Archive for August, 2010

Opus 4: Two Fables after Krylov (1922)

August 31, 2010

Two Fables after Krylov, op. 4 (1922)
CD:  “Dmitri Shostakovich: Orchestral Works” (BMG/Melodiya 74321 59058 2)
Galina Borisova, soprano; Chamber Choir of the Moscow Conservatory; USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra; Gennady Rozhdestvensky

The singer finished.  The Donkey, staring blankly at the ground, head lowered,
Said, “Not bad! I have to admit,
I wasn’t bored while I listened to you.  It’s just a pity
That you’re not acquainted with our Rooster.
You could really polish up your skills
If you studied with him a little.”
Having heard this critique, the poor Nightingale
Took wing and flew off far, far away.
May God spare us too such judges.

— Ivan Krylov, “The Donkey and the Nightingale” (translated by Laurence R. Richter)

Here is Shostakovich’s first cut at satire, and another full step towards his mature musical personality.  I find it difficult to think of these two settings outside the context of his later career, particularly the second one, “The Donkey and the Nightingale”, the end of whose text is excerpted above:  Shostakovich returned to satire in his songs throughout his life, as well as to theme of artists’ relationships with their detractors.  Also, the humorous parable takes on a grim cast in light of the increasingly menacing cultural repression to come in the following decades.  As a particuarly heavy historical irony, the work’s dedicatee — Mikhail Kvadri, a Moscow Conservatory composition student and friend of Shostakovich’s — would be arrested and allegedly executed in 1929.

A word about the words:  A book I’ve found vital in closely listening to Shostakovich’s vocal music, all the more so in the present case because the BMG/Melodiya reissue I’m working from doesn’t contain librettos, is Shostakovich’s Complete Song Texts, by Laurence R. Richter.  He provides the Russian text for each song and renders it in three progressive levels for English speakers who don’t know Russian: phonetic transcription, word-by-word gloss, and idiomatic prose translation.  The book is intended for singers, but as a listener I’ve found it useful for tracking in detail how Shostakovich sets individual words; getting a sense of the Russian translations of non-Russian texts, rather than the English originals or direct English translations of the source; and, when albums don’t provide the texts, being able to read the words at all.  (Richter doesn’t include the texts for Shostakovich’s vocal symphonies, choral works, or songs from his film scores, but it’s still a handy source.)  As of this writing, I believe the book is out of print (Leyerle Publications’ website is ambiguous about its availability); I found a copy in stock several months ago at the Juilliard Bookstore but their site is currently in redesign limbo.  My local library has a copy, which is how I found out about it, and borrowing a copy from your library of choice remains another option if you want to really geek out over Shostakovich’s songs.

Musically, the two songs stay lighthearted (in line with the whimsical texts) and mostly lyrical, as in Shostakovich’s still earlier works.  His style feels more limber here, for instance in his more characterful use of solo instrumental textures, because he’s maturing or because dramatizing the words draws some more varied gestures out of him.  The wry humor, too, adds depth.  In the first song, “The Dragonfly and the Ant” — Krylov’s species-switching take on the Aesopian grasshopper-and-ant fable — Shostakovich effectively sets the conversation between the two insects, with the vocal line higher and more tuneful for the dragonfly’s words (on this album, soprano Galina Borisova sounds a bit shrill to me in those passages, possibly by design) and lower and more monotonous for the ant’s.  At the end, when the ant rejects the dragonfly — she dismissively tells the hungry supplicant, who spent all summer singing, to go dance — Shostakovich punctuates the story with a wry, jokey dance figure, whose creaky strings and final thump on the timpani, mild though they are, seem to point the way towards the more pointed instrumental effects he would use in his early satirical works, such as his opera The Nose.

Rozhdestvensky’s recording of the second fable features a boys’ or children’s choir rather than a solo vocalist, which caught me off guard.  Shostakovich announces the donkey with a wide-intervalled “braying” theme and a mild instrumental clatter — another of the song’s ironies in retrospect is that his music for the philistine is less abrasive than his own style would become within a few years.  The donkey asks the nightingale to sing, and most of the song is taken up with the bird’s rapturous performance, rendered as a lush melody accompanied by chirruping woodwinds and harp.  The birdsong concludes with sweet, wordless humming, before the ass’ theme breaks in again:

The donkey delivers his backhanded criticism, the nightingale flies off, Krylov delivers the punchline (the words in the following excerpt), and Shostakovich drops the curtain with an orchestral flourish:

Shostakovich’s musical setting seems knowing enough to suggest that he already had some experience of cloddish would-be tastemakers, but the song’s bright conclusion sounds poignant to me, considering the bitterness of the composer’s adult treatments of similar subjects in response to much more dangerous criticism.  No Soviet artist of his generation would be spared such judges.

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Opus 3: Theme and Variations (1922)

August 30, 2010

Theme and Variations, op. 3 (1922)
CD:  Popov: Symphony No. 1, etc., London Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein (Telarc CD-80642)

The second week of this grand tour de Chostakovitch kicks off with another work for orchestra from the composer’s student days, the Theme and Variations, opus 3.  The piece is also represented on the two-disc Rozhdestvensky reissue that I’ll be going to for the rest of the composer’s very early orchestral fare, but I want to note the LSO / Botstein disc because its account of Gavriil Popov’s first symphony makes it an extraordinarily worthy album.  From a Shostakovich-centric standpoint, at first blush it seems calculated to make the young composer sound extremely derivative:  On the one hand, the Theme and Variations stays within the current of late-19th-century Russian romanticism; on the other, Popov’s symphony (from 1934) appears as an inspiration and model for the brashness and large-scale organization of Shostakovich’s fourth symphony, which followed it closely.  (Laurel Fay makes this comparison in a footnote in Shostakovich: A Life, and if memory serves Alex Ross states it more forwardly in The Rest is Noise.)  After further listening and thought, though, Shostakovich’s fourth isn’t at all a mere knockoff of Popov’s first — it will be useful to listen through both symphonies side by side when I get there, to compare another promising contemporary talent whose career was apparently squelched by the state.  And Shostakovich wrote the Theme and Variations, after all, when he was about sixteen and still honing his craft.

It’s a geeky comparison to make, but the Opus 3 sounds to me like orchestral arrangements of Nobuo Uematsu’s music from the Final Fantasy games — or, more aptly, both sound like they’re both aiming for the same innocuous, Romantic prettiness.  (To note a couple of key differences, Uematsu’s stuff shows more Japanese pop influence and his orchestrators’ work is even more prosaic than Shostakovich’s still uncharacteristic instrumentation.)  Shostakovich’s theme (sampled above) and the first few variations, which don’t stray very far from it, unfold pleasantly but without much inventiveness.  I first perked up at the beginning of Variation V, which Botstein draws into a lovely, slightly tensed hush:

Variation IX, a bit later, reaches the work’s high-water mark of boisterousness:


The final two variations out of eleven do the most to mix up the meter and rhythm, and a fast-slow-fast finale ends the work with a bright, heavy-footed orchestral exclamation point.  At fifteen minutes it is longer, and feels more developed, than the earlier student works.  I don’t think it holds any interest outside of the context of Shostakovich’s later, celebrated career, but it makes a nice companion on this album to the substantial Popov symphony and Botstein directs it with the right level of warmth and high energy.

I borrowed this disc from the Multnomah County Library, whose CD collection (like most big library systems I’ve used) has a good selection of Shostakovich’s bigger works, plus, helpfully, a couple of his more obscure ones.  I say this as a pitch for, or maybe just a nostalgic remembrance of, using public libraries as a way to survey new-to-you music.  For me this goes back to Northland Public Library in suburban Pittsburgh, where my brothers and I more or less systematically consumed the CD section’s classical albums (or at least the German and Russian late-Romantic works and, eventually, the 20th-century fare) when we were in high school.  As web-based distribution of digital music continues to render CDs obsolete, I’m not sure how libraries’ mission to make it available to the public will square with commercial producers’ desire not to have content propagate completely beyond their control.  (My little experience with library e-books, which seem expressly designed to make it hard to take them out into the world, doesn’t give me much hope, at least for the near future.)  But browsing the aisles worked well for me, despite the grievous state of a lot of frequently checked-out library CDs (what in the world do the other patrons do to them, run them through the dishwasher?), and in the absence of a good online equivalent it’s still a good approach.

No opus number: Orchestration of “I waited in the grotto” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1921)

August 27, 2010

Orchestration of “I waited in the grotto” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (No opus number, 1921)
CD:  “Dmitri Shostakovich: Orchestral Works”, USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, 1982 (BMG/Melodiya 74321 59058 2)

Shostakovich’s arrangement of this Rimsky-Korsakov song, very much a student exercise, serves as another indicator of the tradition in which his musical training took place.  In the text, a poem by A.N. Maykov, a lover describes waiting for, and ultimately being stood up for, a nighttime tryst; the young composer (still about fifteen years old) scales up Rimsky-Korsakov’s accompaniment into a shimmering, though not especially nocturnal, orchestral backing, in line with the senior composer’s coloristic style.  In the recording at hand soprano Alla Ablaberdyeva’s lucid voice fits nicely with the instrumental effects.

I don’t know Rimsky-Korsakov’s original setting and the Melodiya disc doesn’t contain a libretto.  Maykov’s words in the original Russian are online at REC Music’s Lied and Art Song Texts Page, without an English translation.  I don’t speak any Russian but plugging the whole affair into Google Translate, as of this writing, seemingly provides enough of a sense of the trajectory of the poem to get by on:  The speaker waits at night in the grotto, describes the landscape and the moonlight, and finally reveals that the other never arrived.  The machine translation is awkward and rather inscrutable (“thinning night mistress mullet”), but I’m impressed by the state of the art and I think it’s a good fallback when listening to foreign-language vocal music without a translated text.

No opus number: Five Preludes (1919-1921)

August 26, 2010

Five Preludes (no opus number, 1919-1921)
CD:  Shostakovich: Piano Sonata No. 2, etc., Konstantin Scherbakov, piano (Naxos 8.570092)

Scherbakov’s recording of these Five Preludes shares an album with the Three Pieces, which also date from Shostakovich’s time as a conservatory student, but the musical ideas in the preludes sound more mature and fully realized.  This group also contains the earliest music of Shostakovich’s that I had previously heard:  Valeri Polyansky’s “Unknown Shostakovich” album on Chandos includes the A minor and G major preludes as orchestrated decades later by Alfred Schnittke, who transforms them into colorful and, to my ear, vaguely pensive orchestral miniatures.

The very short, sprightly A minor prelude opens this set in a lyrical idiom like that of the Opus 1 scherzo.  The G major follows in a similar style but more contemplative mood, which builds to a central climax and then quiets back down, finally thinning out; the gentle, undulating music that opens it is the highlight of the five pieces:

In contrast, the central E minor prelude (according to the album notes, the only one of the five that didn’t originate in the Eight Preludes, Op. 2) finally flashes some spikiness, though not yet Shostakovich’s wit:


The D flat major prelude is airy and a bit sly, as the composer, and Scherbakov, toy with its over-refined tunefulness.  The last, in F minor, proceeds more straightforwardly before climbing to the high end of the keyboard and disappearing.  Together the preludes last under seven minutes, a musical bonbon, though I get more of a sense of the emerging composer from this work than from the two I listened to earlier this week.

Yesterday I took my lunch break to go down to the park near my office building downtown —  just a small greenspace with odd artificial hillocks surrounded by high-rise offices and condos, so full at that hour of dog walkers, the members of a small workout group, and miscellaneous workers on food / phone / cigarette breaks — and listen through the preludes a couple of times on my iPod, once while sitting on a bench and again while walking around the block.  I’m a little ambivalent about the experience of spending time out in public with my ears plugged into a device (like virtually everyone else, off in my own private Idaho, with noise-reducing headphones no less) but it’s a pleasant way to spend some time on a summer afternoon.

No opus number: Three Pieces (Minuet, Prelude, and Intermezzo) (1919-1920)

August 25, 2010

Three Pieces (Minuet, Prelude, and Intermezzo)  (1919-1920)
CD:  Shostakovich: Piano Sonata No. 2, etc., Konstantin Scherbakov, piano (Naxos 8.570092)

Even more so than the F-sharp minor scherzo, this incomplete set of piano pieces sounds like a relic of Shostakovich’s musical education.  The three pieces run about three minutes in total.  The Minuet is a very brief exercise in classical style; the Prelude, while similarly uneventful, creates a gently mysterious atmosphere that’s more evocative than the pieces bookending it.  The Intermezzo, which Shostakovich didn’t complete, features an upward-leaping figure that lends it a little character but otherwise remains an unmemorable sketch.

The only event worth singling out comes at about the halfway point of the Minuet, when a rising, three-note gesture perks up over a pulsing accompaniment.  For a couple of bars, the music seems almost poised to jump into one of the spry melodic episodes that, to me, characterize his first symphony, but the anticipation quickly evaporates:


Scherbakov, who includes these pieces in his survey of Shostakovich’s solo piano work on Naxos, renders them with more attentiveness than most comparable student works will ever get.  Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers most recently popularized the idea that a person needs about 10,000 hours to master a skill; here is evidence of Shostakovich, still in his early teenage years, putting in his time.

Preface to the Blog Project and Brief Reflections on this Preface

August 24, 2010

With nothing to say about the no longer extant Eight Preludes, I’ll describe what I’ll be writing about at this site and why.

For about half of my life now, starting at age fifteen, I’ve been a more or less rabid fan of the music of Dmitri Shostakovich.  This enthusiasm ebbs and flows, and peaks every several months, usually just with me listening through a number of pieces that I’m already familiar with, though occasionally I’m driven to get familiar with parts of his output that I don’t know as well.  Earlier this summer I got excited about listening through Shostakovich’s earliest work and decided, rather than following my usual pattern of CD purchasing glut and listening binge, that I’d like to try to focus that excitement into writing down my thoughts about the material.  So I settled on the idea, gimmicky as it feels, of listening to recordings of as many of Shostakovich’s works as I can get ahold of and describing my thoughts about each, one at a time, more or less in chronological order.

Largely I’d like to see whether or not I can say anything interesting about my reaction to the music.  I feel like I have my own understanding of what I like in Shostakovich, what I don’t like, and how that has changed over the years, but I want to clarify those ideas and make them expressible to others.  Hopefully the results won’t be too boring or banal — plenty of deep-feeling ideas come out rather shallow once you put them on paper, or onscreen — but that can be judged empirically over time.  As a more general goal I want to practice getting a first draft of my ideas onto the page without fussing over the words too much, which the blog format and a high volume of stuff to write about should both encourage.

In terms of process:  The list of works I’m working from is based on that in Laurel Fay’s excellent biography, Shostakovich: A Life, supplemented by what’s on Wikipedia, although the latter includes some duplications and never-executed projects.  I’ll listen through them in order of when they were completed, based on the information available, although I don’t intend to be overly strict about that, especially in cases where the chronology is unclear.

For stage music I’ll prefer watching DVDs of full performances when available.  Likewise for Shostakovich’s film music I’ll watch the original film when I reasonably can (although the availability of a lot of stuff is dicey here).  In the absence of a DVD, I’ll prefer recordings of the complete score, then concert suites.  For any work if the whole or a suite isn’t available I’ll go with any extracts I can find.  I expect for the most part to stick to commercial recordings where I can get ahold of the original media.  I’m not envisioning an overly strict process; I’ll figure out the details as I go.

Initially I’ll be aiming to listen to, and write up, one piece per day, four or five days per week.  From there I’ll see what kind of rate I can comfortably settle into.  Other than the work per day to write about I won’t listen to any other Shostakovich (unless a live performance comes up), in part to give me a clearer sense of how his style evolves over time but mostly to keep me from burning out on his music.

Opus 2: Eight Preludes (1918-1920) — Lost

August 24, 2010

The manuscript of Shostakovich’s Opus 2, his Eight Preludes for piano, is lost, so here there is nothing to listen to.

It seems that at least some of Shostakovich’s Five Preludes for piano from the same time period (no opus number assigned) were extracted from the Opus 2 set.  Richard Whitehouse’s booklet essay for Konstantin Scherbakov’s CD release of the Five Preludes (Naxos 8.570092) states that all five were taken from the Eight Preludes, although a note in the track listing claims that only some were, without specifying which ones.*  At any rate, I’ll consider the Five Preludes as their own work, later this week.

* Update, August 25, 2010: Factual errors already!  The CD booklet’s track listing does in fact state that all but the E minor prelude derive from Op. 2.

Opus 1: Scherzo in F-sharp Minor (1919)

August 23, 2010

Scherzo in F-sharp Minor, Op. 1 (1919)
CD:  “Dmitri Shostakovich: Orchestral Works”, USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, 1982 (BMG/Melodiya 74321 59058 2)

For a few years I mistakenly thought that Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 1 is his first symphony, probably because the idea seemed satisfying:  The composer’s first serious work, or anyway the first one worth putting a number on, would be the piece that launched his international reputation, the first entry in his substantial line of symphonies, and a composition that already points toward his characteristic, mature style.  But artists don’t emerge into the world that fully formed, and from Shostakovich’s thoroughly examined body of work several earlier, student efforts have been published and commercially recorded.

The actual Opus 1, a five-minute scherzo for orchestra, is pretty but unremarkable, except that it was written by an eventually major composer at the age of thirteen.  Its tunefulness and bright orchestral colors are very much in a Romantic, Russian style most familiar to me from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov — Shostakovich produced the scherzo at the Petrograd Conservatory, which under Rimsky-Korsakov’s onetime pupil Alexander Glazunov was the institutional torch-bearer for his musical style — and though it shows off an early talent for both melody and orchestration, neither bears the signature style that Shostakovich would begin to develop within the next few years.  After a soft woodwind passage opens up into a short introductory passage, the work introduces a romantic, slightly woozy second theme:

This develops for a bit and then builds up into a loud, rather aimless final minute.  It feels like an unfair impression to have (why pick on a precocious thirteen-year-old?) but if anything reminds me of his mature work it’s that orchestral bombast, which the adult Shostakovich produced, seemingly effortlessly, to fill out any number of occassional pieces.  Other than the completist urge to start listening at the very beginning, the value of the scherzo lies in hearing an example of the stylistic context in which Shostakovich’s studies began, which he grew restless and broke with before graduating from the conservatory.  Unless you’re a fanatical Shostakovich listener it’s not necessary to seek it out.

The scherzo and recording are both brand new to me, from the above-mentioned CD reissue of various obscure Shostakovich works drawn from Gennady Rozhdestvensky’s Melodiya recordings of the 1980s.  Rozhdestvensky was responsible for unearthing, premiering, and recording much of the composer’s previously unknown output over the course of a few decades, and I know from the preliminary list of recorded works that I’ve put together that I’ll be reviewing his work regularly over the course of this project.