Joseph Stalin loomed large over this BBC Symphony Orchestra programme. Indeed, the concert originally bore the title “Shostakovich in the Shadow of Stalin” until the BBC wimped out and changed it to the less memorable “John Storgårds conducts music by Gubaidulina, Mussorgsky and Shostakovich”. A concert featuring composers who expressed resistance to dictatorial rule through their music, even when seeming to toe the party line, is sadly still pertinent today when what artists say – or don’t say – can land them in hot political water.
“A Soviet artist's creative response to justified criticism,” is how Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was described – reportedly by the composer, but “fake news” is nothing new – in a Moscow newspaper just before its 1937 premiere. That “justified criticism” had been the attack in Pravda, seemingly initiated by Stalin himself, on Shostakovich’s opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The Fifth Symphony was the composer’s artistic rehabilitation, bending to official demands – at least on the surface.
Although the noisy finale seems to proclaim the triumph of socialism, audiences and commentators detected an act of resistance. In Solomon Volkov’s book Testimony, Shostakovich himself – allegedly – likened that finale to the forced rejoicing of the masses in Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. “It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing’, and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’”
Storgårds, replacing fellow Finnish conductor Eva Ollikainen who sustained an ankle injury, is a fine conductor of Shostakovich, demonstrated in a searing Eleventh with the BBC Philharmonic at the Proms in 2019. At its best, this Fifth flexed its muscles defiantly. The first movement was unhurried and ponderous until Storgårds’ accelerando that ran into the snare drum invasion. Cellos and double basses snarled at the start of the Allegretto – the sardonic mood not always maintained – and the icy mood of Largo brought Sibelius to mind, especially Tom Blomfield’s desolate oboe solo. Occasionally, though, tension sagged. That enforced rejoicing in the finale needed more teeth which, thankfully, the percussion and brass eventually supplied in bombastic coda, a crowd pleaser that even satisfied the authorities.