Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5, Op. 47 (1937) [50.39]
Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester/Kurt Sanderling
rec. 1982 Studio Christuskirche, Berlin
BERLIN CLASSICS 0300750BC [50.39]

This Berlin Classics reissue of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony recorded in 1982 has been remastered from original Eterna master tapes. Founded in 1952 the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester was based in the Soviet sector (East Berlin) until official reunification in 1990. After nearly having to fold, the rejuvenated orchestra was renamed the Konzerthausorchester Berlin in 2006.

Born in East Prussia, conductor Kurt Sanderling studied in Berlin until forced out during the rise of Jewish persecution by Hitler’s National Socialists. In 1936 Sanderling left Germany for the Soviet Union, working behind the Iron Curtain for most of his life and becoming a friend of Shostakovich. Sanderling was principal conductor of the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester between 1960/77 and this 1982 recording is from one of his regular stints conducting the orchestra. As Sanderling pursued an international career in the 1980s I was fortunate to see him conduct Mahler Ninth Symphony with the BBC Philharmonic orchestra at the BBC Studio 7, Manchester.

There can’t be too many classical music lovers unaware that Shostakovich subtitled his Fifth Symphony, ‘A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism’; evidently in response to a suggestion made by a journalist a couple of months after the premičre. In 1934 the Soviet leader Josef Stalin attended a performance of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and was appalled by the opera’s content. Two days later the Soviet state newspaper Pravda ran a condemnatory editorial titled ‘Muddle Instead of Music’, denouncing the opera as “coarse, primitive and vulgar.”Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was banned and Shostakovich was placed in a disturbing state of dishonour. During the rehearsal stage of his austere and introspective Fourth Symphony a work lacking in the uplifting melodies insisted upon by Stalin he was advised to withdraw the score before its premičre. In an attempt to rehabilitate himself with the Soviet Authorities Shostakovich completed his Fifth Symphony, more openly conservative in style and its premičre in 1937 at Leningrad was a triumph. After Shostakovich’s new and frightening denunciation in 1948 it was Sanderling who conducted the first revival of the work.

Right from the opening pages of the Moderato movement I soon became aware of the orchestra’s brilliantly rich and voluminous sound, that comes through the deep instruments: the cellos and double basses. Overall the emotional effect Sanderling achieves is one of bleakness, anxiety and foreboding. Cloaked in nervous energy the brief Scherzo, often said to contain the spirit of Mahler, takes the form of a sardonic waltz with a forced tongue-in-cheek quality. Despite what has gone before, shafts of light are shining through the murk. Scored without brass the agonising Largo projects emotional vulnerability, deep despair and intense introspection which in the hands of Sanderling evokes a bleak landscape laid to waste. I love the way the brass and woodwind arouse from their slumber in the Finale. With martial-like passages full of swagger, stirring vigour and drama. Sanderling develops a powerfully driven forward momentum and I felt a shiver run down my spine as the music rushed impetuously to an awe-inspiring conclusion of outward triumph. Eminently suited to the music of the 20th century Soviet master, the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester under Kurt Sanderling give a performance of depth, vitality and overwhelming emotion that lingers long in the consciousness.

Recorded under studio conditions at Christuskirche, Berlin the engineering team have provided good clarity and satisfying balance with only the high strings sounding somewhat glassy in their top register. Two quite excellent essays are contained in the booklet; one of which is from the original Eterna LP sleeve.

There are a number of excellent accounts of Shostakovich’s most popular symphony in the catalogue and Sanderling is more than a match for most. Originally on Melodiya my first choice is the compelling account from the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky from the 1980s reissued on Olympia. Also recommendable, for its significant insights is the version by Rudolf Barshai with the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, recorded in 1996 (available on Brilliant Classics).

Michael Cookson
Previous review: Dan Morgan

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