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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5 (1937) [50:22]
Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin, Op. 46 (orchestrated by Shostakovich, Nos. 1-3, and Gerard McBurney, No. 4) [12:35]
James Platt (bass), The Hallé / Sir Mark Elder
rec. live, 18 January 2018, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, UK
Sung texts provided with English translations.
HALLÉ CDHLL7550 [63:08]

I have fond memories from Bridgewater Hall in recent years. I reported on Sir Mark Elder conducting Hallé concerts of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 Leningrad in 2013, and No. 15 in 2016. Now Hallé has released on its own label a live recording of Shostakovich’s much-admired masterwork, the Symphony No. 5. It is coupled with the work that the composer wrote immediately before it: Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin.

There cannot be too many classical music lovers unaware that Shostakovich agreed to give his Fifth Symphony the title A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism. The Soviet leader Josef Stalin attended a 1936 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. It denounced and banned the opera, and placed Shostakovich in a disturbing state of dishonour. Hoping to rehabilitate himself with the Soviet authorities, Shostakovich completed his Fifth Symphony, a score more openly conservative in style. Its 1937 premičre in Leningrad was a triumph. In 1948 Shostakovich received a new and frightening denunciation. It was Kurt Sanderling (Michael Sanderling’s father) who later conducted the first revival of the Fifth.

Under the baton of Sir Mark Elder – right from the opening pages of the Moderato movement – I soon miss the brilliantly rich and voluminous sound that comes through the cellos and double basses in Kurt Sanderling’s 1982 account with Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester. The high strings of the Hallé sound a touch thin and over-bright, unable to convey the cool, stark beauty the music requires. Overall the emotional effect Elder produces is one of bleakness, with an undertow and foreboding but without the degree of tension Sanderling achieves. I always relish the impressively built central section. It peaks here at 10:34 where matters quickly improve; Elder’s players create plenty of raw power. The brief, swirling Scherzo is a movement often said to contain the spirit of Mahler. It communicates a sardonic waltz with a forced, tongue-in-cheek quality. Despite what has gone before, shafts of light are certainly shining through the murk. Compared to Sanderling, there is a degree of nervous energy produced here by Elder but not as much as I wanted, and generally it does not feel quick enough either.

Scored without brass, the agonising Largo in Kurt Sanderling’s hands projects a strong sense of emotional vulnerability, deep despair and intense introspection. Elder does not provide the depth of intensity I wanted yet convincingly creates a bleak landscape, laid to waste. Matters begin to markedly improve from point 6:57, with the curiously vulnerable passage that begins gently by the flute, then an oboe, before being taken up by the strings. The music gradually develops in dramatic 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 may initially produce more raw power, Elder develops an energetically driven forward momentum. I felt a shiver run down my spine as the music ground impetuously to an awe-inspiring conclusion of outward triumph. The Hallé under Elder give a dedicated performance that feels totally sincere. This is a reasonably engaging performance that conveys emotional intensity but does not produce the physical impact and crushing depth of feeling contained in the greatest recordings.

There are several excellent accounts of Shostakovich’s enduringly popular Fifth Symphony in the record catalogue, beginning with my favourite, Kurt Sanderling’s account on Berlin Classics, with its depth of emotion and overwhelming power (review). One can recommend – for its considerable insight and penetration – Rudolf Barshai’s 1996 version with WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, part of a complete set on Brilliant Classics (review). A more recent recording that stands out for its beautiful playing yet profound emotional intensity is the 2017 account by Michael Sanderling and Dresdner Philharmonie on Sony (coupled with Beethoven’s Fifth – review).

The song cycle Four Romances was the first serious score Shostakovich wrote following his 1936 denouncement and withdrawal of his Fourth Symphony. This is a poignant setting of texs by Alexander Pushkin, arguably Russia’s greatest poetd: Renaissance, Jealousy, Foreboding and Stanzas. After Shostakovich’s death, his orchestration of three of the works scored for clarinet, harp and strings was discovered. Here the final song has been orchestrated by Gerard McBurney. A note by McBurney states that “each of the four songs examines the themes of betrayal, loss and memory”. Following this cycle, Shostakovich commenced work on his 5th Symphony, which contains actual quotations from the opening song Renaissance.

British bass James Platt sings Russian opera roles. His roster shows a versatile approach; he seems equally at home with Italian, French and German parts. Mark Elder and CBSO recorded the cycle in 1982 on Signum Classics, using the services of Russian bass Dimitri Kharitonov. In pleasingly expressive voice, Platt sings admirably with just a slight unsteadiness of vibrato, but in truth I am surprised that a similarly distinctive, sonorous Russian bass was not engaged. Best of all is the final song Stanzas. The bass clarinet and low strings combine for a shadowy character and sound particularly effective.

The sound, recorded live, has excellent clarity although it is a touch over-bright for my taste, robbing the high strings of some lustre. There is barely an extraneous sound; the applause has been retained for the symphony but not for the Romances. Stephen Johnson has written the booklet essay which contains most of the essential information but there are no pen-pictures of the conductor, orchestra or soloist. Sung texts are provided together with Gerard McBurney’s English translations.

This is a moderately enjoyable release but it is probably the least inspiring of the Hallé albums under Sir Mark Elder I have reviewed over the last few years.

Michael Cookson

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