BBC SO plays Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5

Shostakovich – Symphony No.5 (BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gergiev)

The BBC Symphony Orchestra (BBC SO) plays Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47. Conductor: Valery Gergiev.

The work composed between April and July 1937. Its first performance was on November 21, 1937, in Leningrad by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Yevgeny Mravinsky. The premiere was a huge success.

The symphony is approximately 45 minutes in length and has four movements:

  1. Moderato The symphony opens with a strenuous string figure in canon, initially leaping and falling in minor sixths then narrowing to minor thirds. The sharply dotted rhythm of this figure remains to accompany a broadly lyric melody played by the first violins. Variants of this theme return throughout the 3rd and 4th movements. The second theme is built out of octaves and sevenths. Whereas the first theme is based on a sharp dotted rhythm, the second relies on a static long-short-short pattern. With that is found all the musical material for this movement—one that is tremendously varied, its climax harsh. The coda, with the gentle friction of minor in strings against chromatic scales in celesta, ends on a note of haunting ambiguity.
  2. Allegretto The opening motif in this waltz-like scherzo is a variation of the first theme in the first movement; other variations can be detected throughout the movement. The music remains witty, satirical, raucous while also nervous.
  3. Largo After the assertive trumpets of the first movement and the raucous horns of the second, this movement uses no brass at all. The strings are divided throughout the entire movement (3 groups of violins, violas in 2, cellos in 2; basses in 2). Shostakovich fills this movement with beautiful, long melodies—one of them again based on the first theme of the first movement—punctuating them with intermezzi of solo woodwinds. Harp and celesta play prominent roles here as well. The music is emotive and even elegiac in tone; it returns to the sober mood which the scherzo has interrupted.
  4. Allegro non troppo This movement, in an abbreviated sonata-allegro form, picks up the march music from the climax of the opening movement, at least in manner if not in specific material. A tense conclusion leads to the quieter section of the piece. This section ends and the short snare drum and timpani solo introduces a brief militaristic introduction to the finale of the movement—an extended and obsessive reiteration of the D major tonality.

BBC Symphony Orchestra

BBC Symphony Orchestra
BBC Symphony Orchestra

The BBC Symphony Orchestra (BBC SO) is a British orchestra based in London. Founded in 1930, it was the first permanent salaried orchestra in London, and is the only one of the city’s five major symphony orchestras not to be self-governing. The BBC SO is the principal orchestra of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

The orchestra was originally conceived in 1928 as a joint enterprise by the BBC and the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, but the latter withdrew the next year; and the task of assembling and training the orchestra fell to the BBC’s director of music, Adrian Boult. Among its guest conductors in its first years was Arturo Toscanini, who judged it the finest orchestra he had ever conducted. During and after the Second World War, Boult strove to maintain standards, but the senior management of the post-war BBC did not allocate the orchestra the resources to meet competition from new and well-funded rivals.

After Boult’s retirement from the BBC in 1950, the orchestra went through a fallow period. Boult’s successor, Sir Malcolm Sargent, was popular with the public but had poor rapport with his players, and orchestral morale dropped. Sargent’s successor, Rudolf Schwarz, made little public impact, and although the BBC appointed high-profile chief conductors in the 1960s and 70s – Antal Doráti, Colin Davis, Pierre Boulez and Gennady Rozhdestvensky – the BBC SO remained underfunded and could not attract enough good players to rival the leading London orchestras.

As a result of initiatives begun in the 1960s by the BBC controller of music William Glock, performing standards gradually began to rise. Under Andrew Davis in the 1990s and Jiří Bělohlávek in the 2000s the orchestra prospered. By the second decade of the 21st century the BBC SO was once again regarded by critics as of first-class status. From the outset the orchestra has been known for pioneering new music, and it continues to do so, at the Proms, in concerts at the Barbican Centre, and in studio concerts from its base at BBC Maida Vale studios.

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