Following the denunciation by the state of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was viewed as his most socialist symphony, pandering to the demands of the Stalinist regime. However, in Gianandrea Noseda’s hands, Shostakovich’s cynical intent comes to the fore, highlighting the brutality rather than the glory of the Soviet state.

Producer & audio editor: Nicholas Parker
Balance engineer, audio editor, mixing & mastering: Jonathan Stokes for Classic Sound Ltd
Recording engineer: Neil Hutchinson for Classic Sound Ltd
Recorded: Live in DSD 128fs on 22 September 2016 at the Barbican Hall, London

Political and artistic pressures coincided many times in the course of Shostakovich’s career, but never more intensely than in the year 1937, when the Fifth Symphony was composed. Early in 1936 his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the ballet The Limpid Stream had been officially condemned, and in consequence he felt obliged to withdraw his Fourth Symphony before its scheduled premiere. These works, which are full of a wayward, dissonant genius, made no concession to the official doctrine of Socialist Realism, and the bleak endings of both Opera and Symphony directly contradicted the optimism then expected from Soviet artists.

The crisis he faced was far more than a question of musical style, it was quite literally a matter of life or death. By 1936 the mechanism of Stalin’s Great Terror was lurching into motion, with show trials, denunciations and disappearances. Few Russians remained untouched, particularly in the composer’s own city of Leningrad. Shostakovich himself lost relatives, friends and colleagues. It was in this nightmare atmosphere that Shostakovich composed his Fifth Symphony, between April and July 1937. A conscious attempt at rehabilitation, intended to re-establish his credentials as a Soviet composer, it represents a well-calculated combination of true expression with the demands of the State.

Most of the controversy surrounding the Symphony is concerned with the real significance of the finale and particularly of its last few minutes, blatant with D major brass fanfares and battering drums. There is no doubt about the overwhelming sense of musical resolution here, but most verbal commentary has done little but confuse the issue. Shostakovich spoke of it at the time: ’I saw man with all his experiences in the centre of the composition … In the finale, the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements are resolved in optimism and joy of living.’ But in Testimony, the reminiscences attributed by Solomon Volkov to the sick and embittered composer towards the end of his life, this is all turned upside-down. ’I think that it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth … it’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing”, and you rise, shakily, and go off muttering, “Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing”.’

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