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 Hallé 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, expressive phrasing - and that of principal flautist Richard Davis - strongly argued for a darker subtext to the first movement. Sadly, Noseda lost concentration in the heavy-handed Ländler. The tempi were unsteady in the diffuse textures of the Largo, and the Allegro non Troppo was curiously under-punctuated. His exhaustion was forgivable, for the orchestra's best work had been in the Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti: a song cycle in which Shostakovich's style is at its sparest, sourest, and most concentrated. This was a very well-prepared, cleverly detailed performance in which Noseda and his players out-shone baritone Ildar Abdrazakov's burnished but generalised singing.
Though the gap between Manchester's symphony orchestras has closed of late, the following night's performance was of a far higher quality. Where the BBC Phil use Bridgewater Hall's flattering acoustics like a therapeutic bath, the Hallé have found a way to cut through the gloss without losing any glow or shimmer. Under Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (left), their performances of Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem and Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony were beautifully poised: the pianissmi intensely coloured, the crescendi Hitchcockian in their controlled suspense, the fortissimi fairly ear-shattering. At the premiere of this strangely conservative successor to the Tenth Symphony, Anna Akhmatova thought the folk songs quoted throughout were like "white birds flying against a terrible black sky". Here that sky was terrible indeed.
The Shostakovich festival continues (0161 907 9000) Thurs to 24 FebReuse content