When I was first making my acquaintance with the range of the twentieth-century “classical” canon, the Shostakovich Fifth was the penultimate achievement of Soviet music. Shostakovich, although a loyal Soviet citizen, was also an artist, which is a breed not particularly amenable to outside control. Consequently, his work came under heavy scrutiny (his Fourth Symphony was withdrawn shortly before its scheduled premiere, which followed hard on the heels of extreme official disapproval of his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk). The Symphony No. 5 was met with high praise (fortunately — during the period of his fall from grace, the composer had contemplated suicide). From the vantage point of now, it is still a prime example of Soviet bombast, but it has held up remarkably well over the years.
The passionate opening is just chock full of Russian angst writ large. It does, however, immediately slip into an almost sotto voce moderato that creates a compelling intensity while losing none of the angst. I should add that this movement, as the symphony overall, is rather lean in texture for Shostakovich, which I think only adds to the effect. The second movement, a comparatively sprightly allegretto, echoes remarkably the textures and lightness of some of Gustav Mahler’s works (“lightness” in this context, of course, being a relative term); it put me in mind immediately of the second movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, another sprightly, lively and almost comical bit of music. One might almost expect the two composers of sharing, at least in part, a worldview, although I can’t think of any instance in which Shostakovich has revealed humor of the particularly black and acidic kind that inhabits some of Mahler’s writing. (There are, actually, any number of commentators who have built careers looking for hidden meanings in Shostakovich’s music, particularly that written before Stalin’s death in 1953: he was, after all, a major composer writing under the heavy hand of a not-terribly-friendly regime). The largo, the “slow movement,” is a truly affecting piece of music — there are reports of audience members weeping at the symphony’s premiere. It is at the same time lyrical and tragic, containing a sense of threat underneath. It’s quite powerful. The brassy, martial final movement, allegro non troppo, alternates the subtle intensity of the first movement with full-bore, no-holds-barred Shostakovich at his most sovietly bombastic — I love it. (It really is a superb piece of music.)
Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic were an astounding combination, and the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 is generally regarded as one of their most exemplary collaborations. This recording is the second they produced, and is pretty near perfect.
The Chamber Symphony for String Orchestra is a transcription of the Quartet No. 8, written in 1960. Perhaps more than any other composer, Shostakovich’s chamber music, particularly the quartets, forms a critically important part of his oeuvre. As I’ve mentioned, he was for most of his career under the eye of an unsympathetic audience and in his large, public works tried his best to conform to the dictates of policy. It is in his smaller, more private works that we find the clearest expression of his musical thought. They are quite seriously avant-garde works in many respects. The eighth quartet is the middle of the group — Shostakovich composed fifteen in all — and echoes the moods of the Fifth Symphony remarkably, even though the latter was composed over two decades earlier. Rudolph Barshai’s transcription is both intelligent and sensitive and in this recording gives a real feel of the intimacy and scope of Shostakovich’s chamber works.
(Sony BMG Music Entertainment, 2005 [orig. 1980, 1995])