Shostakovich / Barber: Symphony No. 5 / Adagio for Strings (Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
Reference Recordings

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's renderings of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 and Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings must constitute one of the most beautiful sounding recordings of these works; in that regard, the Grammy the release recently received in the ‘Best Engineered Album' category feels wholly warranted. Of greater import, however, is the other award music director Manfred Honeck and his orchestra received for their efforts, namely the Grammy for ‘Best Orchestral Performance'; countless recordings are available of both works, yet the performances by Honeck and the PSO are incredibly strong, so much so that they allow the listener to hear them as if anew. It's not the first time, by the way, the Pittsburgh Symphony has been so honoured: earlier sets devoted to Dvorák/Janacek and Bruckner each received Grammy nominations for ‘Best Orchestral Performance,' while the Soundmirror team responsible for recording and mastering the release has received more than ninety Grammy nominations and awards.

When a work is as well-established and familiar as these two, the interpreter's goal obviously isn't to introduce the material to the listener; beyond aspiring to achieve a definitive interpretation, the attempt is made to make it seem as if certain facets of the piece are being heard for the first time, a goal wondrously achieved by Honeck and company in their Shostakovich treatment. The PSO distinguishes itself in a performance marked by incredible sensitivity to dynamics, texture, and tempo; in those moments that call for crushing force to be conveyed, the orchestra rises to the occasion, but it's equally adept at bringing its playing down to a whisper. No doubt one of the explanations for the 1937 work's staying power is the emotional directness of the material and the seeming ease with which its instrumental content connects so universally and with such immediacy. From one extreme to the other, the entire spectrum of inner experience is encompassed, it seems, by its four movements.

Of the liner notes Honeck contributed to the booklet, three sections are dedicated to Shostakovich and the fourth Barber. In the case of the former, the first section provides historical context for the symphony's creation and the third a detailed analysis of the score. That the second section is wholly dedicated to examining the links between Shostakovich and Mahler is telling, specifically in laying bare the affinities between the composers and in identifying the Mahler-like aspects of the symphony. Honeck identifies specific Mahler quotations that occur in the work as well as draws general parallels between their compositions (the slow movements in their respective fifth symphonies, for example, both begin with three ascending quarter notes in the violins).

Space doesn't permit too detailed an account of the political climate in which the work arose, but suffice it to say it was an extremely dangerous time for a composer with a profile as public as Shostakovich's. Criticized in some quarters for their avant-garde tendencies (one Pravda article that referenced the composer appeared under the title “Chaos Instead of Music”), his earlier works had been met with disfavour by the Stalin regime, and being banished to a Siberian work camp or hauled off to prison wasn't outside the realm of possibility; an artistic compromise of sorts was thus devised for the fifth, the decision being to create a work in a less complex style (than its predecessor, for example) that would appease the Soviet government, even though subtle layers of irony and double meaning were incorporated that could go undetected. (As reported by M.T. Anderson in Symphony for the City of the Dead, his book about the Leningrad symphony, Shostakovich soon after the fifth's premiere described the image he'd pictured while writing it: “I saw man with all his sufferings as the central idea of the work ... The finale resolves the tragedy and tension of the earlier movements on a joyous, optimistic note.” But years later, he offered a far different interpretation: “I think that it is clear to everyone what happens in the fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat ... It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing...') No doubt the stress and anxiety Shostakovich experienced during this solemn work's creation must have been excruciating.

The seventeen-minute opening movement captivates from the first moment, beginning as it does with stabbing string figures before relaxing into a quieter episode, the music haunting in its evocation of sadness. An extended exposition follows graced by lyrical passages laden with mystery and yearning, the lone voices of the woodwinds emerging alongside a triumphant swell of horns and strings before an extended section sees the music oscillate dramatically between moments tender and foreboding. Halfway through the music takes a darker turn, growing ever more sardonic as the activity level rapidly increases. A brief march episode follows, one so emphatic in expression it verges on grotesque; the music becomes ever more agitated until the orchestra executes magnificently a segue from a series of aggressive declamations to the movement's elegiac coda and a tentatively hopeful melody voiced by flute and violin.

With shrill full orchestra passages alternating with others featuring smaller instrument combinations, the shorter second movement exemplifies a rather Mahler-like quality in its affectionate yet subtly ironic treatment of its classic scherzo content. Said character is even more pronounced in the brooding slow movement that follows, its fifteen minutes dominated by long, unbroken lines of strings and its quietly majestic presentation punctuated by delicate harp and woodwinds details (reportedly the faces of audience members were wet with tears during the premier performance of the movement by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra on November 21, 1937). A marked change in dynamics occurs here, too, in the dramatic declamatory part that emerges two-thirds of the way into the movement. In the patient development of the material, one might be reminded on the lengthy "Adagio" in Mahler's fourth and in its emphasis on strings Shostakovich's movement also invites comparison to the well-known "Adagietto" from Mahler's fifth. The PSO brings the closing movement to life with an impassioned, high-energy reading that in the opening minutes amplifies the material's ferocity and volatility before reminding us again of the deftness with which it effects transitions from aggressive to subdued passages.

Given all that's come before, Barber's Adagio for Strings might feel like a little bit of an afterthought, but it's welcome nonetheless, even if it's today a warhorse of sorts. Honeck's handling of the material is admirably thoughtful in the way he chose to base his stirring interpretation on Barber's 1967 a capella version for mixed choir, for which the composer used the text of the Agnus Dei, the last part of the Roman Catholic Mass. For this performance, Honeck directed the orchestra to phrase its lines in accordance with the nuances of the spoken text, a move that intensifies the already vocal-like character of Barber's elegiac setting. A familiar piece it is, but the orchestra renders its supplications with poignancy and grace.

To call Shostakovich's symphony a landmark of the twentieth century is trite yet nevertheless accurate, especially in the immediacy with which its fundamental humanity speaks to any listener. Perhaps more than anything else, this remarkable work shows the composer in full command of his considerable melodic gifts, something the performance by Honeck and the PSO brings into sharp relief.

February 2018