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CD Review

Dmitri Shostakovich

Leonard Bernstein Conducts Shostakovich

  • Symphony #5, Op. 47
London Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
Recorded Live December, 1966 in London, UK (49min)
Bonus Track: Rehearsal of Symphony #5 (5min)
Ideale Audience DVD 3085318 B/W Full Screen PCM Mono
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This live recording is very close in spirit and execution to Bernstein's famous 1959 Shostakovich 5th with the New York Philharmonic, a performance that has been, at least for me and many others from older generations, a benchmark recording in this sometimes problematic symphony. This DVD account with the London Symphony Orchestra was recorded by the BBC in 1966 and Bernstein's view of the work changed very little. The 1959 effort was released on Columbia Records, which later became CBS Masterworks. Bernstein's second "official" recording of the work, a live effort from 1979 also with the New York Philharmonic, was issued on CBS as well. I don't think I heard that release but recall it was widely considered not as strong a performance as the earlier one. The New York Philharmonic had also recorded the work with Stokowski, in 1958 for the Everest label, which billed the orchestra for contractual reasons as The Stadium Symphony Orchestra of New York. That performance was also quite effective and not very dissimilar to Bernstein's 1959 5th, especially in tempo choices. Previn's 1966 5th on RCA was also nearly as good as the early Bernstein, and like this DVD offering, featured the London Symphony Orchestra, a very good but not superb orchestra at that time.

Some later versions of this symphony have tended to show the influence of Solomon Volkov, author of Testimony, a 1979 book about Shostakovich that several leading musicologists have claimed to be inauthentic. Yet, its pronouncements about Shostakovich, whether directly from the composer or from third-party sources, are most probably accurate. Among other things, Volkov says the finale of the Fifth is a parody of Stalinist victory, wherein the music depicts forced celebration. Tempos in this work, especially in the finale (the least effective movement, in my opinion, by far), have tended to get slower since about 1980.

Bernstein, along with Stokowski, Previn, Kondrashin (on Melodiya) and others from the late 1950s and 1960s, made the strongest case for this symphony. If the closing pages of the finale are a bit bombastic, so be it – Bernstein revels in this corny music and brings it off effectively. Kurt Masur, in his 2005 Shostakovich Fifth with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on the LPO label, adds almost five minutes to Bernstein's 8:55 from 1959 and approximately 9:05 from the 1966 effort here. Apparently Masur is plumbing the depths in the belief there's something profound in the ending. Are parody and forced celebration (assuming that's what's actually going on here) characteristics that deserve slower tempos than regular happy celebration? I don't think so.

Bernstein hits the mark, both in this live LSO performance and in his 1959 effort. This black-and-white video presentation offers a decent visual account of this performance, despite a grainy quality to the film, and mono sound that is quite good for its day. There are a few minor flubs from the orchestra (the horns weren't at their best), but execution is reasonably good. The 1959 Bernstein performance is better, but not vastly so. Those interested in video and in Bernstein will certainly want this historic account.

Copyright © 2011, Robert Cummings