SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No 5 (Urbański)
It was ‘the worst of times’. In his excellent booklet note, conductor Krzysztof Urbański recounts the background to Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, describing the work as ‘extremely tragic’ but finding its meaning layered, like one of those Russian dolls containing increasingly smaller replicas inside. A painting of a nervously smoking Shostakovich entitled 1937 by the Polish artist Dominika Suszczyńska adorns the cover of this incisive new recording with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra. It certainly makes a powerful statement, not least in his treatment of the finale.
The acoustic of Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie has attracted its fair share of brickbats since its long-overdue opening. This recording was made last December, although Alpha is coy about stating whether it was taken from actual performances or sessions in between concerts (it’s possibly a mixture of the two). The results are impressive, warm but without the murk and muddiness of Gergiev’s latest Mariinsky account. There’s plenty of clarity to woodwind solos and the pinprick precision of harp and celesta at the end of the Largo is as well caught in Hamburg as it is in Boston on Andris Nelsons’s terrific recent live recording on DG.
Urbański adopts similar tempos to Nelsons to begin with. In the first movement, the Elbphilharmonie strings really dig in (at 4'19"), with the piano entering in punchy mood (7'55"). There’s not the red-raw playing or corrosive brass of Kirill Kondrashin’s Moscow Philharmonic (on Melodiya’s indispensable set) but the Hamburgers still generate plenty of excitement, certainly more than the Russians in Gergiev’s rather cool reading. Urbański’s Scherzo is earthy rather than biting – ‘growly’ would be a good description – with only a slight pulling up for the oboe solo (5'29") at the end. There’s a sense of flow to the Largo, the Hamburg strings not as opulent as Boston’s, which soar through the sweeping themes like something from a Prokofiev ballet. Urbański treats it as a hushed elegy, whispered at times, which means that when the climax comes, the poison of the string attack (9'20") really stings.
The finale may divide listeners. Although it seems unlikely at the outset, Urbański is even swifter than Kondrashin, largely down to a very carefully gradated series of accelerandos which result in a furious pace. Urbański takes a political approach to the coda, describing the moment the strings take up ostinato As for 31 bars as ‘the victim’s brainwashing begins’. He doesn’t drag it out quite as much as Vasily Petrenko in Liverpool (‘weary deliberation’, according to David Gutman in these pages) but it’s a close thing. Urbański quotes Solomon Volkov’s Testimony in describing it as ‘a cudgel beating down on the Russian people’. It works for me, turning it into a bitter trudge, defiant to the end.