Written by Eric Rasmussen on December 1, 2009.
Orchestra: Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester, conducted by Kurt Sanderling
Recording: Symphony No. 5 (Schostakowitsch)
Dmitri Shostakovich* composed music with incredible tension and feeling, his works shaped in part by his tenuous standing with Stalin, and especially in later works, his obsession with his own mortality. If I were to list off my favorite all time pieces (don’t encourage me, by the way, or I just might), I would count among them his Trio for Piano and Strings No. 2 and his string quartets. But as highly as I value those, there is one I hold in even higher regard: Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony in D minor.
The symphony is epic, in the most grand sense of the word, calling to mind sweeping soundscapes and journeys to distant lands (as opposed to the next trendy teen thriller about magicians, vampires, or magicians and vampires). The opening movement begins by shuffling you around uncomfortably in different directions, creating a sense of unease. As the music takes shape, you move from heroic themes to forlorn but powerful horn solos, next assaulted by driving piano bass lines and finally calmed by delicate strings.
The music quickly erupts into a sardonic playfulness by the second movement, with sprightly violins, starkly contrasted by the profound oppression and sadness in the third, evoked through the use of subtle harp and thin, lonely violins. The fourth movement brings everything together for the grand finale. Although it is sometimes interpreted as a joyous march (a subject of debate), it is performed here with the requisite undertone of an unwillingness to give up in the face of oppression, leading to an ending that is not truly joyous, but not truly defeated, either.
Kurt Sanderling conducts the music with effortless grace and a pressing heaviness, sometimes in equal measure, as the music requires. Sanderling left Germany to flee oppression, and a detailed interview in the CD liner notes discusses his personal experiences and connections to this work. There is no denying that the full gravity of the work is brought forth through his conducting and the Berlin Symphony’s fantastic playing. This is music that plumbs the darkest depths of fascism and oppression, but will leave you not without hope. An absolutely necessary listen for fans of emotionally-charged symphonic works, whether they be classical or modern.
*For the review I spell the composer’s name as Shostakovich, the most common U.S. spelling. However, this particular recording (made in Berlin) uses the more common German spelling of Schostakowitsch.