Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5, Op. 47 (1937) [49:00]
London Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
Picture: NTSC/4:3/B&W
Sound: PCM mono
Region: 0 (worldwide)
Languages: English, French, German
Bonus: Bernstein rehearses Shostakovich Fifth Symphony with the LSO [5:45]
rec. live, December 1966, Royal Festival Hall, London
The year 1966 was a significant one for Leonard Bernstein, whose CBS recording of Mahler’s Eighth – with the LSO – gave us the first complete Mahler cycle on disc. Fresh from that great project, he conducted this live performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, aired by the BBC in January 1967. Watching the black-and-white film is like opening a time capsule; the short rehearsal segment shows a middle-aged Bernstein, gravel-voiced and debonair in a white polo neck, concertgoers’ clothes and distinctive eyewear a sartorial snapshot of London in the Swinging Sixties.
Nostalgia aside, this concert shows Bernstein at his charismatic best, directing music by a composer with whom he was closely associated. It’s also a chance to see the players of the LSO, who look more like bank managers and accountants than the top-notch band they were – and still are today. As for the monaural sound and monochrome picture – the latter in 4:3 only – that really isn’t an issue when the performers and performance are as distinguished as this.
Bernstein recorded the Shostakovich Fifth for CBS twice – in Boston in 1959 and live in Tokyo 20 years later – the latter undeniably powerful but weighed down by bloated sonics. By contrast, the leaner BBC sound is more immediate, the deep-digging basses – in both the Moderato and Allegretto – impressively sonorous, the woodwind and strings superbly caught. There’s a nervous energy here that I just don’t find in the Tokyo recording, the phrasing sharper and more telling as well. That’s not surprising, as Bernstein was notoriously self-indulgent in his later performances, often sacrificing vitality and thrust in the process; those who’ve heard his protracted Pathetique and Enigma Variations (DG) will know that only too well.
Another startling aspect of this DVD is the heightened sense of vulnerability in the music’s more introverted moments, those writhing, upward figures especially bleak. Indeed, there’s more interest here in terms of colour and texture, of light and shade, than there is in that rather bland – but sheerly beautiful – Tokyo performance. The restored visuals are also sharp and well contrasted, not at all like the grainy, soft focus footage one usually associates with such archive material. But really it’s the bipolarity of this symphony that’s most compelling, calm and cataclysm uneasy bedfellows throughout. And if there’s a trace of Mahler anywhere it’s in the Allegretto, with strongly characterised playing from the woodwind and brass.
It’s been a while since a Shostakovich Fifth has chilled me so, the Largo as desolate as I’ve ever heard it. There’s a concentration here, a unanimity of purpose, that’s just extraordinary. And the interplay of flute and harp has seldom seemed so ethereal, Bernstein wringing every last ounce of tension from those gaunt, spiralling tunes. Thankfully it’s not as overwrought as it might seem, although seasoned Lenny watchers will be mesmerised – or irritated – by Bernstein’s anguished podium antics. Frankly it’s never bothered me, the close-up during that spectral harp passage betraying just how complete the conductor’s connection with this symphony really is. It’s spellbinding stuff, and a tribute to the Beeb’s intuitive camerawork.
The finale is suitably volcanic, the rage and spit of this music superbly rendered. In the tuttis the LSO play with controlled frenzy, the timps and brass as lacerating as you’ll ever hear. But it’s those rare moments of repose that really stand out, Bernstein building the climaxes in a way that’s entirely his own. Remarkably, the recording shows no hint of stress or strain, the cymbals and bass drum powerfully present. As for that pounding peroration, it burns with the whitest, hottest heat, the audience – commendably quiet for December – roaring their approval at the close.
The rehearsal clip – a mere 5:45 – isn’t really worth the trouble, and Euroarts offer a flimsy leaflet rather than a booklet. A pity, as some background information on this recordings would have been useful. Still, it’s the music that matters, and there are no caveats there.
Vintage Lenny; not to be missed.
Dan Morgan
Vintage Lenny; not to be missed.