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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 5 [33.43]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5 [47.56]
Dresdner Philharmonie / Michael Sanderling
rec. 2016, Lukaskirche (Beethoven); 2017 Kulturpalast (Shostakovich), Dresden
SONY CLASSICAL 19075820802 [81.52]

With this album the Dresdner Philharmonie under Michael Sanderling has reached volume 4 in its survey of the complete symphonies of Beethoven and Shostakovich for Sony which are proving to be valuable additions to the orchestra’s discography. Here the renowned German orchestra has recorded the fifth symphonies of each composer which are among the greatest symphonies ever written.

After a gestation period of several years Beethoven completed his Fifth Symphony in 1808 which has become one of the landmark works of the genre. Dedications to both Prince Lobkowitz and Count Rasumovsky appear on the printed score. Beethoven himself introduced the symphony the same year at Theater an der Wien, Vienna. Only two weeks ago at Kulturpalast, as part of Dresdner Musikfestspiele 2018, I reported from a concert of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony by Dresdner Philharmonie under Michael Sanderling in an excellent performance that was well received by audience and press alike. Not surprisingly the live Kulturpalast performance was very similar to this recording from 2016 made under studio conditions. A work that the orchestra and conductor will have performed countless times there is never any sense of routine, clearly lavishing great care and attention on this Beethoven score. Overall in this firmly focused performance the playing of Dresdner Philharmonie sounds unfailingly stylish and eminently fresh, generating a satisfying level of drive and energy. Marked Allegro con brio, in the bold opening movement Sanderling creates a resolute rather serious tone. One of my favourite movements in all Beethoven’s symphonies is the Andante con moto where Sanderling fashions a dedicated sense of engagement with an inner glow redolent of a magnificent Alpine scene in Austrian Tyrol. Hard to match is the spine-tingling intensity that Karajan and his Berliner Philharmoniker brought to the Andante con moto in their 1962 Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin account on Deutsche Grammophon. Considerable optimism is conveyed in the third movement Scherzo with Sanderling demonstrating such marked contrasts of dynamic. The Allegro: Finale is as exhilarating as I have heard providing a satisfying sense of resolution. Compared to the approach of ‘big-band’ Beethoven of immense tonal power, as encountered in many of the older recordings of the Fifth for example Wilhelm Furtwängler with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1943 and 1947, Sanderling adopts a less weighty performance, stylish with a contemporary feel that has real gravitas. My first choice recordings of the Fifth Symphony both from Berliner Philharmoniker are contained in complete sets. Firstly under Sir Simon Rattle recorded live in 2015 at Philharmonie, Berlin on the orchestra’s own label (review). Secondly the 1962 accounts from Herbert von Karajan recorded under studio conditions at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon (review).

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 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 and banning the opera and placing Shostakovich in a disturbing state of dishonour. Hopefully to 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 (Michael Sanderling’s father) who conducted the first revival of the work. Under the baton of Sanderling Jnr., right from the opening pages of the Moderato movement, I soon missed the brilliantly rich and voluminous sound that comes through the cellos and double basses in Sanderling Snr’s account. With playing of cool, stark beauty overall the emotional effect Sanderling Jnr. produces is one of bleakness with an undertow and foreboding without the degree of tension Sanderling Snr. achieves. I relish the central section so impressively built, erupting at point 9.38 and maintaining plenty of raw power. Infused with nervous energy the brief swirling Scherzo, often likened to containing the spirit of Mahler, communicates music of a sardonic waltz with a forced, tongue-in-cheek quality. Despite what has gone before shafts of light are certainly shining through the murk. Scored without brass the agonising Largo in Sanderling Snr’s hands projects emotional vulnerability, deep despair and intense introspection. Here Sanderling Jnr. creates an intensely bleak landscape laid to waste. At point 8.17 a dramatic passage begun gently by the flute and taken up by the strings the writing gradually develops in power, producing a strange feeling of anxiety and disorientation. In the Finale I love the way the brass and woodwind swiftly arouse from their slumber with martial-like passages full of swagger, stirring vigour and drama. Whilst Sanderling Snr. may initially produce slightly more raw power, Sanderling Jnr. develops an energetically driven forward momentum and I felt a shiver run down my spine as the music rushes impetuously to an awe-inspiring conclusion of outward triumph. More than a match for most, Michael Sanderling and Dresdner Philharmonie give a performance that feels totally sincere with a marvellous sound. Without the physical impact of some accounts this is a performance that conveys a deep emotional intensity. There are several excellent accounts of Shostakovich’s most popular Fifth Symphony in the catalogue. My leading recording is the 1982 Christuskirche, Berlin account from Kurt Sanderling with the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester for its depth, power and overwhelming emotion on Berlin Classics (review). Recommendable too for its consistency and considerable insights is Rudolf Barshai with the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln recorded in 1996 on Brilliant Classics.

For Sony, Dresdner Philharmonie recorded the Beethoven at Lukaskirche and Shostakovich at newly opened Kulturpalast both having sound quality of pleasing consistency, clarity and satisfying balance although, ideally, I prefer a slightly closer recording. In the booklet there is an essay by Wolfgang Stahr.

Dresdner Philharmonie under Michael Sanderling lavish great care and attention on these performances of the Fifth Symphonies of Beethoven and Shostakovich. Less weighty than most of the longer established competition in the catalogues these are unaffected and thrilling live accounts of high quality and I’m certain to play them often. Undoubtedly I’m looking forward keenly to the next release in this series.
Michael Cookson



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