Thursday, January 8, 2009

Listening Session: Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5

Andre Previn, London Symphony Orchestra (RCA LSC-2866)

Shostakovich wrote of his Fifth: "The theme of my symphony is the stabilization of a personality. In the center of this composition--conceived lyrically from beginning to end--I saw a man with all his experiences. The finale resolves the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movement into optimism and joy of living."

Shostakovich was a master of evoking tragedy and despair. However, as this work reveals, optimism and joy came a little harder for him. The joyful ending comes abruptly without build-up or a convincing transition from the angst and tension that precedes it for most of the symphony. The finale is like a happy ending slapped on at the end of a serious movie to satisfy a test audience. (In the case of the composer, the test audience may have been the Soviet politburo.) There's more authenticity to the buffoonish second movement that separates the moving angst and sadness of the first and third movements. It starts with a grotesque waltz and the forced lightness of this movement compared to the rest of the symphony is, I think, intentionally perverse. It's sarcastically happy music. Shostakovich knew tragedy and despair all too well in his personal life and as witness to what his country had to endure under Soviet totalitarianism. This symphony makes clear that it wasn't a hope of a better tomorrow that got him through, but rather the ability to laugh in the face of the worst that life could throw at him. It's a quality that he shares with many great Russian artists.

Drink for this Listening Session: Lismore single-malt scotch whisky. This is a Speyside, which tends to be more mellow and smooth than other single-malts. Some may consider it bland, but I like it just fine, especially for the price, $17 at Trader Joe's for a 750ml bottle.

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