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This is Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbański’s fifth album with NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester on the Alpha label. In the 2015/16 season Urbański became principal guest conductor of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra then named NDR Sinfonieorchester; changing to its present name in 2016 when it took up residence at the newly opened Elbphilharmonie. Following albums of Lutosławski, Dvořák, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky, Urbański and NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester have now turned their attention to Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, a twentieth-century masterpiece.
There can’t be too many classical music lovers unaware that Shostakovich agreed to his Fifth Symphony being titled ‘A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism’. In 1934 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 Soviet state newspaper Pravda ran a condemnatory editorial titled ‘Muddle Instead of Music’ denouncing and banning the opera and placing Shostakovich in a disturbing state of dishonour. To hopefully rehabilitate himself with the Soviet Authorities Shostakovich completed his Fifth Symphony, a score more openly conservative in style, and its première in 1937 at Leningrad was a triumph. After Shostakovich’s new and frightening denunciation in 1948 it was Kurt Sanderling who conducted the first revival of the work.
With Urbański at the helm in the opening Moderato movement, striking is the brilliantly rich and voluminous sound that comes through the cellos and double basses. With playing of cool, stark beauty overall the emotional effect Urbański creates is one of agonising bleakness with a nail-biting tension. I relish the central section so impressively built, erupting at point 10.06 and sustaining plenty of raw power. At 12.50 the concluding passage of relative calm with its undertow of tension provides a modicum of welcome relief. Infused with nervous energy the brief Scherzo swirling and light-headed, often equated to communicating the spirit of Mahler, contains a sardonic waltz with a forced, tongue-in-cheek quality. Despite what has gone before in Urbański’s hands shafts of light are certainly shining meaningfully through the murk. Scored without brass the agonising Largo under Urbański projects emotional vulnerability, deep despair and intense introspection. Here Urbański creates the chilling scene of an intensely desolate landscape laid to waste. At point 7.00 a dramatic passage is begun gently by the flute and taken up by the strings. The writing gradually develops in power before falling away at 10.55 leaving behind a strange feeling of anxiety and disorientation. It’s hard not to praise the orchestra enough in this movement. In the Finale I love the way the brass and woodwind swiftly leap up from their slumber with martial-like passages full of swagger, vigour and stirring drama. Matching the raw power of Kurt Sanderling and his Berlin players, Urbański astutely develops an urgent and energetically driven forward momentum. The percussion at 3.17-3.24 feels like a ferocious barrage of rifles and canons. A shiver runs down the spine as the music rushes impetuously to an awe-inspiring conclusion of outward triumph, magnificently from 8.47 to the conclusion. More than a match for most under Urbański, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester give a performance that feels totally sincere with quite marvellous sound. This is a thrilling performance of both physical impact and deep emotional intensity. Recorded at Großer Saal, Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg the sound quality is clear and well balanced. I did detect very slight reverberation but nothing that concerned me. A booklet essay written by Urbański provides an insightful
view of the Fifth Symphony.
There are several outstanding accounts of Shostakovich’s extremely popular Fifth Symphony in the catalogue. My leading recommendation is the 1982 Christuskirche, Berlin account from Kurt Sanderling with the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester for its depth, power and overwhelming emotion. Reissued on Berlin Classics the recording has been remastered from the original Eterna master tapes (review). Recommendable too for its consistency and considerable insights is Rudolf Barshai with the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln recorded in 1996 on Brilliant Classics. Standing comparison with the finest accounts Krzysztof Urbański presides over a thrilling performance from NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester of both physical impact and deep emotional intensity. Michael Cookson