SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No 5 BARBER Adagio for Strings
Shostakovich’s music abounds with ambiguities and coded references that beckon to us to read between the lines. In the Fifth Symphony, art and politics are so entangled that extramusical speculation is unavoidable. Yet what is the practical, interpretative effect of our conjecture? As for the symphony, the only significant point of textual contention concerns the final pages and whether the printed metronome mark of crotchet=188 should actually be quaver=188, as on Mravinsky’s 1938 recording and later corroborated by Shostakovich’s son, Maxim. Otherwise, though, the score is clearly notated, down to subtle details of pacing. If we trust the composer to have communicated his subversive intentions so artfully, do we really need to second-guess him?
Manfred Honeck seems intent on wringing every last drop of drama from the symphony in this live recording. He seizes upon the first movement’s stark juxtapositions. Rhythms in the jagged opening phrases are razor-sharp and urgently dispatched – though at a speed considerably faster than the composer’s metronome mark – then the pace eases as the mood becomes more lyrical. The tempo careens back and forth like this, highlighting the character changes, although the result sounds more like a film score than a coherent symphonic essay.
In the Scherzo, Honeck again characterises vividly but is freewheeling with the text, adding a slew of heavy accents that have an effect akin to rough jabs to one’s ribs. Isn’t the music’s Mahlerian bite – as Shostakovich notated it – sufficiently vicious? And then, when Shostakovich does indicate accents later in the movement, they don’t stand out. The Largo, however, is beautifully done. Honeck’s cinematic approach is touchingly effective here, with the opening section unfolding in long, flowing phrases, like a slow-sweeping panoramic shot. The finale packs a powerful sonic punch, thanks to impassioned playing by the Pittsburgh Symphony and stellar, rumble-the-floorboards engineering. Still, Andris Nelsons, in his recent DG recording (also live), is generally more faithful to the score while maintaining a tighter grip, and Haitink’s intense sobriety (Decca) remains a benchmark.
On paper, following this with Barber’s Adagio for Strings might appear anticlimactic but on disc it’s convincing. Barber’s idiosyncratic nod to Tudor polyphony – Honeck writes that he transferred vocal-style phrasing from the composer’s choral version – serves as a elegiac yet soothing benediction.