Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 9

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: Well-Tempered Productions
WORKS: Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 9
PERFORMER: Russian National Orchestra/Vladimir Spivakov
CATALOGUE NO: WTP 5190 (distr. +1 510 526 5608, www.welltempered.com)
This is a live recording, made at the Moscow Conservatoire, and there are obvious signs of it: audience noise (and applause after each piece), and, more critically, patches where ensemble is far from ideally crisp. Indeed for several bars about a minute into the second movement of the Fifth Symphony the right hand of the orchestra clearly has no idea about what the left hand is playing. But the Russian National Orchestra, a decade after its formation, is an outfit still blessed with a special spirit, and Vladimir Spivakov is a strong motivator. Pieces as familiar as the Fifth Symphony can be difficult to perform. The notes lie comparatively easily under the fingers for most professional musicians, while the music’s message has long since been absorbed, become historical rather than contemporary and alive. Consequently sometimes performances, even at the most powerful moments, give a feeling of duty being done. Not here. There’s a real threat in the first movement; the finale is a terrifying testament to ruthlessness, unmistakably inglorious; and the desolation of the slow movement is redoubled by its aching sweetness.

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The Ninth Symphony, Shostakovich’s most satirical, is a complete contrast on its surface, often acidly trite. Spivakov conducts a performance full of rebellious bite, the racing Scherzo particular sharp-edged. A fine disc, then, though for the Fifth the benchmark for me remains the Oslo Philharmonic and Jansons, currently out of the catalogue.

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California-based Well-Tempered Productions uses something called High Definition Compatible Digital processing, which is supposed to yield unsurpassed fidelity from standard CD players. The recording conveys an image of space and depth, but it is not noticeably superior to, say, the 4D process used by DG. Stephen Pettitt