Festive Overture, Op.96
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47
Recorded 27 July 2001 in Suntory Hall, Tokyo
Reviewed by: Peter Joelson
Reviewed: October 2008
CD No: SIGNUM CLASSICS
Duration: 50 minutes
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) is one of the most written-about composers of the last century, and one of many who had to endure a creative life under Stalinist rule. So prepared was he for sudden arrest, he took to carrying around soap and a toothbrush in case the worst was to happen.
After Stalin’s disapproval early in 1936 of Shostakovich’s opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District” – which up till then had been received very well around the world, and subsequent criticism shortly afterwards of his ballet The Limpid Stream – Shostakovich felt he had to withdraw his Fourth Symphony during the rehearsals. In the meantime Shostakovich’s music had become considered by the authorities as entartete, some of his supporters had been arrested and a few executed, and his earnings from composing had dwindled away. In this culture was created the Fifth Symphony, the “creative reply of a Soviet artist to justified criticism” and from then on intense argument about what the music signifies – whether it’s simply collaboration with the regime or whether there are hidden codes and criticisms of it.
The first performance, under Mravinsky in Leningrad at the end of 1937, was a huge success, and the composer was rehabilitated, at least until his next difficult time with the regime in 1948.
The substantial first movement opens with spare orchestration, strong string sounds in canon, this followed by a chilly theme, all building up to a heartfelt acerbic climax. Vladimir Ashkenazy has the sound build up from cellos and double basses, producing architecture with very firm foundations, and maintains the tension throughout. The second movement, again acerbic, and in ¾ time, brings a little light relief, though the wit is at the very least sardonic. The Largo has moments where time stands still during the long and beautiful melodies; emphasis here is on the writing for strings, the brass is silent, and there are some wonderful woodwind solo passages, exquisitely performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra’s principals. The contrast with the finale is huge; it opens with great vigour and waves of sound. Is the ending a resolution into optimism and the joy of living?
By 1954, Stalin was dead, and Shostakovich’s life more secure. The Festival Overture was a late commission by the Bolshoi Theatre for a work to celebrate the 37th-anniversary of the October revolution. Shostakovich completed the piece in three days: light, effervescent music exploding in fireworks of joie de vivre.
The Philharmonia Orchestra was on top form during its tour of Japan in 2001: the playing is well-nigh faultless. Ashkenazy’s long association with Shostakovich’s music shows itself in the pacing of the work, his vast experience ensuring all tempos work in relation to one another; he has his eye on the long line with no little points highlighted to their detriment.
The recording quality is excellent, thoroughly natural sounding, all detail shining through in an acoustic that doesn’t tire the ear and allowing climaxes to expand. This issue is among the first number of releases from the Philharmonia Orchestra, under the umbrella of Signum Classics, and is very warmly welcomed.