Performances to Live With?
The November 2021 issue of Gramophone magazine announces on its cover: “Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony – We reveal the finest recordings”. In the featured article, the ‘Top Choice’, from Kurt Sanderling and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra (1982), is selected on some characteristically (it seems to me) British criteria, summarised thus: “nothing flashy or artificial [whatever that means] gets in the way” and a “thoughtful account [that] will best suit listeners who find rival versions (or even the music itself) prone to overstatement”. Interestingly, in the same article André Previn’s powerfully expressive 1965 recording is faintly praised for its similar qualities as being “essentially apolitical Shostakovich”.
Are we really in an age when Shostakovich’s music is still questioned as being possibly “prone to overstatement”? Such a declaration makes me wonder if these somewhat repressed British manners might have said the same about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony eighty-four years after its composition and first performance?
The article lists twenty-five selected recordings of the Shostakovich Symphony, nine of which are treasured volumes on my own CD shelves (along with three others – a second version from Valery Gergiev, as well as recordings from Yakov Kreizberg and Krzysztof Urbanski). None, including the Gramophone critic’s Top Choice, reveals all that is to be found in Shostakovich’s exhaustively rich and profoundly expressive work. Some (e.g. Vasily Petrenko’s glorious Liverpool recording, and Bernstein’s “famously histrionic” account) are, by implication, found wanting to a degree for following valid interpretive alternatives that don’t quite gel with the writer’s own ideas.
Each time I play a recording of Shostakovich’s Fifth, I deliberately choose a different recording to the one that I most recently played, and every time I find something new in the piece; that’s why no recording should ever be considered ‘the best’. I do have a tendency to frequently replay newly acquired recordings for a while but soon, however good the performance, its expressive power wears a little thin as each interpretive corner is turned and the performance becomes predictable in a way that the composer never intended.
Before beginning this November edition of Troubleshooter I listened to Gramophone’s recommended Top Choice and I look forward to hearing it again in order to try to discover more of its secrets which, for now, strike me as comparatively less overtly communicative or dynamically engaging than Shostakovich surely intended.
The works chosen for The Gramophone Collection each month do often reveal performances that have not previously come within my earshot. The recommendations in the October issue’s comparison of recordings of Verdi’s Rigoletto proved a revelation, even when I already have at least half-a-dozen carefully chosen sets on my shelves. But, here again, no version says it all, so, while my long-time favourite recording didn’t feature among Gramophone’s recommendations, it stubbornly remains my favourite; but so many other interpretations are well worth hearing and each certainly enriches the listening experience.
I’m reminded of a Gramophone review some years ago when the reviewer described a deeply passionate and truly charismatic live recording from the Salzburg Festival of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Valery Gergiev as “not a performance to live with”. However, firstly, it sounds like one of those performances that will remain in the lifetime memory and life-changing experience of anyone lucky enough to have been there. And, secondly, there is no such thing as a performance that any nineteenth century composer could ever have intended (let alone imagined) would be one “to live with”. For Tchaikovsky, the only possible way of anyone being able to experience his music was in a live performance with the listener physically in attendance. And there are many fine recordings of this work, each one offering something fresh and revealing, even on repeated listenings provided it’s not repeated too often. The Gergiev VPO recording is one that I return to every two or three years, and it never fails to come up fresh every time.
So, the idea of a ‘Top Choice’ for a recording of any individual work is not only a foolish concept, but surely a rather arrogant one.
In the mid-1980s, when I decided to supplement, and eventually replace, my collection of several-hundred vinyl albums with CDs, I made the naïve decision to buy just one, top-recommended version of each major work that I wanted. It wasn’t long before that decision became impractical as conductors, instrumentalists, singers and ensembles young and old brought something newly fresh and creative to their interpretations, just as generations of great musicians have always done.
Excellent! A great and wise article.
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Tony Ryan has reviewed Christchurch concerts, opera and music theatre productions and many other theatre performances since the mid 1990s.
Tony has presented live and written radio reviews of numerous concerts, opera and other musical events for RNZ Concert for many years. An archive of these reviews can be found at Radio New Zealand - Upbeat
His reviews of opera, music & straight theatre and numerous reviews of buskers and comedy festival performances are available at Theatreview
An archive of Tony’s chamber music reviews is held at Christopher’s Classics
He has also reviewed for The Press (Christchurch). Links to Tony's Press reviews are listed below:
A Barber and Bernstein Double Bill – Toi Toi Opera
The Strangest of Angels – NZOpera
Will King (Baritone) and David Codd (Piano) – Christopher's Classics
Ars Acustica – Free Theatre
Truly Madly Baroque – Red Priest
The Mousetrap – Lunchbox Theatre
Iconoclasts – cLoud
Last Night of the Proms – CSO
An Evening with Simon O’Neill NZSO
Catch Me If You Can – Blackboard Theatre
Brothers in Arms – CSO
Fear and Courage – CSO
Sin City – CSO
Don Giovanni – Narropera at Lansdowne
Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – Funatorium
Weave – NZTrio
Tosca – NZ Opera
Sister Act – Showbiz
Broadway to West End – Theatre Royal
Chicago – Court Theatre
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 – CSO
Homage – CSO
Last Night of the Proms – CSO
SOAR – NZTrio
Pianomania – NZSO
Rogers & Hammerstein – Showbiz
Songs for Nobodies – Ali Harper
The Beauty of Baroque – CSO
Travels in Italy – NZSO