Symphony No. 5

Dmitri Shostakovich

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Bernard Haitink, cond.)

album cover

Working Within the System

Aleitmotif of Dmitri Shostakovich's career is the way he dealt with tough critics in high places. After his racy opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk premiered in 1936, the official Soviet newspaper Pravda—in a review some believe was written by Stalin himself—dismissed the work as "muddle instead of music." Shortly after, the ruling Politburo, which considered the arts to be a propaganda tool that needed close regulation, was moved to issue decrees about what was acceptable in music. One dictated that "All aspects of music should be subordinate to melody and such melody should be clear and singable."

Shostakovich (1906–1975) shelved the piece he'd been preparing, the wild Symphony No. 4, and set out to salvage his career with the more conventional Symphony No. 5, which he wrote in three months in 1937 and later intimated was an atonement of sorts. It's a dramatic course correction. From the opening thematic nugget, the early passages are exceedingly tuneful, with a lyricism Shostakovich hadn't displayed previously. Then, particularly in the final movement, come harrumphing jackbooted marches and other bombastic flourishes, the kinds of showy episodes a composer might churn out with a party boss looking over his shoulder. One parlor game involves trying to guess Shostakovich's intentions in this piece: Some hear, in the brawnier passages, a sarcastic comment on the absolutism of Soviet life, while others hear a composer simply trying to survive within the system, to keep on keeping on.

The third movement, Largo, is where Shostakovich most audibly stops worrying about official pressure; in the carefully wrought version led by Dutch conductor and violinist Bernard Haitink, the drama stretches over fifteen minutes. The string episodes carry a hint of challenge; they don't question authority outright, they merely seethe against it internally. Amsterdam's terrific Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra picks up on that buried tension, and magnifies it just enough. As often happens with this piece, the orchestra sounds somber in one passage and sardonic the next, extremes that are so vivid, they overshadow conjecture about the composer's intent.

This disc also features Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony, a light work (usually lasting just twenty-six minutes) that bears the influence of Mozart as well as the romantic-era composers. Shostakovich once described it as a "joyful little piece," predicting that "musicians will like to play it, and critics will delight in blasting it."

Genre: Classical
Released: 1993, Decca
Key Tracks: Third Movement (Largo)
Another Interpretation: New York Philharmonic (Leonard Bernstein, cond.)
Catalog Choice: Symphony No. 8, Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Georg Solti, cond.)
Next Stop: Sergey Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet
Book Pages: 697–698

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Comments:

#1 from Rob From The Man Cave - 11/14/2009 9:43

My favorite Shostakovich 5th is Semyon Bychkov’s 1990 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic on the Philips label. It’s OOP but used copies are fairly common.

This is a unbelievably underrated recording. If you find a better slow movement on record, let me know. Too much to list. The huge percussion at the end blows me out of the chair every listen.

#2 from Rob From The Man Cave, World Citizen - 12/31/2009 12:48

Many of my friends don’t like Shostakovich (biggest complaint is “he’s too ethnic sounding”. What whiny B.S.!

I’m a huge Shostakovich fan. Always have been.
I think it’s the complex blend of harrowing reality, fey wit, rawness, mood, and superior musicianship.

Loved the 5th at first listen many years ago. Just obtained the Haitnik 5th for Xmas and it is a fine recording.

Haitnik is clean and cool headed. Sound quality is excellent though the xylophone can get lost in the orchestral mix. The tempos tend to drag within the exciting parts (that doesn’t mean I like fast tempos, like the deplorable speeds Bernstein’s 5th takes).
The first/third movements are well done. Overall, the “musical” parts are the best on record but the Russian gut-punch just isn’t there.
And, major faux pas,  the cymbal player blows the ending by crashing just a little too soon
.....the Bychkov 5th is still my favorite.

#3 from Gary Reese, Houston - 04/08/2010 12:52

The Fifth Symphony did not just “salvage his career”—it almost certainly saved his life. Had S. not pulled back his 4th Symphony at the last moment, and not premiered the 5th when he did, I have no doubt that Stalin would have summarily had him “eliminated.”
Do not leave out the 4th from your list. It is every bit as great as the 5th, just not as well known.
Those who only hear S. “surviving within the system” in the symphony, they do not understand him.

#4 from Bruce, New Hampshire, USA - 02/22/2012 7:21

Just wanted to give a huge nod to Rob the Cave Man. I came to this website because of a google search. Why the search? Because driving home tonight I heard a performance on the radio of the Boston Symphony playing the 5th. Once I heard Bychkov’s allegretto (second movement), I find every other (faster) interpretation almost painful to endure, bordering on unlistenable. I’m sure this must be a personal interpretation, and not from the score’s tempo indications, because his alone is at this pace, everyone else’s is faster, but in doing this Bychkov allows enough space for feelings to flow in where in faster versions there is (for me) simply too much forward motion. And paradoxically, on tonight’s radio broadcast and on the Haitink, some of the more high-energy sections seem to be played too slowly. So I completely agree with you, Rob. I think Haitink is very good, and it is a great recording, but my second favorite is a Melodiya LP with Kondrashin/Moscow. I know the Bernstein/NY is revered but I have never warmed to it.

Now that I have stumbled upon this website I plan to explore it in all directions. Thanks for creating it.

#5 from mazar, faisal abad - 03/21/2012 11:00

On balance, I’d probably tip the wink to Trans Europe Express - it’s haunting and timeless. google

#6 from GaryR, Houston, TX - 03/25/2012 3:46

Best recording, listened to it recently, is Mravinksy, Leningrad Philharmonic. Melodya (2004)—don’t know if this is in print,shame if it’s not.

It is culturally blind to think that a Western orchestra plays this better than anyone else in the world.

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