> Shostakovich Symphonies 5,6 Barshai Regis [HC]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 – 1975)
Symphony No.5 in D minor Op.47 (1937)
Symphony No.6 in B minor Op.54 (1939)
Symphony Orchestra of the West German Radio/Rudolf Barshai
Recorded: Philharmonie, Köln, 1995 and 1996
REGIS RRC 1075 [77:27]

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NOTE The Regis Barshai issues are the same recordings as in the Brilliant Classics set


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It is fairly easy to understand why Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5 in D minor Op.47 has become one of his most popular and most recorded works. It has all the ingredients that make a great piece of art of wide appeal: it alternates humour, irony, lyricism, outgoing optimism and the epic. The first movement opens with an impassioned declamatory paragraph of mounting tension released in the dramatic, war-like section. The tension of the first movement is offset by the often ironic jollity of the Mahlerian Scherzo. The darkly brooding Largo is, as far as I am concerned, one of Shostakovich’s finest symphonic movements. The Finale is again in a jocular mood, though things are never as simple as that in Shostakovich’s music. Indeed, the Fifth Symphony (sometimes subtitled "A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism") is a remarkable example of Shostakovich’s often ambiguous attitude vis-à-vis the Stalinist regime. Viewed superficially, it may be said to adhere (i.e. to a certain extent) to Socialist Realism’s dictates. Evil forces are eventually vanquished thanks to Stalin’s enlightened leadership. With some historical insight, now possible, it might have been a harsh criticism of Stalinism as well. On the other hand, it may simply be an abstract piece of music on an epic scale on which Mahler’s shadow looms large. Whatever the interpretation, the Fifth Symphony is a big piece that succeeds through the sheer force of its symphonic argument, the memorability of the thematic material and the superb scoring.

In stark contrast, the Symphony No.6 in B minor Op.54 is one of his least-known works. Its structure is quite unusual in that it consists in a very long Largo followed by two short Scherzi (Allegro and Presto). Shostakovich is said to have been particularly happy with the final Presto which he considered his finest and most successful Finale. He also mentioned that he wanted "to convey the moods of spring, joy, youth" and firmly believed that this symphony contained nothing subversive at all that could disturb the regime’s authorities. Well, the opening Largo does not really fit in here. It is an intensely tragic, brooding, doom-laden meditation, probably on the composer’s own solitude at that time. The jollity of the Scherzi also has its shares of irony and bitter-sweet melancholy, and may not be easily reconciled with the composer’s supposed intent. However, in spite of its lack of popularity, the Sixth Symphony is a powerful statement in its own right.

Dave Billinge has recently reviewed Barshai’s complete recording of Shostakovich’s symphonies (MusicWeb – June reviews) and I will add nothing to his comments with which I fully agree. Barshai had a long association with Shostakovich’s music which he thoroughly understands. The present warmly recommended readings of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies with the WDR orchestra in top form are really very fine.

Hubert Culot

Extract from Dave Billinge's review of the complete set

The 5th is given a very powerful opening by the strings with a brilliantly penetrating piccolo and a nicely audible piano. I also noted the horns were suitably ominous. A slight miscalculation of balance leads the solo violin to sound from the back of the firsts rather than the front but this is minor. Apart from the excellent ensemble displayed in this work I was mainly pleased by Barshai’s observing of an appropriately slow tempo for the "exultant" coda which Shostakovich once described thus: "It is as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,’ and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’" (Testimony) This is a good 5th but I still would not be without Maxim Shostakovich (Collins nla) or Sanderling (Berlin Classics).

In opening of the 6th there is again an unerring choice of the right tempo, which, with the very impressive horns, imparts a real heroic quality. The balance between string, wind and brass choirs is very well judged and the impression is given of separate threads developing in parallel; a real "large scale integration of contrasts" as such a symphony should be. The WDR Orchestra give such a good impression of being a Russian orchestra with pungent wind playing and powerful brass. What marks them out from most Soviet performances is that they are so well recorded. The string playing in this 6th is really magnificent. This is as good a performance of the Largo as I have ever heard. The wildness of the 2nd and 3rd movements come as even more of a shock after such intensity. The Allegro opens with utmost delicacy, everything very precisely pointed. Brilliantly done, if not as exciting as some I have heard. The finale is again not as fast as some but done with such fierce precision as to make it sound even angrier. There could, I accept, be more abandon, but this is outstandingly good..

Dave Billinge

 


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