Posts Tagged ‘Shostakovich’

In Which I am Baited by a Shostakovich Book Review

May 7, 2011

I’ve allowed this space to get cobwebby over the past couple of months, obviously, but it’s worth saying some words about Edward Rothstein’s review of Wendy Lesser’s Music for Silenced Voices in yesterday’s New York Times, which turns out to be more of an ambiguous endorsement of Solomon Volkov’s fraudulent Shostakovich memoir, Testimony.

I owe this blog some thoughts on Lesser’s book itself, which I read earlier this year, but it’s a fine, personal interpretation of the composer’s fifteen string quartets, much informed by the details of the composer’s life.  Her survey is admittedly idiosyncratic and as such it makes a far more mature companion to Ian MacDonald’s The New Shostakovich of 1990, which traces an equally idiosyncratic, excessively political interpretation of the composer’s fifteen symphonies but ridiculously mistakes the author’s reader response for coded information inherent in the music.  Rothstein seems to fall between the two, and his criticism that Lesser’s extramusical connections are “too personal, too apolitical and too ahistorical for my taste” is fair enough, although I disagree.  If nothing else, all individual political experience ultimately reduces to personal experience, not the other way around, and I’d prefer to err on that side.

His complaint that Lesser paints the music as “almost tediously mannered in its self-involvement” misses a couple of points, too, not just that Shostakovich can fairly be seen as an unsympathetic character from some angles but that the seeming self-involvement in Shostakovich’s music — the mixed self-pity and self-loathing of the eighth quartet, the desperate hammering home of his signature theme at the end of the tenth symphony, the inward-looking setting of Yevtushenko’s “A Career” that closes the thirteenth symphony — is one of its most compelling aspects.  Paradoxically, self-involvement is a universal human experience, and in listening (most especially, listening when I was between the ages of 15 and 18) the unabashed first-person-ness of Shostakovich’s music melds into my own.

Where Rothstein becomes irritating is in offering a squishy apology for Volkov’s misrepresentation of Testimony as Shostakovich’s own, writing:  “In fact, if not an authentic memoir, ‘Testimony’ is still a work of considerable literary power, a suggestive account of the music and a convincing portrait of the man who composed it.”  The “convincing portrait” bit is maddeningly circular, in that the main mechanism by which the book convinced anyone in the first place was by falsely representing itself within what was then a void of non-Party line information about the composer.  I agree with Rothstein that Lesser fails to dismiss Testimony as thoroughly as she wants to, but I think what she wants to say by deeming its legacy “pointless” is that its halfway accuracy is no longer needed now that there are far more authentic versions of the composer’s words and private thoughts available.  And after reading Elizabeth Wilson’s excellent Shostakovich: A Life Remembered and Isaak Glikman’s lovable collection of Shostakovich’s letters to him, Story of a Friendship, Volkov’s text fails to convince; the anecdotes and the general outline of disliking the Soviet state apparatus may be correct, but the bitterness of its voice is alien.

More generally, I’ve become less and less of a relativist about the notion of truth since my heyday in a sophomore-level literary theory class in college, and by now I’m convinced that any sentence beginning “In fact, if not an authentic memoir” has little business leading anywhere but “then it should not in fact be treated as authentic” without a really good justification.  I get that words can be partially true; I get what Maxim Shostakovich told Rothstein in the early 1980s that Volkov’s book, while a fake, was truer to his father than the other published words attributed to him at that time.  But it’s easy to overestimate that fractional truth value, and Rothstein too glibly brushes off the risk that accepting a simplified and ideologically motivated account will lead him toward a shallower understanding.  The attitude smacks of the idea that “you sometimes have to lie to tell the truth” embraced one way or another by any number of students in my creative writing classes when I was in school, myself included, but this too often turns into an excuse for cutting off tricky corners of experience instead of pushing toward an understanding that fits the difficult event or feeling — it’s no coincidence that the Shostakovich that emerges from Volkov’s work is considerably less nuanced and self-contradictory than the personality sussed out by Wilson or Lesser or even, through his correspondence, Shostakovich himself.  That personality’s motivations are harder to understand — more to the point, that vision of the composer is harder to lionize — but once you do that more difficult empathetic work you gain a richer, subtler, more real perspective on the emotional currents in the man’s music, or the peculiar terrors and frustrations of life in a totalitarian state, or the basic nature of fear and compromise.  More often, it turns out, you have to tell the truth to tell the truth.

In concert: Sonata for Cello and Piano, op. 40; Hamilton Cheifetz and Janet Guggenheim, March 3, 2011

March 4, 2011

I hadn’t previously been to any of the Portland State University music department’s performances, but fortunately I work only a few blocks from Lincoln Hall and was able to walk up there for a free afternoon recital yesterday, which turned out to be a really agreeable way to spend a long lunch break.  The performers were cellist Hamilton Cheifetz, on faculty at PSU, and pianist Janet Guggenheim, a longtime collaborator with him in the Florestan Trio.  Together they put on a great show, first a short and relatively earthy Haydn divertimento (assembled and arranged from the composer’s baryton works by the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky) and then Shostakovich’s 1934 sonata.  The audience, besides a good number of chamber music-loving citizens, mostly senior, included many PSU music students, there under varying degrees of academic compulsion (the back of the single-sheet program was in fact a question-and-answer comment sheet for the schools Performance Attendance course — “Tardiness and/or early leave will affect your grade”) and filled Lincoln Hall’s basement recital space just about to capacity, a casual but engaged crowd.

The Shostakovich sonata, along with The Golden Age, is a work that I’m happy to have become newly aware of during this blogging process, and Cheifetz and Guggenheim gave a lovely and focused account of it.  Cheifetz drew out the romance of the first movement, especially the sweeping second theme, but also followed it into the dark, brooding space at the center of the movement, an atmosphere later reproduced in the somber third movement; in contrast, he bit off the second movement’s biting staccato rhythms and fast pizzicato runs with force.  Guggenheim played a well balanced piano part, falling into an accompanyist’s role when needed and springing into the musical foreground with a clean and dry sound perfect both for Shostakovich’s pellucid melodies and for his impish theater-piano outbursts.  The last movement came off here as a genuinely lighthearted finale, the energy less jangly than gymnastic and the music pointing back to the piano concerto, taking pleasure in its own humor and movement.

It was just really fine music-making, with a pleasantly loose recital atmosphere.  The elderly woman sitting next to me offered me a piece of jicama from a zip-lock baggie; Guggenheim’s page turner, presumably a student, grinned to herself at the piano’s explosive entries in the fast movements; Cheifetz, receiving his applause at the end, briefly holding up his cello as though to acknowledge his instrument, or perhaps cellos in general.

On a weekend trip to New York City a couple of weekends ago my girlfriend and I absolutely scoured the hall of dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History, and since then my metaphorical thinking has been completely dominated by evolutionary biology.  Thus I inevitably compared the sonata, as I was listening to it, to a coelacanth, a musical specimen that suggests the body plan of later-developing works while retaining a number of “primitive” features.  (As museum placards and Wikipedia entries tend to disclaim, “primitive” is not really a fair word to use here; like the fish, the sonata survives, if somewhat obscurely, on its own merits.)  The pattern of the sonata’s central movements — the fleet-footed but anxious and grim dance, followed by a dark, slowly building movement that form’s the work’s emotional center — repeats itself many times in Shostakovich’s later chamber and orchestral works.  Also, the sonata’s more straightforwardly presented melodies and harmonies set up Shostakovich’s more conventional, abruptly adopted style in the fifth symphony (when I wrote up the Pushkin romances earlier this week I failed to mention the sonata’s place in this development, at least as a precedent).  But the sonata obviously belongs to the style of the works, especially the piano works, that came before it, too; Shostakovich’s passages of musical development, while engaging, feel comparatively shallow, without the clarified intensity that comes later in his output, and the punchy piano part sounds for stretches like it’s been lifted from the 24 Preludes or the piano concerto, rather than carried forward along with the cello part.  It’s a noteworthy link within Shostakovich’s stylistic history, and more importantly it’s a deeply enjoyable piece of music outside of the context of the composer’s many better-known works.

Opus 46: Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin (1937)

February 28, 2011

Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin, op. 46 (1937)
Orchestration for bass and chamber orchestra by the composer, undated, except “Stanzas”, orchestrated by Gerard McBurney
CD:  Dimitri Kharitonov (bass), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Mark Elder (United 88001, reissued on Signum Classics)

Once again storm clouds have gathered quietly over me.Envious fate again threatens me with misfortune.Will I retain my contempt for destiny? Will I bring to bear against itThe resolve and endurance of my proud youth?

— Alexander Pushkin, from “Premonition” (translated by Laurence R. Richter)

I hadn’t previously listened to Shostakovich’s four Pushkin romances, and I’ve mainly seen them referenced as a sort of decoder ring for the composer’s Symphony No. 5, which he wrote a few months later, since the first song, “Rebirth”, contains thematic material that Shostakovich uses in the symphony’s finale.  That particular analytic move suggests something of the absurdity of hunting for explicit, anti-Stalinist programs in Shostakovich’s instrumental works — so much thought has been spent on verifying whether the fifth symphony is a dissident statement that the tendency when presented with a work with explicit textual content (in this case, a text very much about the artist’s relationship to his critics and, given Pushkin’s conflicts with Czarist censors, the state) is to gloss over the program of the song itself in favor of an alleged hidden program in the more famous, more abstract work.  I do think the content and context of the romances can inform the symphony, although the symphony stands easily on its own, but they are more contextually interesting as a germinal example of what became Shostakovich’s mature style, as he tried to remake his musical personality in a form that wouldn’t be suppressed by the USSR’s increasingly authoritarian cultural minders.

That musical style is considerably more spare and pared down than anything he’d sustained in his earlier music.  The starkly orchestrated version recorded by the CBSO reinforces this with a dour, string-and-harp sound, only subtly rounded out by a clarinet, an unusual voice for Shostakovich’s chamber style.  (The orchestration of the first three songs is undated; if he completed it much later in life that could tie the work’s sparsity to that of his later chamber and voice works.  The fourth was orchestrated seamlessly by Gerard McBurney.)  The songs’ comparatively bare texture and deliberate pace mark a concentrated shift away from Shostakovich’s kinetic early style.  The vocal lines are lyrical, if not tuneful (they bear no resemblance to his abandoned operetta efforts); they most closely resemble the sound of the songs on Japanese poems, opus 21, although the soundscape of the Pushkin romances is far less cloudy.

The first song, “Rebirth”, which threatens to be consumed by its relationship to the fifth symphony, sets a poem complaining about, and hoping against, censorship.  Its whisper-soft opening sets the somber tone of the whole work:

A barbarian artist uses his indolent brush
To blacken out a genius’s picture
And his own illicit drawing
He traces senselessly over it.

(Once again I’m using Laurence R. Richter’s prose translations of the poems in Shostakovich’s Complete Song Texts.)

The song’s first four notes, setting most of the syllables for “a barbarian artist”, do in fact become the brash, fanfare-like motif that opens the fifth symphony’s last movement, but here it immediately bends back on itself, a meditative and worried effect.  The poem goes on to predict (or hope for) vindication in the future, as the artist-barbarian’s black paint flakes away from the work beneath it, and by analogy from the author’s psyche as well:

Thus disappear the delusions
From my tormented soul,
And there arise within it visions
Of my innocent primal days.

Shostakovich’s strings and harp, in accompanying these verses rise into a tentatively peaceful, oscillating figure (the following excerpt includes the lines “Thus disappear the delusions / From my tormented soul):

This sound echoes strongly in the fifth symphony too, just before its final coda.  But the repetition of a four-note, rising-and-falling fragment occurs in later songs within this work, too, and the effect — sometimes warily quiet, sometimes agitated and obsessive — becomes a frequent one throughout much of Shostakovich’s later work.
The second song, “Jealousy”, bears the strongest resemblance to the Japanese songs; it’s a musical illustration of a short romantic scenario between two unhappy lovers whose through-running anxiety, as in the earlier set of songs, feels external to the poem’s own text.  In “Premonition” (see this post’s opening quotation) the composer takes Pushkin’s words about impending trouble and claims, in artfully unconvincing music, to “await the storm with indifference”; I don’t know what misfortunes Pushkin had in mind when he wrote his poem but in Shostakovich’s agitated setting the biographical connection to his turbulent political situation at the beginning of 1937 is unavoidable.

The last romance, “Stanzas”, sets the longest poem of the four and, running five minutes long, somewhat dominates the other songs as well.  In it the poet describes a few episodes in which he considers his upcoming death, before finding some equanimity:

Let, then, around my tomb’s entrance
Young life play on.
And let indifferent nature
Shine on in eternal beauty.

Shostakovich’s setting, especially in a long, instrumental dying-out at the end, suggests that equanimity is something more wished for than achieved.  Once again he frequently repeats a downward- and upward-stepping figure, here to a starkly churning effect that again sounds different from any music he had written to this point:

You have to look all the way back to the Krylov fables, opus 4 to find an earlier song in any way about an artist’s dealing with unjust criticism, and that work’s “The Ass and the Nightengale”, with the bright self-confidence of the precocious teenager who wrote it, contrasts strongly with the Pushkin romances.  These songs instead form a prototype for many of Shostakovich’s later song cycles, with its themes of artists’ difficulties, sentimental views of young love, and inescapable death.  I don’t think these songs were muched performed at the time they were written, or too frequently after, but they also demonstrate a way that Shostakovich comes to express his angst and criticism through the protective filter of a past poet’s words.  The text, after all, is the poet’s, not the composer’s — and, with the centennial of Pushkin’s death in 1937 being officially celebrated by the Soviet government, the idea of setting the poet’s works could hardly draw much complaint.  Too, the poet is speaking about the past, not the present, which gives the composer some leeway to illustrate universal troubles under the guise that such dark days are gone.

I believe that Shostakovich, in this work, is questioning himself in parallel to the speaker in “Premonition”:  “The resolve and endurance of [his] proud youth” is in the process of being compromised, at least in terms of musical style, but Shostakovich continues to write expressive music that is personally meaningful to him, which was by no means a necessary path to take.  The Pushkin romances make a fine, brooding piece of music in their own right, and in the context of his career they are worthier as a first example of his way forward — composing music of quality and meaning within the stylistic parameters forced on him by the state — than as a mere addendum to the triumphant symphony that follows it.

Opus 45: The Return of Maxim (1937)

February 23, 2011

The Return of Maxim, op. 45 (1937)
Film on YouTube (ten-minute segments) via SHOSTAKOVI.CH

My experience of watching the second entry in Kozintsev’s and Trauberg’s “Maxim Trilogy”, now that I’ve finally quit dragging my heels and done it, was much the same as that of watching Maxim’s Youth, accomplished with YouTube and without English subtitles.  The Return of Maxim keeps all of the hallmarks of the earlier film’s style:  Its easy-to-watch editing, an abundance of diegetic song and instrumental tunes, and, most pleasantly, Boris Chirkov’s puckish on-screen magnetism in the title role, which remains charming if not particularly interesting despite the language barrier.  The story here seems to focus on printing and delivering issues of Pravda and swaps out most of the original’s factory scenes for depictions of heated backroom discussions and raucous parliamentary sessions.  The film and score both perk up a little bit at the movie’s climactic showdown between workers and police but there is nothing as lively as the earlier film’s sleigh-ride prologue.

Shostakovich produced more original music for this film than for Maxim’s Youth but his contributions — presumably written during or soon after the onset of his political trouble — are still sparse.  He provides thirty seconds of interesting, or comparatively interesting, murky music for a nighttime parting of Maxim and his beloved, before the hero is waylaid on the street; his score for the climactic street scenes hits the required somber and defiant notes.  The most high-spirited music accompanies a billiards contest between Maxim and a drunken, bourgeois antagonist, for which Shostakovich supplies a characteristically energetic but rather perfunctory dance number:

It’s workmanlike stuff, which makes it fine enough film music due to the uniformly high level of Shostakovich’s work, but it doesn’t draw deeply from the composer’s talents.

“You inevitably realize that your best years have been stolen from you”

February 23, 2011

My task for this week is to reestablish my listening and blogging habit after a month of deeply uncooperative work schedules and general laxity.  But I recently finished reading Galina Vishnevskaya’s 1984 memoir in full and I want to share a passage, one of many in which she justifiably grinds an ax against the Soviet regime that had exiled her a decade previously:

In your youth, you can find the strength to laugh off the raps on the knuckles and the boxes on the ear.  But with time, as your inner vision becomes mercilessly sharp, life reveals itself to you in both its ugliness and its beauty.  And you inevitably realize that your best years have been stolen from you, that you haven’t done half of what you wanted to do and were capable of.  You become tortured with shame for permitting the criminal abasement of what was most precious to you: your art.  And it becomes impossible to remain a marionette eternally dancing at the will of a stupid puppeteer, to endure the endless interdictions and those degrading words “You can’t!”

Vishnevskaya is speaking directly about her own treatment and that of her husband, Mstislav Rostropovich, due to their increasing political outspokenness and defense of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  But — to look past Shostakovich’s early works of the 1920s and ’30s, written up until his own first box on the ear — Vishnevskaya’s words also suggests better than most the bitterness at the core of the composer’s later works.  They point, too, toward what I hear as a rage against social and state persecution entwined with a deeper, more universal rage against illness and death, particularly in Shostakovich’s music from the mid-1960s onwards as his health seriously declined:  Mortality, too, wastes potential, steals time.

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.

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.

We Wish You a Merry Shostakovich Christmas

December 15, 2010

Christmastime is here, just about.  Shostakovich, however, didn’t write much seasonally appropriate music, being an atheist in an atheist state.  Yet connections between his work and the holiday can be found!  For one — a very tenuous one — the opening lick of the D-flat major prelude from his Preludes and Fugues, opus 87 bears an abstract sort of resemblance to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”:

That excerpt comes from an album of sharp opus-87 wind arrangements played by the Calefax Reed Quintet.

Closer still to a carol is a piece in Act I of The Limpid Stream, which, as noted previously, starts out sounding quite a bit like “O Come All Ye Faithful”.  As a sort of Christmas bonus the quasi-hymn is followed immediately by a few repetitions of the short-short-long “Jingle Bells” pattern, although it reads less as “cheerful holiday tidings” than as “lazy attempt at rhythmic propulsion”:

“Jingle Bells” brings us to the most direct instance of Christmas music that I’m aware of in Shostakovich’s output, possibly the only deliberate one and probably the weirdest:  In his music for Grigori Kozintsev’s 1941 production of King Lear, he sets some of the Fool’s songs to variations on “Jingle Bells”:

This recording is by David Wilson-Johnson and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Mark Elder.  Gerard McBurney back-translates Samuil Marshak’s translation of Shakespeare:

He who decides to give away his country in pieces,
let him consort with fools –
he’ll replace me.

He and I will stand arm in arm, two fat fools,
one in a fool’s cap, the other without a cap.

A warning worth heeding, no doubt, during the holidays as in any other season.

This is going to conclude my Shostakovich blogging for the year, as I push to wrap up some work tasks and prepare to fly back East for the holidays.  In the first week of 2011 I’ll hit the ground running with Shostakovich’s towering, decidedly un-Christmassy fourth symphony.