This 2007 performance of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony is beautiful -- a word not often used to describe that work. The tone of the Philadelphia Orchestra hasn't been this rich and deep since the late years of Stokowski and the early years of Ormandy. Listen to the lushness of the strings in the Largo, or the brilliance of the winds in the Allegretto, or the strength of the brass in the finale. And listen to the polish of the ensemble, the blend of the instruments, and the clarity of the textures. Though reportedly leaving the Philadelphia due to a strained relationship with the players, as demonstrated in his recordings, Eschenbach by whatever methods has, in fact, restored the orchestra's fabled sound.
Some might question whether beauty is a quality one should associate with Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, a work full of fear, brutality, and violence. But as heard here the opening Moderato makes sense as a piece of musical architecture, and the Allegretto succeeds as a bittersweet dance. The Largo is a heartfelt hymn, and the closing Allegro non troppo feels like a hard-won victory. Though not everyone may agree with Eschenbach and the Philadelphia's point of view, there are always the Mravinsky and Kondrashin recordings for those who like their Shostakovich rough and tough.
As a highly unusual but wonderfully effective addition, Ondine has coupled Shostakovich's Fifth with his Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok. Written 30 years after the symphony and scored for voice with piano trio, Shostakovich's Blok songs are far more austere and far, far more concentrated than his Fifth. However, with mezzo-soprano Yvonne Naef are violinist Juliette Kang and cellist Hai-Ye Ni, the associate concertmaster and principal cellist of the Philadelphia, and Eschenbach himself, a piano virtuoso turned conductor. Thus the performances do bear the indelible stamp of Eschenbach's Philadelphia and the reason for the coupling becomes clearer. The performance itself, though, could hardly be called beautiful, but in these more intimate and more emotionally revealing works, Naef, Kang, Ni, and Eschenbach deliver performances of tremendous strength and searing intensity that match the finest performances of the work ever recorded. Both performances are captured in clear, colorful, and very vivid super audio digital sound by Ondine.