Secret-coded protest of a heroic artist or the apology of a scared man toeing the party line? Debate has raged for years about Shostakovich’s ‘Symphony No. 5’, and it isn’t likely to cease any time soon. The work was sent out into the world in 1937 not long after Shostakovich had been raked over the coals in an unsigned article in the leading Soviet Union newspaper ‘Pravda’. Such uncredited articles were normally assumed to have the authority of Communist dictator Josef Stalin behind them. It appears that Stalin had gone to a performance of Shostakovich’s bawdy and musically adventurous opera ‘Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District’, and found the subject matter appalling and the music rude. This was during the 1930’s, when the artistic intelligentsia in Russia were quickly realizing that people who were disliked by “Uncle Joe” Stalin had a way of disappearing, never to be heard from again. Shostakovich knew what danger he was in, and he wisely withdrew his wide-ranging, dark, and at times hallucinogenic ‘Symphony No. 4’ which was then in rehearsal for its premiere by conductor Fritz Stiedry (Side note to other classical record nerds: Anyone else out there have fond memories of a rough-and-ready LP of Haydn’s ‘Symphony No. 102’ by Stiedry from the early 1950’s on Music Appreciation Records?). His next major work to be issued was the ‘Symphony No. 5’, which was published along with the obnoxious tag, “A Soviet artist’s reply to justified criticism,” although it seems this groveling bit was suggested by a reporter or the publisher and did not originate with the composer. Shostakovich wisely just nodded his head and smiled. The piece seemed to be what a good, proper Soviet composer should write: Striving first movement, folk-influenced second movement, lyrical third movement, and rambunctious finale that ultimately triumphs.
Or was it? That first movement certainly strives, but it is loomingly dark, too, building up to a nearly hysterical outburst in the middle. And the folksy tinge to the second movement is definitely seen through the sardonic lens of Mahler. And the lyrical slow movement becomes searing in its intensity. And most of all, that finale: It resolves into D major at the end, but the crucial F# note – the one which makes it D major – is scarcely heard at all; instead the tonic and dominant notes, D and A, are hammered at incessantly by violins, brass, and timpani. For a supposedly triumphant ending, it sounds remarkably feverish and hollow, or, at best, poker-faced. The finale was taken at face value initially in the West, and it was not until the controversial and apparently partly spurious book of Shostakovich’s memoirs ‘Testimony’ appeared that western critics began to seriously reevaluate the piece. ‘Testimony’ is billed as Shostakovich’s memoirs, as related to Solomon Volkov. The problem is that many sections of Volkov’s work have been demonstrated to be a misleading hodge-podge of excerpts from other published writings and statements by the composer. The book famously describes Shostakovich as telling Volkov that the end of the ‘Fifth’ represents a forced rejoicing, as if one were being “beaten with a stick and told ‘your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing’.” So is that merely some line dreamed up by Volkov? Or did Shostakovich actually say it? The world may never know. Friends of the composer, though frustrated with Volkov’s sloppy scholarship and evasive answers, have nonetheless affirmed that the basic message conveyed in ‘Testimony’ is correct. While Shostakovich may not be the selfless dissident some have recently tried to make him out to be (after all, he never openly defied Stalin, nor did he turn down government commissions and jobs), but even musical evidence points toward a hidden truth.
Though rarely heard (and even more rarely recorded), there is a song that Shostakovich composed in the dark days of 1936 called ‘Rebirth’. This song was written immediately before the composer began working on the ‘Fifth’, during the time when he spent his nights sleeping fully dressed in a chair by the front door, with a packed suitcase at his feet, so that it wouldn’t wake up his children if the secret police came to take him away. It is a setting of words by the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (quoted here in the translation by Shostakovich scholar Gerald McBurney):
An artist-barbarian with a drowsy brush
Blackens over the painting of a genius
And his lawless drawing
Scribbles over it meaninglessly.
But with the years the alien paints
Flake off like old scales;
The creation of the genius appears
Before us in its former beauty.
Thus the delusions fall away
From my worn-out soul,
And there spring within it
Visions of pure, original days.
To the best of my knowledge, the song has only been recorded twice, first in an arrangement for large orchestra with Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting, and then in Shostakovich’s original chamber orchestral accompaniment led by Mark Elder. A listening to the song reveals that the undulating accompaniment heard in the quiet middle of the last movement of the ‘Fifth’ comes directly from this song, and according to McBurney, is derived from Mussorgsky’s ‘Boris Godunov’, surely the grandfather of all Russian sociopolitical music. Shostakovich was careful not to quote the vocal melody of his song directly, but he echoes its phrases. Thus the song seems to stand as the key to a hidden message: Stalin was the barbarian scribbling over works of art, but someday the truth would come out. It strikes me as disingenuous, at best, to claim that no such message was intended, and that the similarity of this passage to the song was merely coincidental.
The Russian tradition of performing the work certainly pointed in the direction of the real message, but many western conductors were thrown off on the wrong track by an error in the printed score. The coda of the finale was marked quarter note = 188, which is a fast speed. (This being the apparent value marked in the somewhat smudged printing of the Kalmus miniature score edition. In the notes to the Carlton recording discussed below, Benjamin Zander cites a 176 metronome marking.) Many scholars now feel that this figure ended up in the score because of an editor’s assumption that what Shostakovich actually had written was a mistake: Eighth note = 188 beats per minute, which is quite slow. The Russian conductors mostly took the coda at the slower tempo, indicating that the composer verbally communicated his desires about the ending, although as Kurt Sanderling has pointed out, Shostakovich would never discuss the “meaning” of his works with conductors, he would only discuss specific musical points. Hearing about the controversy of which speed to take at the end, Rumanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache sent a postcard to Shostakovich asking if the eighth note metronome figure was correct for the end of the finale, instead of a quarter note. A few weeks later, he received an unsigned postcard from Russia with one word written on it: “Correct”.
While the West was dominated by Leonard Bernstein’s high-voltage sprint through the closing pages (at an even faster pace than quarter note = 188), Russian conductors such as Kiril Kondrashin made recordings with slow, stern versions of the closing section. Whereas Bernstein almost made the triumph seem plausible, the Russians showed nary a grin in sight. But further complicating the issue was Bernstein’s Russian tour in 1959, featuring the Shostakovich ‘Fifth’. Some commentators took exception to Bernstein’s boisterous way with the ending of the work, but Shostakovich himself was present and seemed to enjoy it. (Granted, he had a long history of defending divergent interpretations of his works.) So the question remains: Is the end of the symphony sincere or is it hollow?
Eygeny Mravinsky recorded the piece a number of times, and his stern hand emphasizes the classical aspects of the work, keeping its hysteria firmly in check, and never releasing the tension at the end. Although impressive in its way, the Mravinsky approach is quite relentless, and it doesn’t follow the printed score in all details. The mid-1960’s saw a recording from Kiril Kondrashin and the Moscow Radio Large Symphony Orchestra that has great raw intensity, although the playing retains some scrappy edges. Additionally, Kondrashin’s tempo in the first and third movements is too fast to ever catch the epic feel of the score. In general, Kondrashin pushes the work to greater extremes than Mravinsky, leading finally into a bombastic coda that completely changed how I thought about the work the first time I heard it. More recent recordings from Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Mistislav Rostropovich, Semyon Bychkov, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and Yuri Temirkanov have covered similar ground in the coda. Most extreme of all was the recording made about fifteen years ago by the composer’s son, Maxim Shostakovich, with the London Symphony on Collins Classics. Maxim Shostakovich took dangerously slow speeds throughout the work to the point that the forward momentum was always in danger of collapsing. Broadly visionary, but highly risky, it remains a recording I return to only on those occasions when I intentionally want to hear the work “on the edge.”
Among western conductors, Artur Rodzinski, Leopold Stokowski, Dimitri Mitropoulos, and Jascha Horenstein (who was Russian-born but Viennese-trained) were among the first to record it, and their performances, though at times a little tentative, were strong interpretations that replay well now (although the Horenstein was wretchedly recorded). Stokowski, in particular, seemed attracted to the work’s bold dramatic gestures, and he rerecorded it later both in studio and live in concert. I have not heard the live version that BBC recently released from its archives, but the earlier Stokowski recordings are notable not least for the fact that the conductor didn’t do too much “touching up” as he was so often prone to do with orchestrations that he didn’t think had enough pizzazz. Other early recordings were made by Istvan Kertesz and Massimo Freccia. Western performances didn’t truly hit the exceptional mark, however, until Leonard Bernstein’s passionate 1959 Columbia recording, made on the heels of their triumphant Russian tour. It remains a vivid and engaging performance, rather more so than his later 1980 remake for CBS. It features more swagger than many may feel is appropriate to this work, but the electricity is undeniable.
A notable recording from around the same time as Bernstein’s remake, was the Telarc recording of Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra. Maazel has never been known to have any particular regard for the music of Shostakovich, and late in his tenure in Cleveland, rumor was rampant that the orchestra had no particular regard for the feisty and acerbic Maazel, but that tension combines with the sense of Maazel exploring unfamiliar territory in this work to make for an effectively thoughtful, probing reading. The tempos in the first and third movements are slower than usual; grave, even. The two fast movements, on the other hand, go like the wind, Maazel’s sprint not letting up even at the end of the finale. Other than a few minor details such as a late harp chord near the end of the first movement, the Clevelanders’ playing is elegant and focused, if without the acidic edge that this music arguably needs. It remains a good alternative view of the score, and is made even more worthwhile by Telarc’s recent reissue of the recording in SACD format, which better reproduces the sound of the original 20-bit Soundstream digital recording than the 16-bit standard Compact Disc issued back then did.
Arguably, the two finest conductors of this work in recent years have been Mariss Jansons and Mstislav Rostropovich. Though Latvian, Jansons was an assistant to Mravinsky in Leningrad, and it shows in his taut, classical approach in his two EMI recordings. Rostropovich, on the other hand, is closer to the stereotype of the epic, brooding Russian manner, and his three recordings of the work (National Symphony on Deutsche Grammophon and on Teldec, and London Symphony on LSO Live) all reflect that. If Jansons better captures the tension, Rostropovich is ultimately warmer and more lyrical. The biggest problem with either, though, is availability. Neither of the Jansons recordings is widely available at the moment, and the first Rostropovich recording is hard to come by as well. The Teldec Rostropovich is available in a competitively priced box set, though not separately. His recent LSO Live recording preserves many of the virtues of his earlier performances, and it comes on SACD, although the live acoustics of London’s Barbican Centre are far less epic sounding than what the Teldec engineers achieved (albeit with a lot of processing) in Washington’s Kennedy Center.
Among lesser-known recordings of the last decade or so, I would like to point out a few that are worth the effort it takes to find them. First and foremost is the recording by Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic, which was briefly available on Carlton Classics (and may still be available through the conductor’s website, benjaminzander.com.) It is the sort of performance that Zander is famous for: He leads his dedicated semi-professional orchestra through a re-examination of the piece, taking nothing for granted. Zander tries to stick very closely to the tempo markings in the score (with the coda corrected to the slow marking). It is a performance of eloquence, if not one of great elegance. Much more elegant is the typically refined but intensely focused work of Russian conductor Mark Gorenstein, whose rendition with the Russian Symphony Orchestra can be found of the Pope Music release entitled ‘Redemption’. I have written here about Gorenstein before, and certainly hope we hear more of him in the West in coming years. More widely distributed than either of these discs was the BIS compact disc by Mark Wigglesworth and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Wigglesworth is an outstanding young English conductor who has the potential to develop into a major maestro. I heard him lead the Cleveland Orchestra a few years ago in a performance of the Deryck Cooke arrangement of the sketches for Mahler’s unfinished ‘Symphony No. 10’ that was simply astonishing, and he has been a frequently returning guest in Cleveland ever since. His Shostakovich ‘Fifth’ – like his other recordings of this composer – is a daring affair that risks some very epic pacing and grandiose gestures. Most of it comes off, although I’m not convinced his finale quite holds together. Nonetheless, it grabs the music by the throat, which is an effective way to approach Shostakovich. Even better than the ‘Fifth’ is Wigglesworth’s killer performance of the Fourteenth.
Now entering the fray is a new recording by Roman Kofman and the Beethoven Orchestra of Bonn, on DVD-Audio on the MDG label. MDG has side-stepped any concerns about dual-disc formats by simply including two discs in their package. The first disc is playable in either stereo or six channel (standard 5.1 or MDG’s 2+2+2 format requiring different speaker deployment) at 96 kHz/24 bit advanced resolution on DVD-Audio players. This disc will also play the music on regular DVD-Video players in Dolby Digital (stereo or 5.1 multichannel) or linear PCM (stereo or 5.1 multichannel). This DVD-Video layer is also playable on SACD/DVD-Video players. The DVD disc contains no menu screens nor supplemental features. The second disc is a standard linear PCM 16-bit Compact Disc.
Roman Kofman (b. 1936) studied violin in his youth, but later changed to conducting. He has conducted extensively in Russia, only beginning to move in Western circles since the collapse of the Soviet Union’s travel restrictions in 1989. He is currently recording a Shostakovich cycle with the Beethoven Orchestra of Bonn, where he is now the music director. Though Kofman seems a bit uneasy with the epic side of the composer, he finds much to treasure in the quieter moments of these scores.
The voltage of Kofman’s performance seems deceptively low at the beginning of the ‘Fifth’, and the orchestra a touch uncertain, but as momentum builds throughout the movement, so does the internal fire of the performance, peaking in a crisp march caught in gleamingly clear sound, with notably full textures from the brass instruments. Though the Beethoven Orchestra does not have the plush richness of some of the top orchestras, they play to their strengths here, concentrating on clarity and flow instead of high-calorie glamour. Nonetheless, there are some attractive and seductive passages, especially from the woodwind soloists in the orchestra. Likewise, the second movement scherzo features some beguiling turns of phrase. It never quite feels, though, as if orchestra and conductor are willing to really let it rip. Perhaps Kofman, like many other conductors, responds more to the inward, lyrical side of Shostakovich than the sarcastic, violent side. The evidence of the third movement supports this conclusion, and it is the highlight of this disc, with freely singing strings leading the way to a heartfelt emotional involvement. The later pages of the slow movement unfold with a spellbinding tenderness that is sufficient excuse for investing in this disc. The bombastic finale brings at least a partial return to Kofman’s earlier ambivalence. This underplays the implied “message” of this work, but on the other hand, it is refreshing to hear the quiet middle section of the finale played with simple dignity instead of the self-consciously “expressive” gestures in Gergiev’s recent Philips SACD. Going into the coda itself (with one horn player charging a bar early), Kofman is straightforward at a moderate tempo. In true theatrical style, Gergiev goes completely poker-faced and uninflected in the coda, at least until the final drum thwacks, where he slows down and emphasizes them, while Kofman maintains his tempo without extra emphasis. I would ultimately suspect that Kofman wants to present the score without any special pleading, which is an approach with both strengths and weaknesses. The positive side is that it allows Shostakovich to stand on his own as a musician, but the negative is that music so tied up in the social and political happenings of its time loses some of its emotional resonance when divorced from those outside factors.
The less epic ‘‘Ninth’ Symphony’ couples the ‘Fifth’ on Kofman’s disc, as in the Gergiev SACD, and comparison is interesting. The MDG disc suddenly veers to a very different recording perspective here. It would seem that balance engineer Werner Dabringhaus went for a more distant pickup for the big-shouldered ‘Fifth’, but moved in the microphones for the smaller-scaled ‘Ninth’. Both pieces were recorded, however, in the Holy Cross Church in Bad Godesberg, which is a reverberant space. The reverberation was effectively incorporated into the sound-world of the ‘Fifth’, which must surely stand as one of the most attractive high-resolution recordings I’ve heard yet, with crisp highs and rich lows and an ideal balance throughout the range. But by moving the microphones closer for the ‘Ninth’, Dabringhaus has left a vast sea of reverberation behind the main microphones, and that, by default, ends up in the surround channels. Now, this may well be exactly how the music sounded from that perspective on that day in that church, but it is hardly ideal for Shostakovich’s ‘Ninth’. Whether one views it as a sarcastic piece or as a Haydnesque romp, it is deft, crisp music that requires intimacy and clarity. The massive wash of sound in the surround channels here seriously detracts from the intimacy of the work. Also, the new perspective picks up a hissy noise somewhere in the background, perhaps the building’s air handling system. MDG would have been better off to record the ‘Ninth’ in an entirely different hall more suited to the scale of the work than to undercut their efforts like this. The Gergiev disc from Philips features recordings made in two very different halls with different perspectives, though they only succeed in one. The attempt at epic style in Gergiev’s ‘Fifth’ is achieved by recording in the large Talvela Hall in Finland. But Talvela Hall’s neutral, congested sound doesn’t help, especially with what sounds to my ears like a layer of fake reverb on top. The Philips engineers fare much better, though, in the ‘Ninth’, by capturing the Kirov Orchestra in the warm, clear sound of their home, the Maryinsky Theatre in Moscow. Sonically, the MDG ‘Fifth’ is far better than the Philips, and vice versa in the ‘Ninth’.
Kofman starts the ‘Ninth’ in the standard brisk manner, which has always struck me as a way to apologetically undercut the borderline obnoxiousness of the movement. Gergiev instead takes his time, letting the flippant rudeness of the music run rampant. After all, this was very possibly another of Shostakovich’s double-edged swords. At the close of World War Two, the composer was expected to produce a pompous victory symphony. He claimed instead to have produced a light-hearted piece, full of joy and relief. But listening to Gergiev’s makes a very plausible case for the piece being a direct thumbing of the nose at Stalin and company. Listen, for instance, to the endlessly repeated two note interjection from the trombone, especially in the middle of the movement, where it sounds for all the world like a dim-witted policeman in a Monty Python sketch running about shouting, “What’s all this, then?” Kofman continues through the work deftly turning many phrases without allowing any extramusical sarcasm or dramatics to creep in, while Gergiev takes the more theatrical route.
In terms of available advanced-resolution recordings, ultimately, I would recommend the Gergiev SACD on Philips for those who relish the sociopolitical and personal aspects of Shostakovich’s ‘Fifth’ and ‘Ninth’ Symphonies. For those who want to hear these pieces freed of theatrics, Kofman’s performances are honest and often endearingly tender (the slow movement of the ‘Fifth’ is worth the price of the disc alone), although compared to Gergiev or Rostropovich, Kofman comes across as reserved. For sound quality, MDG is exceptional in the ‘Fifth’, but the intimacy of the ‘Ninth’ in the Philips disc is preferable.
Note that the disc score I’ve awarded is an average, judged separately the ‘Fifth’ would be: Performance 90% and Recording 100%, whereas the ‘Ninth’ would be Performance 80% and Recording 60%.