DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH - Symphony No. 5 - Pittsburgh Symphony

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DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH - Symphony No. 5 - Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra - Manfred Honeck (Conductor) - Hybrid SACD - 030911272425 - Released: August 2017 - Reference Recordings FR-724SACD

If my memory is still functioning as it should, one of the first LPs I purchased myself when I was about 10 years old, and which set me off on a lifetime of listening and collecting, was a recording of the Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 by Dmitri Shostakovich with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Steinberg, on either PYE or ABC Records. I swear I must have worn that record down to bare vinyl the number of times I played it. And between then and now, I've owned and listened to countless other recordings of this riveting symphony, and have never grown tired of it. It could be that, along with the Gustav Mahler symphonies, this music has such an emotional impact that your very own fluctuating state of mind alters your perception of the work and sheds light on a different aspect of it every time you hear it. And now many years later, with the release of this new recording, again with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra this time around conducted by Manfred Honeck, it feels like I've come full circle.

I'm kind of glad that the Soviet regime came down on Shostakovich during the 1930s and ordered him to write music more in line with the aspirations of the common people, because had he continued down the same innovative and unorthodox path as his second and third symphonies would indicate, his name would most likely have faded into oblivion, or he might have been forced to disappear, never to be heard of again. But with his Fifth Symphony, which retains his emblematic proclivities but goes straight for the heart, he established his reputation not only in the Soviet Union, but around the world. And straight for the heart is obviously what conductor Manfred Honeck was aiming for in this gripping account. I could enumerate all the distinctive touches that he brings to the score, but then this review would turn into an extra long essay. Let me just say that he knows instinctively when to push forward and when to pull back. Some of the brilliant moments in this symphony occur when Shostakovich throws in an unanticipated harmonic modulation, and Honeck actually emphasizes these singular passages by adding a touch more expressive weight to them (as he himself acknowledges in his detailed booklet notes). One of the most touching moments of this work lies at the center of the Largo (arguably the best slow movement of the 20th century) where solo woodwind instruments seem to be holding a surreptitious conversation in the dead of night, whilst shimmering strings in the background sound like a presence in the darkness eavesdropping on the situation. In this account this effect is downright chilling. Another impressive passage lies near the end of the final movement where various groups of the orchestra pile on to each other with great force and anticipation, and release a tremendous amount of pent-up energy which brings the whole symphony to a triumphant finish. The brass section of the orchestra is spectacular at this point. And I must not forget to focus special praise on Lorna McGhee, the principal flautist. I've never heard the duet between the flute and horn at the return of the first movement's beautiful lyrical theme sound so uplifting.

The sound quality of this 'live' Reference recording is superb and brimming with potent energy. Some of the soft passages conjure up a mysterious effect whilst the moments with heavy military percussion and brass make you want to run for cover. And for once, even the cover of the CD is worth mentioning. The fading image of Shostakovich leaving only the trademark spectacles against flaking red mortar is art design (Brian Hughes) that not only fits the music, it complements it. Highly recommended!

2018 Grammy Award Winner for Best Orchestral Performance and Best Engineered Album.

Jean-Yves Duperron - September 2017