Alternately vilified and lauded by the Soviet authorities, Shostakovich's music can be seen both as a critique and a celebration of Stalinist Russia. For every champion pointing to sarcasm and subversion in his more militaristic movements, there is another detractor waving the letter he signed denouncing Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov. Ironically, while his political beliefs are debated by people with no direct experience of totalitarianism, the symphonies that meet the mechanical requirements of Soviet Realism most accurately - for which, read snare drum, snare drum, and more snare drum - are those that continue to enjoy the widest popularity here.
Last weekend, two of Shostakovich's most compromised works, the Fifth and the Eleventh Symphonies, were the focus of the BBC Philharmonic and Hall Orchestras' ongoing centenary series. Dubbed "A Soviet Artist's Creative Reply to Just Criticism", albeit not by the composer, the Fifth Symphony mixes machine-age heroism with misty-eyed sentimentality. Were these cinematic depictions of national struggle intended to be sarcastic? If so, it is unlikely that anyone in authority noticed. As Andrew Ford observes in his 2002 collection of essays, Undue Noise, "..people who wear shiny boots and uniforms - particularly when they're not even really soldiers - and who pin medals to their chests all have one thing in common: they don't get irony."
Gianandrea Noseda's interpretation of the Fifth Symphony with the BBC Philharmonic made it clear that he, at least, saw subversion behind the snare. Though the strings lacked focus, Noseda's elaborate, expressi phrasing - and that of principal flautist Richard Davis - strongly argued for a darker subtext to the first movement. …