long movement that ends with the same cryptic percussion riff that opens the work. In between there is Wagner's "Fate" motif, the drumbeat that accompanies Siegfried's Funeral March, Glinka's "Do not tempt me needlessly," and passages from Shostakovich's own Mahlerian Fourth Symphony, suppressed for more than 25 years on possible pain of extermination or exile to a gulag in Siberia.

Jansons chills at the same time he thrills us; he has gone to the core of the piece as no one before him -- not Mravinsky, or Kondrashin, or Haitink, or Rostropovich, or Sanderling, or anyone else who has dedicated himself the Fifteenth Symphony, including (perhaps especially) the composer's son. And the orchestra plays magnificently in response.

The Second Piano Concerto was written for Maksim's 19th birthday in 1957 -- a gentle, affectionate, even beautiful work with a heart-catching slow movement. It is a perfect antidote to the crises implicit in Symphony 15, and Mikhail Rudy plays it endearingly. This is music he can fill with his personality, whereas Rachmaninov's concertos with Jansons conducting remained beyond his reach. The Gadfly excerpts from a 1955 film serve as an after-dinner mint and schnapps. The playing is lovely (notably the violin solo in "Romance" by Joakim Svenheden).

So far, Record of the Year on a very short list. Treat yourself to it.

R.D. (Sept. 1999)