Five Fragments, op. 42 (1935)
CD: Shostakovich: The Execution of Stepan Razin, etc., Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz (Naxos 8.557812)
For the past few years I’ve been a little bit familiar with the Five Fragments from this album, not that the work demands much familiarity. But it works well as a companion to the bigger stuff on this album by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony (a band I still haven’t heard in concert, despite being only one major city away from me), the classical-ouevre equivalent of a B-side, and the musicians give a good account of it.
The five short pieces, sketches for Shostakovich’s upcoming fourth symphony, make a ten-minute exercise in the general style of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, though in their stylistic details they differ somewhat — I imagine Shostakovich was working out a couple of different angles. The first two fragments point most clearly back at the sound worlds of Lady Macbeth and The Nose, particularly the ominous tension of the former’s first act. The central Largo, though, achieves something else than the earlier style: With slow traces of melodic lines and chords hanging in the air as though vaporized, it creates an static, pensive atmosphere that, running for a comparatively long four minutes, anchors the entire set. The piece that follows it continues in something like the same mood, but with less aim and interest.
Some hard-edged solo fiddling in the final Allegretto shows off a jumpy figure that makes its way in some form into the last movement of the fourth symphony — the only material in the fragments so used, I think — as well as an attitude that comes back in biting folk-dance episodes in several of Shostakovich’s string quartets:
Fun enough stuff; my reaction to it is mainly the same joy of recognition I feel towards anything unmistakably in the composer’s style.
Jazz Suite No. 1, sans opus (1934)
CD: “Shostakovich: The Jazz Album”, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly (London 433 702 – 2; currently issued on Decca)
When I bought Riccardo Chailly’s “Jazz Album” in high school, in the early stages of my Shostakovich fervency — I think I was familiar with the fifth, tenth, and thirteenth symphonies by then, and probably not much else — I had high hopes that the Soviet composer would prove to be a polystylistic master of the symphonic jazz idiom, another Gershwin or Bernstein. The fact that the album’s opener, the first jazz suite, contains a waltz and a polka dashed those hopes somewhat even on examining the CD packaging in the store; Elizabeth Wilson’s note in the booklet essay that “the music hardly corresponds to the accepted understanding of jazz” (which I recall reading before listening to the album, most likely in the car on the way home from Border’s) seemed a pretty frank disappointment of those teenager’s hopes for a Russified Rhapsody in Blue. But it took listening through to the middle of the final piece in the suite, the foxtrot, to grasp just how wacky Shostakovich’s concept of jazz is:
Only for this listening expedition did I finally look up what instrument is squeakily crooning over a sliding trombone — it’s a Hawaiian guitar, which Shostakovich had used once before in his Golden Mountains film score — but I’ve been at least used to the effect for years. On that initial listening it seemed funny, rather cutesy, and generally inexplicable. I imagined then, as I still do now, a lazy hound dog in some cartoon set on the banks of the Mississippi circa 1940.
Since then I’ve learned to place the jazz suite within the larger body of Shostakovich’s light music but it’s remained an unusually charming example for me, due to its relatively good tunes, instrumental novelty and — not least — small size. Even at that, hearing its opening waltz again this week made me fear that I’d killed my taste for the composer’s dance music, at least temporarily: Working through five years of such material, especially the declawed works starting with The Bolt, is the music-listening equivalent of eating your way through a crate of increasingly stale petit-fours. It doesn’t help that the waltz’s main theme also sees a lot of use in The Limpid Stream, written around the same time, although it’s winsome enough if taken at a smaller dosage; it also shares a four-note opening descent with the later, more sly, recently much more famous “second waltz”:
The polka, though, cleansed my brain of any toxicity: It’s just a really good light-orchestra track, varied and charming and amiably melodic. If you don’t the handoff in the middle of it between one operetta-like saxophone tune and another, you’re not going to like any of this stuff.
The foxtrot is a longer and heavier dance number in a minor key but Chailly keeps the music light and quick, letting the darker hue add piquancy without turning the music into vaudevillian drama or a sad clown routine, as a couple of other recordings do. It’s really enjoyable music, probably an ideal introduction to Shostakovich’s lighter side (along with the rest of the album; see also the “Tahiti-Trot”) and, if you’re not diving too deep into the composer’s oeuvre, one of the only works you need.
Here’s a weird little piece, weird because it doesn’t sound like any of Shostakovich’s other student pieces so far and it doesn’t particularly sound like anything I’ve heard that he wrote later. Its closest affinity is to the first symphony — I don’t know whether it’s literally a sketch for the larger work, but it’s the orchestral piece the composer wrote immediately prior to it — but the first has a brash and skittish edge to it that’s missing from the scherzo. The opus 7 sounds like … like what? More than anything its zaniness reminds me of the Looney Tunes music that Carl Stallings would start to write about a decade later, though it’s far less of a stylistic melange.
The scherzo’s rather forgettable first theme is sounded by the piano and bounds along over an oscillating figure in the orchestra. Shostakovich, developing the characterful solo woodwind passages that are a hallmark of his symphonic style, gives the introduction of the carnivalesque second theme to the clarinet; in the excerpt below, the flute takes up the tune as well, and after it’s whipped up a bit the full orchestra lays into it with madcap energy:
The first theme returns, some contrastingly softer development occurs along with further musical tumbling, and the work ends theatrically with a quick drum roll and last orchestral expectoration. I’m reminded somehow of the fossilized invertabrates of the Burgess Shale (memorably and lovingly described by Stephen Jay Gould in Wonderful Life), whose body plans seem alien and bizarre because they have had no living descendents for eons, no evolutionary connection to any of the diversity of modern animal life. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it: Shostakovich’s stylistic development was a consciously directed process, unlike Darwinian natural selection, and besides that the scherzo is an exercise on the path to his early mature style more than it is a stylistic dead end. Still, there’s something in this music that makes it stick out for me from his later output, a three-and-a-half-minute fossilized oddity. Or perhaps I’m overthinking it because I’m locked into it today, and it will make sense with the whole progression of Shostakovich’s output in mind.
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.
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.