Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 (1937) [50:04]
Berlin Symphony Orchestra/Kurt Sanderling
rec. January 1982, Christuskirche Studio, Berlin
Reviewed as a 24/192 download
Pdf booklet included
BERLIN CLASSICS 0300750BC
The conductor Kurt Sanderling (1912-2011) first met Dmitri Shostakovich during WW2. Colleagues first, the men went on to forge a strong personal friendship
that affords a unique insight into both the music and character of this most conflicted composer. Sanderling recorded most of the symphonies with the
Berlin Symphony Orchestra, which he led from 1960 to 1977, but it’s his dark, deeply moving account of the Fifteenth with the Berlin Philharmonic that I’d
want for my desert island. Originally issued on the BP’s own label, it’s well worth scouring the internet for a used copy of that recording – coupled with
a genial performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 82 ‘The Bear’.
This version of the Fifth – newly remastered from Eterna’s master tapes – is reviewed here as a 24/192 download from
It’s also been reissued on LP, the original sleeve notes of which are reprinted in the new booklet. For some reason Sanderling’s BSO Shostakovich – Berlin
Classics 9217 – has passed me by; perhaps I can make amends with this belated assessment of their Fifth.
Of course there’s plenty of competition in this, Shostakovich’s most recorded symphony. Among the most satisfying Fifths I’ve encountered in recent years
are two Euroarts videos: Leonard Bernstein’s with the LSO in 1966 (review) and Yutaka Sado’s with the Berlin Phil
in 2011 (review). Both belong at the more
volatile end of the scale, whereas Andris Nelsons’ recent Boston recording – part of his ongoing cycle for DG – seems comparatively laid-back (review). I say ‘seems’ because behind its public clamour
lurks a reading of remarkable intensity and insight that I found quite overwhelming. Indeed, that’s probably the most revelatory account of this great
symphony that I’ve ever heard, either on record or in the concert hall.
So, where does Sanderling’s BSO Fifth fall in this spectrum? The first movement is certainly measured – perhaps spacious is a better description – but then
there’s a startling vulnerability here that I wasn’t prepared for. Clearly this is not the overt, scruff-grabbing approach that one associates with, say,
Bernstein, and some may find this thoughtful, proportionate reading a little too subdued. Those upward-winding string figures certainly aren’t as anguished
as they can be, but then there’s no denying the quiet, compelling authority of this performance.
I was particularly taken with the lovely pastoral quality of this opener, its idylls circled by threatening storm clouds. If you’re looking for extra angst
and urgency you won’t find it here; what you will encounter, though, is a rare transparency – witness that light, perky march tune – and sensibly scaled
tuttis. In many ways this is a very musical reading which, like Paavo Jarvi’s ‘paradigm shifting’ Seventh, reveals – and revels in – a lyricism that
belies the composer’s reputation for crudity and bombast. If that is what Sanderling is trying to highlight here he succeeds admirably.
The playing of this East German band – the fall of the Wall was still seven years away – is warm and plangent; the very refined recording, with plenty of
air and detail, adds to the sense of a performance deeply felt and gratefully given. There’s point and polish to the Allegretto, not to mention some
beguiling string passages that bring to mind Mahler at his most easeful and bucolic. I realise this conductor’s unhurried pace won’t please everyone, but
for others it’s a wonderful opportunity to rejoice in the score’s inner workings. And no, such instruction is not achieved at the expense of pulse or
As for the Largo it’s both spacious and beautifully spun. Yes, there’s a small hiatus at one point – a bad edit, perhaps – but that hardly matters
in the presence of such exemplary musicianship. At times there’s a Beethoven-like strength/stoicism to the lower strings, which contrasts most strongly
with the pliant loveliness of the BSO woodwinds. Here, more than anywhere else in this performance, one senses these are personal utterances, not public
proclamations, and that Sanderling brings us much closer to Shostakovich the man than most of his rivals do.
By the time we get to the Allegro non troppo it’s as if we’ve come to the end of a long and very eventful journey. Sanderling really is a wonderful
guide, revealing all the details and nuances that others miss. His finale is brisk and cleanly articulated – such attack in the violins, and what muscular
timps – with no hint of the pale gestures or empty rhetoric that so often afflict this problematic finale. Like Nelsons he builds to that great coda
without recourse to unnecessary artifice, so that when those mighty bass-drum thwacks arrive the effect is simply overwhelming.
This is not the only recording of Shostakovich’s Fifth I’d want to own, but it’s certainly one I’d welcome on my already well-stocked hard drive. More than
anything else there’s an openness to this performance, an honesty if you prefer, that illuminates the score in the most unexpected ways. Factor in a
first-class remastering – no steely strings, bloated bass or coarseness in the climaxes – and you have a very special release indeed.
A fresh, unaffected Fifth, chock-full of insight and character; not to be missed.
From a reader
Please pass on to Dan my appreciation of
his review of Sanderling's recording. I've been trying to spread the news
that Sanderling was one of the very greatest conductors. That's been an
interesting process because I've found that part of the problem with
conductors like Sanderling is that they came from Communist Bloc countries;
yes, I know that Sanderling was born in Arys, Germany. I'm sure this
affected reviewers from the self-righteous so-called 'West', whether it was
a subliminal prejudice or not, it was certainly there. If you doubt me try
wading through Gramophone reviews from the late 1950s and 1960s. Go directly
to the Supraphon reviews of such great performers like Ancerl, the Smetana,
Vlach and Janacek Quartets, and cop the smug sense of British superiority.
There was one infamous review of a recording by the Dresden Staatskapelle
where the reviewer was distracted by vibrato in the winds and brass and
surmised that this was because of Dresden's proximity to the Czech border.
There was only one way for a band to sound, you see, the British way, So, I
love it that Dan Morgan's review is so positive and he seems to 'get' what
Sanderling was all about. The very opening of the symphony is unlike any
other recording - it has a really great sense of urgency - contrast it with
the limpness of the Mackerras recording - and then move to that simply
lovely way that after the opening attacca the main theme is announced - at
precisely 4.59. No other recording manages that delicious sense of hush, if
you get what I mean.