Album Review: Shostakovich Symphony 11

The first time I heard Dmitri Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony, I was training for a marathon. I had just finished a 22.3-mile run—my last long one before the race—and was chugging a kale banana walnut hemp seed Greek yogurt orange juice smoothie while skipping around on Spotify. When I found that thunderous section of wild percussion and howling brass in the second movement, I got so fucking high that I started crying like a baby elephant. Endorphins + exciting music = quite a bonkers trip.

Film Music
Snobby critics often shit on Shostakovich 11 because they think it sounds too much like film music. By this, I assume they mean it’s too melodramatic, too loud, and overly sentimental. Anyone who thinks that is an idiot deserving of a swift kick in the taint, which I will gladly deliver while forcing them to listen to this recording. Is this music dramatic, loud, and sentimental? Maybe. Could George Lucas have used it on his temp track for Star Wars alongside “Mars, the Bringer of War” from Holst’s The Planets? Probably, but only a fucking snob who kicks puppies and pushes children down the stairs would think that was a bad thing.

Oleg Caetani
Maybe he’s famous in Italy, but I had never heard of this guy until I saw his name on the album cover. It’s hard to know how much credit he deserves for the quality of this album. Is he a superhero with a baton squeezing the best possible performance out of a mediocre orchestra, or is it the orchestra doing the heavy lifting to make an average conductor look good? If Caetani is a superhero, then he’s one that has managed to keep a low profile. Perhaps one time, he went a little too far with the vigilante justice and killed someone, and now he’s trying to stay under everyone’s radar so nobody finds out what he did. If that’s the case, he should consider plastic surgery, or at least wear glasses when he’s trying to pass as a regular guy at his day job.

Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi
Italy is known for its bearded, philandering tenors, not its symphony orchestras, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s because the names they come up with for these ensembles are just too damn long. I mean, you have to use a 6pt font just to squeeze “Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi” onto a CD cover. Apparently, they refer to themselves as “La Verdi,” which makes me wonder why the hell they didn’t just use that as their official name.

The OSdMGV hasn’t recorded much, but they did put out live recordings of all 15 of Shosty’s symphonies. The other albums in the series are hit or miss, often suffering from bad mixing and/or editing to a point where the background sneezes and coughs are just as loud as the instruments. For this reason, I had low expectations for Number 11. I tend to get obsessed with finding the best possible version of a piece I like, and by the time I came across this one, I had already gone through half of Spotify’s catalog. There are some decent recordings with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Chicago, as well as some of the more noteworthy European ensembles (London, Wiener, Berliner) but none really scratched the itch. I wanted big, bold sound—the kind that those puppy-kickers would scoff at—and let me tell you, this one shakes the goddamn Earth. I’m not sure if these OSdMGV players were coked up or something, but they showed up to make some motherfuckin’ noise.

Too Much of a Good Thing
As much as I love the sheer power of this recording, there are moments when it’s just too damn much. During the climax of the third movement, the trumpets trample the basses and cellos like a stampede of water buffalo. That long, repeating staccato is kind of annoying anyway, but in other versions I’ve heard, the brass pulls back and lets the string section run the show, which makes it bearable. I much prefer what Andris Nelsons and the BSO do with this movement, and I put their version in my Shosty 11 playlist. Incidentally, the rest of that BSO recording is fine, but overall, just not strong enough.

Conclusion
I get it—not everyone likes the Russians. To some people, it all sounds like film music. Some prefer their brass to be neutered and subservient. They don’t want the tympani player hammering the calfskin as though they’re trying to punch a hole through it. But if you are someone that thinks symphonic music should shatter windows, then you’ll love the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Guiseppi Verdi recording of Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony. It might even inspire you to train for a marathon.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

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