Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 6

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
WORKS: Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 6
PERFORMER: West German RSO/Rudolf Barshai
The combination of a Russian conductor with a direct line to Shostakovich’s way of symphonic thinking and a sophisticated German orchestra yields competitive interpretations of these much-recorded symphonies. Even if the WDR players do peer bravely into the abyss rather than embracing it with terrifying wholeheartedness, there are still hair-raising moments. The peak of despair reached so early in the Sixth Symphony and the doughty metal of the string recitatives in the slow movement of the Seventh register with harrowing intensity, and the West German Radio production team is true to the fabulous acoustics of Cologne’s Philharmonic Hall. Even the subtlest details of harp and celesta make their mark, and full justice is done to the many outstanding woodwind solos (compare the distinction made between the coldly perfect flute tightrope-walking through the first movement of the Sixth and its dancing counterpart in the Seventh’s Adagio, smiling through tears). Such an outstanding marriage of excellent sound and interpretative vision rarely comes at bargain price, at least not on first release.


Barshai prefers heavy emphasis to the sheer drive of a Jansons in the finales of Five and Seven, and that approach has a power of its own. He may not always hold tearaway scherzos on the tautest rein, but better to capture something of the right anarchic spirit than to be too careful. I look forward even more to hearing how Barshai succeeds with the greater glories of Symphonies Nos 4, 8, 10 and 15 in the budget box-format of the complete cycle available from Brilliant Classics. David Nice