Like Beethoven's Egmont Overture and Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich's Festive Overture and Fifth Symphony have had hundreds of recordings by some of the greatest conductors and orchestras of the postwar years. As a result, arguing over which recordings represent the absolute best quickly becomes ridiculous. Times change, so comparing these live 2001 performances by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra of London with earlier performances by, say, Yevgeny Mravinsky or Kiril Kondrashin is likely to show only the truth of that adage.
With that in mind, the excellent performances on this recording can be enjoyed without any need to rank them among the numerous other fine issues available. The Festive Overture has plenty of joy touched with not a bit of swagger from its breathless opening to its ecstatic closing. The Fifth has striving heroism in the opening Moderato, droll wit in the following Allegretto, and stark terror in the central Largo and bitterly ironic triumph in the closing Allegro non troppo. After more than 30 years on the podium, Ashkenazy is clearly as skilled a conductor as he is a pianist, and his readings here have control and coherence plus scale and sweep. The Philharmonia is still a crackerjack orchestra with brilliant soloists, a polished ensemble, and richly textured and distinctive sound; its virtuosity here is exciting. Signum's sound is spectacular: bright, clear, deep, and palpably real in climaxes. If one were to compare the Ashkenazy/Philharmonia performance of the Fifth with Mravinsky's magnificently violent reading or Kondrashin's excruciatingly intense reading, one might or might not prefer it to them. But anyone encountering the Fifth for the first time in this performance will doubtless be overwhelmingly impressed.