Symphony No. 5; Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin
James Platt (bass); Hallé/Mark Elder
Hallé CD HLL 7550 63:08 mins
Late in 1936, the year he was officially lambasted through an unsigned editorial in Pravda, Shostakovich composed Four Pushkin Romances ostensibly for the great poet’s centenary the following year. His choices of text are telling: ‘Foreboding’ includes the lines ‘Once again envious fate threatens me with misfortune’, while others reflect upon mortality, with the hope expressed in ‘Rebirth’ – quoted in the finale of his Fifth Symphony written almost immediately afterwards – that despite the vicissitudes of life great art will ultimately endure.
Coupling these works as on this album makes sense; but, given how easy these days it is to compile a playlist from the several excellent recordings already available of either work, the most important element here is the quality of the performances. Mark Elder and the Hallé’s account of the Symphony appears conscientious and well prepared, but rather overplays the work’s despair at the expense of its narrative of defiance against adversity. Though cleanly executed and articulated, the performance fails to ignite into a compelling account – surprising from Elder, who I would normally rate a dynamic conductor – but rather seems to drag itself wearily, lacking a vital inner pulse desirable at such slow tempos.
The Pushkin Romances, presented in Shostakovich’s own orchestration as completed by Gerard McBurney, are sung by James Platt, an impressively dark-toned bass, though he doesn’t sing the texts with quite the fluency of a native speaker, and lacks the subtle nuance of the Russian baritone Dmitri Kharitonov on Elder’s previous recording of these songs (on Signum).