Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5

The D minor symphony opens with the strings alone, setting a threatening mood.  Later on in the first movement an insistent rhythm gives the feel of a march, and the texture and dynamics build up, propelling the music on and on.  There is a brief transition to a major key and a sudden lyrical style – a glimmer of hope?  But the mood darkens again before the end of the movement and a solo violin sounds pleading and desperate.  The allegretto second movement is a waltz, with simple Classical sounding melodies.  Mark Wigglesworth has described it as a parody and I can see why – something about the tempo (slightly slow for a dance perhaps?) and instrumentation makes it sounds mocking and forced.  The Largo again opens with the strings, this time playing at their most expressive – long, beautiful, sorrowful melodic lines.  Spine tingling the whole way through.

The final movement is a fast paced march complete with powerful brass and timpani, and the strings playing as though in a whirlwind.  It culminates in D major, with most of the orchestra playing repeated quavers on the dominant note, A, and has a sense of defiance to it.  There is some dispute about the intended tempo for this section, which was written in the score as 184 quavers per minute.  I listened to one version at approximately this tempo, one at 300 quavers per minute, one at 400 and one at 170.  I found the slow versions much more effective, sounding dramatic and intense compared to the more hurried ending of the fast versions.

For a work which was intended to mark a celebration, I was shocked at the sense of despair it evokes so clearly.


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