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Russian Tree of Life Fabric Panel, late 19th century

It’s been four months since my last Shostakovich Fifth.  If that sounds like the confession of an addict at at 12-step meeting, you would not be wrong.

In actuality, it’s been four months since my last live Fifth. In recorded form, I think I listened to it last on Tuesday.  The more I listen, the more it continues to jostle at the Eighth and the Fourth (and sometimes the Seventh) as my favourite Shostakovich symphony.  No, favourite is the completely wrong term. I don’t quite know what is the right term–but there is this: what keeps me coming back is the utter perfection of all four movements; the other three works each have a movement that, to me, doesn’t quite have the spark of the others.

So, as I said in March:  “I will never not go hear this work, again, and again, and again.”

And so I went again, and emerged with questions. A mystery to solve!  Research to be done!

The performance in question was with the National Academy Orchestra, which each year is the “resident orchestra” of the Brott Festival.  Conductor Boris Brott is a bit of a local legend, having taken the Hamilton Philharmonic from community to professional orchestra during his long tenure there (not to mention having a role in the foundation of the world-renowned Canadian Brass). He once conducted the orchestra playing in the middle of one of Dofasco’s blast furnaces (oh my stars, I wish there were video of that), among other unorthodox locations.  The National Academy Orchestra is a professional training orchestra for young musicians, formed each year via audition. The musicians (mostly in their early 20s) play alongside experienced mentors, who usually take the section chair positions, throughout the Festival, which includes a rather large range of repertoire from classical to opera to pop to Broadway.

This year, the first of two Classical Connoisseur performances included the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, alongside the Dvořák Cello Concerto and a contemporary work by Indigenous composers Spy Dénommé-Welch and Catherine Magowan entitled Bottlenecked, which opened the concert. The latter work was a revelation (not least for its use of a harpsichord), and may just lead down a future rabbit hole as they’ve composed a number of works, including an opera, and have all kinds of interesting side projects including a comedy duo called Professor Quack and Grunt and an electric bassoon band.  (If I needed any more indication that some of the most interesting work in classical music in Canada is being done by Indigenous composers, there it is right there).  Likewise, the Dvořák is a gorgeous work, one of those cello concertos that have been rattling around in the periphery of my brain for years but that I had never heard complete. Cellist Rachel Mercer played it beautifully, not least because of her rapport with the orchestra, acknowledged frequently in glances and smiles.

But I was there for the Shostakovich. (Unfortunately, some of the audience wasn’t, and left at the intermission. I still don’t quite understand this–if I purchase a ticket, I’m going to hear the entire concert, and it’s not as if Shostakovich is one of those “weird serialists” or something.) I’d seen a young orchestra (mostly) succeed with the 10th Symphony, and I eagerly awaited what this one would do with the Fifth.   The first unusual move was to have apprentice conductor Trevor Wilson direct the first two movements, with Boris Brott taking over the final two.  This set up a fascinating contrast in conducting styles between the angular, crisp, and highly energetic style of Wilson and the more flowing, expressive style of Brott.  Overall, the playing was outstanding.  There were a couple of entrances off by a half second or chords that sounded a little out of balance, and the intimate hall made the celesta and the harp sound much louder than they normally would (possibly why only one harp was included, rather than the two called for by the score).  But the winds, particularly the horns, performed admirably.  (It was difficulty with the horns that somewhat marred the performance of the Shostakovich 10th I heard in May).  The second movement featured a particularly sprightly tempo.

But it was the Largo that sold the success of the performance for me. That movement is the heart of the work–not the louder first and final movements or the jaunty second, and it breaks my heart every time. Writer David Hurwitz describes it this way:  “….the melody’s second half–its four note repeated-note figure hammered out by violins and xylophone over intense tremelos on strings and piano. This rises upwards in an anguished, screaming crescendo, cuts off; and then cellos surge forward with a desperate, urgent version of the previous section’s woodwind melody.”  The trick here is balance.  After that crescendo, after that brief moment of silence, the cellos come in all alone against the tremelo of violins and violas. They’re outnumbered, and playing in their upper registers, adding tension.  It’s really easy to overwhelm them, and I’ve heard the best orchestras do it.  The National Academy cellos–just five of them–held their own somehow.  Perhaps, again, it was the intimacy of the setting, but it didn’t just break my heart, it shattered it.

And then, we come to the last movement, and the ensuing research and revelations. Brott started the movement off quickly–very quickly, in fact.  I smiled, knowing that if there’s one thing I don’t like is that movement, marked at its commencement Allegro non troppo (fast, but not too fast), taken too slowly.  But this was a little faster than I was used to. And then, it just never really slowed down, almost right through to the end of the piece.  As I commented on Facebook, “it felt like the orchestra was about to spontaneously combust.”

Without realizing it, I had just experienced what Shostakovich himself must have heard in 1959 when he heard Leonard Bernstein conduct the piece, taking the tempo at the end (right through the climax at bar 131) twice as fast as marked.  But I’m getting ahead of myself here.  I was aware that Bernstein took the movement fast, and that other conductors had a reputation of taking much more slowly, but to my shame, I’d not heard the Bernstein recording or understood what “taking it fast” meant for the finale of the movement. Boris Brott had just showed me.  But when I left last night, it was a mystery to be solved.  Where had that interpretation come from?

This morning, I spent some time listening to 12 different performances found on YouTube of the fourth movement, none of which I’d listened to before. I specifically avoided the ones I own–the Barshai, the Nelsons, the Maxim Shostakovich–or rather, the ones that are on my iTunes playlist, because I’ve just remembered I own the 1959 Bernstein and somehow escaped actually listening to it. Ahem.  As I did so, I began to mentally construct a stemma of different schools of interpretation, a technique I learned from my doctoral research into a medieval theology manuscript.  I started with a 1973 recording with Mravinsky (who premiered the work in 1937 with the Leningrad Philharmonic) that included the piano four hands reduction of the score. This, of course, was not the 1937 version, but it at least gave me a good sense of how Mravinsky approached the work. His initial tempo is fast, but followed the score markings to the letter, meaning the finale was much more what I was accustomed to. Kondrashin was next (the Melodiya recording), and here I could see the beginnings of the move to slow down the movement considerably.  He still keeps a fast tempo, but his ritards are more dramatic than Mravinsky’s. In comparison, Rostropovich’s version with the National Symphony absolutely crawls at the end.  Petrenko with the Royal Liverpool is likewise rather lugubrious. This is clearly the “Russian school” I’d heard about that seems to like to drag out the finale. Paavo Järvi’s 2015 recording with the Orchestre de Paris is clearly in that school.  But Gergiev’s recording with the BBC Symphony was closer, more like Kondrashin’s in the early going, but with a much faster ending.  I wasn’t hearing anything like I’d heard last night, though. But when I came to Haitink with the Royal Concertgebouw, at last I found something similar to Brott’s rendering. “I’ve found it!” I thought.  But had I?

Bernstein was nagging in the back of my mind, because I seemed to recall that his tempo was controversial, so his recording was next.  Of course. There it was.  Did that answer it?  Probably yes, as far as what influenced Brott to take that tempo–further research confirmed that the Bernstein recording is (in)famous in conducting circles, but–interestingly– that Shostakovich himself had thought it had worked. But the historian in me, the one interested in manuscript studies, wanted to take it back farther.  This was a 1959 recording. What did it sound like before Bernstein?

As it turns out, the “fast ending” wasn’t completely new. Bernstein’s fourth movement times at 8:56.  Eugene Ormandy’s 1958 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Moscow also takes the finale faster than I’m used to, with the entire movement timing in at 10:03.  Most intriguing, however, was Leopold Stokowski’s recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra dated to 1939 (and taken from 78 rpm recordings, in the version I listened to). His fourth movement (listen to it here) also ends much faster than has become typical. At 10:22, it’s not as fast as Bernstein or even the Ormandy, but it is the version that comes closest to the absolute furious pace of Bernstein’s finale, having slowed considerably in the middle section. (Just as a comparison, the Andris Nelsons BSO version takes the movement in 12:26, Maxim Shostakovich’s version is at 12:16, Rostropovich is at 11:26, and Petrenko at 12:40).

So, so far as I can tell, Bernstein’s 1959 tempo would not have sounded as radical as it does now, and it’s clear that as far back as Stokowski, conductors were experimenting with the various tempi within the movement.  Stokowski might even be credited with starting the movement towards playing it fast, with Bernstein’s interpretation the culmination of that particular interpretive branch. Haitink (10:35) was a later adherent of this approach. Bernstein’s later recordings of the piece gradually slowed the pace; a recording with the Boston Symphony in 1989 times out at 11:12, for instance, although the ending is still quite fast.   Meanwhile, (mostly) Russian conductors took the lead in slowing the movement down, and eventually settled into the 12+ minute standard that seems to be currently popular (although the recent recording by Gergiev takes it back down to 11:39).

So, what I heard was what I would term a radical anachronism–reflecting an earlier approach to interpretation of the movement that reached its apotheosis in Bernstein’s 1959 recording.  The tree of transmission has two main branches–the American one, with Stokowski, Ormandy, and Bernstein (and later, Haitink) as its main products, and the Russian/Soviet one, starting with Mravinsky and Kondrashin down through Rostropovich and M. Shostakovich, with Gergiev, Petrenko, and Nelsons as its more recent adherents. The Russian approach seems to be most popular internationally (Järvi’s version is clearly part of it)  What remains to be seen (and what could be a longer-term project) is whether any North American conductors (or others) still follow the Bernstein tradition.  We certainly know now now that Boris Brott does.

All that aside…did that fast finish do it for me?   To be perfectly honest, it did not.  I like a fast initial tempo, but I like the building and release of tension better when it’s played as written.  The buildup of the chord (as each instrument piles on) and its release at Bar 131 is one of my favourite moments in the entire piece–it reads to me like an enormous, shaky sign of tentative relief, and if taken too fast, some of the “wrong notes” that follow that show just how unsteady ground that relief stands on are absolutely lost. The finale needs to be strained. If it passes by before you even have a chance to take note of what’s going on there, that effect is lost.  After listening to the various versions, I came out liking Mravinsky’s interpretion best. And let’s face it, as the man who premiered the work, he certainly does have a great deal of credibility.


Links to some of the other recordings referenced above:







7/13/19 addendum:  I have just been pointed to a 1937 recording with Mravinsky conducting not long after the symphony’s premiere.  It’s a rather remarkable recording overall, with the first movement having a much darker quality and somewhat slower tempo than I’m used to–adding a bit more gloom to the storm.  The fourth movement in that one times in at just over 11 minutes long.  What’s particularly interesting to me is that the changes in the metronome markings (there are several, particularly early on in the fourth movement) are much more obvious, possibly because the piece was, at that point, brand new.  The movement, as a whole, is in keeping with Mravinsky’s later recordings, with the more expansive ending that would eventually be considered the traditional/Russian interpretation.