I remember performing this Symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic led by the great Eastern European Maestro, Kurt Saunderling when he was 78 years old. He told us in a hushed voice," I remember being at the first performance of this piece. There were many of us- all students and musicians. We were afraid the polizei [police] were going to come and take us away." He told us many things about that performance but that alone was enough to send chills down our spines.
Shostakovich completed his Fifth Symphony in November of 1937. Up until that time he had largely been perceived as a wunderkind both as a pianist and composer. Riding the crest of international acclaim and tremendous attention for his opera, Lady Macbeth he was stunned by an article in the newspaper Pravda violently attacking the opera branding it as, Chaos instead of music... neurotic, primitive and vulgar. The article was interpreted as a warning to the Union of Soviet Composers against all forms of modernism. In solitude, he suffered terribly and silently as even his friends and fellow composers denounced him and his work. Thus Shostakovich endured and ultimately accepted the commentary that his Fifth Symphony was, the creative reply of a Soviet artist to justified criticism.
Clearly he felt the repression of the Soviet system and the Symphony is not, until the last movement, one of liberation and free expression. As he said in 1931, good music lifts and heartens and lightens people for work and effort. It may be tragic, but it must be strong. It is no longer an end in itself, but a vital weapon in the struggle.
Now, armed with this knowledge of the man and a bit of background, we are ready to approach and understand this excerpt from the first movement. Stark, barren and cold- this ' tragically tense' music must be played with an intense but restrained sensitivity. Complete attention to continuity of phrasing- specifically string crossings, bow speed, contact and smooth changes, speed and type of vibrato and overall color. The same focus on all the minutiae just as if preparing a concerto or any solo work.