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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 30 April-2 May 2014, Philharmonie am Gasteig, Munich
BR KLASSIK 900191 [44:27]

Since his death in 2019, BR Klassik have released some of Mariss Jansons’ recordings that must have been sitting in their archive. Not all have been excellent, but this Shostakovich 5 is definitely worth hearing.

This is a symphony that has been long been close to Jansons’ heart, and he brings a lifetime of conducting experience to this performance. You sense that most keenly in the slow movement, where the pace of the tricky emotional narrative is judged to perfection, allowing it to unfold completely convincingly. Nothing is rushed or squandered, but nor is there any undue lingering or wallowing. That’s consistently true across this recording. The opening of the first movement, for example, grabs you by the scruff of the neck: it’s clipped, exciting, jagged, and demands your attention. Similarly, the finale's march opens with steady assertiveness, but it quickly receives a massive injection of pace, and scurries off to a much more manic level of energy. I really liked this, and it makes the ensuing frenzy sound much more organic and believable. Furthermore, that controversial ending sounds, to my ears, intentionally ambiguous, fast but very bright. So many conductors take a stance on whether or not it’s a conventional “happy ending”, but it's refreshing for Jansons to seemingly allow us to make up our own minds.

The playing is the performance’s other great strength. The brass, who take the lead in the first movement’s middle section, sound baleful, and there’s a real bite to the string music that follows it; energetic and clean but also very light on its feet. The isolated bleakness of that movement’s coda, with its vast range and isolated solos, points up how good the BR-Klassik recording is. The second movement then lurches and gallumphs, but does so with precision and security, which is exactly what you want in this movement. The strings sound heartbreaking in the slow movement, full of quiet passion and intensely felt emotion, and the climax at 8:08 is intense but also very deeply felt and not in the slightest bit cheap.

It’s beautifully recorded, and you sense some of the heat of a live performance. The concluding applause is left in, but otherwise I couldn't pick up any audience noise at all.

So this is very good, and a heck of a lot better than Jansons’ recently released Leningrad Symphony. However, offering less than 45 minutes of music for a full price disc renders it rather uncompetitive in the marketplace, particularly when Jansons is his own competition. His 1997 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, also live, offers even finer playing in sound that it is every bit as good. I fear that renders this one, despite its qualities, somewhat obsolete. I suspect it’s only, really, for those who were in the hall that night, or who really need another memento of Jansons in Munich, rather than Jansons in Shostakovich.

Simon Thompson

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