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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Festive Overture in A major, Op. 96 (1954) [5:50]
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op.47 (1937) [44:23]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. 27 July 2001, Suntory Hall, Tokyo, Japan (live)
Experience Classicsonline

Of all the monumental Fifths out there – from Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler, Nielsen, Prokofiev, Sibelius and Shostakovich – the latter’s is still the most intriguing. Of course Testimony, Solomon Volkov’s now discredited ‘memoirs’, did much to fuel the debate about whether the symphony was indeed a ‘Soviet artist’s answer to just criticism’ or something much more subversive. Whichever view one subscribes to this remains a heavyweight Fifth that packs quite a punch.
Speaking of which Bernstein’s live 1979 recording with the New York Philharmonic (CBS Masterworks MDK 44903) is a knockout, helped in no small measure by the sumptuous acoustic of Tokyo’s Bunka Kaikan. It’s vintage Lenny, a performance of extremes, yet with an inexorable momentum that is simply overwhelming. Of course there are many other fine recordings in the catalogue, including Ashkenazy’s earlier outing for Decca (421 120) and Kondrashin’s (part of his celebrated Melodiya box, catalogue no. 1001065).
As for Ashkenazy he has certainly done well as a conductor, garnering praised for his complete Decca Rachmaninov, Sibelius and Shostakovich symphonies, not to mention an indispensable performance of Prokofiev Cinderella with the Clevelanders. He can be variable in the concert hall – I remember a particularly dull Mahler ‘Resurrection’ at the RFH – but then he made amends with a white-hot Alexander Nevsky, played at a screening of Eisenstein’s film. His Decca Shostakovich isn’t an unqualified success either, although the RPO Fifth and the St. Petersburg Seventh and Eleventh strike me as the best of the bunch.
Given the undeniable impact of his earlier Fifth I was eager to hear what Ashkenazy would make of this score second time around. Curiously, the Signum disc is a 2008 release, although it was recorded in 2001. Unlike the earlier recording (1987) this new one is live; starting with a wonderfully incisive Festive Overture. Written to celebrate the 37th anniversary of the Revolution it’s a thrilling piece, with strident brass fanfares and mobile rhythms. Ashkenazy propels the music at breakneck speed but never sacrifices inner detail or overall discipline. What a ripsnorter this is, and what a hair-raising finale!
After such a promising start I fully expected a memorable Fifth. The Moderato is a little faster than before (14:59 as opposed to 16:36) but that isn’t a problem, but the Philharmonia cellos and double basses are a little soft grained compared with their RPO counterparts. The most striking aspect of this new reading, though, is the unaccustomed pallor that seems to hang over the music. It certainly brings to mind all those grim, prison-pale portraits of the composer in his later years.
There’s no doubt the Philharmonia are a more polished band than the RPO, their strings sounding particularly smooth and silky; yet even allowing for the exigencies of a live performance the Philharmonia don’t play with quite the same thrust and bite as their rivals. No matter, they have their thrilling moments – the snare drums in the march at 8:56 especially – and the overall sound picture is very convincing indeed. By comparison the Bernstein recording is more full bodied – a bit bloated, even – which suits his extrovert reading, whereas the Suntory Hall acoustic is s good deal drier and more detailed, emphasising Ashkenazy’s meticulous attention to detail. I was particularly impressed with the latter’s handling of the coda, which has never sounded more spectral than it does here.
After just one movement it’s clear Ashkenazy’s performance is carefully considered and deeply felt. In many ways it seems to look forward to the pared-down sound world of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth symphonies, whereas Bernstein prefers weight and amplitude. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the galumphing bass of the scherzo (Allegretto). The amazingly transparent Signum recording retrieves plenty of instrumental detail, particularly telling in those lilting Mahler moments.
Old loyalties are under strain at this point, with Bernstein sounding distinctly elephantine in music that really demands a lighter touch. And as good as the RPO strings are they really must yield to the Philharmonia’s in terms of vitality. It’s an intriguing comparison, akin to a first draft and a finished essay, with Ashkenazy now distilling so much more from this remarkable score.
That is particularly true of the all-important Largo, which is characterised by a wonderful poise and lightness in the strings. This movement begins so very quietly, an island of calm in a tempestuous sea, with Ashkenazy coaxing limpid sounds from his players. Seldom have Shostakovich’s melodic gifts been as clearly demonstrated as they are here, the music unerringly shaped and projected. As for the recording this must surely be one of the finest this symphony has ever received, with even the quietest passages easily audible in a very, very quiet hall.
In the climax to the Largo and in the final Allegro con moto Bernstein scores in terms of sheer heft and emotional energy, yet Ashkenazy’s approach is just as compelling in its own, understated way. The CBS recording for Bernstein is a tour de force in this movement and I doubt that final peroration has ever sounded so monumental. That said, Ashkenazy boasts some superb drums and cymbals, and is less prone to Lenny-like histrionics along the way. He certainly gets the con moto element of this movement right, the music moving swiftly towards a powerful conclusion.
Almost there, and for some reason Ashkenazy pulls back in the final pages. Now I suppose it depends on what you want from the build-up to that thumping bass drum – a genuine victory or a hollow one? Surely it’s possible to suggest either in the shape and thrust of this movement as a whole, rather than resorting to last-minute theatrics? I found this rather distracting and a touch underwhelming after such a thrilling start. By contrast the RPO are more febrile and they really crank up the tension at this point. They are also blessed with Telarc-style drum thwacks that are every bit as terrifying as Bernstein’s.
Those minor reservations aside this is a fine Shostakovich Fifth and well worth adding to the umpteen versions you already own. The overture is a humdinger, the Philharmonia are in great shape and the recording is up there with the very best. What more could you possibly want?
Dan Morgan

see also review by Mark Jordan



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