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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5 (1937) [50:47]
Samuel BARBER (1910-81)
Adagio for Strings (1936) [9:21]
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
rec. live 7-9 June (Shostakovich), 11-13 October (Barber) 2013, Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh

In its Pittsburgh Live! Series, Reference Recordings has released a desirable album comprising two of the most popular works written in the twentieth-century: Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

Evidently to a suggestion by a journalist a couple of months after its premičre, Shostakovich subtitled his Fifth Symphony “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism”. In 1934 the Soviet leader Josef Stalin attended a performance of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and was appalled by the opera’s content. Two days later the Soviet state newspaper Pravda ran a condemnatory editorial titled “Muddle Instead of Music” denouncing the opera as “coarse, primitive and vulgar”. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was banned and Shostakovich was placed in a disturbing state of dishonour. During the rehearsal stage of his austere and introspective Fourth Symphony, a work lacking in the uplifting melodies Stalin insisted upon, he was advised to withdraw the score before its premičre. To rehabilitate himself with the Soviet authorities, Shostakovich completed his Fifth Symphony, more openly conservative in style. Its premičre in 1937 at Leningrad was a triumph.

Overall in the opening movement marked Moderato - Allegro non troppo the emotional effect Honeck achieves is one of deep melancholy. There is no impression of biting coldness and absolute terror present in many recordings, notably Kurt Sanderling with the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester on Berlin Classics. Honeck’s interpretation of the brief Scherzo emphasises the rich, dark writing but is a little too amenable for my taste; I prefer to feel slightly more nervous energy produced. Noticeable is the swirling feel that creates a near-dizzying quality. The music of the Scherzo is often likened to containing the spirit of Mahler communicating the sense of a sardonic waltz of a forced tongue-in-cheek quality. Despite what has gone before, shafts of light are shining through the murk. Scored without brass, the Largo projects emotional vulnerability, deep despair and introspection that in Honeck’s hands evokes a bleak landscape laid to waste. Compared to Sanderling, there is insufficient threat and anxiety. Although Honeck develops the weight of the sound splendidly, his interpretation feels slightly too well-mannered. I always admire the way the brass and woodwind arouse from their slumber in the Finale. With martial-like passages full of swagger, stirring vigour and drama, Honeck builds a powerfully driven forward momentum as the music rushes impetuously to an awe-inspiring conclusion of outward triumph. This is excellent playing by the Pittsburgh players without matching the sheer intensity of Sanderling whose reading can produce a shiver down the spine.

There are a number of excellent accounts of Shostakovich’s most popular symphony in the catalogue. My first choice is the 1982 Christuskirche, Berlin account for its depth, vitality and overwhelming emotion from Kurt Sanderling with the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester on Berlin Classics (review). More than a match for most, originally on Melodiya, the compelling account by the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky from the 1980s, reissued on Olympia. I also recommend, for its consistency and considerable insights, Rudolf Barshai’s account with the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln recorded in 1996 on Brilliant Classics.

Samuel Barber’s renowned Adagio for Strings is his best-known work an arrangement for string orchestra from the second movement of his 1936 String Quartet, Op. 11. Used notably in the 1986 Oliver Stone film Platoon, the Adagio is one of the most widely encountered twentieth century works. In 1967 Barber prepared a choral arrangement of the score using the text of the Agnus Dei. In one of the finest performances I have heard, Honeck ensures the Adagio for Strings is played with an affecting vulnerability maintaining the emotional tension in the writing at an elevated level. My first choice in the Adagio remains the captivating 1991 account by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under David Zinman on Argo (Decca).

The Pittsburgh Live! series recorded and mastered by the Soundmirror team is vividly clear but, with its wide dynamic range, I had to resort to some altering of the volume dial. In the accompanying booklet Manfred Honeck has written a valuable series of essays including how he sees the symphony is connected to Mahler’s music. Honeck takes the trouble to relate some of his narrative to specific points on the tracks.

Under music director Manfred Honeck the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is on fine form, and it feels as if these polished performances are genuine labours of love. Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is outstanding played, and the release contains one of the finest accounts of Barber’s Adagio for Strings I have heard.

Michael Cookson

Previous reviews: Nick Barnard ~ Dan Morgan



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