DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 5 – Keeping Score series, Blu-ray (2009)

A fine documentary on the composer plus a complete concert performance of the symphony.

Published on December 10, 2009

SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 5 – Keeping Score series, Blu-ray (2009)

SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 5 – Keeping Score series, Blu-ray (2009)



Performers: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony
Documentary + Full-length concert performance 

Producers/Directors: David Kennard & Joan Saffa; live performance: Gary Halvorson
Studio: SFS Media Blu-ray [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] 

Video: 16:9 1080i HD color
Audio: Dolby Digital HD 5.1, 7.1, 2.0
Subtitles (Doc.): Closed-caption English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese
Extras: Documentary
Length: 1 hours 49 minutes
Rating: ****

This is another of the three Blu-rays issued by the San Francisco Symphony (also on standard DVD), following up on their earlier release of four similar DVDs devoted to the analysis and performance of well-known works of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Copland. The other two in the current series are on Ives and Berlioz (which we just reviewed).  Each has a one-hour documentary on the particular composer and work, hosted by Michael Tilson Thomas and featuring orchestra members, plus a complete performance of the entire work. All are also telecast in HD on PBS stations nationally.

This one differs a bit from the other two in that instead of taping the performance of the Shostakovich Fifth in the symphony’s San Francisco home, it was a co-production with BBC-TV and took place live in London’s giant Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms concert series. The picture quality is just as first-rate as on the other two Blu-rays, with none of the artifacts one sometimes sees in the conversion from the UK PAL video system to our own. The Dolby lossless surround is also most successful in revealing the mighty acoustics of Royal Albert Hall. The huge audience also sounds more awake and excited about the performance than the usual concert audience and the musicians are at their peak for this dynamic, emotion-laden work. The shooting – with the many cameras, manned and robotic, and the skilled editing of the shots – is perfectly attuned to the score, and MTT’s screen time is appropriate (without attempts to set up the conductor with special lighting and angles to emulate some Greek god, a la Karajan’s videos.)

The MTT documentaries are superbly done, carrying on the tradition established by Leonard Bernstein, Glenn Gould and others, but doing it with all of today’s technical wizardry and the current relative ease of shooting in far-flung locations around the world. MTT always visits the birthplace or home of the composer in question, and we see exactly where Shostakovich was brought up in the home of his successful chemist father. Not only is B&W footage of Stalin and other Soviet era scenes used to great effect, but MTT talks with Russian members of the SF Symphony about some of the terrible personal experiences they shared along with Shostakovich. This is the most effective exploration I’ve heard of what the composer may have been trying to communicate in the symphony.  It enhances one’s appreciation of the work from a noisy blow-hard symphony designed to please Stalin and the general Soviet audience, to a painful, deliberately-crafted but disguised musical statement on the totalitarian regime the composer was forced to deal with.

 - John Sunier




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