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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47
Suite from Hamlet, Op.116
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn (Symphony)
Belgian Radio Symphony Orchestra/José Serebrier (Hamlet)
Recorded 1965 (Symphony) and 1986. ADD/DDD
BMG RCA RED SEAL 82876 55493-2 [75’39]

The famous Previn Shostakovich 5 is released in yet another budget re-packaging from RCA. Its last reincarnation was on the Navigator label with the same coupling. It has long held sway, in some quarters, as the most thrilling non-Russian recording of this symphony, though not everyone agrees. I well remember the late Michael Oliver choosing this version in a Radio 3 ‘Building a Library’ edition, cogently and intelligently weighing up the pros and cons. Listening again after some years has been an interesting experience.

Competition is now a lot fiercer in the budget and medium price sector, but this was always one of Previn’s best recordings from his heyday with the LSO, matched only (in my humble opinion) by his Walton 1, Rachmaninov 2 and the Vaughan Williams series. The qualities that mark out those versions are here in spades and obvious from the outset. The way the strings trenchantly dig into the first movement’s opening canon has never sounded more arresting. His tempi are mostly on the urgent side, though never, to my ears, sounding rushed. Illuminating details abound. The trotting, dotted figure at 4’53 always seems to me to work better at a bit of a lick, and the way Previn pushes the orchestra towards the brutal climax only makes the delicate little duet for horn and flute which follows it (13’37) sound even more full of repose. The LSO brass have a whale of a time with their ironic, striding motif at 10’33, and I particularly like Previn’s handling of the ghostly coda, where the chromatic slitherings of the celesta truly give the subtext away.

The way the cellos and basses tear into the Mahlerian scherzo may seem a bit over the top to some, but its visceral impact is undeniable. Previn has always seen the great slow movement as the heart of the work, and his expansive reading strikes me as near ideal. The broad and ripely romantic pacing allows the climaxes to unfold in true contrast, with his ear for detail producing ravishing moments – the duet for harp and flute at 3’31 is a good example.

The fast and furious pace of the finale may bother some, though it is near the suggested metronome marks. I know these are relative, and it does make some of the accelerandos a bit awkward to achieve, even with the stunning virtuosity of the LSO at their peak. But the mocking brashness and sense of ironic grandeur are surely there in this music, and no-one understood that better than Previn. Make no mistake – this is a formidable version of this much-recorded piece, and can still hold its own with the best.

The half hour filler is also well worth having, even though the scrappy strings at the opening just serve to highlight the contrast between workmanlike playing and a top orchestra really on fire. Shostakovich’s love of Shakespeare was lifelong, and this Hamlet Suite contains much that is inspiring and entertaining. I like his orchestral effects in ‘the ghost’, and the ‘arrival and scene of the players’ is a riot. It would have been nice to have heard the LSO in this, as much of it is not easy stuff to negotiate, but there is some characterful wind playing from the Belgian orchestra, and Serebrier guides us through safely, if a little stiffly.

The packaging appears markedly cheaper than the Navigator series, and I’m not sure the re-mastering has improved the sound in the Symphony. It seems that an effort to remove some residual tape hiss has resulted in a slight dulling of climaxes, and I heard some very obvious rumble in parts of the first movement. Still, the impact of the interpretation and playing is not seriously diminished, and with its interesting coupling, this is a serious contender for your shelves.

Tony Haywood


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