Symphony No.1 in F minor, Op.10
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded live in the Royal Festival Hall, London in 2004 – Symphony No.1 on 31 January, Symphony No.5 on 3 February
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: June 2005
CD No: LPO – 0001
Duration: 79 minutes
Of the first four releases on the London Philharmonic’s own label, this one of Kurt Masur conducting Shostakovich has claims to be the most satisfying, although among the ‘archive releases (Haitink and Tennstedt) is a wonderful Enigma Variations from the former.
One has doubts about the re-mastering though, and while Masur’s Shostakovich is impressive, especially Symphony No.5, there are things not quite right sonically – even with a brand-new digital recording. One reservation is that the Royal Festival Hall sounds less like itself, especially in Symphony No.1. The tones are evidently filled out. And the lower end of the scale seems to attract some sort of bass boost and some other timbres do not sound kosher either and some are remote. When played on an SACD machine (two channels), the bass is even more powerful, unnatural. The CD mode is preferable, which is leaner in sound, save for the ‘enhancement’ already noted.
Artistically, things are far more clear-cut. Masur has conducted Shostakovich No.1 many times, and already available is a New York Philharmonic account from 2001, which can be obtained from the Orchestra. Although Masur reveals all the precocious attributes of the young Shostakovich’s invention, dispensed by the LPO with virtuosity and admirable solo work, there is a lack of sardonic edge and impudence. Masur drills well the rhythms and the concerto-for-orchestra scoring but seems not to peer into Shostakovich’s inner world, at those phantasms that would stalk most of his symphonic and chamber oeuvre. The slow movement seems rather impatient, although the finale is superbly done, not least in implacable and ominous passages, and the final bars are defiant.
Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is magnificently done. Masur’s iron-grip on the movements’ structures invests the work with a tautness that allows no sprawling yet which never impedes the music’s ‘message’. Masur’s appreciation of the work’s architecture and his ability to grade dynamics and place climaxes is unerring, and this concert conveys a real sense of occasion, the LPO in appreciable form. And the recording is better: less bassy, and with no acoustic peripherals. The obvious competition is with Mstislav Rostropovich’s LSO Live account, which didn’t fully attract this reviewer and is limited and aggressive in its sound.
Indeed, although there is an obvious identity between Rostropovich and his close friend’s work, Masur unleashes something even more powerful and ambient; the scherzo moves along to its advantage, the slow movement evokes frozen wastes and emotional upheaval, and the finale is among the very best of this ambiguous music. Masur’s expansive conducting of the seemingly triumphal final bars is appropriately grinding and oppressive, the reiterated chant is bellowed out and is quite terrible in effect; a massive, robotic conclusion and one of the most perceptive realisations of this superficially triumphant music.