Three Shostakoviches (Fifth Symphony)

Here’s a more difficult comparison. Three versions of the dark, ominous Fifth Symphony by Shostakovich. The first is the most recent, with Valery Gergiev conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The second is a 1959 recording by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic and the third is a 1991 recording by Yevgeny Svetlanov and the USSR Orchestra.

Here you can compare the three openings. Listen to how the conductors set up this opening statement. Dramatic yes, but how? What makes one more dramatic than the other? The sound in these recordings is obviously different, but what about the sound of the orchestras? You could think of this opening phrase as a challenge, a cry. So what should answer that? How should the next phrase answer this first? To make that comparison, below these excerpts of the opening, there are YouTube videos of these three performances.

First listen to the excerpts and try to describe them in as much detail as you can. Then suggest what how you think the next phrase ought to answer the first. Then listen/watch the video performances of the movement and hear how they develop and differ.

NOTE: The National Symphony will be performing Shostakovich Symphony #5 May 11, 2013 in Carnegie Hall at the final concert of this year’s Spring For Music.

Valery Gergiev and the BBC SO

Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic

Yevgeny Svetlanov and the USSR State SO

Gergiev – BBCSO

Svetlanov Moscow – USSR State Symphony Orchestra 1991

Bernstein – NYPhil 1959


  1. OK, this one’s really tough, and the recording quality is definitely a factor. The USSR seems to drag a bit, and the Gergiev feels a bit too rounded off in the lower voices. In the Bernstein, in contrast, the sharp bite in the entrances of the lower voices conveys anguish from the start, and the lower and higher voices seem in clear communication. The USSR has this quality,too, but not the Gergiev, to my ears,anyway. The more I listen,the more I appreciate the USSR slightly darker version, though I would still take the sharp edged Bernstein overall. I hope others will weigh in here, because this is really tough. It would be great to read a comment by one of the presenters that also gives names to some of the different techniques/dynamics used in each and what the presenter feels is their effect.

  2. Kathleen James says:

    I liked the Russian orchestra best, the BBC least. I thought the Russian orchestra more effectively used dynamics, and conveyed the plaintive and compelling nature of the opening. I think the New York Philharmonic version was the most musically and technically precise. How to answer? I have not listened to the YouTube performances yet, but I would say the BBC version needs a “wake-up” answer, the New York version needs a sure-handed, rich and sweeping answer that is equally technically proficient, but brings emotional heart, and the Russian needs a commanding response that reigns in the emotion a bit but takes the movement to a greater depth.

  3. This is really tough! I resorted to Google and wikipedia very early on and have allowed a little bit of contextual information and a lot of cod psychology influence my response to the exerpts. I think that the Gergiev version presents a sort of (non-Phil Spector) “wall of sound”, relying on the double basses for drama. The different lines or voices seem to meet and blend in the middle and although there is a decrescendo towards the end of the opening statement it is much less dramatic than the other two versions. The New York Philarmonic’s performance has sharper edges, I think. It’s almost as though there is a breath before the violins come in to answer the lower strings and the pauses sound more…spontaneous and precarious. The volume drops off dramatically and the end of the opening sounds as though it has been smothered. I would attribute some of the drama of this performance to its context: Shostakovich was present at one of the performances by Bernstein and the New York Philarmonic, on tour in Moscow in 1959, and appeared on stage to congratulate them. The Fifth Symphony marked Shostakovich’s return to favour with the Soviet authorities but it could be seen as a response to Stalin’s Great Terror and to his own denunciation as a “formalist” and I think this version of the opening conveys a sense of terror and anguish. I don’t really know what to make of the third performance. It must have been dramatic to be there, listening, as the USSR moved towards collapse at the end of 1991. I think this performance is more mannered than the Bernstein, more sonorous and with more vibrato. The (I think – I’m probably wrong) pianissimo at the end of the opening statement comes as less of a shock. I am so ignorant that I have no idea of what to expect from the next phrase so I’m going to move straight to Youtube…

%d bloggers like this: