Grzegorz Nowak / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5; Festive Overture

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The Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47, "a Soviet artist's response to just criticism," was once among Shostakovich's most popular works. Since the disputes began over just what Shostakovich intended with his big neo-Romantic works, this one above all, it has seemed problematical rather than stirring. In Solomon Volkov's much-discussed book Testimony, Shostakovich is claimed to have interpreted the finale this way: "The rejoicing is forced, created under a threat. It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying 'Your business is rejoicing' and you rise, shakily, and go marching off muttering 'Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.'" What fun is that? At any rate, the best recording of the work may be the old one by Leonard Bernstein, whose usual over-the-top manner brought out the tensions involved. Russians tend to emphasize the symphony's sheer breadth, and the likes of Yevgeny Mravinsky could make a real thrill out of it. This one, by veteran Polish conductor Grzegorz Nowak, tends to split the difference. It is a straightforward reading, very well executed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of which Nowak is associate conductor. His finale, hard-edged and implacable, is consistent with the Testimony interpretation mentioned above. But in the slow movement Nowak allows a good deal of lyricism. This movement contains some of the composer's most admirable moments of orchestration, and the RPO's unnamed harpist takes some really spectacular flights. Not a member of the orchestra is left without challenges, and this venerable group shows that it's still capable of bringing you to your feet. The very light Festive Overture, Op. 96, also comes off crisply. An above-average reading of an evergreen but puzzling symphony.

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