When I first fell under the spell of Shostakovitch's Fifth Symphony in the early 1960's, it was usually performed as a heroic work, plain and simple: conflict! resolution! triumph! That the symphony had been composed in a police state, during Stalin's "Great Terror," and at a time when the composer's friends, relatives, and fellow artists were being sent into exile or summarily tried and executed hardly seemed to matter.
But after the publication in 1979 of Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovitch, it became harder to ignore the evidence of the composer's own words. The psychological context for the Fifth Symphony was not the socialist ideals of "optimism and the joy of living," but the stark, inglorious, and wholly existential fear of extinction. Having been officially reproved for the "shocking" Lady Macbeth of Mtzensk and the irreverent, anarchic Fourth Symphony (which he promptly withdrew before it could be performed), Shostakovitch was acutely aware that he too had become an enemy of the state. "Completely in the thrall of fear," he seriously considered, then rejected the idea of suicide. But "the danger" continued to haunt him. "Awaiting execution is a theme that has tormented me all my life," he said later. "Many pages of my music are devoted to it."
Clearly the Fifth is a darker and more complex work than was once thought, but this awareness seems to have had little influence on performance practice. Some conductors continue to take an abstract, ahistorical approach to the symphony, while others amend the heroic model with draggy tempos and clumsy gearshifts, especially in the final movement. Unfortunately, two of the only conductors to have actually rethought the work straight through have given us performances that are either emotionally arid (Maxim Shostakovitch) or emotionally labored (Rostropovitch). In fact, I can think of only one conductor who has risen to this challenge: Kurt Sanderling in his recording with the Berlin Radio Orchestra, still available on Berlin Classics. The directness and profundity of this performance make many others, some of them much better known, sound wanting, superficial.
In this, the first installment of a projected series of all the Shostakovitch symphonies, Oleg Caetani brings the considerable virtues that he displayed in his performance of the Mahler Resurrection Symphony that I reviewed last month: a firm but varied pulse, an instinctive feel for structure, and a freshly imagined response to even the slightest musical gestures. Having studied at the Moscow Conservatory with Kondrashin, he also understands the degree to which "political ambiguity and historical allusion" shape the inner drama of these works, and his Fifth is as dark and unrelenting as any in the catalogue.
Here you find tension not just in the determined and questioning gesture that opens the work, but also in the lyric passages that follow, where Caetani sustains a mood of instability and dread. A lilting and serene theme might offer some relief, but here it sounds fragile, vulnerable. And soon enough, uncertainty erupts into nightmare -- a grim, obsessive march that leads directly to a brutal climax. After this, even the coda sounds desolate and disoriented, a threnody for violin and celeste.
In the hands of some conductors, the scherzo is comic relief, a welcome interlude between the more emotionally charged movements that precede and follow it. But taken at marginally slower tempos, the parody has never sounded more threatening or grotesque, the dance rhythms more drunkenly out of control. Here is all the banality of daily life under the Terror, the struggle to keep up the appearance of socialist optimism even as one's friends and neighbors disappear overnight.
In the largo, Caetani adapts a faster tempo than most, and the effect is very concentrated. Here as elsewhere, I'm reminded of Tchaikovsky, both in the dark, rich string sonorities, and also in the unashamedly anguished climax that centers this movement. After a long stretch of strings only, the fierce brass flourish that opens the finale comes as a shock, and Caetani intensifies the effect by taking the march at a lumbering pace with sharp, hammering accents. Whereas in the first movement slow the march overwhelms the lyric passages that precede it, here it leads to a genuinely tranquil and solemn episode, out of which a defiant coda slowly emerges, all the more dramatic for being played at the extremely slow tempo that the composer asks for.
To say that this performance of the Sixth Symphony compares favorably to the 1965 Mravinsky/Leningrad (released on EMI/Melodyia) is to pay it the highest compliment; for in my listening room, that version has taken on all comers for the past thirty years. The Sixth is (at least structurally) a problematic work: a long, expansive largo followed by two shorter scherzo-like movements that couldn't be more different in mood. Mravinsky's solution is characteristically "objective": he plays the first movement very slowly, and the second and third movements very energetically, using the virtuosity of his players to full and dazzling effect.
For Caetani, the Sixth is cut from the same cloth as the Fifth. His largo is faster and more intense sixth this host than Mravinsky's, and it builds to a more unsettling climax. Those who are used to hearing a festive note in the second and third movements will be mightily surprised by Caetani's disturbingly parodistic approach. There is no want of punch or urgency here, but the tone is harsh, at times grotesque. Talking about the finale of the Fifth Symphony, Shostakovitch remarked, "The rejoicing is forced, created under threat. It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,' and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, ‘our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.'" The same could be said of the last two movements of the Sixth. Or, as British conductor Mark Wigglesworth puts it, "the upbeat nature of the two scherzos should sound hollow, the phony heartlessness of large groups of people." Shostakovitch was fond of quoting an old Russian proverb: "Kiss, but spit." And that's just what Caetani is doing here.
What Was The Name of That Orchestra Again?
I've heard the Orchestra Sinfoinica di Milano Giusseppe Verdi only once before: a ramshackle Bruckner Ninth under Vladimir Delman, who founded the orchestra, soon after emigrating from Russia, in 1993. With Riccardo Chially serving as music director since 1999, they've clearly come a long way. For Caetani, they play with grit, character, and unanimity -- as if their very lives depended on it. Over the course of these "live" performances, they're able to sustain the intensity of his vision from first note to last without flagging. I am especially impressed with the dark and mournful beauty of the strings, the ferocity of the brass in the climaxes. Though the recording isn't quite as spacious or as gloriously detailed as the label's Resurrection, it is excellent sound by any standard, thrillingly realistic and transparent. Though the perspective is close, the performance has a pleasing warmth and opulence. These performances now join those of Sanderling (in the Fifth) and Mravinsky (in the Sixth) as top recommendations in both works. I'm already looking for to the next release in this series.