National Symphony Orchestra / Mstislav Rostropovich

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5

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Whatever listeners may think of Mstislav Rostropovich's first recording of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 with the National Symphony Orchestra, it is a historical document of the utmost importance to anyone who claims to love the music of Shostakovich.

First, it is a performance by Shostakovich's close personal friend, Rostropovich. Second, it is the first Western performance of the Fifth by a former Soviet citizen. Any performances of the Fifth from the Soviet Union are suspect because all Soviet performances were literally made inside a barbed wire fence of censure and oppression. Third and most importantly, it is the first performance of the Fifth that can take into account the "true" meaning of the final movement. For decades, the last movement has been regarded as a movement of such appalling stupidity that it has deformed the rest of the Symphony by its existence. However, Rostropovich asserts that the finale is in fact deliberately dumb: "The shrill repetition of the A at the end of the symphony is to me like a spear-point jabbing in the wounds of a person on the rack...Any person who thinks the finale is glorification is an idiot -- yes, it is a triumph of idiots."

Rostropovich's interpretation of the Fifth is heartbreaking and terrible. While it is true that Rostropovich is not much of a conductor, he is able to get his point across to the orchestra well enough so that it delivers a performance of the first three movements of unsurpassed intensity. But it is in the finale that Rostropovich and the National Symphony truly come into their own. Taken much faster than almost any previous performance and played with barbaric cruelty, the finale becomes more than appallingly stupid; it becomes malignant and evil. A very great, truly needful performance of the Fifth.

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