Ever since Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic made headlines in 1959 by performing Shostakovich symphonies in communist Moscow, Russia, there has been no shortage of recordings of the composer’s suddenly-popular works. There has also been no shortage of commentary about Shostakovich’s complicated relationship with the Soviet authorities who praised his early work but turned critical later on.
Music critics have long speculated about the extent to which the composer’s reaction to this criticism is present in his work and to what extent it affects a conductor’s interpretation of his symphonies. This scrutiny has been most intensely applied to his Symphony No. 5. Shostakovich is reported to have said that his 5th symphony was “the practical, creative response of a Soviet artist to just criticism.” It was an immediate success, with a reception as triumphant as the heroic march in the final movement. But was it the triumph of a composer bowing to Soviet cultural control or a sarcastic comment on the persecutions he had endured? Nobody is quite sure. Nevertheless, besides the fireworks of that final movement, there are other places in the symphony that express more subtle emotions like melancholy, sturdy resolve, tender resignation, regret, and quirky humor that, political or not, reflect many varieties of just plain human sentiment.
All of this requires a conductor of great finesse and a recording capable of rendering these diverse elements with clarity and aplomb. One of the latest releases from Reference Recordings brings together just such a combination. Manfred Honeck is making a name for himself and his Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for his carefully considered and nuanced approach to the music of Richard Strauss and, in this case, the Shostakovich 5th. The high, quiet strings in the first movement float serenely above a low bass. The second movement is slower and more deliberate than in other recordings and is not as playful (a grim Soviet bear dancing clumsily?). And of course, there is that powerful finale. Nothing sounds rushed or ill-considered; it’s an interpretation that can stand proudly with the best.
All of this is rendered by producer Dirk Sobotka and engineer Mark Donahue from Soundmirror, Inc. in a high-resolution DSD download that recreates the acoustic of Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts with a huge, rock-solid soundstage that is as deep as it is wide. Instruments do not appear from a flat wall of sound but project three-dimensionally from their proper place in the orchestra. The high frequencies sound particularly sweet and are a subtle improvement over the SACD. The dynamic range extends from near-inaudibility to blazing brass and floor-shaking fundamentals with not a hint of strain or congestion.
There are many valid approaches to this symphony, but Honeck’s interpretation is among the most insightful. And the recording is simply stunning, especially considering that it was done during a live performance. Even in the quietest parts, there is nary a cough or breath to be heard. Even if you have multiple versions of this symphony, be sure to give this one a listen.
Forbes [Best Classical Recordings of 2017]
“[Manfred Honeck] interprets – he even anthropomorphizes the music. It works! The music comes alive in uncanny ways. I’m wary of interpreting too much into composers and their works, especially Shostakovich. … Honeck’s profound empathizing with the music – equally obvious from his own, extensive liner notes – denotes a passionate, detail-happy, and deeply caring performance. Honeck lets the orchestra rip, cry, shriek – but he tends at least equally carefully, tenderly to the extensive piano and pianissimo passages. The sound of the orchestra, dark and burnished while perfectly capable of piercing anguish, and the superb recording quality (never dry, still detailed, warm but without hints of artificial beauty) make this a wholly absorbing listening experience. The Barber Adagio for Strings is an added, indulgently performed, tragic coda… altogether ravishing stuff.”
"A breathtaking release of crushing power. Easily the most powerfully persuasive performance in the last 20 years, and without doubt is the finest recording this piece has ever received. The surround sound is perfect, the orchestra gleaming with a sensual sheen that bolsters its claim as one of the finest ensembles in the world.
This outstanding album deserves a place in any collection worth the name."
"The inevitable question of ‘do we really need another Shostakovich 5’ must be answered with a clear and unequivocal YES. In high resolution alone the total count stands at 29. However, the sound quality of many of them are not all that high (to say the least), while some are too expensive for most and, regrettably, a number do not belong to the top echelon. That leaves us with only a hand full of competitors, according to taste and leaning. As for this present release one might say that the producers have been sitting on a treasure trove for much too long. Recorded in the autumn of 2013 it is only now, almost four years later that - for reasons we may never know - this further example of the extraordinary marriage between Honeck and the Pittsburghers comes to light.
What I particularly like about Maestro Honeck is that he tells the listener how he sees what he plays. His notes are well researched and extremely well written. Reading his views on the fifth correspond to advance listening, making one ready for the thrill when putting it to the test. I was not disappointed. Manfred Honeck does not just write about these things, he conveys them, too, with his impressive account of Shostakovich’s fifth symphony. Under his baton the spirited and passionately playing Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra proves once again what an immensely accomplished orchestral body it is.
With such an exemplarily recorded Fifth, Manfred Honeck, the PSO and Reference Recording provide us with an obvious contender for the top of our wish list. Can’t think of any better introduction to their forthcoming European tour, starting at the end of August 2017."