SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphonies Nos 5 & 1 – London Symphony Orchestra/ Gianandrea Nosada – LSO Live 

by | Sep 18, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 10; Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47 – London Symphony Orchestra/ Gianandrea Nosada LSO Live SACD LSO0802, 81:56 (2 CDs)  (4/3/20) [Distr. by PIAS] ****:

Recorded, respectively, 22 September2016 and 27-28 March 20 2019, these two Shostakovich staples represent the beginning a new cycle of the composer’s oeuvre from the Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. Nosada (b. 1964) currently leads the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. and will assume General Music Directorship of the Zurich Opera House in the 2021-22 season that calls for his first Wagner Ring cycle.  

The First Symphony (1923-25) began as a student composition piece, conceived so “I can be done with Conservatory this year,” complained Shostakovich. After the two-piano version passed his examinations, Shostakovich had the final orchestration premiered in May 1926 with Leningrad Philharmonic under Nikolai Malko.  Though Shostakovich’s composition teacher, Maximilian Steinberg, had found the initial drafts “grotesque,” conductor Bruno Walter decided the score worthy to bring to Berlin.  At a later performance in  the United States, the composer’s aunt Nadezhda felt she had heard various themes in the work in early piano pieces by Shostakovich, and she claimed that the last two movements bore relations to Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, “The Little Mermaid,” a subject the young composer had considered for ballet treatment. 

Noseda keeps a light hand on the first two movements of the Symphony, whose spirit remains satiric and whimsical. Violin, cello, and piano emerge as major colors in the procession. The attention to color detail – as later with the appearance of the snare drum roll – emphasizes the chamber music intimacy the score reveals.  At the first performance, the frisky Scherzo movement (Allegro: Meno mosso) had to be repeated.  The Lento movement provides the emotional heart in this youthful work, and its angular beauty adumbrates much of the yearning and tocsin resonance we will find in the later opera.  

The last movement, with its shifting tempo markings and emotional contrasts, likewise anticipates the Shostakovich penchant for kaleidoscopic affects, even sudden rushes from the Dantesque depths to the height of playful frenzy.  Nosada’s London forces urge the music’s volatile and virtuosic character, with the potent energies suddenly offset by the plaintive first violin. The divided strings extend the passion of the moment until the brass, battery, and low basses contribute to a sense of macabre gaiety. A grim tympani interrupts the flow of the music to herald dark musings from the motto theme, Adagio and Largo, then trumpet and strings pick up the anguish over ostinato phrases before an onrush of fierce energy takes us to a militant coda.

The historical background for the Shostakovich 1937 Fifth Symphony has become common parlance:  Josef Stalin’s Great Terror had declared war on non-conformity, and the enfant terrible style of the early Shostakovich found condemnation that demanded the composer’s “response to just criticism.” In his own written preface to the score, Shostakovich declared that the music means to “rebuild a personality in music.” Using the Mahler First Symphony in D Major as a kind of template, Shostakovich fashioned this work in a traditional format, reducing his often acerbic harmonies and sense of irony – at least ostensibly – to a minimum. The opening Moderato – Allegro non troppo sets a battle scene before us, a lengthy spiritual conflict, a bitter march with piano obbligato, “to be crowned with victory.”  After the initial, martial theme in dotted rhythms, the violins introduce a consolatory theme, lyrical and rather haunted. The grueling stringendo passages – most poignant in the recorded documents by Mravinsky and Mitropoulos – here come to us in a live performance whose audience participation has been excised. Late in the movement, harp, flute, horn and bassoon engage in an intimate “aftermath” over an ostinato.   

Noseda adapts a broad tempo for the sarcastic Allegretto – a Scherzo that retains something of the younger Shostakovich iconoclast temper. Here, too, the flute and harp engage in a light banter to ameliorate the swirling, often heaving passions of the moment. Bits of waltz tempo intrude, along with the pizzicato effects we know from the Tchaikovsky Fourth.  Much in the spirit of Mahler, the music achieves a kind of flavored grotesquerie, parody mixed with ardent and bitter sincerity.

Shostakovich mutes or eliminates much of his brass forces for the affecting Largo movement, which exhibits a genuine depth of despair. Noseda does exact a lovely and transparent homogeneity of tone from his players, sustaining the long lines in the strings and the now-established dialogue between flute and harp or strings and harp.  Within the outward sense of emotional restraint, we feel a tragic pathos for the times of the composition as well as our own. In his document, Testimony, Shostakovich asserts that the Allegro non troppo finale only outwardly concedes to a sense of victory. The notion – compelled by Soviet authority – that “you will rejoice” receives a musical parody from Handel’s Messiah, the “Rejoice greatly” sequence, here realized with overblown pomp and ostentation.  Noseda slows down his tempo to accent the false elation of the moment, the overbearing D Major fanfare a “joyful” mask placed upon the face of a politically oppressed individual.  For those who insist the culminating apotheosis is real, the sonic elements of this document certainly confirm the effect, courtesy of Nicholas Parker, producer and editor.

—Gary Lemco

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