Top Ear

Haitink’s Shostakovich 5 and 9

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Jeremy Lee writes

Bernard Haitink’s Shostakovich symphonies, if not placed on a par with Barshai’s and Rostropovich’s, has been generally acclaimed. Nevertheless, listeners curious about Haitink’s way with the symphonies but don’t want to invest in the whole set can purchase most of them individually.  Most readily available is this installment of his Shostakovich 5th and 9th symphonies on Ovation, now made even more accessible by its alter ego on the budget series Eloquence.

The Fifth with the Concertgebouw features a moderately menacing first movement, a moderately vivacious second, a moderately lamenting third and a moderately indignant finale.  And the problem lies in this moderateness:  everything sounds moderated, without a shred of spontaneity.  So nothing you hear, no matter how cleverly arresting Shostakovich’s writing is–the pounding piano and low horns in the first movement, the grim basses in the slow section of the finale–will make you sit at the edge of your seat or say “Wow, that’s genius!”.  But let’s leave inspiration aside to consider the more fundamental issues:  there are a few ensemble problems, such as in the finale, when the broad string reprise of the heroic trumpet solo in the middle is accompanied by a frustratingly dragging trumpet accompaniment, and the balance problems of the recording, where the brass section is annoyingly backward in this symphony when it should feature prominently.  But when all is said and done, certainly nothing goes terribly wrong in this predominantly safe performance.

The Ninth with the London Philharmonic, however, is one of the very best.  Haitink’s approach is as safe as always, but his lively choice of tempo and characterful, virtuosic playing from the woodwind section does much to enliven things–note the brilliant third movement as well as the songful second.  The piece could do with a bit more sardonic humour–the brass could be much more sneering in the recapitulation of the first movement–but as a whole, it’s up there with my favorite recordings:  Bernstein’s and Celibidache’s.  No problems at all with the London Philharmonic’s playing, and the sound is very clear and well balanced for once.

So in sum, we have an okay Fifth coupled with a generally excellent Ninth, and although both are not unqualified successes, their good points as well as Eloquence’s budget price should appeal to newcomers and fans of these symphonies alike.


  • Album name:  Shostakovich:  Symphony No. 5;  Symphony No. 9
  • Performers:  Bernard Haitink (conductor);  Concertgebouw Orchestra (Symphony No. 5);  London Philharmonic Orchestra (Symphony No. 9)
  • Label:  Decca 425 662-6
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  1:16:10

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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