Whether written as propaganda or with bitter irony, Shostakovich’s Fifth reflects the terror of Stalin’s rule like no other work. we pick the best recordings.
Probably the most-performed modern symphony of the past 75 years, Shostakovich’s Fifth was a crucial work in his development and an act of historic resonance. Written at the height of Russia’s Stalinist terror by a composer at risk of his life, it seeks to reaffirm the grand Beethovenian tradition of constructive symphonic power and has gripped audiences since its 1937 premiere.
In the wake of the notorious Pravda newspaper attack on his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich produced a newly disciplined structure that unfolds with classically remorseless inevitability. On one level the Fifth imitates the favoured Soviet symphonic pattern of progress through struggle to victory.
But the pattern is subtly skewed. The finale is partly adapted from one of his Pushkin songs, ‘Rebirth’, about a ‘barbarian artist’ defiling the work of genius with scribbles that only time will wear away.
The best recording… Evgeny Mravinsky
Since he conducted the premiere in Leningrad, Shostakovich’s Fifth has been indelibly associated with the name of Evgeny Mravinsky (right). He recorded it several times, mainly in mono versions available from companies such as Russian Disc. But it’s only his late 1983 live performance with the Leningrad Philharmonic that is in good stereo.
White-hot yet without exaggeration, always with the work’s rock-like architecture in view yet making every detail tell, this is the mature summation of half a lifetime’s involvement with the score. It’s also a profoundly Russian reading, evoking parallels with Tchaikovsky as well as Mahler.
There’s some audience noise, and if the playing is occasionally a little rough, it’s in keeping with the work’s raw sense of living through history. Mravinsky never lingers, yet every event falls perfectly into place, enhancing your admiration for Shostakovich’s sheer mastery of his huge symphonic canvas.
The tragic stresses of the first movement end in glacial resignation, the scherzo is played as a Russian equivalent of a sardonic Mahlerian Ländler, the slow movement a grief-stricken outcry. The finale, opening at a terrifying clip, infuses Shostakovich’s dictatorial march-music with cathartic animal vitality, and it closes like a voice of doom.
Yet in between Mravinsky discovers nobility and rare eloquence in the Symphony’s most plangently elegiac music.
Three more great recordings
Maxim Shostakovich (conductor)
London Symphony Orchestra (1990)
Alto ALC 1067
Shostakovich’s son Maxim emerged as a distinguished interpreter of his father’s work, and his impressive account of the Fifth with the LSO stands at the opposite pole interpretatively from Mravinsky. The tempos are almost ineluctably slow (Mravinsky is 13 minutes faster!), yet the music’s underlying rhythms are never in doubt and the impression generated is of something massive, epic, big-boned and serious.
The slow movement is a model of tragic restraint, all the more moving for Maxim’s refusal to over-indulge its potential for tragic lament. The measured, unyielding tempo for the finale creates a sense of a huge, unstoppable juggernaut yet also, in the central episode, taps into a deep vein of feeling. The recorded balance comes through with flying colours; the playing is immaculate.
Yoel Levi (conductor)
Atlanta Symphony (1990)
Telarc CD 80215
Perhaps the outstanding disc in Yoel Levi’s generally excellent Shostakovich symphonic series with the Atlanta Symphony. The work is broadly shaped throughout, with absolute certainty of direction from first bar to last. The clarity and tension of the opening Moderato are remarkable, and there’s wit as well as bleakness in the scherzo; the basic tempo for the finale, slower than in most interpretations, gains balefulness thereby.
Telarc’s sonics cope superbly with the most awesome climaxes, but perhaps most remarkable is the detail and responsiveness at the quietest end of the dynamic spectrum. In the slow movement, Levi really lets you hear how Shostakovich divides the violins into three and the violas and cellos into two parts, and he achieves some magical pianissimos here.
Leonard Bernstein (conductor)
New York Philharmonic (1960)
Bernstein’s approach, in a recording made just after the NYPO’s 1959 tour of the USSR, remains controversial, yet it’s utterly charismatic and Shostakovich is said to have enjoyed it. It pre-dates the wealth of modern commentary on the work’s ironies and satire: this is the most ‘heroic’ Shostakovich Five you’re likely to hear.
At one level Bernstein approaches it as a virtuoso orchestral display piece, yet he doesn’t downplay the expressive ambiguities. The scherzo isn’t just tipsy but drunken (and therefore dangerous); the finale is fast but brilliant, powerful rather than baleful; the slow movement dream-like rather than dolorous, the entire shaping of it conceived in a single unbroken breath. The sound, even remastered, is often shrill in higher registers but this remains a memento of compelling music-making.
Original text by Calum McDonald