The pairing of these two symphonies isn't just a clever gimmick. Both works, as Paul Schiavo points out in his program notes, are works "of strife or pathos progressing to exultant finales. That progression makes for a musical drama that is both elemental and thrilling." That said, these two symphonies come from vastly different worlds—and not just because one was written 120 years after the other.
The Beethoven is certainly the more famous and less ambiguous of the two. "Beethoven's Fifth Symphony," wrote English scholar and BBC classical music producer Basil Lam back in 1966, "was the first of a new kind of symphony, which, because it expressed in musical terms the optimistic humanist philosophy, became almost the norm in the nineteenth century." The message of triumph through struggle could not be clearer, especially in the exultant final pages of the last movement where, as Mr. Schiavo writes, "the dramatic passage from darkness to light, from despair to joy—that is the “meaning” of the finale and the goal of the entire symphony."
That's not to say that there aren't plenty of traps for the unwary conductor. Tempi have to be carefully chosen (especially now that "original instrument" guys like Roger Norrington have shown us the kind of excitement you can generate by paying attention to those metronome markings) and the overall interpretation has to maintain a sense of momentum and progress towards that joyous finale without feeling rushed and without neglecting the many wonderful orchestral details Beethoven provided.
None of this posed a problem for Mr. van Zweden and the orchestra, though. The first movement was crisp and incisive, setting the stage for the dramatically charged (and bracingly brisk) reading that was to follow. The second movement Andante con moto was expressive but never lugubrious and the scherzo was appropriately mysterious. And the finale was, indeed, joyous.
Those orchestral details referred to above came through with great clarity as well. The entrance of the basses and cellos at the beginning of the fugato section of the scherzo was exceptionally dramatic, I thought, and the winds were lovely throughout. This was, in other words, a Beethoven Fifth that was perfectly balanced and even, at times, revelatory. Which, for a piece this well known, is saying something.
Shostakovich's Fifth has a complex history. The composer wrote it quickly (in three months) in 1937, partly in response to harsh criticism of his surreal and lurid 1934 opera "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District" by the Stalin regime. "The opera disappeared overnight," notes Michael Tilson Thomas in an episode of the PBS series "Keeping Score" on the Fifth, "and every publication and political organization in the country heaped personal attacks on its composer."
This was at the height of that outbreak of official violence now known as the Stalinist Terror, so being blacklisted didn't just put your career in jeopardy but your life as well. The composer set out, therefore, to produce a work that would appear, at least on the surface, to meet the demands of heroic socialist realism. He even went so far as to accompany the first performance with an article in the Moscow newspaper Vechernyaya Moskva titled "A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism"—lest there be any doubt that he had Learned His Lesson.
It worked. Shostakovich was officially rehabilitated and for many years afterwards the Fifth was seen, even in the West, as a classic example of Triumph through Struggle. It was only many years later, when the composer's private thoughts about the Fifth began to come to light, that it became apparent there might be a deeper meaning to this music—a meaning apparent to the opening night audience in Leningrad in 1937, even if the commissars missed it. "Many in the premiere audience were seen to weep openly," writes Richard Freed, in his notes for Leonard Slatkin's 1986 recording with the SLSO. "[T]hey wept, Shostakovich himself felt, because 'they understood; they understood what was happening around them and they understood what the Fifth was about.'"
Listening to it now, it's impossible not to hear despair and defiance instead of patriotic uplift, especially in the ominous mock fanfare of the opening and the succession of aggressive march tunes in the finale. The second movement Allegretto is a Mahlerian parody of a waltz, complete with squawking clarinet (nicely done by Dana Haskell in the E-flat clarinet, an instrument that doesn't get many solos, along with fellow single reeders Scott Andrews and Tina Ward) and, unexpectedly, a graceful little violin (David Halen, in a fine moment with the harps). And the third movement Largo clearly feels like lament for all the friends and family the composer lost to the Terror, memorialized with chorale-like string writing (rendered with great intensity by the symphony strings) that calls to mind the liturgy of the banned Russian Orthodox Church.
Mr. van Zweden's interpretation, while not downplaying the music's drama, sounded very much informed by the tragic and defiant subtext of this piece. The trumpets in the first movement march had an aggressive and mocking snarl, for example, and the mournful little celesta figure that closes the movement was allowed to die into a brief and telling silence. The dark comedy of the second movement came through loud and clear and the Largo was just as heartbreaking as it should have been. I can only imagine what it must have meant to an audience in 1937, most of whom would have lost friends and family to the Terror (as did the composer himself).
The biggest challenge with the Fifth, though, is the finale. Take it one way (usually with faster tempi) and it becomes, as Shostakovich wrote at the time of the work's premiere, "the optimistic resolution of the tragically tense moments of the first movement." Change it just a bit, and it becomes a parody of militaristic triumphalism. Mr. van Zweden's interpretation felt like it emphasized the latter while still allowing us to understand what Stalin and company thought they heard. I'd say that's masterful.
The St. Louis Symphony's intoxicating pair of Fifths will be performed again tonight (Saturday, February 1) at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM at Powell Hall in Grand Center. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio at 90.7 FM, HD 1, and streaming from the station web site. But, of course, it’s best heard live.
Next on the schedule: James Gaffigan conducts with soloists David Halen (violin) and Daniel Lee (cello) in the Brahms "Double Concerto," along with Mendelsshon’s "Symphony No. 3" and "The Fair Melusina Overture." Performances take place on Friday at 10:30 AM, Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, February 7 - 9, at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand. For more information: stlsymphony.org.