Recordings: Cheating or Research?

Yevgeny Mravinsky Conducts Shostakovichs 5th

Yevgeny Mravinsky Conducts Shostakovich's 5th

Having had the opportunity to study conducting with some extremely refined and intelligent musicians in my short time, I have noticed a pattern that echoes through the halls of eternal teaching: don’t listen to recordings when you’re studying a score.

Now, I preface this entire post, with the exception of that amazing first paragraph you just read, by saying that I agree with this philosophy, in a vacuum.  So many times recordings provide an imprint on us as musicians and we cannot hear them another way, think of them another way, or distance ourselves from them, which is obviously a problem.  For example, my first experience with Mysterious Mountain by Hovhaness was the classic Reiner/Chicago Symphony recording, which has a generally broader tempo range than any other recording I’ve heard, especially in the first movement.  And I’ve gotten to the point where I damn near refuse to accept anything other than Reiner’s tempo.  I’ve never had the chance to study the score, but I hope when that time comes I’m able to distance myself from my memories, because it’s a recipe for disaster.

The reason I bring this up now is because over the last several years I’ve been particularly keen to the balance recordings try to walk in relation to the Symphony no. 5 of Shostakovich, especially as regards the tempo of the coda in the finale.  It reared its head again last evening when I was listening to a performance featuring the Concertgebouworkest conducted by Jaap van Zweden.  It was a fine performance overall (Zweden has been virtually touring the galaxy with this piece in tow lately), but the coda left a lot to be desired, for me.  I echo these same sentiments in regards to a performance with Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic I also heard recently.

The tempo of this coda is the subject of much debate.  In the score it is marked to be played slowly.  Shostakovich is said to have “authorized” a basic doubling of the tempo when in rehearsal with Leonard Bernstein.  Of course, you can try to have your cake and eat it too by trying to play the middle somewhere.  So what’s right?

If you guessed “there is no correct answer,” I guess you’re probably right.  But this is where the legacy of recordings comes into play and I struggle with this entire concept.  When I attended a conducting workshop in 2007, we discussed the de facto ban on recordings in a seminar, and I asked if recordings weren’t, in fact, documents that should contribute to your research of the music.  I don’t think I explained myself well at all, but the answer was essentially…not so much.

But why?  Take the recorded history of this piece.  When considering the coda taken at a fast tempo, you find names like Bernstein, Ormandy, Maazel, Haitink etc.  When considering the “have your cake and eat it too” approach, you find names like Ashkenazy, Jansons, Alsop, etc.  When considering the slow tempo, you find names like Mravinsky, Kondrashin, Rostropovich.  One need not be a scholar to see which group of names sticks out there.

Mravinsky and Kondrashin combined to premiere more than half of Shostakovich’s symphonies.  They both maintained significant relationships with him throughout their careers.  Rostropovich, as everyone knows, was one of Shostakovich’s closest friends.  They all lived, breathed, and experienced firsthand the Russian history that is inexorably intertwined with Shostakovich’s music.  To paraphrase my mother, “perhaps I’m the asshole here,” but it seems downright foolish not to consider these recordings when doing your research on the score.

Let the record show that this aspect of research should only be done after you have completed your own study of the score…as I said before, this I agree with.  But recordings, to me, are a tool of immeasurable value when “doing your homework” on a piece of music.

Stravinsky was a terrible conductor of his own music, in my opinion, but you’d be insane not to give a listen to the old CBS set of the man himself conducting his greatest orchestral works.  Mahler left us with some piano rolls, notably of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, and it would be just slackerish to not investigate them.

For those curious to hear the recording that brought this bloody catastrophe of a blog post out of me, I will include the links here…follow the same steps as last time.  The remainder of the concert was interesting and a good listen, including a very fine reading of the Barber Violin Concerto with soloist Vesko Eschkenazy.

And for a means of comparison, here are essentially the two opposing takes on the coda in question from two of the greatest masters we’ll ever know:

Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic

Yevgeny Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic


3 thoughts on “Recordings: Cheating or Research?

  1. Erik,

    Very well reasoned and intelligent approach to this thorny subject. I may quote you!

  2. “In the score it is marked to be played slowly. Shostakovich is said to have “authorized” a basic doubling of the tempo when in rehearsal with Leonard Bernstein. Of course, you can try to have your cake and eat it too by trying to play the middle somewhere. So what’s right?

    If you guessed “there is no correct answer,” I guess you’re probably right.”

    Of course there is a correct answer- slow is right, fast is wrong and middle of the road is pathetic. Aside from the fact that it’s marked slowly, there are dozens of other clues in the score that make it absolutely clear that he never envisioned a fast coda in the Finale.

    More interesting is that, up until the coda, Lenny is generally truer to many details of the score, particularly in the 3rd Mvt, than Mravinsky, who seems to be keen to keep things moving along at all costs. Rostropovich is the most literal of all of them, not only in terms of tempo, but especially articulation. No dot- it’s long. Western performers tend to play everything in Dsch’s output short and aggressive. Slava did know Shostakovich well, and understood his very simple, literal-minded approach to notation. In that sense, his recordings are very valuable….

  3. Pingback: Something to listen to: Shostakovich Symphony no. 5 « Everything But The Music

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