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19. Shostakovich: 5th Symphony

[…] KFAC symphony now coming on, hope they give me something to lean against this high rise across the way…Not bad, something off brand by Haydn, who was a kind of a kool suckass in his time but managed to save some juice. There is much of him that I haven’t heard — the masses, Mass in Time of War, so forth. But prefer Mahler, Bruckner, Wagner without words, Stravinsky, Shostakovich. Shit, so what?

Excerpt from Screams From The Balcony by Charles Bukowski 

Beethoven wrote his 5th Symphony in 4 years, Shostakovich dashed off his in less than 4 months. During the spring of 1937 Shostakovich started developing visions of long cold summers in a Siberian Gulag. He had to pull his 5th Symphony out of his arse after falling from favor with both Stalin and his Russian fanbase, who both considered his recent work difficult and unpatriotic.

After the premiere, all was quiet on the Eastern front again. Stalin and the crowd were both happy with the result, be it for different reasons. Stalin liked the fact that it was understandable and conventional, with little Western elitist influences and a rousing march at the end. The public considered that same march a secret message, depicting the suffering and subjection of the working class under Stalin’s dictatorial leadership.

Recommended recording:
Kirill Kondrashin & Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra

When it comes to picking a Shostakovich recording, I’ll choose Kondrashin & the Moscow Philharmonic six days a week and twice on a Sunday. This 5th is no exception, but not without a honourable mention for Bernstein’s recording with the New York Philharmonic.

Bernstein met Shostakovich shortly before this legendary recording. Like Kondrashin, he understood that the last movement wasn’t a happy ending. Both versions are as violent and fierce as they come.



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