Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 9

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: RCA Victor Red Seal
WORKS: Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 9
PERFORMER: St Petersburg PO/Yuri Temirkanov
CATALOGUE NO: 09026 68548 2
Like Tolstoy, Shostakovich believed that music was a ‘stenography of feelings’, a force ‘capable of expressing overwhelming, sombre drama and euphoria, sorrow and ecstasy, burning wrath and chilling fury, melancholy and rousing merriment – and not only all these emotions but also their subtlest nuances and the transitions in between – which words, painting or sculpture cannot express… [Music] creates a spiritual image of man, teaches him to feel, and expands and liberates his soul.’ Censured by Stalin, fêted by Khrushchev, a child of Tsarist Petersburg schooled by the first Leninists, Shostakovich was a man who said that, looking back over his life, he saw ‘nothing but ruins, only mountains of corpses… There were no particularly happy moments in my life, no great joy. It was grey and dull and it makes me sad to think about it. It saddens me to admit it, but it’s the truth, the unhappy truth.’

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In the epic, elegiac, satirical, tragic, lonely, rarely sweet legacy of his 15 symphonies, he left an extraordinary, almost Mahlerian, chronicle of the darker side of the 20th century. And what he could not say directly, he suggested within cryptic subtexts. He never lost the capacity to make his notes mightier than his masters. To those who got the subliminal message there was always a joke or pain, an insult or protest, a disaster or persecution to share.

‘The shyest and most nervous human being I have ever seen,’ remembered Robert Craft. ‘He chews not merely his nails but his fingers, twitches his pouty mouth and chin, chain-smokes, wiggles his nose in constant adjustment of his spectacles, looks querulous one moment and ready to cry the next. His hands tremble, he stutters, his whole frame wobbles when he shakes hands… and his knees knock when he speaks… He has a habit of staring, too, then of turning guiltily away when caught… There is no betrayal of the thoughts behind those frightened, very intelligent eyes.’

My earliest Shostakovich encounters – the 1960 UK premiere of the Eighth under Mravinsky, an ‘authentic’ Fifth with the composer’s son, Maxim – were remarkable, and unforgettable, for how the climaxes of the music assaulted one in the physical ferocity and tortured, dissonant screaming of their sound. It was like being impaled through your seat; you felt emotionally affronted, you wanted to escape, only couldn’t. Temirkanov creates that kind of tension in his reading of the Fifth Symphony, recorded in the same hall in which it was originally performed, and with the same (albeit now renamed) orchestra. This is an authoritative, committed, vividly recorded account, free of histrionics or gratuitous gesturing – the desolation and climaxes, the stillness and agitation, the tumultuous closing apotheosis sculpted with a Classical sense of gravity. Endorsing the Mravinsky tradition, the finale pushes on – around two minutes quicker than Maxim Shostakovich (Collins).

The Ninth, the last of the composer’s wartime trilogy, is often seen in witty lightweight terms (witness Bernstein or Solti). Temirkanov takes a much blacker view, contrasting glimpses of fugitive escapism within a bleakness and irony more reflective than usual of the work’s time and place (1945).

The five-movement Eighth is monumental not just in structure but in what it psychologically expresses: ‘the emotional experience of the people… the terrible tragedy of war’ (the composer). It remains profound and searching, a grim narrative where at the end Shostakovich’s genius for turning the major key into something even sadder than minor borders on the Schubertian. In his new release Andrew Litton aspires to join an elite gathering of conductors. He doesn’t displace Mravinsky (fathomless), Haitink (indispensable) or Rostropovich (gripping), but he offers an account that’s nevertheless seriously intentioned and dramatically perceived.

If he’s wanting, maybe it’s in that hard-to-define, instinctively Russian area of rhythmic bite, nerve-end intensity and fatalistic angst. Just occasionally his theatrical references seem second-hand, more imitative than experienced. Still, there’s much that is clearly impressive, not least in the way an organic span is generated and sustained. Brisker than Maxim Shostakovich by eleven minutes, his tempi are evidently sensible. The sound is resonant, big where necessary, and consuming; the explosive, earth-shaking confrontation bridging the third and fourth movements may well prove to be one of the more dynamically stratospheric on disc (watch your loudspeakers).

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Like Furtwängler’s Beethoven, Mravinsky’s Shostakovich was a spiritual communion. In particular not many understood the slow music as well as he did. It was never lazy, every solo and ensemble was poised on a knife-edge, coloured and balanced to the maximum. Each attack, each climactic portamento, each tableau had urgency and a tale to tell. Listening to his living, breathing, dancing, rampant Sixth – of which he gave the first performance – you have to wonder at its neglect. Naked, high-voltage electricity and tight speeds distinguish the Fifth. Here – in the (uncredited) presence of the composer – a grand master of eloquent speech and dramatic delivery, a clearly noble thinker, is in audibly charismatic command. These archive performances, applause retained, were taped in the Moscow Conservatoire in 1965 and 1972. Though only in mono, the detailed and immediate sound is very acceptable.