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,
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.
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).
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,
at a screening of Eisenstein’s film. His Decca Shostakovich
isn’t an unqualified success either, although the RPO Fifth
the St. Petersburg Seventh
me as the best of the bunch.
the undeniable impact of his earlier Fifth
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
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!
such a promising start I fully expected a memorable Fifth.
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
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.
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
whereas Bernstein prefers weight and amplitude. Nowhere
is this more obvious than in the galumphing bass of the
The amazingly transparent
Signum recording retrieves plenty of instrumental detail,
particularly telling in those lilting Mahler moments.
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.
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.
the climax to the Largo
and in the final Allegro
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.
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.
minor reservations aside this is a fine Shostakovich Fifth
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?
see also review by Mark Jordan