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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Festive Overture (1952) [5:50]
Symphony No. 5 (1937) [44:20]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. Suntory Hall, Tokyo, Japan, July 2001. DDD
SIGNUM SIGCD135 [50:10] /
Experience Classicsonline

The Philharmonia Orchestra’s house label brings us a return to core Russian repertory and does this courtesy of Vladimir Ashkenazy in a live concert from Tokyo in 2001. He first recorded Shostakovich’s Fifth a dozen years earlier for Decca with the Royal Philharmonic, a version which recently reappeared in the Universal Classics catalogue at bargain price. The two versions are noticeably different.
Ashkenazy seems to have rethought the first movement in the intervening years. In 1988, his first movement, though a bit scrappy in the hands of the RPO, was basically an introspective, epic affair, akin to Western visions of the work such as those led by Leonard Bernstein, Lorin Maazel, Benjamin Zander or Mark Wigglesworth. It clocked in around 16:30. The live concert from 2001, however, times at just under 15:00, putting it in the more urgent style of Russian conductors, such as Evgeny Mravinsky, Mariss Jansons, Mstislav Rostropovich, Dmitri Kitaenko, Rudolf Barshai, Semyon Bychkov and Mark Gorenstein, if not quite up there with the hectic though compelling Kirill Kondrashin. This tightening of tempo removes a lot of mystery and brooding from the music, though it increases the concentration of the argument, at least for everyone but the cymbal player, who enters a half-bar early at the big climax. For what it’s worth, Shostakovich’s son Maxim tends to conduct the first movement very slowly, but then he can be a bit of a maverick at times.
The scherzo is almost identical in tempo in both Ashkenazy performances, though the playing of the Philharmonia in the live concert makes a good bonus. The Philharmonia manages the feat of being both more highly characterized and also more elegant than the RPO. Ashkenazy, coming to conducting fairly late from a career as a pre-eminent pianist, is no orchestra builder. The core of the rich and creamy sound of the Philharmonia here can be attributed to then-music director Christoph von Dohnanyi. I heard the same effect many times over the years when Dohnanyi was in Cleveland. Dohnanyi would drill the orchestra to a high sheen - then Ashkenazy would guest conduct and let the orchestra loosen up. He often achieved a sound that was somehow both elegant and relaxed at the same time, if rarely as cogent as Dohnanyi could be in concert.
Getting back to the scherzo, there’s one odd little thing that always irks me. Is there an error in the Kalmus Miniature Score? I mean other than the famous misprint in the coda of the finale, carried over from the first Russian edition. In the trio of the scherzo, the end of the melody slows down, right after the glissandos. Almost every performance resumes tempo on the following held-out note. A close look at the printed score, however, shows Shostakovich mischievously holding off the “a tempo” indication until the third beat of that bar. Though more difficult to keep together in performance, this delayed  resumption of the tempo is a great eccentric touch. Pity that so few conductors bother. Ashkenazy doesn’t, either, though he goes to the trouble of putting an inauthentic (though effective) slur in the horns and trumpets in their theme.
Ashkenazy’s live slow movement knocks over a minute off his previous time. This moves him toward the flowing end of the spectrum, if not (fortunately!) to the point of Kondrashin or Jansons, who skate over the surface of the movement without unleashing its depths. I don’t mind hearing the movement slow as in Bernstein, Maazel or Maxim Shostakovich, because it can take it. It’s remarkably resilient music which never seems to be as long as the clock tells me it is. But if Ashkenazy is a little too flowing for my taste here, he nonetheless makes a sound argument for it, encouraging the strings to play with more warmth than one usually encounters in Shostakovich. That humanizing effect is captured in even more impressive sound in the MDG DVD-Audio disc from 2005 by Roman Kofman and the Beethoven Orchestra. Kofman shies away from the violent aspects of the work, but warms to its lyrical passages.
The biggest bone of contention is typically the finale, specifically the ending. Shostakovich suggested an eighth note metronome value (188 beats per minute), which the publisher assumed couldn’t possibly be right. Thus, it was “corrected” to quarter note = 188, a figure which encouraged many earlier Western advocates of the work (Artur Rodzinski, Leopold Stokowski, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Jascha Horenstein, Howard Mitchell, Sir John Barbirolli, Massimo Freccia, Leonard Bernstein and Istvan Kertesz) to take the coda too fast. Maazel pushed even faster than that in his 1980 Telarc recording. But the correct figure, allied with the musical revelation that Shostakovich may have buried a dissident message in the lyrical center of the finale, has bolstered the idea of  a slower rendition of the closing, so that it sounds grim instead of triumphant.
Ashkenazy, like Gergiev and Jansons, seems to follow in the tradition of Mravinsky, who delivered the coda poker-faced, at a moderately slow pace. But that’s still a little faster than the metronome mark, and rather understated, considering that those pounding timpani are still marked fortissimo, with accents on every note. Rostropovich, Maxim Shostakovich, Bychkov and Gorenstein ring a little truer by allowing greater space. It is possible to go overboard, however, which is why I would warn listeners to steer away from the live concert version released by Kurt Masur and the London Philharmonic on the LPO Live in-house label in 2006. Masur, evidently equating gross exaggeration with Russian passion, waddles through the closing pages like a winding-down metronome. The final few drumbeats are so far apart that the players can’t even hit at the same time. The rest of that performance is similarly shoddy and is arguably worth picking up just to amaze your friends at how wrong-headed a performance can be.
Ashkenazy’s Universal Classics reissue also contains the Festive Overture, dispatched with efficiency if not exactly charm by Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra. Ashkenazy’s own live version of the overture on Signum is easily superior, capturing both a sense of occasion and a good-natured playfulness at a tempo allowing the musicians room to romp. To be honest, I’ve never liked the noisy showpiece much, at least not until hearing Ashkenazy put a more human face on it. The Universal Classics disc contains a couple more trifles, but they aren’t deal-breakers. The earlier recording allows for a more contemplative performance, though the sound is rather stitched-together as Decca’s multi-track recordings tended to be in the 1980s. The live Philharmonia version has more natural sound, though it is both live and in the bright and boomy acoustic of Suntory Hall. That boom, however, plus the boiled-down efficiency of a tour performance, gives the restrained Ashkenazy a little more of an aggressive edge than he usually offers in music such as this.

Available at budget rate in England, the Philharmonia version thus becomes first choice. Not yet available in the U.S., and being pre-marketed at full price, the Signum disc becomes much less attractive when the Universal Classics version is available at the opposite end of the pay scale.
Mark Sebastian Jordan


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