It was mostly composed in Leningrad in 1941–2, when that city was under siege by the Germans during World War II. Its very composition and performance were hailed as a triumph of Soviet spirit in the face of terrible opposition. However, all is not necessarily as it seems (or, as the Soviet authorities wanted to see it). The symphony’s famous savagery (the march-theme in the first movement in particular, but in other places through-out the work) could just as easily be read as a depiction of the brutality of totalitarianism in general. Many now believe this to have been Shostakovich’s real intention.
The second movement of this symphony is one that particularly appeals to me. It starts out in quite a jaunty mood, with the strings playing quite a bouncy melody. However it quickly becomes rather melancholic with the entry of a solo oboe. It’s beautiful, sad and genuine. A little later a bassoon is heard, there is a brief bit of drama on the strings, and the oboe disappears. The strings play a pizzicato melody that doesn’t bode well and then suddenly the clarinets, sarky and interfering, latch onto what’s going on. They’re joined by the brass, and the flutes, and the whole tone of the movement has changed. Within just a short while, the tympani is pounding away and the whole thing is positively martial. This is not joyous music, but thrilling in a chilly, creepy sort of way. Eventually, the fit passes, and the first theme returns with a harp on top, but also with what I think is a bass clarinet murmuring underneath. It even gets to state the oboe’s theme once on its own, before the strings finish the movement. The original bounce is sort of there, but the rhythm is accentuated, and a bit tenser.
I particularly recommend the recent recording of this by Vladimir Ashkenazy conduting the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra. This recording is issued by Decca and is number 448 814-2.