Shostakovich
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47
London Symphony Orchestra
Mstislav Rostropovich

Recorded in the Barbican Hall, London in July 2004
CD No: LSO LIVE LSO0058
Duration: 47 minutes
Reviewed: January 2005
This symphony has attracted a huge amount of extra-musical analysis due to the composer’s contemporaneous description of it as “the creative reply of a Soviet artist to just criticism” and his later remarks about the finale being a grotesque joke. Fortunately the work has also fared well on disc since Stokowski’s great 1939 Philadelphia Orchestra version (Dutton) and I have chosen AndrĂ© Previn and the LSO from 1965 (RCA/BMG) for comparative purposes.
Shostakovich marks the first movement as Moderato and this has led to some pretty wide variations in the basic tempo and even more divergent approaches to the episodic developmental nature of the music. Rostropovich, in his third recording of this work, starts at a reasonable tempo with biting strings for the first subject and then immediately slows for the second one. Previn’s opening tempo is marginally slower but he doesn’t relax as much; as a result what is effectively the exposition sounds less fragmentary. In the gently rocking start to the development Rostropovich again applies small tempo changes which lend the music an even more episodic nature and, as the march elements take-over, the phrasing is too clipped to give the performance real sweep. The inexorable dark sense of menace and foreboding which Previn and his players capture so well is not nearly so concentrated under Rostropovich. When the flute and woodwind enter after the big climax Previn’s LSO players have far more character than their modern-day counterparts and the 2004 flautist is slightly shaky and off-key.
The brief Allegretto that follows is a scherzo in all but name and Rostropovich’s opening is comparatively leaden and once again the woodwinds lack the character of the 1965 LSO. In the trio the first violin and flute contributions are very straight when compared to the earlier performance and the pizzicato string passage lacks definition and projection.
I have rarely heard a bad performance of the expansive Largo third movement, its combination of icy bleakness and soaring melodic lines seems to bring out the best in everyone. Timings don’t normally tell you much about the quality of the music-making but here there is a marked difference in that Rostropovich takes 12’39” and Previn 16. Both conductors maintain their divergent tempos throughout the movement, but in the two huge climaxes Previn’s strings – as recorded – have far greater richness and depth of tone and his tempo doesn’t actually sound that much slower. As in the first movement it is a question of sweep and power; Previn has it, Rostropovich doesn’t.
In the opening to the concluding Allegro non troppo, Rostropovich’s tempo is exactly that; but when, after the central section, the build-up to the conclusion begins there is a curious lack of tension – suddenly the performance sounds tired. And like so many others (including Mravinsky), when the opening returns in a blaze of fanfares, Rostropovich’s tempo is markedly slower, in direct contradiction to the score. Previn by contrast makes the opening sound like an allegro con fuoco, a burlesque. His build-up to the coda has real menace and propulsion with the chords hammered out, and he returns to the opening tempo for the close; this brings a sense of unresolved questioning, which is far more telling than the mock-grandeur of so many others.
This Rostropovich Shostakovich 5 is very fine, but Previn’s approach seems to carry all before it and the 1965 LSO was a world-class band with far more character than its counterpart today. There are also some problems with the recorded sound – it lacks depth, is too forwardly balanced, the strings lack body, and as with all digital recordings there is a lack of any true sense of the hall’s acoustic signature. I haven’t heard a CD transfer of the Previn, but it would have to be pretty bad to have destroyed all of the richness and definition of the original LSC (USA) or SB (UK) RCA vinyls. Nevertheless, at budget-price, this Rostropovich is well worth hearing and will be of particular interest to his many fans.

 

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