Opus 20: Symphony No. 3, “First of May” (1929)

Symphony No. 3, “The First of May”, op. 20  (1929)
CD: Shostakovich: Symphonies 3 & 14, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Mariss Jansons (EMI 3 56830 2)

Listen, workers, to the voice of our factories:
in burning down the old, you must kindle a new reality.

Today was a cool and sporadically rainy first day of autumn in Portland, so it’s hard for “the first of May” to evoke any image other than a bright, springtime afternoon.  But rereading Semyon Kirsanov’s tedious poetic text for this symphony’s finale, not to mention listening to the bombast of the music itself, brings me around to the correct revolutionary program.

Taken in isolation, the pair of lines above could illustrate the mindset of Shostakovich in the late 1920s, among other artists (certainly the film directors Kozintsev and Trauberg), and indeed legions of young artists across time, geography, and ideology:  Dynamite the stylistic traditions of the last generation and forge a new aesthetic appropriate to the changing times.  Yet Shostakovich’s third makes a move towards musical conservatism:  Structurally it lives in the same state of unending flux as his past few scores, but the surface-level restlessness is considerably toned down.  Given the darkening political atmosphere and the official criticism that rained down on the likes of New Babylon — and quite possibly a more purely artistic impulse not to repeat himself wholesale — it’s unsurprising that the composer avoided the jaunts of formal experimentation that characterize his second symphony.

The third starts out promisingly, with a plainspoken yet modern melodic line for solo clarinet, later joined by a second.  Its broad, consonant intervals remind me more than anything of Aaron Copland’s popular style — most famously Appalachian Spring, but more directly the opening movement of his clarinet concerto — although Shostakovich is cooler to the touch:

As in the second symphony, the orchestral body of the work leading up to the choral finale unspools in a single through-composed movement, though in broad outline it has something like the slow-fast-slow-fast pattern of traditional multi-movement symphonies.  The first episode when the music reaches a rolling boil (marked as section II in the Jansons album) serves as a good example of the piece’s character:  I hear the brightness and kinetic energy of New Babylon, The Bedbug, or The Nose, but without either those scores’ wildness or more conventional thematic development, the gestures here sound repetitive and stereotyped.

I heard Valery Gergiev conduct the symphony, I think with the Mariinsky Orchestra, at Carnegie Hall in 2007, and (programmed with Shostakovich’s fourth symphony) it made for a really brash, engaging show of early Shostakovich music.  As usual, the immediacy of the experience, not to mention the sheer acoustical gut-punch of unrestrained orchestral loudness, is vastly diminished on disc.  Listening at home, the quieter moments are more intriguing; if I focus on a small enough time frame that the work’s structural amorphousness doesn’t become obvious, and before it gallops off into the blustery choral finish a few minutes later, I can hear the beginnings of the musical language, even the emotional directness, that I know so well from the fifth symphony onwards:

These moments of interest aside, it’s not a strong work overall.  I touched on this point a little bit in writing up the second symphony, but I think it’s a little bit of a shame that this work gets more attention than the ones Shostakovich produced at about the same time, just by virtue of it being a symphony — based on the 15 he wrote, Shostakovich’s reputation is mainly as a symphonist, and at least in my own history as a listener (though I suspect I’m not alone in this) paying most of my attention to that chunk of his output first gave me the impression for a long time that the span between his well-known first and fifth symphonies was occupied by two amoeba-like, possibly halfhearted propaganda symphonies; a lighthearted piano concerto; the “Age of Gold” polka; and the opera that got him in trouble.  (The gigantic fourth symphony is missing from that tally, as it remained a cipher to me for a long time, even when I’d been listening to it for a couple of years.)  I got over that impression some time ago but I’ve been enjoying slowly stepping through Shostakovich’s early career and becoming more deeply aware that, in his first decade as a composer, the fullest realization of his talent was in his non-symphonic output.

This EMI disc is still a good pickup if you’re piecing together a Shostakovich library, for its clearly drawn third symphony but more so for its fine, sharp take on the fourteenth (composed almost exactly 40 years after the third, and inhabiting an entirely different sonic world).  I’ve been a fan of Mariss Jansons for a long time, as he was the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra while I was a teenager in the city’s northern suburbs, and then a college student in town — a couple of his electrifying Shostakovich shows were formative concert-going experiences for me and in retrospect I’m lucky that the hometown professional orchestra had such a world-class interpreter of the composer’s works in charge while I was getting to know the music.  Jansons’ cycle of the symphonies on EMI hasn’t struck me as consistent (in particular his recordings of the fifth and tenth didn’t affect me much, and they’re the linchpin of any complete set) but this is a solid entry.


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