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Shostakovich symphony 4539882
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Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 (1937)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Witold Rowicki (Shostakovich)
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Gennady Rozhdestvensky (Tchaikovsky)
rec. 1958, Warsaw Philharmonic Hall; 1960, Wembley Town Hall, London
Presto CD

These recordings of Russian repertoire issued on LP by Deutsche Grammophon achieved genuine success both for their performance and interpretation at a time when Shostakovich’s symphonies were hard to come by – unlike the present. Witold Rowicki was a conductor whose career developed in the post-war period, particularly when he established the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, making it a world-class ensemble. He made many outstanding recordings, most notably Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto with Sviatoslav Richter – perhaps the finest recording of this celebrated concerto.

At the time of its recording in Warsaw, there were few recordings of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony in stereo; Karel Ancerl’s outstanding reading on Supraphon appeared a few years later and Leonard Bernstein’s with the New York Philharmonic on CBS dominated the catalogue. One doubts how familar this orchestra was with Shostakovich’s music, as they would have discovered his music only after the Second World War. Witold Rowicki was a great conductor who was certainly familiar with it, and here directs a remarkable performance. The Warsaw Philharmonic had been established just four years before this recording which reveals it to be a top-class orchestra.

Rowicki finds the appropriate tempo for, and insight into, this symphony. He handles the opening Moderato stunningly well; immediately, the opening bars are given great consequence and are supported by tremendous string playing, with exactly the precise gravitas. The orchestra has virtuosi in its strings department, and there are outstanding contributions from the oboe, flute and brass - especially the trumpets and horns. In the development section, there is magnificent playing with notable solos from the flute and first violin.

The cellos and basses in the Allegretto are very impressive and one hears the splendid acoustical values of the Philharmonic Hall. Again, I was impressed by the first violin and the wonderful woodwind department. The Largo requires the orchestra to grasp the anguish of Shostakovich’s music and the Warsaw strings here bring out sensitively all its heartbreak. The conductor advances a great upsurge in tension, and solos from the cor anglais and flute, with the celeste in support, keenly express the desolation of Shostakovich’s music.

The Finale, Allegro con moto, opens stirringly, if not without some bombast from the percussion, and the histrionic nature of this music is accentuated by tremendous playing from the trumpets and trombones, lending a positive close to this tragic symphony. The recording brings out all the colour of the side drum and the stirring brass before the celebratory closing bars.

The Tchaikovsky piece was among those set down during the Leningrad Philharmonic’s debut concert in the UK in the autumn of 1960, when they appeared at the Edinburgh International Festival, then at the Royal Festival Hall, giving the UK premieres of Prokofiev’s Sixth and Shostakovich’s Eighth symphonies. This was the start of a huge concert tour of Europe which established both Mravinsky and his orchestra as a world force in orchestral performance.

As part of the arrangement with DG, the orchestra under Mravinsky recorded Tchaikovsky’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies in stereo recordings that have attained legendary status among collectors. In London, Rozhdestvensky was assigned the recording of pieces by Khachaturian, the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations and the Schumann Cello Concerto (both with Rostropovich) and the fantasy Francesca da Rimini in Wembley Town Hall.

Mravinsky recruited Rozhdestvensky as his assistant together with his long-term assistant Arvids Jansons, and gave him the opportunity to establish his name as an international conductor. From the first bars, Rozhdestvensky leads a tremendously exhilarating performance which can be ranked with those by Stokowski, Igor Markevitch and indeed with Mravinsky. Notably, there is astonishingly fine playing from the brass and the strings who play as if their lives depend on it. Great switches in tempo bring out all the dramatic Romanticism of Tchaikovsky’s music. I was impressed also by the intensity of the rich string timbres and the virtuosity of the bassoon, clarinet and oboe contributions. This is a tremendous recording, bettered only by Mravinsky’s own later recordings with this orchestra.

The booklet provides an informative essay by John Warrack in English with translations in French, German, Italian and Spanish, although there are small errors in the dates of the recordings: the Tchaikovsky piece was recorded in 1961, not 1969; the Shostakovich Fifth was recorded at Warsaw Philharmonic Hall in October 1958, not 1960.

Gregor Tassie

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