Pros: Its importance as a 20th century musical masterpiece.
Cons: The dark and frequently stern nature of the symphony may be disturbing to some.
Shostakovich: SYMPHONY NO. 5 IN D MINOR, OP. 47
National Symphony Orchestra of Washington D.C./MSTISLAV ROSTROPOVICH (Teldec)
Without question, Dmitri Shostakovich was one of the most important (and popular) composers of the entire 20th century.
And what is even more remarkable is that this great man was able to make such stunning music while basically having an artistic gun pointed at his head for decades, with the finger of one Joseph Stalin on the trigger. He had been burned by the extreme criticism leveled at him by Stalin and his merry band of Bolsheviks over the 1936 opera “Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk”, and so Shostakovich managed to “redeem” himself (somewhat) in their eyes the following year with his immense Symphony No. 5, which he described (likely with tongue in cheek) as “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism.” Given that his tormentors, especially Stalin, were notorious for having tin ears when it came to music, he didn’t have much trouble. Still, the Fifth Symphony remains a dark, brooding work, reflecting the time and place it was created, and the situation it was created under. As such, it has maintained a place as a pre-eminent 20th century symphony.
This is in no small part because both the symphony and the composer had many champions on either side of the Iron Curtain, from the great Russian conductor Evgeny Mravinsky, who gave the symphony its world premiere performance in Leningrad in 1937, to American giants like Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, and Leonard Bernstein. One of the best versions of the Fifth is this one, led by the composer’s close friend and ally Mstislav Rostropovich, who here leads the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington D.C. Rostropovich, whose nickname was “Slava”, was that orchestra’s music director from 1977 to 1994, and he always made it a point in building the orchestra’s reputation with performances of 20th century works from his native Russia, like the Shostakovich Fifth. As a result, and as can be gleamed from this recording, the N.S.O. achieved a high-enough level of prominence so that it wouldn’t be totally subsumed by its close neighbors in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. From its ominous opening to its thunderous, but ambiguous, conclusion, the Fifth is given an extremely bold reading here by the National Symphony, one that almost equals Bernstein’s celebrated 1959 New York Philharmonic recording of the work.
As was the case for much of the 20th century in a Russia ruled by tyrannical dictators, many of the greatest works came forth from the extreme political and social turmoil that Stalin and, to a lesser extent, his successors encouraged and, on more than a few occasions, initiated on their own. Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is just such an example. And anyone with a taste for great 20th century classical music created under such incredible stress cannot go wrong with this recording of the this work, unquestionably among the greatest symphonies of that century.