Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5 in Dminor, Op. 47 (1937)
Documentary and performance by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco and the Royal Albert Hall, London, 2007 as part of the SFSO’s “Keeping Score” series, an in-depth look at works from the classical repertoire.
SFS MEDIA 8 21936 0026 9 8 [109:08]

In 1936, Josef Stalin, the dictator of the Soviet Union, went to see a performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, an opera by the golden boy of Soviet Music, Dmitri Shostakovich. The young composer rushed to the theatre, hoping to bask in the glory of Stalin’s approval, only to discover to his horror that the communist leader had left in disgust after the first act. The next day, the now infamous Pravda editorial entitled Muddle instead of Music, which denounced Shostakovich as a composer of confusing, jarring noise appeared. The composer went immediately from socialist darling to a man in danger of his very life. Some believe that the only reason he was spared the gulags was because Stalin was in love with a patriotic song that Shostakovich had composed for a propaganda film some years earlier.

In a captivating hour of discussion, Michael Tilson Thomas plays heir to the legendary Leonard Bernstein as he teaches a fascinating lesson in musical analysis, political intrigue and biography. He dissects Shostakovich’s complicated score, exposing the composer’s protest, cleverly disguised as an apology. Did he compose a great patriotic score, or did he use every ounce of his genius to speak for a people oppressed and living in constant terror?

Tilson Thomas makes a strong case for the latter by pointing out the many subtle twists and turns of motif and harmony, revealing places where had Shostakovich chosen something as minute as a single different note, the outcome would have been completely different. In a well paced hour of discussion and musical examples, Thomas not only presents an intelligent analysis of the score, but gives us a good look into the complex and tragic life of one of the twentieth century’s most significant musical figures.

Following the documentary, MTT leads the San Franciscans in a taut, well-paced reading of the symphony from a 2007 appearance at the BBC Proms Concerts. There is no shortage of drama in the boldly dissonant opening movement, yet Thomas never resorts to the sort of extroverted emotionalism that was characteristic of Bernstein’s later readings. The brief scherzo is delivered with appropriate sarcasm, and then Thomas lowers the boom in this exquisite reading of the hauntingly personal third movement. He places just enough hurt into the music to make the bitterly ironic final movement come across as the nose-thumbing that it really is.

Production values are outstanding throughout, but I was disappointed that there was no documentation whatever in the booklet. Granted, Thomas tells you everything you need to know in the hour long documentary, but it would have been nice to have had some sort of outline to follow. This series would be a great aid to teachers teaching entry-level music appreciation classes.

Kevin Sutton