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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 (1937) [46:16]
NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra/Krzysztof Urbánski
rec. December 2017, Grand Hall, Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg, Germany
ALPHA 427 [46:16]

Recordings of Shostakovich’s Fifth keep coming, but this one had better be good to take up a whole CD by itself! I have been positively impressed with what I have heard from the Polish conductor Kryzsztof Urbánski heretofore. His Alpha disc of Lutosławski works is one of my favourites of that composer and I attended an Indianapolis Symphony concert this past April as part of the Kennedy Center’s SHIFT series, where Urbánski conducted powerful performances of Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto (with Alisa Weilerstein) and the Penderecki Credo. So, I was looking forward to his “take” on Shostakovich’s most popular symphony. I was not disappointed.

Urbánski goes to some length in the disc’s booklet note and also in an interview in the September issue of Gramophone to describe the historical and political subtext of the work. He claims to be following the letter of the score as to tempi and dynamics. This in itself would matter little, unless the results of this discussion were borne out in the performance itself. That they are, and in spades, is testament to Urbánski’s success in turning theory into practice. There are, of course, a plethora of accounts of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony out there and several in recent years which have raised the ante for reference recordings. Having listened to this new account and compared it with two excellent ones in my collection, Vladimir Ashkenazy’s with the Royal Philharmonic (Decca) and Vasily Petrenko’s with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Naxos), I am confident Urbánski can hold his head high in this company. There are enough differences in interpretation among these to recommend all of them, as well as recent ones by Andris Nelsons (DG) and Manfred Honeck (Reference Recordings).

While timings by no means tell all the differences in the three accounts I have compared, they provide some valuable insights.

Ashkenazy 16:36 5:19 14:45 10:59
Petrenko 18:01 5:12 15:34 12:50
Urbánski 16:38 5:52  13:43 10:43

With the exception of the second movement, Urbánski’s timings are much closer to Ashkenazy’s than to Petrenko’s. Ashkenazy presents the most straightforward performance and still sounds stunning in his 1987 recording. The only real problem I have with it are the unidiomatic horn and trumpet swoops in the second theme of the Allegretto second movement. Petrenko’s account, on the other hand, by and large expresses the extremes in dynamics and tempo. His first movement and finale are particularly dramatic and he hammers out the last measures almost to the breaking point. His interpretation leaves a very powerful impression and it is one that I will continue to return to. Urbánski is somewhere in the middle. His dynamic range is greater than Ashkenazy’s for sure and he can be almost as dramatic as Petrenko, especially in the last movement. His first movement is well scaled with a perfectly tuned and beautifully nuanced flute and horn duet. Unlike both of the others, Urbánski treats the Allegretto as a heavy dance—no light diversion here—and he punches the final chord of this movement with greater emphasis than I have heard elsewhere. Petrenko’s second movement, on the other hand, is rather light and crisp, quite refreshing. All three conductors turn in eloquent accounts of the wonderful Largo third movement, the true heart of the symphony in my opinion. Urbánski begins the finale deliberately with plenty of power and then gradually increases the tempo until the slow section beginning at 3:30. His wind solos are superbly played there as they are throughout the symphony. I should mention the growling bassoons after 5:50, which come through better than on the other recordings. When the first theme returns, again it is very slow and deliberate and continues that way to the end. However, his brass are smoother than in the other accounts, but those repeated As on the strings dominate the orchestra and really drive home the effect of enforced “rejoicing” that Solomon Volkov referred to in his Testimony on the works of Shostakovich. The percussion, both timpani and bass drum, in the coda do not have quite the presence as with either Ashkenazy or Petrenko, but are effective nonetheless. The recorded sound is really natural with good depth and likely what one would hear from a good seat in the mid-orchestra section of the Elbphilharmonie.

The question is: Is this enough to recommend this new account? Based on Urbánski’s individual interpretation and the superb playing of the orchestra in all departments, I would say “yes.” I’m certain I will listen to it again, although it would have been better value to have had another work accompanying the symphony to fill out the disc. Petrenko’s comes with a terrific account of the Ninth Symphony, a disc of over 78 minutes, while Ashkenazy provided the unusual coupling of the Five Fragments, Op. 42, which Shostakovich composed shortly before his Fourth Symphony, on the CD’s original issue and in its latest release the Chamber Symphony Op. 110a, Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement of the Eighth String Quartet.

Leslie Wright
Previous review: Michael Cookson


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