This 1975 recording from a performance recorded by Bavarian Radio as “live” but without an audience offers the only chance to hear this great artist conducting the music of Shostakovich.
The re-mastered recording is excellent, with a very “widescreen” stereo effect with plenty of detail, and balanced faithfully as if one were sitting in good seats close behind the conductor.
The weight of orchestral sound is impressive, warm and mellow in typical Bavarian style-this was Celibidache’s orchestra at this period-and I have detected only one miniscule imprecision with the horns in the first movement which is of no concern when set beside the virtuosity on display.
Tennstedt had defected from the oppression of the DDR Regime in 1971, and much of his early work in the West was with the BRSO and MPO before he burst on to the world stage following performances of Bruckner’s 8th with the BPO standing in for an indisposed Karajan.
He was an avowed admirer of contemporary music, but the demand for his exalted readings of Classical and Romantic Music gave him little opportunity to perform much of it, certainly not to record it.
He only ever conducted the 5th and 9th symphonies of Shostakovich in his period in the West, perhaps understandably bearing in mind what this music represented for many in that era-artistic conformity to a dictatorial and oppressive regime-but we can be grateful that he felt able to tackle this most accessible of the composer’s works as his reading is of real stature and anything but routine.
He opens the work grandly, on the slow side but not markedly so, but when the accelerando takes place mid movement, he dazzles us with a swiftness that demands the utmost virtuosity from the orchestra which sounds , as in so many of this conductor’s great performances as if it is playing by the seat of its pants.
The second movement is taken at medium pace with a square rhythm that does not over emphasise “oompah” effect, and the horns intone their theme from a natural balance from the rear of the platform, not in your face. The third movement is redolent of the Tennstedt manner with Bruckner and Mahler-naturally flowing, deeply felt and perfectly balanced. The playing is exquisite.
The finale of this movement is for many the most problematical, climaxing as it does with triumphal bombast seen as a sop by Shostakovich to the Stalin regime. Tennstedt will have none of it!
He begins with a normal paced statement of the opening theme-but with the thumping timps notably providing background rhythm and not dominating the sound picture-he does not immediately accelerate in the following exposition as is usually the case. Instead the WHOLE of the opening part of the movement is a prolonged “accelerando”, the tempo quickening gradually with each phrase until when the strings enter with the great lyrical patriotic melody the tempo is breakneck-and quickening!
Tennstedt does not then prolong the following contemplative section but maintains a steady momentum leading to a finale in the same tempo-no pulling back to emphasise grandeur, and ending with a swift series of fanfares supported by naturally balanced timps and bass drum.
There is none of the tub thumping, speaker challenging bombast that is normally associated with these passages-indeed Tennstedt succeeds in sanitising the movement of all bombast, making it a more “classical” experience, and a more musical one.
I can well imagine this not being to everyone’s taste-there are those who revel in this work’s “grand finale”, and I’m not averse to it myself but I appreciate totally Tennstedt’s approach and it is in keeping with the humanity of the rest of the reading.
The additional works are selections from The Lachian Dances by Janacek-pleasant if to me unmemorable numbers very well played and recorded, but not ideal companions to the great symphony, but nonetheless allowing us to hear this great conductor in unfamiliar repertoire.
This recording is about Tennstedt’s reading-great performances and recordings of the symphony abound.
Ancerl with the Czech Phil, Maxim Shostakovich with the USSR SO, Mravinsky and Previn all provide classic accounts, and more modern recordings are topped for me by Bernstein with NYPO recorded digitally live in the generous ambience of the Suntory Hall in Tokyo, and best of all Jansons with the glorious VPO coupled with the most intense performance of the Chamber Symphony arranged by Barshai (a rare occasion when BBC Radio 3 Critics Choice and I agree about First Choice!).
There are many, many more and so it is impossible to recommend this as an outright first choice-BUT it is a truly fascinating account, far from the overblown piece of “ agitprop” that it cam emerge as in some readings, and gloriously played in warm and detailed sound.
For admirers of this conductor it is a “no brainer.”
5 Stars and a strong recommendation. Stewart Crowe.