Archive for the ‘Symphonies’ Category

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It seemed to you that he is “frail, fragile, withdrawn, an infinitely direct, pure child.”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.

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In concert: Symphony No. 12, “The Year 1917″, op. 112

November 2, 2010

In concert:  Symphony No. 12, “The Year 1917”, op. 112
San Francisco Symphony, Pablo Heras-Casado, Oct. 28, 2010

San Francisco’s baked-in weirdness really comes to the fore if you visit while Halloween, an election, and the Giants playing a World Series (they just won the championship minutes ago, as of this writing) are all happening at once.  Compared to all that, and more so compared to a long weekend spent visiting with various friends of mine and the girlfriend’s in the Bay Area, a solo visit to a San Francisco Symphony matinee recedes somewhat into the background.  I’m happy I finally heard them live, though — despite an awful lot of classical-music tourism over the past decade and my more recent West Coast transplantation, I hadn’t managed that yet — and, auspiciously, they closed out their long weekend’s program with Shostakovich’s twelfth symphony of 1962.

I don’t know why I expected the hall not to be merely three-quarters full, or the audience even more comprised of senior citizens than in the usual big-orchestra show — maybe because I know the San Francisco Conservatory is nearby and I expected a few students, or maybe just because I forgot not to apply my own enthusiasm to the world at large.  At any rate, it was a thin, mellow, and rather old crowd, which was all the more noticeable in contrast with the featured peformers:  Pianist Alice Sara Ott is twenty-two and conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, more strikingly, is just shy of thirty-three.  Being thirty myself, I felt this twinge of what-have-you-done-with-your-own-life in the face of this youth movement, which was only heightened by the World Series happening across town at the time, in which, by the looks of Tim Lincecum and Buster Posey, the average age of a San Franscisco Giants star is roughly fourteen.  I started to think of it as a “quarter-life crisis” before calculating that such a crisis would assume I’ll live to be 120.  But I let it all pass.

The concert instantly reminded me of listening to the Baltimore Symphony, both in the ensemble’s effortlessly rich sound and the hall’s eighties-era modernity.  (The balcony pods in Baltimore’s Meyerhoff are more alienating than Davies’ and its brick-walled interior corridors feel more like a school libary, but the halls’ shape, sound, and civic-performance-space vibe are all similar.)  The Shostakovich, being a gigantic symphony, closed the program; the preceding selections all had a sonic bigness in common with it, each in their own way.  Heras-Casado opened with with a robust but not very detailed take on Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave Overture.  Ott followed with Liszt’s first piano concerto, and she and the band made a good show out of its crashing solo passages in octaves and its moments of cool, overwrought romanticism.  György Kurtág’s odd 1989 elegy Grabstein für Stephan opened the second half to a predictably but unfairly disdainful audience reaction, with the usual persistant coughing and isolated instances of low murmuring.  The Kurtág was a little musty in its loud moments, upswellings of grinding, midcentury-modernist tone color, but its quieter effects — most especially the haunting, strummed guitar arpeggios that run through it like spider silk — make it a weird, mysterious kin to the Eastern European minimalism of Henryk Górecki or Arvo Pärt.  It’s not a major piece but it was by far the most interesting part of the program.

Then, Shostakovich’s twelfth.  The work is essentially the musical equivalent of one of those big statues of Lenin that the USSR used to erect, and it stands in heavy contrast to all the brash, lively, inventive works of the early 1930s that I’ve been listening to in recent weeks.  Uniquely among Shostakovich’s symphonies — including the second, third, and eleventh, all with similar revolutionary programs — the twelfth completely lacks any spark of inner life.  It expresses only a continuous, blank sternness.  I don’t entirely know what to make of it and some degree of confusion reigns among Shostakovich’s better informed commentators and acolytes.  The composer’s friend Lev Lebedinsky notably claimed to Elizabeth Wilson that Shostakovich had written an original twelfth as a too-obvious satire of Lenin and then, panicked, threw together the present symphony as a last-minute replacement; Laurel Fay coolly disassembles that claim, noting that the lead time needed both for rehearsals and for the official review process would prevent any such swap; Wilson, in her more recent edition of Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, hedges by saying that “the story becomes more plausible if we date the rewriting to August 1961”.  Wilson also cites Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who describes the symphony as a sardonic portrait of the cult of Lenin, with parodistically over-the-top movement titles.  Ian MacDonald’s risible The New Shostakovich chases that line of thinking up to the book’s giddy height of ridiculousness, at which the author claims that the symphony satirizes the terrible ideal of Soviet music via the act of being terrible music itself.  For my own part, I don’t believe the composer put anything into opus 112 like what he put into the rest of his mature symphonies, even the most publicly-minded ones among them — given the twelfth’s psychological emptiness I simply can’t hear it otherwise.  But whatever Shostakovich’s motivations or his feelings on the work, at or after the time of composition, it remains a socialist-realist monument.  Occam’s Razor, if you dare to take it as vigorously to the context of Shostakovich’s output as you should, tells you that he produced, whatever his exact reasons, the uncomplicated symphonic paean to Lenin that the regime wanted of him.

In Dmitri Shostakovich: A Life in Film, John Riley describes a trend in the Soviet film industry in late 1940s and early 1950s towards making biopics whose famous subjects were portrayed without any private or individual life; Shostakovich’s twelfth, composed a decade after that, is a symphony built on the same principle.  Within its conventional four-movement structure it works mainly as a rhapsody on two themes — the first a grave, ascending-descending motto; the second a slightly more effusive figure quoted from the second symphony — that never betrays any emotional content deeper than a stiff seriousness or an equally serious gaze fixed on the bright future ahead.  What’s more surprising is that the musical material is so dire:  The main themes are too thin to stretch out over forty minutes and the rest of the work’s melodic and harmonic content is uninteresting to the point of being nearly impossible to remember, even in a work that I’ve been familiar enough with on disc for several years.  When I wrote up the third symphony I noted that Shostakovich echoes the style of his previous compositions but often reduces it to a flurry of stereotyped gestures; the twelfth takes that approach to the nth degree, as though it’s a blustery signifier of a Shostakovich symphony rather than the thing itself.

Heras-Casado got the gestural nature of the symphony right, especially in the first movement, “Revolutionary Petrograd”:  A brisk pace kept the piece from bogging down and his whiplike take on the music’s higher-energy figures, along with the orchestra’s tightness, drew out their shape and direction over their uninteresting melodic content.  The challenge of the work is to whip up a musical drama out of a series of exquisitely boring individual moments but Heras-Casado, by focusing on its broad strokes, did build up what genuine excitement he could.

The performers had no such luck with the second movement, though, and I doubt that anyone could — it’s a wasteland of musical ideas, the single worst symphonic movement that Shostakovich ever wrote.  Titled “The Rising” (or, transliterated instead of translated, “Razliv”, after Lenin’s hiding place during the summer of 1917) it nominally aims for a mood of austere contemplation but, as actual introspection would be inimical to Lenin’s personality cult, it ends up as a cold wash of profoundly hollow woodwind figures and sluggish repetition of the two main themes.  It lets out into the third movement, “Aurora”, which tries more or less literally to shell the audience, insofar as that’s possible with a symphony orchestra; the movement climaxes with the depiction of the titular battleship’s big guns and I think Heras-Casado would have done better to be louder and more excessive here, balance be damned.  There’s simply nothing else in the music to hold the audience’s attention, other than those pyrotechnics.

The third movement proceeds straight into the fourth, “The Dawn of Humanity”, built mainly on a series of grandly windy restatements of the second-symphony theme.  By this point the pacing and tightness seemed to have slacked somewhat, as though the performers’ endurance had worn down, though this may just as well have been my own flagging patience with the work.  The last movement does abruptly break off its celebratory mood and return to something like the tone of the second movement in a couple of key places, which feels slightly inscrutable but mostly comes off like a rote attempt to keep the music fresh.

The conclusion closely echoes the finales of the fifth and seventh symphonies — very deliberately so, I’m sure, those being at the time his two most popular and officially best-loved symphonies.  I had a peculiar reaction to the finale, though, something verging on outright sadness, which I find hard to define or explain.  Ultimately I think it’s because that musical rhetoric — the brassy, grinding dissonances, the beating of the bass drum and timpani — is totally bound up for me with the tragedy and defiance of the end of the fifth, and since the preceding three quarters of an hour of music is wholly bleached of expressive content the only emotional note I’m left with is the reflected ambivalence of the earlier work.  Too, I felt a sad, almost embarrassed, “so it’s come to this” sort of sense, that Shostakovich applied himself to such a musically poor work in the first place.  The two impressions aren’t really compatible, and in my head I just want to run with the cleaner, intellectually more defensible reaction that the composer is simply, maybe cynically, borrowing from his past triumphs to add some crunch to the end of his Lenin symphony.  It’s all in there in my head, though.  The end of the concert drew a few happy whoops from the crowd and had a great many more people making a beeline for the exits; I sat clapping, not able to bring myself to do so very enthusiastically, thinking that the artists onstage deserved better — they performed the symphony ably, and the show’s problems were the score’s, not their own.

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

September 24, 2010

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.

Opus 14: Symphony No. 2, Dedication to October, in B Major (1927)

September 15, 2010

Symphony no. 2, Dedication to October, in B Major, op. 14 (1927)
CD:  Shostakovich: Symphonies No. 2 & 3, London Voices, London Symphony Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich (Teldec D 115626; now rereleased on Warner Classics)

(Drumroll)
Men: Here is the banner…
Deeper-voiced men: Here are the names of living generations:
Men: October!
Women: The Commune!
All: And Lenin!
Orchestra: (Triumphant burble)

That pronouncement — spoken rather than sung, for maximal declamatory effect — comes at the end of Shostakovich’s second symphony; the work is his first expressly political one and that episode, about a minute out from the big finish, marks the composer’s first foray into what you could now call Soviet kitsch.  (The text comes from Alexander Bezymensky’s poem “To October”, which Shostakovich sets in the finale; I base my rendering on Richard Bannerman’s translation in the Teldec disc’s liner notes, which I make somewhat but not a whole lot less comprehensible, with an assist from Google Translate.)  The work as a whole, though, exhibits an experimental flair completely absent from the composer’s later, more squarely bombastic official works.  In 1927 such music was still acceptable in the USSR; within half a decade or so it would officially be deemed “formalist”, bourgeois, unintelligible to the masses, etc., and suppressed until the 1960s.

Shostakovich wrote his Symphonic Dedication to October, eventually designated as his symphony no. 2, on a commission to mark the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution.  It runs about twenty minutes long in a single movement with a choral finale; the customary knock against the work (and against the similarly structured third symphony) is that the modernism of the purely instrumental section is out of joint with the musically conservative, propagandistic chorus.  On listening to it now, though — it feels like my first genuinely close read of the piece, though I’ve owned this Rostropovich album for years and played it consistently, if not regularly, since then — I don’t hear an unbridgeable stylistic gap between the beginning and end.  Shostakovich primarily seems intent on writing conventional vocal lines, which pulls the instrumental setting into more familiar harmonic territory, but the work’s fiery intensity provides continuity, even though mostly transmuted into over-the-top bombast.

That intensity isn’t precisely a selling point; in place of emotional complexity Shostakovich relies on restless energy and piled-on instrumental textures, which can be exhausting at least as easily as thrilling.  (I was really grooving to it on my first, fresh listen-through, for what that’s worth, although a less familiar listener could fairly judge my now-automatic affection for anything that sounds recognizably like Shostakovich to compromise my judgment.)  The work opens with inchoate murmurings in the strings, from which more definite shapes take form; about three minutes in, trumpet calls begin to rise out of the fog, in a nice atmospheric touch:

This gives way via a murky tuba solo to a forward-charging section which, after two quick, swelling climaxes gives way to an extended violin solo.  This provides a respite, though it’s joined soon enough by the clarinet and, ultimately, a huge, fidgety mass of instrumental textures:

Shostakovich’s later music continues to break into march episodes, seemingly out of nowhere — and I’m at risk of gushing joyfully about every single example — but I like how this instance, recognizable by about the 24-second mark in the clip, forms up out of a dust cloud of musical material in contrast to his typically more staid transitions further on in his career.  I don’t think he could have known Charles Ives’ music — in this piece Shostakovich tilts at polytonality from a different angle — but the passage seems on the verge of becoming a Fourth, curiously Soviet, Place in New England.  The end of the excerpt above also gives a sense of the overripe chords that Shostakovich’s orchestra starts biting into on its way into the chorus.

Here’s the opening of the vocal part, to contrast with the examples above.  The voices are stern here as Bezymensky details some revolutionary hardships (“We kept on walking, we asked for work and bread. / Our hearts were held tight in the vice of despair.”), though they become predictably more ecstatic later.  The poem is breathlessly propagandistic and overly worshipful of the recently deceased Lenin; Shostakovich disdained it to his friends at the time, though his music gives it full-throated expression.

The remaining bit worth noting is a downward-stepping theme that the composer recycled years later, in a blockier form, in the finale of his Twelfth Symphony, also composed in honor of the 1917 revolution — the motif forms up through the second half of the symphony but it’s most clearly expressed about two minutes into the choral section:

Shostakovich presumably reprises the theme in the twelfth because of the thematic connection, and perhaps too as a reminder of the existence of the older, still largely forgotten symphony.  Now the contrast between the two works doesn’t flatter the later one:  The second symphony, rather than following a tedious official program, comes off more as an abstract canvas on which Shostakovich showcases his musical possibilities, and presents a vision of what a native Soviet musical language could be.  It’s not his strongest or best-organized early work (and it’s something of a shame that it gets relatively more attention than his other works of the time, based on the popularity boost it gets from being included with the rest of his symphonies) but its adventurousness sets it apart from the similarly themed official works he wrote later on, once the turgid, socialist realist style of Soviet music was established and rigidly enforced.

Opus 10: Symphony No. 1 in F Minor (1924-1925)

September 9, 2010

Symphony no. 1 in F Minor, op. 10 (1924-1925)
CD:  “Shostakovich: Symphonies 1 & 9”, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (London 414 677 – 2)

That’s the beginning of Shostakovich’s first symphony, his first international hit (he was 19) and the first of what would become a monumental body of fifteen symphonies.  It was a joy to listen through this again yesterday, surprisingly so for the experience of listening to recorded music piped from my laptop through my television speakers, probably just because I’ve been holding back from listening to reams of his music while I’ve got Shostakovich on the brain.

This is also the first piece that I know pretty well, going back to when I was sixteen or so, though it must be at least two years since I’ve sat down and listened to the symphony.  Here I listened to the Haitink / London Philharmonic recording that I bought in high school, currently available as part of Decca’s more recent reissue of Haitink’s Shostakovich cycle.  His Shostakovich symphonies are good overall, based on those that I’ve heard, and he directs No. 1 with enough reserve to give it a lightness of touch without losing any energy or diminishing the piece’s key moments of real over-the-top brashness; I prefer it to the other two recordings I know well, Ormandy’s with Philadelphia (too affectless) or Neeme Järvi’s with the Scottish National Orchestra (likable but more heavy-handed).

The introduction excerpted above spins out into a bouncey theme and the first movement gradually stirs itself up.  After a couple of minutes the flute introduces the delicate second theme, a winking dance tune; the movement subsequently plays the two themes back and forth off of each other.  Shostakovich does a nice job of building and maintaining musical tension — for the most part (including at the movement’s end) the buildup doesn’t release so much as settle down, but my favorite moment in the symphony happens at about the halfway point when the music finally lets loose:

The end of that excerpt also suggests some of the symphony’s frenetic, darker edge — the innocuous little tune blows up into a musical cataclysm.

The second movement opens with a gamboling theme; Shostakovich charmingly gives it to the piano in a couple of places, a solo voice that dropped out of his symphonic pallette later.  Here it is around the 3:15 mark — the composer was working as a cinema pianist to help make ends meet while writing the symphony and, in full imaginative fanboy mode, I can’t help but imagine him working through this theme as accompaniment to a silent comedy:

The bulk of the second movement, though, belongs to a more exotic theme given a hazily atmospheric setting, very reminiscent of Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite and (less directly) Stravinsky’s early, folk-influenced works.  That influence is new to Shostakovich’s work but it’s pronounced in the rest of the symphony from this point on.

The third and fourth movements fit together as an abstract dramatic episode.  The third movement mostly works out a single, searching theme in a funereal mood, with drum and bugle gestures periodically rising up out of the fog, and is an obvious forerunner to Shostakovich’s many, later passacaglia slow movements (although I don’t have the ears to tell whether this is formally a passacaglia or not; it sounds freer in structure than that).  The symphony continues into its final movement without pause, via a snare drum roll, and continues in the same tone before introducing its own, tragic main theme.  The tragedy in the finale sounds theatrical rather than intimate — most literally at about the five-minute mark, when the tympani play a sequence of exposed, doomy drumbeats — but it is urgent and earnest.  The last-movement theme, which I clipped below from just before the work’s anxious, minor-key conclusion, has a broad, expressive lyricism of a piece with late-19th-century Russian music but also a rawness and Soviet-modern brashness, like Rimsky-Korsakov with a brushed steel exterior:


It’s a charming sound.  I’ve always listened to the first symphony in the context of the later fourteen so it’s interesting to come at it this way, when it stands out as the culmination of his student works.  Shostakovich uses better musical material here and, besides imitating Prokofiev’s sound, also uses more counterpoint here, or just keeps more musical elements in motion at once.  (Compare the Opus 7 scherzo, which uses a similar theme to the symphony’s second movement but mostly barrels straight ahead with it.)  It all comes together as a solid, characterful, expressive work of music, worthy of its popularity.

In concert: Symphony No. 5, op. 47, Allegretto; Portland Youth Philharmonic

September 2, 2010

Although I’m flying to the East Coast tonight (in fact, I’m in an airport Bier Stube right now) I’d seen that the Portland Youth Philharmonic was opening a free concert at 5:00 with the scherzo from Shostakovich’s fifth symphony, and it seemed appropriate to stop in for the time that I could.  I’ll note here that I’m going try to catch what performances of Shostakovich’s music I can, regardless of chronological order, and write them up here.

The PYP (conducted by David Hattner) played at the Tom McCall Waterfront Park downtown, a convenient minutes-long bike ride from my office — they were the opening act for the Oregon Symphony’s free outdoor season kickoff concert, the kind that ends with the 1812 Overture.  It’s a scenic performance space, as far as big white tents go, with the Willamette River and the angular Hawthorne Bridge looming right behind it.  A good crowd had already staked out their spaces with blankets and lawn chairs.

I’d wondered whether the second movement of the fifth made sense as a concert opener but without the darker material of the rest of the symphony around it it’s an amiable piece of music, well suited to casual, chatty environments.  (Most of the piece was accompanied for me by a group of folks in front of me arriving piecemeal, exchanging hugs and hellos, unfolding chairs, occluding my view.)  In fact, I recall, in the Soviet anniversary release of The Battleship Potemkin, scored with symphonic Shostakovich excerpts, the allegretto underscores the moments right before the famous Odessa Steps sequence, as the civilians mill about right before the czarist soldiers mow them down.  No such ominous implications this evening.  The allegretto came off as loamy and heavy-footed, somehow more obviously a throwback to Gustav Mahler in isolation than in its place within the whole, only mildly ominous around the edges.

I heard the orchestra through loudspeakers a good distance from the stage but they sounded tight and, under the circumstances, well balanced.  The amplification sounded great by public park standards but still shortchanged the strings and put a pretty coarse burr onto the brass sound, with the woodwinds holding their own in between.  The solo woodwinds, so important to the movement’s bitey charm, sounded particularly strong (just a couple of excusable bassoon missteps).  All in all it was well performed and I appreciate more than I did yesterday that it’s a robust six minutes of music, able to communicate its musical essence through a bunch of external distractions.

After it ended, at risk of seeming overly narrow in my musical interests, I walked back over to the bike racks.  I did get to hear an impressive young violinist (Natally Okhovat, the program tells me) cut through the introductory half of Saint-Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, her solo line nicely audible over the Naito Parkway traffic, before I pedaled over the bridge and home.  A nice detour for a Thursday afternoon that felt like a Friday.