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SHOSTAKOVICH: Symph. No. 5; BARBER: Adagio for Strings – Pittsburgh Symph. Orch./ Manfred Honeck – Reference Recordings 

SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony. No. 5 in d, Op. 47; BARBER: Adagio for Strings – Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/ Manfred Honeck – Reference Recordings multichannel SACD FR-724SACD, 60:17 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

A breathtaking release of crushing power.

One thing struck me as odd when I received this recording—what in the world is Honeck doing coupling the Barber Adagio with Shostakovich’s supposedly affirmative and optimistic work that he considered a “the response of a Soviet artist to just criticism”? And then I listened…and everything fell into place. Honeck’s linking (in the notes) to the composer with Mahler’s music is fascinating and thought-provoking, even though I think the examples he gives are somewhat tenuous at best. However, though we can consider that Mahler, always fraught with tension in the ideas of bountiful life and ever-present death, is certainly related to Shostakovich in his own struggles with this antinomy, their approaches are vastly different; Mahler plunges us into jubilation and despair with heart-on-sleeve provocation, while Shostakovich is always trying to fool us. One person’s delight is another’s despair in this most quixotic of composers.

This present interpretation is one that takes the esoteric side of Shostakovich’s persona seriously. This is no jolly tonal romp with a brilliant D-major ending, but a prescient, darkened undercurrent of persecution and turmoil expressed in a more “understandable” language, yet still complex and devastating in its vocabulary. Honeck understands this symphony well, and begins with a tragic, almost fatalistic opening that doesn’t seek to overwhelm but does draw us into an unfolding calamity with irresistible pull and power. We know from bar one what the conductor thinks about this work, and we know it’s not going to be an easy ride. He is also one of the few on recent record that takes the final bars twice as slow as what we are used to. (It’s a controversy lasting to this day, but it certainly does add an ironic sense of bitterness and mocking to the ending.)

Thing is, it works, and works very well. Bernstein has been for me the ideal in this work, and I still can’t reject him out of hand, but Honeck comes close in what is easily the most powerfully persuasive performance in the last 20 years, and without doubt is the finest recording this piece has ever received. The surround sound is perfect, the orchestra gleaming with a sensual sheen that bolsters its claim as one of the finest ensembles in the world.

Does the Barber work? After the Shostakovich, it’s hard to imagine anything more perfect than this sorrowful, cathartic composition. The calamity that unfolds in the Fifth Symphony is given a fitting funeral sendoff in the Adagio for Strings. Again, Honeck gets it all right, milking the Pittsburgh strings for all they are worth. Bernstein once again is the competition, and if this recording—again, maybe the best recorded—doesn’t quite match the New York maestro’s effort on DG with the Los Angeles Phil strings, it’s just that Bernstein set a bar that is almost impossible to reach.

This outstanding disc deserves a place in any collection worth the name.

—Steven Ritter

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