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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No.5 in d minor, Op.47 [48:19]
Symphony No.1 in f minor, Op.10 [33:33]
London Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. Barbican, London, 22 September 2016 (No.5), 27-28 March 2019. DDD/DSD
Reviewed as 24/96 stereo download with pdf booklet from
LSO LIVE LSO0802 SACD [48:19 + 33:33]

When No.5 was first released as a download only (LSO0302), we seem to have missed reviewing it. In any case, it’s rather short value on its own when the new release makes amends by combining Shostakovich’s best-known work with one of his least-known, on two SACDs and as a download (in 16-bit and 24/96 and 24/192 formats). We did, however, catch up with Gianendrea Noseda and the LSO on their in-house label in Symphony No.4 (LSO0832 – review) and No.8 (LSO0822 – reviewreviewAutumn 2018/2). It’s fair to say opinions have been divided.

There are several first-rate accounts of No.5, the composer’s so-called reply to just criticism, not that it was radically different from No.4, which had had to be withdrawn in the light of Stalin’s displeasure. Recently Andris Nelsons’ recording of Nos. 5, 8 and 9 has met with praise almost all-round (DG 4795201 – review: Recording of the Month – reviewreview). Krzysztof Urbański with the NDR Philharmonic has also been well received (Alpha 427 – reviewreview).

Among older recordings, André Previn’s classic from his golden years with the LSO remains available as a download (RCA 82876554932, with Hamlet Suite – review). I still have a soft spot for Karel Ančerl’s recording, now coupled, like the new LSO Live, with No.1 (Supraphon Gold SU36992). That comes at upper-mid-price on CD but can be obtained as a lossless download for £3.99 from Qobuz.

I compared a well-regarded Reference Recordings account, from Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, with Ančerl, Previn and an earlier LSO Live recording with Rostropvitch at the helm in Autumn 2017/1. Like Dan Morgan, I was disappointed by the Honeck, liked the Rostropovich well enough to recommend streaming it, and found Ančerl and Previn still much closer to the spirit of this symphony.

With those two recordings in the back of my mind, I found myself liking the Noseda recording, but not whole-heartedly. At several points I thought it just a little lacking in power, even as heard in 24-bit sound which is clearly a great advance on the Supraphon, though that has come up sounding well for its age, a joy to hear without the crackle and pop which afflicted even my Classics for Pleasure LP pressing.

To start back to front, that lack of oomph is most noticeable in the finale. I know that the direction is allegro non troppo, but Noseda takes a little too much account of the non troppo modifier for my liking. Ančerl takes almost two minutes less to knock the listener for six here, and it’s not just nostalgia that makes me prefer his treatment. Previn is faster still, and both the LSO of its heyday and the Czech Philharmonic can take the fast tempo without coming off the rails. 

The Boston Symphony Orchestra for Nelsons take a few seconds longer even than Noseda, but, as if to prove that timing is not all, there’s no lack of excitement and drive. One reason may be that, though the Nelsons recordings were made live, like Noseda’s, the more open Boston acoustic allows more detail than the Barbican, even comparing the DG in 16-bit with the LSO Live in 24-bit. The last few seconds of the Nelsons recording are taken up with applause, which is soon faded, while it’s edited out of the LSO Live recording.

Stalin appears to have been appeased by this symphony – until his disappointment that No.8 and No.9 turned out not to be the glorious post-war celebrations that he expected – but I think he would have been more delighted with those two classic accounts of the finale than by Noseda’s. It’s not that Stalin’s self-opinionated views of the arts should be our benchmark, simply that Shostakovich was patently trying to get back into favour, and that's reflected in the best recordings.

If you find that a fast tempo for this music makes it sound banal, you will prefer Noseda, but I think you simply have to accept a degree of banality in those symphonies in which Shostakovich was seeking approval. Recently I have found myself unable to listen with my former enthusiasm to the Leningrad, the patriotic symphony which gained the composer world-wide fame, including a shot on the front cover of Time magazine. My writing that in a review brought forth a lengthy colloquy, for and against the work, on our Message Board.

The stopwatch never tells the whole story, but Noseda also adopts a slow tempo for the allegretto second movement; he achieves a sense of lightness in this movement, making it sound reminscent of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, but he misses some of the joy that it should contain. Here Previn is much faster and the 1960s LSO are lighter on their feet, as are the Czech Philharmonic for Ančerl, even though his overall tempo is only very marginally faster than Noseda’s.

Perhaps Noseda has been influenced by the composer’s apparent denial that the symphony was meant to sound optimistic, rather a kind of forced party-line optimism. Be that as it may, Previn and Ančerl seem to me to get it right. I felt the same way comparing those two with Vladimir Ashkenazy’s recording, included in the complete Decca set (4758748 – review).

I hate to sound like an old fogey constantly harping on nostalgically about the Good Old Days – they weren’t all that good; some of the great leaders of the past have turned out to have had feet of clay. Even Stalin was once known affectionately in the West as ‘Uncle Joe’; look how that turned out. It’s certainly true that recording techniques have improved since my two benchmark versions, though both still sound more than acceptable, but for me, nostalgia aside, the Ančerl and Previn performances outshine those on the new album, and it’s to them that I shall return.

If Noseda is more leisurely than most in three of the four movements, he’s faster than Previn in the largo third movement, though pretty well in line with Ančerl. Previn is either ‘deeply meditative’, as the Penguin Guide put it, or he over-eggs the pudding, depending on your taste. Ashkenazy (complete set – see below) makes a good case for falling between the two stools, while Nelsons brings out the emotional power of the movement with a timing comparable with Previn’s.

If you like your Fifth rather understated and in good taste, Noseda could be your man. In any case, it’s not a bad performance; if I had been at the concert, I would have enjoyed hearing it. My preference for Ančerl and Previn, however, is undiminished. Your overall best buy could be the Nelsons – three symphonies in powerful performances and modern recording on two CDs at mid-price, around £14.50, or as a lossless download with pdf booklet for around £13.50 (24-bit around £22), but I know that some listeners cannot abide applause, however brief. None is included on the LSO Live SACDs, which sell for around 11.50, with 16-bit lossless download available from Hyperion for 6.50. (24/96 and 24/192 are 9.75 and 11.35 respectively). With the pdf booklet included, that makes the Hyperion dowloads the best value, even if you choose the highest format.

Symphony No.1 is not often included on single-CD recordings. The elderly Eugene Ormandy recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra (Sony), coupled with Ballet Suites 1-2 and The Gadfly, once available at budget price, is now an expensive download only and Leonard Bernstein’s coupling of Nos. 1 and 7 (Leningrad) is also download only (DG) or a Presto special CD. Even the Vladimir Ashkenazy box set of the symphonies is now download only, around £50 in lossless sound. Don’t even contemplate the £220 that I have seen asked for the CDs. I thought that Ashkenazy made the first Symphony sound worth listening to, not just as a student work – review – so that 2007 release is my yardstick for Noseda’s recording. I’m not sure that Noseda achieves quite that, but, with less baggage to carry in the way of comparisons, he is generally successful. I was actually surprised to discover how much of this symphony, which I had thought of as unmemorable, I actually remembered from the few performances that I had heard.

There’s general agreement between Noseda and Ashkenazy, except in the finale, where Noseda once again adopts a rather sedate tempo by comparison with both Ashkenazy and Ančerl. It’s not a fatal flaw, but I do prefer the other two recordings. The LSO recording is good, especially in 24-bit format - and, presumably, from the HD layer of the SACDs - but the Barbican acoustic doesn't allow the sound to open up ideally.

Not a top contender, then, in the ubiquitous Fifth; even the addition of a decent account of the First to this reissue is not enough to place the recording in the highest category.

Brian Wilson

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