Archive for January, 2011

Opus 44: Salute to Spain (1936)

January 26, 2011

Salute to Spain, op. 44 (1936)
CD:  Various soloists, Camerata Silesia, The Katowice City Singers’ Ensemble, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mark Fitz-Gerald (Naxos 8.572138)

Salute to Spain is another of Shostakovich’s insubstantial incidental scores, about ten minutes long, including two revolutionary songs that were incorporated alongside it into the production (arranged for chorus by Mark Fitz-Gerald on the Naxos disc).  In the context of Shostakovich’s career it’s mainly notable, and deserving of some generosity, as one of the first works he produced as a persona non grata of the Soviet state, as he worked to reestablish a very much uncertain career.

His music for the play, a rapid theatrical response to the Spanish Civil War, has very little flavor of Spain in it (save perhaps for a couple of vaguely “Spanish” chords), although there is no doubt that the USSR is doing the saluting.  Shostakovich’s contribution consists largely of brassy fanfares and suitably tragic/optimistic songs, more in line with his plain-faced cinema scores than his theater works to this point; the light puckishness of, for example, Rule, Brittania! is shelved, and I fear that the zanier style of The Bedbug is gone for good after this point in his output.

Salute to Spain‘s final funeral march does have a little bit of weight, plus a faint leering quality that seems to point back to Mahler’s first symphony, via Shostakovich’s own (then suppressed) fourth.  You can also hear in it, if you want, a trace of the grotesque bombast that the composer twists around on itself in the finale of his soon-to-be-written fifth symphony.

David Fanning’s album note draws a connection to Elena Konstantinovskaya, whose marriage-threatening affair with Shostakovich had just ended when she moved to Spain with the filmmaker Roman Karmen, adding personal misery to his professional and political trouble and perhaps creating an unhappy association with that nation.  The music remains pretty flimsy but there is something expressive in that final march, as though the occassion of theatrical tragedy gives Shostakovich an opening to express a little bit of more private darkness.

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Opus 43: Symphony No. 4 (1936)

January 22, 2011

Symphony No. 4, op. 43 (1936)
CD:  Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4, Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Kirill Kondrashin (BMG/Melodiya 74321 19840 2)

It seemed to you that he is “frail, fragile, withdrawn, an infinitely direct, pure child.” That is so. But if it were only so, then great art (as with him) would never be obtained. He is exactly what you say he is, plus something else — he is hard, acid, extremely intelligent, strong perhaps, despotic and not altogether good-natured (although cerebrally good-natured).

That is the combination in which he must be seen. And then it may be possible to understand his art to some degree.

In him, there are great contradictions. In him, one quality obliterates the other. It is conflict in the highest degree. It is almost a catastrophe.

So the satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko described Shostakovich to a fellow writer in 1941.  Although Zoshchenko could not have heard the composer’s fourth symphony in his lifetime, his characterization has always reminded me of that work:  Written when he was just shy of thirty years old, it is the purest distillation of Shostakovich’s early musical temperament, constructed out of constantly shifting moods and impulses that are, on the surface, contradictory.

The fourth is Shostakovich’s last major work in the boisterous style of his operas and ballets, and the third to be scuttled by official criticism in 1936.  That year, the state’s news organ, Pravda, infamously ran an anonymous review of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk titled “Muddle Instead of Music”, which halted the opera’s extraordinarily successful run of productions within the Soviet Union.  Shortly after that the ballet The Limpid Stream was decried as a “Ballet Falsehood”, applying more pressure on the composer to bring his work into line with ambiguously defined, but by now deeply conservative, official tastes.  Such criticism fits within an older tradition of musical invective but, as the position of Stalin’s government just as the Great Purge was getting underway, it served as a substantial threat against Shostakovich’s career and life.  Yet the composer pushed on with his fourth symphony, every bit as stylistically incorrect as the two explicitly chastened works, and it went into rehearsal with the Leningrad Philharmonic, only to be cancelled before its premiere due to some combination of paranoia, behind-the-scenes official pressure, and actual artistic concern among the conductor, orchestra management, and composer.

The symphony’s manuscript was lost during World War II; decades later, the orchestral parts were found and the work reconstructed.  Kirill Kondrashin finally premiered it with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra late in 1961.  The next year those same forces made the studio recording I refer to here, at one time reissued by BMG.  In 1962 the symphony was first performed in the West at the Edinburgh Festival, directed by Gennady Rozhdestvensky alongside Shostakovich’s then-new twelfth symphony.

The stiff and predictable twelfth must have stood in marked contrast to the fourth:  The earlier symphony is both astonishingly lively and tremendously difficult to comprehend.  I first listened to it on disc when I was 18 or 19 years old and, while it made an impression — it and Lady Macbeth were, for a time, at least what I stated as my favorite of the composer’s works — it took a few years and many repeat listenings before I developed any recall of what the music specifically sounds like.  Even then, that interior sense of the music felt for a long time more like mere familiarity with its landscape than an intuition of its structural logic.  The symphony is roughly an hour long (compared to more recent recordings, Kondrashin’s can sound noticeably speedier, sometimes mercifully so), with two enormous outer movements sandwiching a relatively petite, nine-minute intermezzo.  As mentioned previously, it owes a substantial debt to Gavriil Popov’s earlier first symphony in its overall effect and some of its details — its dramatic pauses; its long, rhapsodic movements; its sheer, brazen gigantism — but Shostakovich’s symphony is also strongly influenced by the sprawling psychodramas of Gustav Mahler, seemingly much more than Popov’s is.  Outside of these formal borrowings, the music sounds a good deal like Shostakovich’s heaviest earlier works, most closely Lady Macbeth and his three ballets — although, despite the symphony’s intensity, it reminds me less of the more thoughtful Golden Age than The Limpid Stream.  That may be because both The Limpid Stream and the symphony use a more conventional orchestra than the earlier ballet’s saxophones and flexatones (although the band for the fourth is monstrously outsized) but, more deeply, the fourth symphony feels in many places like a great, dark built up out of hollow-sounding dance music gestures, as though the composer had dynamited his final ballet and assembled a tragic, Mahlerian symphony out of the shards.

The work opens with the wind-instrument shriek excerpted above, a more acerbic version of the brusque orchestral sneeze that Popov leads with.  This proceeds straight into the first movement’s first main theme, an angular and deliberately unhummable tune, played over a stomping beat:

The movement goes on to introduce a second, more lyrical theme (although it is never treated too lyrically) and develops these in a way that resembles, broadly and abstractly, a traditional first-movement scheme, most clearly in a recognizable return to the opening theme shortly before the movement’s end.  As in the third symphony, though, Shostakovich seems to try to bury the relationship to the older symphonic form, and the effect is that of a constantly forward-moving musical front whose direction, while chaotic, is also seemingly linear.  A couple of prominent setpieces occur within this wash of music — a screamingly fast fugato passage, a cinematic series of ominous crescendos — but I think the scope of expression within the movement is easiest to suggest by flagging a few different appearances of its first theme.  After its aggressive, abrasive first statement (excerpted above) it very recognizably returns about twelve and a half minutes in, transformed with very slight changes into something like a carousel-organ tune:

Four minutes after that it forms the local climax of a threatening passage, in much more distorted form.  The music builds up choppily, only to twist away with a few coarse waltz beats — the mood of danger pivots into one of broad comedy — and then settle into another chugging string accompaniment:

At about the twenty-three-minute mark, near the movement’s end, the theme gets something like a proper recapitulation, this time as a bassoon solo, turning it into a sort of comic monologue:

The first movement, after all its fury, ends in an atmosphere of unsettled quietude, as woodwinds almost motorically repeat short, questioning gestures against a low thrumming background.

The second movement opens in a similar mood; its slightly mysterious first theme unwinds cleanly enough, although the sound quickly thickens.  A descending second theme that first appears to a gently pulsing bass line creates, initially, a mood of twilight calm, though as always it becomes more complex and ambiguous over the course of a few minutes.  The theme is also notable for being reused (with some cleaning up) much more famously in the first movement of Shostakovich’s fifth symphony:

The movement returns to its earlier material at the end, with the addition of an odd, rattling percussion figure, resembling Shostakovich’s music for the mechanical toys in The Tale of the Priest and His Worker, Blockhead.  I hadn’t noticed that possible connection before watching what’s left of that film last November, but the link seems appropriate to the music’s mechanical, alienated mood at the end of the symphony’s second movement, as though it is a mechanical toy winding down:

The final movement, with distinct Largo and Allegro sections that make it function more like two conjoined movements, opens with a funereal tread and a slightly grotesque quality, recalling the third movement of Mahler’s first symphony as well as the funeral-march third movement of Shostakovich’s own Symphony No. 1.  This finally rolls into one of my favorite parts of the work, a gleaming, lurching, weird fanfare:

This settles down and speeds up into the second part of the movement, which takes up most of its twenty-plus minutes.  Until this final movement the symphony has tracked the design of Popov’s pretty closely, in function if not proportion:  Both first movements are sprawling, unruly affairs, both second movements contrastingly lyrical.  Even Shostakovich’s third movement, excepting the opening, seems to ape Popov’s at a high level, as a scherzo that roils over into the symphony’s grand climax.  Shostakovich’s last movement, though, is much larger and much stranger.  After its trudging intro it proceeds as a hard-charging fast movement — then, for several minutes in its center, lays out a baffling, seemingly aimless series of satirical light-music episodes, shot through in places with dark intimations from the low brass:

These quiet down into a bed of warm expectancy, as though a musical resurrection a la Mahler’s second is about to occur, but instead the timpani herald a crashing, unequivocally tragic climax, which lowers finally into a quiet, shell-shocked, minor-key conclusion.

It is the circus element at the movement’s heart that makes it difficult to grasp Shostakovich’s intent, but though it does cause some problems for the work’s momentum on a musical level the dance episodes’ purpose seems finally understandable as the symphony’s most coarsely grained contrast between comedy and tragedy.  To borrow Zoshchenko’s phrase, the one quality almost obliterates the other, yet they make up one larger quality.  What causes our suffering and despair is so often banal and ridiculous; what we laugh at so often seems to be, at root, our own exasperation and helplessness.  This is the continuum, it seems to me, that Shostakovich constantly ranges over, and nowhere else in his output do its two poles generate so much dissonance.

The first time I heard Popov’s first symphony I did feel a twinge of outrage that Shostakovich seemed to have mimicked so much of it — and it remains the case, here and elsewhere, that Shostakovich’s large-scale structures are rarely novel — but in getting to know Popov’s work I’ve since gotten a sense of how the symphonies differ.  Popov’s is the more approachable and charming work, I think, and maybe more successful on its own terms.  But Shostakovich’s fourth is a darker and edgier work, more acidic in its humor and psychologically deeper in its dramatic outbursts.  It commits sins of excess similar to those of Lady Macbeth and The Nose, and threatens in its bulky outer movements not to hang together in a coherent musical form, but it is also a thoughtful work and unmatched in any of Shostakovich’s subsequent output — following the defining low point of his relationship to the Soviet cultural apparatus — for its raw intensity.  It is, as a symphony, almost a catastrophe, but it is also almost a masterpiece.

In concert: String Quartet No. 8, op. 110; Pacifica Quartet, January 11, 2011

January 12, 2011

The Pacifica Quartet’s second of two Portland concerts last night was laid out similarly to the first, with a Shostakovich quartet sandwiched between one by Beethoven and another by one of the great German romantics, and the Pacificas executed it with the same flair.  Last night’s program was actually the more enjoyable of the two:  Beethoven’s F-major quartet, op. 18, no. 1 took the evening off to a spirited start, alternately jaunty and somber; there and in Shostakovich’s eighth quartet, the group played with a particularly clean and well-balanced sound.  For Robert Schumann’s op. 41, no. 1 quartet in the second half they played with a slightly richer texture well suited to that work’s high emotional saturation and tinge of Schumannesque weirdness.  Schumann is one of those composers whose work I don’t know particularly well and should get to know better, since most of what I hear makes an impression.  (This project will actually touch on Schumann directly, eventually, as Shostakovich reorchestrated his cello concerto late in life.)  Their encore tonight was the Cavatina from Beethoven’s thirteenth string quartet, which lowered the energy level after the wide-open Schumann but didn’t cut the audience’s enthusiasm.

When I reach it in sequence I’ll try to unpack all of Shostakovich’s musical self quotations in the eighth, once I can point back to each of the works he references, but at a high level the eighth quartet is a five-movement meditation on the composer’s signature “DSCH” motto theme shot through with recollections of his earlier milestone works.  Prior to their performance, violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson stood up to introduce the work and, with a few examples played by his fellows, gave a concise explanation of the DSCH theme — the notes D, E flat, C, and B, which in traditional German notation are rendered D – Es – C – H, thus forming the initials D. Sch. for (in German transliteration) Dmitri Schostakowitsch — which the mostly unfamiliar audience seemed to appreciate.  He also described the circumstances of Shostakovich’s anguished composition of the work (as was the case last night and happens often enough, the context of Shostakovich’s life merited a pre-performance mention), albeit without the history, verging on mythology, that Shostakovich had just been bullied into joining the Communist Party.

The eighth, then, as Shostakovich wrote to his friend Isaak Glikman soon after composing it in 1960, is a memorial for himself; I hear shades of self-recrimination mixed in with its self-pity.  In a way it is a supremely self-involved work, yet its emotional directness and simple musical development make it Shostakovich’s easiest quartet to relate to, and one of its most popular.  The Pacifica’s clean, almost sleek performance brought the motion of the quartet’s voices to the fore and gave it a medium weight that didn’t bog down in its own sense of tragedy, an especially good approach in the funeral outer movements.  The fast, panicky second movement came off with claustrophobic intensity, and all the blood-boiling excitement I remember from first listening to the work on CD as an eighteen-year-old.  They brought a bit of theatrical showiness to the brittle, ironic third movement; in contrast, they moved briskly through the fourth movement’s long, dramatic crescendos, serving in both cases to open up the work’s interiority a bit.  Brandon Vamos’ playing was exceptionally plaintive in two key cello solos and the ensemble managed a seemingly impossible dying-away at the work’s end.

For Monday’s concert I brought my girlfriend along and made a date out of it but last night I simply strolled in by myself after a late day at work, which needless to say diminishes the concert-going experience; it makes me more susceptible to being put off by the inorganic atmosphere of professional chamber series or the shallow, sentimentalizing “ooh”ing and “ahh”ing from the crowd at this or that terrible detail of the composer’s life.  (A distracting, probably electronic chirping sound of some kind throughout the Shostakovich’s fourth movement pushed me toward the grumpier end of the spectrum too.)  But the audience, including myself, responds in a completely engaged and authentic way — more so with chamber or solo performers, I think, than most of the bigger symphony orchestra shows — so the concert atmosphere, as much as I can bemoan this or that detail, is doing its job after all.  And certainly the musicians, deeply committed and so exquisitely well-trained that the paying listener such as myself can take the works’ technical challenges entirely for granted, are beyond reproach here.

In concert: String Quartet No. 10, op. 118; Pacifica Quartet, January 10, 2011

January 11, 2011

I’m getting off to a decidedly slow start to 2011, Shostakovich-wise, but before picking up where I left off I’ll fast-forward to the 1960s for a pair of string quartets that the Pacifica Quartet is performing in Portland this week.  The first of their two concerts was last night, featuring Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 10, op. 118 of 1964, bookended by Mendelssohn’s opus 12 quartet and Beethoven’s “Hero” quartet in C Major, op. 59, no. 3.

I like the Pacifica Quartet’s sound:  They have a romantic warmth and richness, at the other end of a spectrum from (for instance) the razor-edged modernistic style of the Emerson Quartet, whom I’ve also heard perform a good amount of Shostakovich.  They were at their best in medium-loud, noodly, slightly mysterious passages, which they played with a light touch in the sly canzonetta movement of the Mendelssohn as well as the outer movements of the Shostakovich.  The Hero quartet making up the second half of the show (and undoubtedly its center of gravity) brought out a tighter sound and cleaner lines, at least in part because of the piece’s sense of scale and space, which easily exceeds Shostakovich’s quartet writing easily at its most expansive.

The tenth is one of Shostakovich’s more expansive string quartets — I think it at least has the most symphonic structure out of his fifteen.  The quartet’s body plan is very similar to that of the composer’s first violin concerto (a symphonically broad work) of 1948:  A searching first movement gives way to a furiously fast second; a slow passacaglia forms the work’s emotional center, then gives way to a nominally lighter final movement that climbs to a height of anxiety, with the passacaglia theme breaking through at a key moment.  It’s the last quartet Shostakovich wrote before entering his cryptic, more modernist-leaning late period and it is, measured against the psychological depth of his chamber works, relatively outward-facing.  Yet the Pacifica’s violist, Masumi Per Rostad, made an insightful point in some prefatory remarks about the quartet:  In contrast to the Mendelssohn and Beethoven works on the program, Shostakovich’s first and last movements are less driving and purposeful than the inner ones, creating a sense of mystery.  Indeed, the quartet opens with a quizzical, almost affectless, downward-stepping figure, which the work ultimately circles back to in its final bars, creating less of a conclusion than a sense of a passing, ruminative mood.

I was musing on the drive home from the hall that the tenth may be my least favorite quartet out of Shostakovich’s cycle, which mainly speaks to the consistent quality of the set, as I feel overwhelmingly positive about the tenth.  It does feel like stylistically familiar territory and it lacks the emotional heft of many of his similar works, particularly in the passacaglia — the return of its theme in the final movement, too, feels academic, an imitation of the psychological crisis point that the same move marks in the violin concerto — but it’s a strong work in its own right.  The Pacifica Quartet’s style works well for it.  They sounded great in the blithe, wandering, slightly stunned music of the final movement; their warmth became effectively huskier for the intense music of the fast movements.  A highlight was the end of the second movement, with pairs of instruments trading off strident, squeezebox-like drones while the remaining two worked through a fidgety theme (similar to one at the conclusion of Shostakovich’s then-recent thirteenth symphony) with increasing insistence.

It was a fun show, attended by the usual sea of gray heads but, assuredly, no committed fans of the University of Oregon’s football team, which was in the middle of its national championship game.  (In one of those moments of quiet, situational, chamber-music-concert hilarity, one of the Friends of Chamber Music organizers read out the score as of the show’s opening and, in her bright arts-administrator voice, delivered one of the great sports cliches:  “The score is Oregon 11, Auburn 16.  It’s halftime; a lot can still happen…”)  As a somewhat unlikely but extremely likable encore, the Pacificas played the all-pizzicato movement from Bela Bartok’s fourth quartet, offering a taste of that other great cycle of 20th-century string quartets.  Their second show is tonight at 7:30, also at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, featuring Shostakovich’s eighth and by far most popular quartet — it should be a good one.