Many years ago the announcer, author, and music critic Martin Bookspan wrote of the Shostakovich Fifth that it is "... a symphony more than ordinarily pretentious, brooding, mystical, sardonic and sometimes vulgar. In short, it has many of the same virtues and faults one finds in the symphonies of Mahler." I've always agreed with most of that assessment. Even though Shostakovich and Mahler lived in different eras, their approach to symphonic writing was at least similar, the many changing moods of their music probably contributing to both composers' enduring popularity.
After his music fell out of favor with the Soviet government, Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) wrote his Symphony in D minor in 1937 to ingratiate himself with the State. On the surface the piece appears to be traditional, inspirational, and patriotic; but later the composer would deny its patriotic bent, claiming it to be, in effect, satiric. Consequently, there are any number of ways to approach the score, some, like Leonard Bernstein doing it hell-bent-for-leather and others, like Manfred Honeck and his Pittsburgh Symphony, doing it in a more-restrained, orderly manner. Whether you take to Honeck's reading or not, there is no questioning he has an orchestra that responds beautifully to his every demand.
The opening movement, a Moderato-Allegro non troppo, is, as the tempo marking indicates, both gentle and reasonably vigorous. It starts slowly, lyrically, and gradually becomes faster and more agitated, but not too fast, building in momentum, and then ending in relative calm. Well, at least that's the way conductors usually approach it. Honeck, however, takes it at a more leisurely clip throughout, more quietly, building the contrasts more studiously, building the tensions and releases in broader incremental steps. There is more sadness here than anger in Honeck's view.
The second-movement Allegretto is a variation of the first theme of the preceding movement, taken at a speed just a little slower than Allegro. It serves as a scherzo, its tone satiric, mock-heroic. One can hear the influences of Mahler in this music more strongly than in most any other part of the symphony. Again, Honeck takes his time with the score's development, and I found that in his doing so he misses some of the music's more ironic elements.
The slow movement, the Largo, is the actual soul of the symphony, with long, engaging melodies predominating. It's a most-personal expression of the composer's feelings, and it's here that Honeck particularly excels, imparting to the music a heartfelt dignity, a longing, and a mournfulness that are quite affecting.
Accompanying the Shostakovich we find the little Adagio for Strings (1936), which the American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981) prepared for string orchestra from the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11. It may seem at first glance an odd choice for a coupling, given that the Shostakovich symphony can be so feverish and the Barber so peaceful. However, I suppose that's the point: to juxtapose the two works, both of them written at around the same time yet in contrasting places and circumstances. And no doubt Maestro Honeck wanted especially to play up the similarities between the Barber piece and the sadness of the Shostakovich symphony's Largo. The real question, though, is whether Maestro Honeck does the Adagio justice, and the answer is yes, despite Honeck's penchant for drawing out phrases longer than always necessary and over emphasizing the point.
There are any number of good recordings of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony one can choose from, among them Maris Jansons and the Vienna Philharmonic (EMI), Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Royal Philharmonic (Decca), Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (Sony), Maxim Shostakovich and the USSR Symphony (RCA), Leopold Stokowski and the Stadium Symphony Orchestra (Everest), Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Sony/RCA), Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Decca), Andre Previn and the London Symphony (RCA), Neeme Jarvi and the Scottish National Orchestra (Chandos), and the list goes on. Where does Honeck and his orchestra fit in? Almost anywhere in a crowded field, depending on how you like your Shostakovich played. For me personally, I prefer the energy of Bernstein and Stokowski; the sweep and grandeur of Ormandy; the authority of the composer's son, Maxim Shostakovich; and the simple directness and overall rightness of Haitink, Jansons, Ashkenazy, and Previn. Still, Honeck for his few idiosyncrasies, makes a viable alternative.
Producer Dirk Sobotka and engineer Mark Donahue (of Soundmirror, Boston) recorded the music live at Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, PA in June (Shostakovich) and October (Barber) 2013. They made it for multichannel SACD playback, two-channel stereo SACD playback, and two-channel regular CD playback. I listened in the two-channel SACD mode.
Despite the music being recorded live, which too often results in a close-up, one-dimensional sound, this one is excellent. It's moderately distanced, with a fine sense of space and place. Dynamics are wide but not overpowering; frequency response is extended, notably at the high end; the depth of image is lifelike; and detailing is realistically defined without being bright or edgy. Thankfully, too, Reference Recordings edited out any hint of applause. It's one of the best-sounding live orchestral discs of the year.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: