Shostakovich wrote his Fifth Symphony in 1937, and it was no less than a resounding success, not only to the listening public, but to the even closer listening Communist regime (seriously, everyone check for Stalin-era listening devices!). Since that time, it has gone on to achieve enormous popularity worldwide, become a staple of every orchestra’s repertoire, and, in a turn of affairs that can only be described the way you would describe a train explosion, it has even been arranged for marching band (watch this video from about the 8-minute mark, but grab a pillow to punch repeatedly then bury your head in first).
With such overwhelming presence, there has been no shortage of recorded performances of the symphony to choose from. In fact, I uploaded one to this very blog moons ago while exploring the value of using recordings in preparing to conduct a piece, even though I generally disparaged the recording I uploaded. I would generally say that most performances tend to leave me feeling rather “meh” about them, and I’ve basically stuck by the trusty Kondrashin and Rostropovich recordings of ancient times when I purchased something called a “compact disc” from a place that housed many of them which they called a “record store.”
But I recently heard a marvelous performance with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony under the direction of the apparently-still-living Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. Skrowzaczewski, whose name I would use as the passphrase to a safety deposit box containing my absolute darkest secrets if I could consistently spell it without looking, is most widely known for his tenure with the Minnesota Orchestra and his fine readings of the symphonies of Anton Bruckner. When I was in graduate school in Salt Lake City, I remember Skrowaczewski appeared as a guest conductor with the Utah Symphony performing Bruckner 8, and it was absolutely terrific. Probably with that and his recorded Bruckner legacy in my head, I pigeon-holed Skrowaczewski as a Bruckner specialist, I guess, which was clearly wrong.
This performance of the Shostakovich Symphony no. 5 instantly climbed near the very top of my favorites list. It oozes intensity throughout, but it moves at a wonderfully controlled pace. The beginning of the finale, for example, doesn’t feel rushed or out of control like it can so many times; it is simply tightly wound and sharply focused. There are so many great moments in the performance, but for me the best is the music leading into the first movement’s climax when the orchestra plays the extended melody in unison. The ritard leading to that spot is fucking awesome; it is the sound of trying to stop a runaway jumbo jet with five dudes pulling ropes and all acquiring superhuman strength at the same time. Listen to the xylophone notes during the ritard…they sound SO slow. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a more perfectly paced tempo shift than that. That is but one of many, though. Top to bottom, factoring in the amazing playing by the band, this just might be the cream of the Shoatakovich crop.
Take a listen and let me know what you think. The music is in a single mp3 file which you can download here.
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, conductor
3 September 2010
Alte Oper, Frankfurt, Germany