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Views And Reviews: Shostakovich's Symphony No.5

...Having been publicly shamed by the State via the state-controlled press, having been labelled a public enemy (which carried the “sentence” of being unemployable), having become aware of the unnerving tendency of outspoken people to “disappear”, and having hurriedly hoicked his latest and biggest symphony out of rehearsals, Shostakovich must have felt somewhat insecure, exposed, and in fear for his life. Clearly, he had to do something post haste to get the b******s off his back...

Paul Serotsky tells of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, his best known and most frequently performed work.

Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 – 1975)

The Symphonies (Complete) –
Nos. 1, 2 “To October”, 3 “First of May”, 4, 5, 6, 7 “Leningrad”, 8, 9, 10, 11 “The Year 1905", 12 “The Year 1917" (“To the Memory of Lenin”), 13 “Babi Yar”, 14, 15.
WDR Symphony Orchestra/Rudolf Barshai, with WDR Chorus (Nos. 2, 3), Sergei Aleksashkin (bass, No. 13), Moscow Choral Academy (No. 13), Alla Simoni (sop., No. 14), Vladimir Vaneev (bass, No. 14)
Brilliant Classics 6324-1/11, Box of 11 CDs in individual cardboard sleeves, with booklet.
Recorded at Philharmonie, Koln, 10/94 (Nos. 1, 3), 1/95 (No. 2), 4/96 and 10/96 (No. 4), 7/95 and 4/96 (No. 5), 10/95 (No. 6), 9/92 (No. 7), 3/94 and 10/95 (No. 8), 7/95, 9/95 and 4/96 (No. 9), 10/96 (No. 10), 5/99 (No. 11), 9/95 (No. 12), 9/00 (No. 13), Sometime in 1999/2000 (No. 14), 6/98 (No. 15)
[670 mins.]

Symphony No. 5 op. 47 (1937)

That “something” was the Fifth Symphony. Doughty makes the traditional statement that Shostakovich gave it the title “A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism”, and follows it up with the traditional argument. The trouble is that this is no longer as cut-and-dried as it once was. The facts are that Shostakovich worked his socks off to produce this symphony A.S.A.P. (and P.D.Q!), and that he adopted a conventional four movement layout in the “accepted” manner.

Having been publicly shamed by the State via the state-controlled press, having been labelled a public enemy (which carried the “sentence” of being unemployable), having become aware of the unnerving tendency of outspoken people to “disappear”, and having hurriedly hoicked his latest and biggest symphony out of rehearsals, Shostakovich must have felt somewhat insecure, exposed, and in fear for his life. Clearly, he had to do something post haste to get the b******s off his back.

In these post-Testimony days, it seems likely that, yes, he did write the Fifth for this express purpose but, no, he didn’t give it that cringing boot – or worse! – licking title. It’s all very complicated, but this much is “certain”: Shostakovich pulled off a miracle of escapology fully worthy of Harry Houdini, and moreover one that not only restored his public standing but also did so without compromising his private and passionate integrity. Yet, even with the inherent ambiguity of Music as a means of communicating messages, the path Shostakovich started down was fraught with risk – small wonder, then, that Shostakovich would not include words in a symphony for the next 25 years.

Coming to this symphony directly from the Fourth, I made one discovery which was (for me at any rate) very striking. Listen to the counter-subject of the Fourth Symphony’s second movement, then the first movement of the Fifth. If the first subject isn’t deliberately derived from the melody of that counter-subject, and the pulsing accompaniment of the second subject from its rhythm, then I’ll eat my hat. I could be wrong (just in case, I have a large and extremely mouth-watering chocolate hat standing by!). It’s as if Shostakovich had stoically scraped the unsullied butter off a piece of bread that had been knocked out of his hand and spread it, more thinly and with great resolve, onto a fresh slice. Thus, it would seem, his now-disguised anger was set reverberating in the Fifth Symphony, to mingle with other “coded messages”. From here on, we can no longer take anything at face value.

The Fifth is without doubt Shostakovich’s best-known and most frequently-performed symphony. There are well over 50 recordings currently in the catalogue and, if the form-book’s anything to go by, a fair number pending reissue. I’ve lost count of the renditions I’ve heard of this music – first hearing courtesy of Stokowski, (mis-) spent youth with an oft-played Kertesz LP, joined in recent years by Levi’s reliable rendition – and just about all of them go off the rails at some point or other. Memories of the Stokowski have, sadly, vanished into the murk, but I remain convinced that Kertesz was, in the final analysis, too lightweight overall and his coda too skittish, while Levi takes an eternity over the largo and his sound is a bit hard. Others, whom I shall decline to name and shame, have for example galloped across the second movement as if it was a racetrack. With such a huge surfeit of riches (and rags) not only are we spoilt rotten for choice, but also it’s unlikely that Barshai can find anything to tell us that we don’t know already. In all fairness, he doesn’t. But what he does do is give us a performance where virtually all the “right” things are there at once, and leaves himself no room at all to get anything wrong.

Take the very opening: where Levi (and others without number) slip the string canon past us like it’s on well-oiled castors, under Barshai’s baton the WDRSO strings sound like they’re carved out of granite – a real declaration of implacable intent. Having thus grabbed your attention by the throat, the mobile moderato of the first subject is all the more arresting. Barshai refuses to linger, unswervingly focussed on the music’s single propulsive arch. Phrases are pointedly articulated, the sound edging towards (but remaining crucially this side of) brittle, and lending some edge to my suspicions about the provenance of some of the materials. The huge climax is brilliantly controlled, although the strident clattering of the xylophone for some unaccountable reason just doesn’t cut through like it should. Barshai doesn’t make a meal of the massive unisons of the recapitulation which, surely, you’d expect to dissipate the suspense? Not a bit of it! The high tension is actually maintained, so that the denouement of baleful bass brasses over (or under) a towering tam-tam is truly terrific. The coda is also a marvel: the slightly saccharine solo violin versus the gruff ground of the bass line, ethereal but earthbound, draws an intriguing question mark.

I’ve heard conductors bustle through the second movement as if it were the Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture. Even of those who take it at something like the “right” speed, most manage to make it sound too glossy, too urbane. I’m pretty well convinced that Shostakovich had in mind something on the lines of Mahler’s “gemachlichen landler”, and that is exactly how Barshai takes it: the double-basses grunt and chug with an utter lack of sophistication, the clarinet howls and prances, and in the trio section the solo violin quite obviously – and quite properly – has Mahler’s “Death takes the fiddle” in the back of his mind. To cap it all, the booming climaxes have a welly-shod swing that has me thinking, “Sup a couple of pints o’ best, and you could actually dance to this!”

The slow movement is marked largo, but while Barshai makes darned sure it doesn’t dawdle, it starts in a spacious, awe-filled hush, with a nicely-judged blend of strings. The playing is so heartfelt, the instrusive dissonance so heartbreaking, that I couldn’t care one jot about a flute entry that was a whole quarter of a beat late (it actually sounds like a “catch” in the throat!). The build-ups to the climaxes are hackle-raising, growing out of the WDRSO’s gorgeous sub-basement. There are some lovely sounds: chilling tremolandos, mellow clarinets and bassoons, the xylophone has woken up with a vengeance, and right in the middle I hear more clearly than I can recollect the shade of VW’s Tallis Fantasia. If it sounded like this, then regardless of any political import it’s not surprising that the audience at the first performance was moved to tears.

The finale is supposed to explode attacca. It doesn’t quite, but it does explode! Starting off slap-bang in the middle of the required allegro non troppo, Barshai’s long-term control of the ever more hectic tempo had me wondering what make of binoculars he used. By the time the big catastrophe arrives, at the very heart of the movement, panic is rife. Yet, for all the mounting hysteria, the orchestra’s articulation is purposeful and strong, so that you can sometimes even hear the tonguing. The quiet episode, which Gerard MacBurney has revealingly linked to the recently discovered song, setting meaningfully apposite words by Pushkin about a vandalised oil-painting, is itself beautifully painted, and the contentious coda emerges in a huge, controlled, brutally punctuated release of energy. Barshai broadens the tempo for a crunching conclusion that should satisfy both those who think Shostakovich’s victory is “forced” and those who think it’s genuine – and those who see it as a big, black question-mark.. One thing is unquestionable – this is a cracking performance.


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