Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op 47 (1937) [42:20]
Symphony No. 12 in D minor, Op 112 The Year 1917 (1961) [37:12]
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Yevgeny Mravinsky
rec. live, 24 October 1965, Great Hall of the Conservatory, Moscow (5); 1 October 1961, Leningrad (12)

These performances have been available before on disc but not coupled together, so far as I am aware. Rob Barnett reviewed the recording of the Twelfth, originally in harness with the Sixth Symphony. The apparent discrepancy between the performance date quoted in his review is explained by the fact that the date in 1962, originally quoted by Praga, is the date on which the performance was broadcast on Prague Radio. I don’t think we’ve reviewed the previous issue of the Fifth Symphony (PR 250 085).

Here we have live performances of two Shostakovich symphonies conducted by the man who premiered both of them – and four other Shostakovich symphonies. I don’t know if Mravinsky modified his interpretation of the Fifth Symphony between its first performance in 1938 and the present traversal in 1965. Quite possibly he did, if only in matters of detail, because I’m sure he constantly re-studied his repertoire. We can say with certainty, however, that this recording of the Twelfth Symphony represents his first thoughts on the score because what is presented here is the world premiere of the score, as broadcast by Prague Radio just over three months later.

I’m a great admirer of Shostakovich’s work but not, I fear, of this symphony. The composer’s relationship with officialdom was a complex one and it’s hard to know whether he was genuinely celebrating the Revolution of 1917 or taking a more subversive view. Whatever his motives, the resultant score sounds uncomfortably close to the work of a Party hack – which Shostakovich most certainly was not. As I commented in my review of Vasily Petrenko’s recording, the symphony “seems to me to lack any real development in any of the four movements, which are played without a break. Worse still, the thematic material is, at best, unmemorable and, at worst, banal.” I’m afraid even the authority of Mravinsky doesn’t change my mind; indeed, in some ways this performance reinforces my view.

After a big, powerful opening to the first movement, ‘Revolutionary Petrograd’, Mravinsky takes the allegro (from 1:26) at a real lick. The music sounds frantic and red in tooth and claw and that, I suppose, is not inappropriate. However, at around 5:48 the frenetic tempo makes the music sound even more strident and banal than in other performances I’ve heard. There is real urgency to the performance, which is breathless, but even so the music sounds empty and bombastic. The slow movement, ‘Razliv’, contains the best music because it’s rather more thoughtful. Even so, when one thinks of some of the deep utterances elsewhere in the composer’s output, this movement appears shallow. In this performance the distinctive timbre of Russian horns and brass is much in evidence. There’s power and purpose to Mravinsky’s reading and towards the end the stentorian trombone solo makes a strong impression. I much admire the menace and suppressed tension that conductor and orchestra achieve in the opening minutes of the third movement, ‘Aurora’. The finale begins in big, rhetorical style but soon degenerates into gestural music. I’m afraid that, for whatever reason, this symphony does not show Shostakovich at his considerable best. However, this recording demonstrates that Mravinsky and his orchestra unveiled it to the world in electrifying fashion.

The Fifth Symphony is in a different league. Mravinsky surprised me by his overall swiftness in the first movement, which plays for 14:33 here. I looked at a couple of other versions on my shelves – though I didn’t make comparisons – and noted that both Bernard Haitink, in his Decca recording, and Vasily Petrenko take over 18 minutes for this movement. On the other hand, Kirill Kondrashin takes even less time overall than Mravinsky; his version plays for less than 14 minutes. Probably the two Soviet conductors reflected the performing tradition of the work in the USSR in those days. Though Mravinsky doesn’t hang about I don’t believe that he underplays the weight and import of the music in any way; this is a very considerable reading.

The short second movement is tangy and strongly projected. The passage that begins with a nimble violin solo (from 1:42) is taken very much up to tempo whereas Western interpretations have often introduced more ‘give’ in these pages; personally I prefer that approach. Mravinsky’s way with the Largo is strong and very disciplined. It’s extremely impressive and the climax (from 7:38) has genuine and unforced power. I have the feeling that some other conductors have found rather more poetry in the music than Mravinsky does but I must immediately qualify that comment by saying that at 9:51 he achieves a remote, glacial chill in the string passage; that’s terrifically impressive. The start of the finale is exceedingly fast and urgent. Indeed, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the music taken so swiftly. This is reminiscent of Mravinsky’s scalding way with the finales of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth symphonies (review). You need iron discipline in the ranks of the orchestra as well as virtuosity if you’re going to pull off such a feat and, fortunately, in the Leningrad Philharmonic Mravinsky had such a band at his disposal. It’s tremendously exciting, though in all honesty for my taste the pace is somewhat overdone. Even when Shostakovich later reins in the tempo Mravinsky maintains the great tension of his interpretation. I admire the way he doesn’t allow the grandiose ending to tip over into bombast.

Mravinsky’s wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice for the Fifth Symphony but his is a very considerable performance and one, moreover, that has the stamp of unique authority. As for the Twelfth, well this is an important document because it was the last of six Shostakovich symphonies that were premiered by Mravinsky. The premiere of the Thirteenth in 1962 was originally entrusted to him but he withdrew and I suspect Shostakovich never forgot that.

The recordings are now over 50 years old but the sound is pretty good for its time.

John Quinn

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