Symphony No. 5 op. 47 (1937)
That "something" was the Fifth Symphony.
Doughty makes the traditional statement that Shostakovich gave it the
title "A Soviet Artistís Reply to Just Criticism", and follows
it up with the traditional argument. The trouble is that this is no
longer as cut-and-dried as it once was. The facts are that Shostakovich
worked his socks off to produce this symphony A.S.A.P. (and P.D.Q!),
and that he adopted a conventional four movement layout in the "accepted"
Having been publicly shamed by the State via the state-controlled
press, having been labelled a public enemy (which carried the "sentence"
of being unemployable), having become aware of the unnerving tendency
of outspoken people to "disappear", and having hurriedly hoicked
his latest and biggest symphony out of rehearsals, Shostakovich must
have felt somewhat insecure, exposed, and in fear for his life. Clearly,
he had to do something post haste to get the b******s off his
In these post-Testimony days, it seems likely
that, yes, he did write the Fifth for this express purpose but,
no, he didnít give it that cringing boot - or worse! - licking title.
Itís all very complicated, but this much is "certain": Shostakovich
pulled off a miracle of escapology fully worthy of Harry Houdini, and
moreover one that not only restored his public standing but also did
so without compromising his private and passionate integrity. Yet, even
with the inherent ambiguity of Music as a means of communicating messages,
the path Shostakovich started down was fraught with risk - small wonder,
then, that Shostakovich would not include words in a symphony for the
next 25 years.
Coming to this symphony directly from the Fourth,
I made one discovery which was (for me at any rate) very striking. Listen
to the counter-subject of the Fourth Symphonyís second movement,
then the first movement of the Fifth. If the first subject isnít
deliberately derived from the melody of that counter-subject, and the
pulsing accompaniment of the second subject from its rhythm, then Iíll
eat my hat. I could be wrong (just in case, I have a large and extremely
mouth-watering chocolate hat standing by!). Itís as if Shostakovich
had stoically scraped the unsullied butter off a piece of bread that
had been knocked out of his hand and spread it, more thinly and with
great resolve, onto a fresh slice. Thus, it would seem, his now-disguised
anger was set reverberating in the Fifth Symphony, to mingle
with other "coded messages". From here on, we can no longer
take anything at face value.
The Fifth is without doubt Shostakovichís best-known
and most frequently-performed symphony. There are well over 50 recordings
currently in the catalogue and, if the form-bookís anything to go by,
a fair number pending reissue. Iíve lost count of the renditions Iíve
heard of this music - first hearing courtesy of Stokowski, (mis-) spent
youth with an oft-played Kertesz LP, joined in recent years by Leviís
reliable rendition - and just about all of them go off the rails at
some point or other. Memories of the Stokowski have, sadly, vanished
into the murk, but I remain convinced that Kertesz was, in the final
analysis, too lightweight overall and his coda too skittish, while Levi
takes an eternity over the largo and his sound is a bit hard.
Others, whom I shall decline to name and shame, have for example galloped
across the second movement as if it was a racetrack. With such a huge
surfeit of riches (and rags) not only are we spoilt rotten for choice,
but also itís unlikely that Barshai can find anything to tell us that
we donít know already. In all fairness, he doesnít. But what he does
do is give us a performance where virtually all the "right"
things are there at once, and leaves himself no room at all to get anything
Take the very opening: where Levi (and others without
number) slip the string canon past us like itís on well-oiled castors,
under Barshaiís baton the WDRSO strings sound like theyíre carved out
of granite - a real declaration of implacable intent. Having thus grabbed
your attention by the throat, the mobile moderato of the first
subject is all the more arresting. Barshai refuses to linger, unswervingly
focussed on the musicís single propulsive arch. Phrases are pointedly
articulated, the sound edging towards (but remaining crucially this
side of) brittle, and lending some edge to my suspicions about the provenance
of some of the materials. The huge climax is brilliantly controlled,
although the strident clattering of the xylophone for some unaccountable
reason just doesnít cut through like it should. Barshai doesnít make
a meal of the massive unisons of the recapitulation which, surely, youíd
expect to dissipate the suspense? Not a bit of it! The high tension
is actually maintained, so that the denouement of baleful bass
brasses over (or under) a towering tam-tam is truly terrific. The coda
is also a marvel: the slightly saccharine solo violin versus
the gruff ground of the bass line, ethereal but earthbound, draws an
intriguing question mark.
Iíve heard conductors bustle through the second movement
as if it were the Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture. Even of those
who take it at something like the "right" speed, most manage
to make it sound too glossy, too urbane. Iím pretty well convinced
that Shostakovich had in mind something on the lines of Mahlerís "gemachlichen
landler", and that is exactly how Barshai takes it: the double-basses
grunt and chug with an utter lack of sophistication, the clarinet howls
and prances, and in the trio section the solo violin quite obviously
- and quite properly - has Mahlerís "Death takes the fiddle"
in the back of his mind. To cap it all, the booming climaxes have a
welly-shod swing that has me thinking, "Sup a couple of pints oí
best, and you could actually dance to this!"
The slow movement is marked largo, but while
Barshai makes darned sure it doesnít dawdle, it starts in a spacious,
awe-filled hush, with a nicely-judged blend of strings. The playing
is so heartfelt, the instrusive dissonance so heartbreaking, that I
couldnít care one jot about a flute entry that was a whole quarter of
a beat late (it actually sounds like a "catch" in the throat!).
The build-ups to the climaxes are hackle-raising, growing out of the
WDRSOís gorgeous sub-basement. There are some lovely sounds: chilling
tremolandos, mellow clarinets and bassoons, the xylophone has
woken up with a vengeance, and right in the middle I hear more clearly
than I can recollect the shade of VWís Tallis Fantasia. If it
sounded like this, then regardless of any political import itís not
surprising that the audience at the first performance was moved to tears.
The finale is supposed to explode attacca. It
doesnít quite, but it does explode! Starting off slap-bang in
the middle of the required allegro non troppo, Barshaiís long-term
control of the ever more hectic tempo had me wondering what make of
binoculars he used. By the time the big catastrophe arrives, at the
very heart of the movement, panic is rife. Yet, for all the mounting
hysteria, the orchestraís articulation is purposeful and strong, so
that you can sometimes even hear the tonguing. The quiet episode, which
Gerard MacBurney has revealingly linked to the recently discovered song,
setting meaningfully apposite words by Pushkin about a vandalised oil-painting,
is itself beautifully painted, and the contentious coda emerges in a
huge, controlled, brutally punctuated release of energy. Barshai broadens
the tempo for a crunching conclusion that should satisfy both those
who think Shostakovichís victory is "forced" and those who
think itís genuine - and those who see it as a big, black question-mark..
One thing is unquestionable - this is a cracking performance.
Symphony No. 6 op. 54 (1939)
Following the bilateral success of the Fifth,
it looks like Shostakovich warmed to his two-faced task. In 1938, he
went so far as to announce in print his intention to "set in sound
the immortal images of Lenin" in a symphony on the same lines as
Beethovenís Ninth. Yet, when the Sixth Symphony hit the
streets, there were no vocal soloists and no massed choirs. Instead
of the expected Beethovenian monument to the founding father of the
Soviet State there was just this lop-sided, three movement curiosity
which sets out making all the right preparatory noises but then "comes
off the rails" in a big way. People were puzzled. Quite frankly,
so am I. In all the writings about whatís come to light in recent years
I havenít yet come across anything remotely like a convincing explanation
of just what Shostakovich thought he was playing at.
Dr. David Doughty sounds as puzzled as I am. He finds
the huge opening largo "tragic, solemn and lyrical by turns,
something of an extension of the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony
and claimed by early critics to be a portrait of Lenin" (I presume
that these were "critics for the defence"!). However, he gives
vent to what I imagine is a frustration similar to mine by dismissing
the two short scherzi that make up the balance (or "imbalance")
of the work as throwbacks to Shostakovichís earlier "vaudeville"
style, even (and this strikes me as moderately bizarre!) measuring the
finale against Prokofievís Classical Symphony. Maybe Iím influenced
by the interpretation I know best, that of Paavo Berglund with the estimable
Bournemouth SO (EMI), but I find these two movements more than anything
put me in mind of a "bumís rush". So, maybe this is Shostakovich
making a macabre joke: tell them youíre building a monument to Lenin,
build up their expectations with an imposing veil of a first movement,
and when the veil is pulled off they are confronted by a statue which,
thumb to round red nose, blows them a razzberry, and moreover a razzberry
The very beginning is often described as "pastoral"
in mood. Well, it was nothing of the sort with Berglund, and it most
certainly isnít in Barshaiís hands. Sure, the opening phrases are aspiring
and the unison strings and woodwind sound mellow, but the belly-lifting
drop at the end of the second phrase and the subsequent contrast of
acrid high frequencies soon knock any such cosy "pastoral"
notions on the head. In fact, Barshai seems to drill right into the
heart of this music. For the first third or so of its running time it
is massively miserable, and Barshaiís engineering of the climaxes is
blood-curdling in its intensity. The WDRSOís sonic response is fully
up to it, which is more than can be said for the poor, beleaguered microphones
at a couple of particularly stressful points in an otherwise exemplary
recording. Amongst numerous superlatives, I really must single out the
horns who sail majestically over a couple of heaving climaxes.
Gradually, the fire dies down, and it is here that
Barshai is most impressive, gripping our attention through every second
of the musicís long, sleepless night. This is haunted by the ghost of
Mahler, whose Wunderhorn-inspired funereal world Shostakovich
almost literally copies, especially in the hollow clang of harp and
tamtam. But Shostakovich adds something of his very own, a monotonously
whirring eternity of string trilling that chills the blood every bit
as much as it had formerly been curdled. Then the bright-eyed tinkling
of celeste and glockenspiel ushers in a chorale of mellow horns and
woodwind: could this be the sun rising, bring a new day and new hope?
No, even the glitter becomes oppressive. The musicís blooming into semi-optimism
is defeated by a sour horn chord, and the music subsides into deathly
stillness. This "pastoralism" is a bit short on buttercups
After this, I canít imagine taking the two short, quick
movements as simply "Shostakovich having fun". By the sounds
of it, neither can Barshai. He whips the whirling woodwind and pizzicato
strings remorselessly, whisking the frolicsome materials into a fearsome
climax of unbridled aggression. The WDRSO is brimming with vitality
and urgency, trumpets and percussion crisp and with crackling articulation
of the stammering rhythms. If we are reminded of Shostakovichís comment
to the effect that "smiling at everyone in the street was compulsory",
then the course of the movement following the ominous tamtam wallop
and hammering tympani is logical: the same cheery music continues, only
now somehow "dimmer", with even the piccolo sounding "muted".
The dissolution into puppet-like disfigurement is finely crafted, and
the sheer sound of the tapping of the tympani at the tail-end is a moment
Barshaiís grip doesnít slip even for a moment: he launches
the finale at a seemingly carefree gallop, all apparently pinky and
perky. There are maybe occasional awkward moments in the tricky phrasing,
but the all-important momentum is spot-on. Equally spot-on is the way
the music is made to falter following the relentless central climax.
Woodwind and strings grope blindly, a solo violin casting around for
the way back to the reprise. Barshai may lack the out-and-out manic
aggression of Berglund, but his gradual conversion of the cheerful chuntering
into that "bumís rush", propelled against its wishes and with
increasing insistence towards the door marked "exit", nevertheless
captures the essential and unnerving feeling of being forcibly detached
from oneís hinges. But, if you prefer to regard this as simply a Keystone
Kops-style romp, then go right ahead: the playing and
recording are rumbustious and brilliant enough for just about anybodyís
Symphony No. 7 "Leningrad" op. 60 (1941)
Can any symphony have had more chequered history than
this one? Yes, probably, but it does take some beating. Shostakovich
may have been less than enamoured by the Uncle Joe and his Supreme Soviet,
but he loved his country to the extent that, as soon as another loveable
old rogue (Uncle Adolf) threatened his home he went straight round to
his local recruiting office. Fortunately, for posterity at least, he
was considered to be a short-sighted drip (from the active military
service point of view) and instead ended up doing service as a voluntary
fire-fighter (in itself hardly a job best suited to "short-sighted
The legend of the birth of this symphony is the stuff
of spy-stories. It was composed amid the horrors of the siege of Leningrad,
where (it is said) its composer defied the air raids to continue his
task. Its value as both propaganda-piece and contribution to the Allied
war effort was immediately recognised by the Soviet authorities (who,
it must be said, had thus far failed abysmally to comprehend anything
of his), and so the score was microfilmed and smuggled, presumably at
appalling risk, to the West. Almost overnight, no doubt aided by the
titles given to the movements, it became an icon of the war against
Within a few years the rot set in. Bartok squeezed
a biting parody of the infamous "Nazi March" into his Concerto
for Orchestra. However, this was not so much a comment on the music
itself as on what Bartok saw as the over-hyped media-dotage it "enjoyed".
Once the war was won, and the West became increasingly suspicious of
the Soviet, then the backlash against the music began. It was "recognised"
for what it "really" was - banal, bombastic, over-inflated,
poster-painted commie propaganda of the worst sort (was none of the
millions who had previously feted it embarrassed at having done
so?). Moreover, multitudes of learned scholars oozed out of the woodwork
and onto the band-wagon to condemn it as ill-conceived, over-scored,
badly structured - you name it: for any and every reason, this was
bad music, and concert promoters dropped it like a hot brick. Before
long, it suffered the same fate in Russia, though for entirely different
It wasnít until after the appearance of Solomon Volkovís
controversial Testimony, which started a rash of re-appraisals,
that the Seventh began to undergo a process of rehabilitation.
It now seems to be far more sensibly evaluated as a "flawed masterpiece",
though whether it "represents" Shostakovichís feelings about
his country and the threat of the invading Nazis, or his country and
the threat of its own totalitarian regime, is still a bone of contention.
Absolutely brilli-bump, I reckon. Through all this almighty howís-your-father,
the one thing that hasnít changed one iota is the music itself!
When I first heard it about forty years ago (oh, gawd, is it that
long?), as a teenager utterly ignorant of its history or meaning, I
was bowled over by this symphony. Now, when I hear it, as a "middle-ager"
less than ignorant of its history or meaning ("true" or otherwise),
I am still bowled over by this symphony. Not that I wish to seem in
the least bit biased, you understand! Of course, this begs the now-common
question: is an understanding of Shostakovichís motives and codings
a prerequisite for the appreciation of his music? The short answer is,
emphatically, "no" - though it does help a bit.
Over the years, I have heard a good many different
performances, ranging from Toscaniniís pioneering "off-air"
recording (with sound quality that redefines the adjective "execrable")
through the rugged Berglund recording with which I choose to live, taking
in more recent views expressed by such as Wigglesworth, to the extraordinary
experience of the Slaithwaite Philharmonic under Adrian Smith (the recording
of this performance I made myself, with sound quality that redefines
the adjective "mediocre"!). I think I can safely say that
the WDRSO and Rudolf Barshai give as fine a performance as any Iíve
heard - not perfect, mind, but then is anything?
They give us a good, sturdy opening, forthright and
assertive but without the belligerence it often gets. This is important,
isnít it? If we are to accept Shostakovichís scheme, this music equates
to "care-free workers in the fields and factories", presumably
in the halcyon days of the first three symphonies. Barshai underpins
this approach by keeping the softer music light: the flute warbles happily,
the woodwind chorale is rich and restful, and the idyllic violins get
as near to dancing as makes no difference. The "Nazi" march,
which can be viewed as a vast "introduction" to the volcanic
development (and is thus very nearly as much of a "rude interruption"
as in Bartokís subsequent skit), becomes all the more aggressive by
contrast. Listening on headphones, I got the feeling from slight changes
of tone and perspective that the two snare drums were sharing the duty
in the earlier stages (or was this an accident of editing of different
takes?). Strangely, Barshai doesnít make as much as Iíd expected of
the harmonic clashes of violins and horns in the accompaniment, but
otherwise he builds the disaster with almost cinematic dramatic flair.
Like most, he speeds up a bit towards the climax, but then refuses to
exaggerate the broadening out, and keeps the pressure on. In the aftermath,
the flute has lost its warble, and the chorus of woodwind sounds drier.
I donít think this is accidental.
The second movement (again!) finds a near-ideal tempo,
lolloping daintily. The oboe in the second subject sounds appropriately
fruity, complementing some soulful cellos. Plaudits must go to the palpably
straining clarinet in the central episode where Barshai tautens the
tempo, but not too much. Interestingly, the brass and drums at the climax
are almost romping, as Barshai resists the temptation to get vicious.
Quite right, too! Shostakovich, initially inclined to call this movement
"Reminiscences", was I think harping back rather further than
the climax of the first movement. The creamy bass clarinet and fluttery
flutes are a delight, as is the finely graduated fade at the close.
By this token, Barshai prepares for the opening of
the third movement, softer-grained than Berglund, and yielding to great
tenderness in the strings, and a flute that really sings. The fast core
of the movement, whilst not as fast as some, lashes out and packs some
wicked punches from the WDRSO horns, with the bottom end of the brass
tramping in army boots - a vivid image of a peaceful people aggravated
by an invader (whether from without or within!). Having endowed the
"Spanish-flavoured" passage with thunderous excitement, Barshai
goes on to bring out some truly foreboding percussion parts right at
the end, subtly enhancing his preparation of the finale.
Opening mysteriously, but threaded with an immediate
sense of purpose, Barshaiís finale is a tour de force. He builds
the first climax majestically, and with a real feeling of expectancy,
so that when the cymbals clash, the effect is electrifying. The ensuing
"jolly tune" is given added edge by the unusually evident
carpet of pulsating drums. The prayerful central passage literally throbs
with emotion, helped by some impressive horn trills. As I am by now
coming to expect, Barshaiís grip on the long final crescendo is sure,
so that when the denouement arrives it packs a terrific wallop.
The triumphant reprise of the main subject of the first movement finds
the added brass antiphonally distinguished - a very effective touch
- whilst the final chord, emerging out of the sudden blackness of gathering
storm-clouds, is actually capped by the orchestra. Normally,
this either just "holds on" or (perish the thought!) falls
limp by comparison. Not so here!
I had some suspicions that this might have been taken
from live performances, as there are some "noises off", though
I hasten to add that thereís nothing to write home about. The recording
is excellent, full and wide-ranging and with little congestion in the
more bruising episodes. The playing is magnificent, and the interpretation
(as Iíve suggested) provides sufficient food for thought
to seriously worry the "hackney-mongers".
Symphony No. 8 op. 65 (1943)
Before he had finally polished off the finale of the
Seventh, Shostakovich was hoicked out of the beleaguered Leningrad,
and moved to the comparative safety of Moscow to finish his work. This
looked suspiciously like a caring attitude on the part of the authorities.
However, as Shostakovich himself was something of a thorn in their sides,
we must conclude - bearing in mind the cloak-and-dagger mode of its
dissemination - that what they were really after was the Seventh,
or more precisely its anticipated propaganda value.
With scarcely a pause for breath, Shostakovich got
stuck into the composition of the Eighth, which turned out to
be unremittingly gloomy and laden with the grimmest foreboding. The
reaction to its first performance (under Mravinsky) was hardly surprising:
puzzlement, confusion - and ominous rumblings of accusation: noises
on the lines of "Why, when the tide of the war is turning, does
he not write something to encourage our valiant workers and warriors?"
Why indeed, especially when he had, so to speak, already experienced
the rough edge of Uncle Joeís tongue?
According to Ian MacDonald, the reason is this: Shostakovich
had believed that Uncle Joe & Co. were specifically purging Leningrad
of its overpreponderance of "liberals", free-thinking individualists
who were reluctant to genuflect. On being moved to Moscow, he realised
that this barbarism was actually infecting the entire country.
Shostakovich was utterly appalled, quite literally "speechless
with rage", to the extent that he threw caution to the wind and
penned a singularly explicit message in his new symphony. However, I
donít think this happened suddenly. It begins to look like the first
three movements of the Seventh might after all be doing "what
it says on the tin", while the finale (written largely in Moscow)
expresses this growing realisation: maybe we should hearken more attentively
to the covert crawling of the opening subject, that becomes a battering
ram to spoil the victory celebrations of the coda?
Since about 1966 I have possessed an LP recording of
this work. A Melodiya import, it came in a plain cardboard box adorned
only with a black-and-white photograph of an acorn (?). The two discs,
thick slabs of armour-plated vinyl (they donít make Ďem like that
any more!), contain some of the most execrably-engineered monophonic
sound Iíve ever heard. They enshrine a "live" performance
although, judging by the din in the auditorium, some of the audience
were in a pretty terminal condition. But the performance itself, given
by the Leningrad Philharmonic under Evgeny Mravinsky, is completely
transfixing! From damp, grey hopelessness through biting sarcasm to
vicious vitriol, it has in my ears never been bettered. The reason,
I guess, has something to do with the fact that these peerless performers
had lived through the self-same oppression as the composer - and at
the time still crouched in its dreadful shadow.
Hoping to hear more detail from a modern recording,
I eventually supplemented it with the highly-recommended LSO/Previn
CD. This was good, very good in fact, but compared to the old LPs it
came across as warm, rounded, and positively snuggly - raising the age-old
question of whether you have to live through something to properly express
it. So, here I am, again holding out high hopes of a high fidelity equivalent
to that old Melodiya set and, well, Rudolf Barshai at least has the
prerequisite experience. Maybe itís too much to expect that he would
match that old Mravinsky recording, but for this pair of ears at least
he knocks Previn (and Haitink, for that matter) into the proverbial
The strings at the opening set the tone, forcefully
grinding out the theme then, as if exhausted by the sheer effort, sinking
back into sorrowful song. This entire threnody is beautifully articulated,
though again the piercing intensity of the high violins and flute/piccolo
unisons turns out to be a mite more than the mics. can take. Although
falling short of the implacable rage of Mravinsky, Barshai builds the
colossal crisis of the "central" climax with volcanic inevitability
(if there is such a thing. OK, there is now!). Whilst the "march"
episode has all the clout of lead-lined boxing-gloves, his outlining
of the three-note phrases, over those roaring drum-rolls, is perhaps
not jagged enough, but then the shimmering string tremolando
that terminates this devastating outburst is utterly stunning. The bleakness
of the ensuing recitatives is chilling - itís just a shame that the
WDRSO trumpets donít quite scald the ear-drums like the Leningraders
Thereís one footnote to this movement: curiously, Iíve
never heard it mentioned, but there are astonishing parallels with the
first movement of the Fifth. Itís as if Shostakovich had re-used
the same mould, so that it sounds like heís giving us the same message
- only now of course heís expressing not the lot of one city, but of
an entire nation.
The two scherzi are nigh on faultless. In the
second movement, the orchestra bring off their phrase-end crescendi
superbly, menacing surges ensuring that nobody is fooled by the "up-beat"
sound of the music. The feeling of "puppets outwardly conforming,
inwardly screaming" is palpable, although the screeching woodwind
are, for once, a little subdued (where Mravinskyís forces sound like
they must have given themselves hernias). Although the final climax
is built with wicked intent, the WDRSO tambourinist is no match for
his Leningrad counterpart, who punches the poor instrument so hard it
penetrates even that murky old recording! These are, however, all relative
- by any normal standards this is superbly played.
If the second movement represents "puppets",
the incessant, merciless jabbering of the third must relate to the "string-pullers".
But, however you interpret it, thereís no doubt that Shostakovich intended
that "merciless", and any conductor who takes off like a frightened
gazelle is surely missing the point. Barshai opens at a deliberate tempo,
by which I mean just nicely slow enough soís they donít have to ease
back to accommodate the less agile trombones when they take up the maddening
ostinato. If you want to hear how horribly damaging this is, try Previn,
who ignores the composerís cautionary non troppo and "pratfalls"
straight into this particular puddle. Again thereís some wonderful playing:
the violas at the start have an oaken hue that is spine-tingling, whilst
the "oom-pah" section in the trio has a whale of a time. Itís
very much a movement of two halves. Each half starts with that nagging
nattering. The first half ends with a sarcasm of "circus"
music, creating an expectation for the ending of the second half which
is savagely broken - and for this reason I donít think that there should
be any obvious "special" build-up. At the very end of the
movement, where the tempo breaks, Barshai coaxes a right old racket
from the players, and the tam-tam is given some real stick. It sounds
like the end of the world . . .
. . . and thatís very apposite, because he makes the
fourth movement sound like the world has come to an end! This
morbid passacaglia bears the full weight of the hopelessness
of the incarcerated on its shoulders The strings of the WDRSO sound
as if they have had all the colour blanched out of them, the solo horn
sounds exhausted, the solo piccoloís melisma hesitates as if
half-forgotten, and the woodwind fluttertonguings have an acrid reek.
That might sound bad, but it isnít. In refusing to apply any sheen of
cosmetics to the musicís sound, Barshai skewers its soul. The simple,
unstressed modulation with which Shostakovich slips into his finale
is like the proverbial shaft of sunlight through the prison bars. A
mood of tentative celebration develops, gradually growing more confident
until its surging festivity awakens the "dragon" of the first
movement, leaving us in no doubt that the time for dancing in the streets
is not yet. Stunned and bemused, the dancers slowly melt into the mist.
The hushed coda, almost in fear of reaching its resolution sounds like
nothing more than a chastened hand groping stealthily for some imagined
shred of hope, and finally grasping it, holding it, and cherishing it.
For all its massive outrage, the Eighth ends on a more optimistic
note than does the Seventh, for all its pomp and bombast.
On the bridge between the third and fourth movements,
I stopped comparing Barshai with Mravinsky, because looking forward
from that bridge the panorama presented by Barshai matches that of the
Master, and Barshai and his WDRSO players capture the import
of the music with equal eloquence.
Symphony No. 9 op. 70 (1945)
For forty days (and possibly forty nights) did Shostakovich
toil on the score of his Ninth Symphony. More succinctly, and
with rather less biblical ambiguity, he had the whole thing sown up
in under six weeks flat. Nevertheless he did have a problem with it,
though this was not writing the music, but deciding what to write. He
had aroused the Allies with his Seventh, perplexed the Proletariat
and the Politburo with his Eighth, and now with the War won and
the "magic" number nine hovering on the threshold of his oeuvre,
many - particularly certain occupiers of high places whom he despised
with all his heart - were expecting a Russian victory hymn to challenge
the mighty Ninth Symphony of Beethoven.
Shostakovich was in a right old quandary. Should he
do the expected, and be seen to kow-tow? Should he seem to kow-tow,
and subvert the surface celebration with some secret code? Did he even
want to challenge Beethovenís Ninth? Suppose he tried (either
way) and flopped? Then again, there were the ordinary folk of Russia,
the brave, long-suffering people, the life-blood of the homeland he
so loved: these people above all he did not want to let down. What was
he to do? The answer he found was completely gob-smacking in its brilliance:
to the people he gave the joy and celebration - and commemoration -
they deserved, and to the masters he gave his challenge to the perceived
supremacy of Beethoven. Only it was not Russiaís answer to the mighty
Ninth, but Russiaís answer to the flighty Eighth!
The people, it seemed, loved it, but it comes as no
surprise that Caesar was hardly over the moon with what had been rendered
unto him. Shostakovich was sailing dangerously close to the wind, and
the weather was about to take a distinct turn for the worse: by 1948
the innocent Ninth would be one of the works outlawed by the
Zhdanov decree. Innocent? Yes. Despite David Doughtyís reference to
"surface gaiety", implying a concealed subtext, to
the best of my knowledge not one expert (revisionist or otherwise) has
unearthed the slightest hint of any "subversion". My impression
is that, to all intents and purposes, Shostakovich made his subversive
point through an entire lack of ambiguity. He gave voice to the
simple feelings - happiness, relief, and indeed loss - of the people
who had resisted and vanquished an "enemy without", and he
had ignored the desire of the Soviet State, by implication an "enemy
within", for its extravagant vehicle of self-aggrandisement.
The key to successful performance of this, Shostakovichís
equivalent of Prokofievís Classical Symphony (thereís even a
first movement exposition repeat!), is directness and simplicity. The
places where some conductors tend to "drop their pants" are
the second and fourth movements. And the reason is generally because
they stuff more emotional baggage into their pockets than their belts
can reasonably support. On my old and by now somewhat dog-eared LP,
no less a conductor than Kondrashin, whose performance is otherwise
in every respect thrilling, overloads the music on the emotional front.
Or, I should add, finds a joke where there really isnít one. Iím referring
to the short fourth movement. Sure, the bassoonís first two notes give
a momentary impression of the start of the Grand Declamation of Beethovenís
Ninth, but this is surely no more than an aside, a passing sly
dig at the pompous Party dignitaries. I donít think thereís any intention
on Shostakovichís part to make the rest of it funny, but performers
(perhaps taken in by the surrounding gaiety) can make it so by parodistic
Barshai homes in like a peregrine falcon on Shostakovichís
first movement tempo: as any Italian will (I believe) tell you, allegro
means "jolly" or "happy". Barshai does not rush
the music off its feet: the first subject bustles merrily and the second
positively bounces along. Thanks to some delightfully natty, chatty
strings and woodwind, notes and phrases are classically clear and focussed,
and everything is audible - including the percussion. Thatís one touch
I particularly like - the tymps in the second subject are hit hard,
but the effect is robustly playful rather than aggressive. Even the
straining harmonies towards the end of the development sound not so
much stressful as plain, old-fashioned "tipsy".
The second movement is marked moderato, but
like the correspondingly marked movement of Mahlerís Sixth it
has often been given a portentous adagio treatment - almost as
if conductors were unconsciously trying to salvage something of the
Ninth that had been expected. In Barshaiís hands, the lilting
clarinet tune really does lilt, and the music becomes charmingly wistful.
The heavier, upwardly treading refrain, elsewhere imbued with menace,
here sounds about as threatening as an overgrown cuddly bunny because
Barshai ever so slightly accelerates into it, generating a slightly
"lolloping" feel. The effect is of someone musing by a fireside,
thinking back to the bad times, at first with increasing regretfulness
but then with a sigh of relief that itís over over and done with. The
wonderful grading and shading of the textures and dynamics by the WDRSO
conjure this image a real treat: there is proper sweetness in the relief.
Presto, the man asks, and presto he gets,
though nota bene itís not prestissimo. The result is a
scherzo full of dash and verve, but allowing the woodwind to
sound as clear and sparkling as spring water, brass and drums bouncing
and boisterous, and the strings bringing sharp incisiveness to those
rapidly repeated notes in the trio section. The gradual cessation of
festivities for the solemn memorial of the largo fourth movement
is seemingly seamless, so that the hiatus just before the brass pronouncement
is real hold-your-breath stuff. To my mind, those octave heavy brass
have never been better than here: absolutely on the button, a brick
wall of sound balanced like one of those ripe Russian menís choruses.
Spine-tingling. The ensuing bassoon soliloquy is the heart of the symphony,
the heartfelt playing of the WDRSO principal almost "speaking"
its personal remembrance for the fallen. So, in a celebratory symphony,
it is only right and proper that the same voice eventually ends this
"two minutesí silence" to kick off the celebrations.
The finale is one of those rare movements where I wish
I had a score to hand (I normally feel that referring to the score,
which is by no means an absolute, is somehow "cheating").
I can remember reading a review of the Kondrashin when it first appeared
about thirty years ago: a glowing review, but with a question mark over
Kondrashinís sudden, huge accelerando for the build-up to the climax,
with an equally drastic deceleration into the climax itself. It always
did sound a bit contrived (blisteringly exciting, to be sure, but nevertheless
contrived!), and I donít recall anyone else indulging in such an acrobatic
feat. Until now, that is, because blow me if Barshai doesnít do the
self-same thing! Well, very nearly: Barshai cranks up the tempo, more
subtly, right from the word "go", and thus when he takes off
itís nowhere near as much "like the clappers". Oddly, though,
the last couple of bars before the climax itself mark the low spot of
the performance: having pulled back on the reins, Barshai then keeps
slightly too tight a hold. Either that, or he should have pulled back
just a nadge more so that his "release" had more effect. Itís
only marginal - and itís only momentary: the climax itself is as breezy
as a village band, and the coda romps away as bright and fizzy as you
could wish. As Iíve implied already, the recording is
exemplary, full-bodied yet clear as a bell.
Symphony No. 10 op. 93 (1953)
Following the war, the totalitarian vice was screwed
even tighter, apparently a kindly gesture on the part of Uncle Joe to
ensure that the people didnít naively confuse "victory" with
"freedom". Shostakovich, for his "crime" of giving
joy to the people rather than an Ode to Joy to the State, was
censured. His Ninth Symphony, incredibly, was supposed to have
failed to "reflect the true spirit of the Russian people"
(of course, it depends on whose definition of "true spirit"
you are using). In 1948 the mounting storm-clouds broke, and the Russian
artistic community was drenched by the downpour of the Zhdanov Purge,
from which not even the likes of Prokofiev were safe. True to form,
Shostakovichís resolve grew even firmer. Dutifully, he kept his head
down and appeared to devote himself to churning out sweet-meats to appease
the State. Significantly, this time round there was no major work by
way of "apology": his silence on this front was eloquent.
Whether, as Doughty suggests, Shostakovich actually
waited for Stalin to die before starting on any further major works,
or simply kept what work he did quietly tucked away for that "rainy
day", is now probably neither here nor there. Nevertheless, it
seems to me that the latter would be more in character, and certainly
the first movement of his Tenth Symphony sounds like the sort
of music he might well have written to while away the sleepless nights
during that grim period. He somehow contrives to make what is just about
the most closely-argued symphonic movement he ever wrote come strangely
close to music for a film scene: I can readily imagine, in the sombre-hued
opening passage, the composer restlessly pacing in the gloom of his
room, pausing (perhaps by his bag packed ready in case of the "knock
on the door"), then pacing again. As the music progresses, so his
thoughts cluster and coagulate: helplessness, fear, resentment, all
coalesce into boiling, bitter and impotent anger. This dissipates into
weariness; facing the window in the growing dawn he sees no hope in
the cold, grey light. This is far more than Doughtyís summarial and
generalised "repression and frustration": it is a profoundly
personal expression of what life was like not just for Shostakovich
himself but for millions of individual people. I donít know about
you, but I can lose sleep just thinking about it.
Parts of this performance failed to come up to my accumulated
expectations. Right at the outset the bass strings didnít produce the
oil-black sound I already knew they could generate. Right in the middle
of the climax, the pounding drums seemed to muddle their rhythms. Yet
there were compensations, like the hopeless, helpless, lopsided "waltzing"
woodwind, or the looming inevitability engendered by Barshaiís rugged
sense of the musicís architecture. Where others, including such as Svetlanov,
generate crackling high voltages, Barshai exudes a slight odour of detachment
which although not as physically exciting you may feel is more in keeping
with the sentiments - assuming, that is, you go along with my "scenario".
In the context of that "scenario" the second
movement - which I notice Shostakovich does not call a "scherzo"!
- starts to make more sense. Itís a strange movement. I reckon that
most of us would expect an "evil tyrant" to be represented
by something slow, inexorably grinding, and with lots of lurky bass
and nasty discords. But Shostakovich "represents" Stalin as
the political equivalent of a runaway train, roaring headlong towards
an unfortunate (for him) encounter with some unforeseen set of buffers.
Of course (I realise, somewhat belatedly), if the evil tyrant
had had the Populus panic-stricken and running round like headless chickens,
then this movement would have been as expected. But Stalin didnít
do that - he stifled activity so that, as per the first movement,
nobody dared move. Stalin was the one who did all the moving, drowning
all in torrents of his own maniacal energy - and I think weíre hardly
taken aback to find that the main theme (woodwind) is none other than
the dark spectre that haunted the first movement. In this movement,
Barshai and the WDRSO players crank up the voltage as well as more or
less anybody: no fumbly drumming here - the snare-drummer especially
unleashing salvoes of wrist-cracking machine-gun fire. Then, in the
passage just before the tension breaks and the volume drops to next
to nothing, they go off the boil. I was about to express disappointment
when I remembered two things: firstly, Barshaiís intimate involvement
in this business, and secondly my "runaway train". This is
not so much a "portrait of Stalin" as a "precis of Stalinís
Ďcareerí" - a crescendo of megalomaniac aggression becoming
a murderous frenzy, thence to stagnation, just as nasty but bereft of
ideas on new ways to be nasty, so takes deep breath, plunges recklessly
onwards, hits buffers, The End. Again, it strikes me that Barshai has
declined maximum "viscerality" in favour of a bit of "Soviet
Itís now that youíd expect Shostakovich to launch into
his finale, expressing triumph over the fallen tyrant. But he doesnít.
Instead thereís this enigmatic allegretto, leaning towards the "landler"
style movements in the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. Is
it just an intermezzo, or is there something more? Well, of course
there is, in the form of Shostakovichís celebrated DSCH musical "signature".
After the portrait of the defunct tyrant, the portrait of the subversive
rebel, perhaps? Very likely something on those lines: the DSCH motto
is first heard as if creeping out from under cover (first subject),
and then prancing more confidently (second subject). Itís hard to avoid
the image of Shostakovich high-stepping gleefully on the grave of the
fallen tyrant! As the cavorting subsides into musing, there appears
on the crest of a surge a new theme, a horn call which will reappear
another eleven times, always the same (dynamics apart). It is thought
that this is another "signature", representing Elmira Nazirova,
a pupil of Shostakovichís in 1947, with whom he developed some sort
of clandestine infatuation, or at least idealised admiration, which
continued well beyond the appearance of this symphony. I think that
thereís a bit more to it than just that. Listen to the music: immediately
this theme is heard, the music returns to the nocturnal brooding, and
that "spectre of Stalin", from the first movement (hardly
a romantic reminiscence). Further horn calls elicit differing responses
- a light woodwind chorale thatís a wistful derivation of the second
subject, angelic flutings suggesting that we can now see Hope through
that window, and the "corpse of the spectre" in plodding pizzicati.
The first subject creeps back, gradually becoming more urgent. The second
subject positively slams in, at first clumping in hob-nailed boots,
but getting wilder and wilder, until DSCH and the horn call resound
jubilantly over the din before they tiptoe off together into the "new
dawn". Iím not claiming that this is the answer, but it
is for me (at least until I think of something better) an answer:
here is where Shostakovich announces his "personal" victory.
For him, Elmiraís youth is a constant symbol of that Hope, purging the
evil ghost of the tyrant heís outlived, and giving him the courage to
stamp its vile embers into the dust.
As so often, Barshai seems to underplay the drama yet,
again "as so often", thereís a real thinking brain at work
(and I donít mean to suggest that everybody else isnít thinking!).
He seems very much aware of the scale of the drama, and refuses
to make a crisis out of it. From the almost gauche opening and through
the intimacy of the central section he keeps the temperature down, allowing
the momentary surges of emotion to make their points succinctly. Only
at the climax does he crank up the tension through beautifully controlled
accelerandi, but even here he is aware of the personal
nature of the music, which must not upstage the grander, relatively
public drama of the finale.
The deep-throated bass strings at the start of the
finale sort of echo the darkness of the opening, but now that stifling
oppression is lifted. That this is the Dawn of Hope that the end of
the first movement sought is reflected in the exotic coilings and rubati
of the expressive solo oboe, flute and bassoon (almost as if the People
were arising and stretching their cramped limbs!), and the ethereal
harmonies evoked by the feather-bed of strings. Shostakovich builds
tension in an unusual way: he knows, and he knows we know, that
this movement is sooner of later bound to spring to life in a big way.
So, what does he do? Offering virtually nothing by way of advance warning,
he just lets this blissful, haunting music wend its easy way. "Easy"
is how it should be, according to the composerís marking. Most conductors
take it adagio (some of them molto so), and follow that
by molto presto or even prestissimo depending, I guess,
on the maximum revs. that their orchestras can spin. But, this isnít
supposed to be a spectacular showcase for virtuosi: Shostakovich said
andante - allegro, and "easy-going then jolly" is how
Barshai sets out his stall. His allegro pops up cheekily, all
spick and span, perky woodwind and scuttling strings whirring away.
The music is allowed to bounce along, growing "naturally",
the deeper surges being not so much "residual threats" from
the defunct tyrant as simple undercurrents of excitement. The climax
nevertheless packs a fair clout, the massive declamation of DSCH being
capped by a superb swish on the tamtam. Although not strictly "correct",
Barshai allows just a marginal relaxation of tempo for the hazy delirium
of the central episode, which sounds as if Shostakovich, having finally
bellowed his name at the top of his voice for what must have felt like
the first time ever, canít really believe that the "time for dancing
in the street", which was "not yet" at the end of his
Eighth, has actually arrived! The final peroration is not unrestrained.
To be sure, Barshai does loosen the reins, but he doenít whip the orchestra
into a full frenzy. Maybe, like Shostakovich, heís aware that while
Stalin is gone, Stalinís cronies are still there. If I might (mis-)
appropriate the title of the finale of Hypothetically Murdered,
this is very much a Dance of the Temporary Victors. Barshai and
his sturdy, reliable WDRSO provide a less overtly spectacular alternative
view, in many ways a more realistic view, of this towering
masterpiece. It is both consistent and deeply considered, and it shows.
Symphony No. 11 "The Year 1905" op. 103 (1957)
Following Stalinís untimely death (about twenty years
too late), things did get better, though nothing so radical as
a return to the heady days of the 1920s. People still had to mind their
political Ps and Qs, and stepping out of line still carried severe consequences.
Shostakovich turned to the string quartet, finding in this less public
medium a safer means of having his say. Then on the horizon loomed 1957,
the year of the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution. The
State expected great things of its great artists: a major symphony was
required of Shostakovich, affording him yet another opportunity to demonstrate
his unshakeable faith in the Soviet. After all, since the Second
Symphony (marking the tenth anniversary - the "twentieth"
on page 21 of the booklet is a misprint!) his track record had fallen
somewhat short of his imposed performance management objectives.
The ever-helpful Soviet authorities provided Shostakovich
with the ideal incentive - in 1956 they had responded to Hungaryís bid
for independence with battalions of tanks and a hail of bullets. Shostakovich
responded obligingly with a symphony of epic proportions, cast in his
Whit Sunday-Best Propaganda Poster mode, and dutifully casting aside
those disgraceful formalist tendencies which had so marred his previous
three essays in the genre. You must surely have recognised the overtones
of sarcasm in my words - I said all the right things, but it
was clear that I meant entirely the opposite. In essence, this
was what Shostakovich was doing in his music. Considering that in all
probability my sarcasm will be transparent to everyone, it just brings
it home how risky Shostakovichís subversive strategy must have been.
The Eleventh Symphony bore the title The
Year 1905, pointedly not the year of the glorious victory of the
Soviet, but the year in which a peaceful demonstration, by people who
trusted their Csar to give them a fair hearing, was dispersed with shocking
brutality. In penning this title, and going on to entitle the individual
movements Palace Square, The Ninth of January, Eternal
Memory, and The Tocsin, Shostakovich had already done plenty
to draw the parallel between that year of "abortive revolution"
and the one that had just occurred in Hungary. This is why Maxim, the
composerís son, asked him, "Father, what if they hang you for this?"
I think that, had Shostakovich pressed his point any harder, say by
sneaking in any quotes of Hungarian songs or even the merest whiff of
a Hungarian folk-rhythm, he surely would have been hanged for
Over the years, the poor old Eleventh has been
slated from all sides: a backward step from its much more "organic"
predecessors, a brash, poster-painted piece of "cinematography",
over-dependent on non-original materials (it makes use of no fewer than
nine, mainly revolutionary songs), blatant agitprop, and in short unworthy
of a composer of his standing. Not a proper symphony at all,
donít you know? Very similar brickbats have been brought down on the
head of Malcolm Arnold, albeit for very different "reasons".
Arnoldís Fourth Symphony has been called the "most banal
symphony ever written", largely on account of its containing "inappropriate
themes" of a particularly common and vulgar sort. My riposte is
to ask, "Are you confusing music that actually is tasteless,
trivial, banal, or vulgar, with music which uses materials which
are tasteless, trivial, banal, or vulgar?" Arnold and Shostakovich
are both symphonists of the first rank, which to my mind is borne out
not by their chosen materials but by the use to which those materials
are put. Interestingly, both were exceptional composers of film music,
and were therefore both well aware of both the techniques of musical
drama and the expressive potential of "popular" materials,
whether "borrowed" or "original in the style of X".
So, if Shostakovich stuffs a symphony full of themes drawn from popular
culture, itís odds on that he does so for very good reasons, and the
experts would be well advised to concentrate on these rather than wittering
on about "bad taste". There - thatís me bound for the Bloody
Tower (the one in the bowels of Broadcasting House)! In mitigation,
I would say that Shostakovich uses his revolutionary song themes to
telling effect both dramatically in their non-musical associations and
symphonically in the intricate way he integrates and develops them.
The thing is that, as an uncultured yob (relatively
speaking), Iím very well placed to be moved - or even shaken to the
core of my being - by this music, which is one reason why I do so love
this symphony (the cultured will, if they read on, be similarly appalled
at my attitude to the even more maligned Twelfth). Mind you,
one of my assessment criteria for music is that if, as I strive to "understand"
a piece of music better, the music gets even more impressive, then it
is "good" music. Shostakovichís Eleventh passes this
test with flying colours, so for me itís "great music", end
of argument! A measure of my affection is that I nearly wore out my
LPs of the recording made by Berglund with the Bournemouth SO, which
orchestra Barshai has also conducted. Fearing that my stylus might start
to slice right through the vinyl, I replaced the LPs with the CD remastering
of the same recording.
They say that there are better performances on record,
but none that Iíve heard convinced me of the need to change horses.
The performance of the WDRSO and Barshai runs it as close as any, with
only one minor reservation raising its ugly head. The recording is of
more concern: the dynamic range seems as tight as a whale-bone corset.
Having learnt the hard way from Berglund, and therefore anticipating
possible structural damage to my ears, I had set the volume so that
the freezing fog of the opening bars floated forth as the merest whisper,
only to find that subsequent fortissimi hardly had the strength
to dribble out of my loudspeaker cones! If I adjusted the volume to
get those about right, the eerie near-silences took on seemingly stentorian
proportions. Using the level meters on my MD recorder, I did some quick
comparisons. The overall dynamic range is no more than 40 dB. (which
is a hell of a lot less than even an LP can manage!). Relative to maximum
modulation of 0 dB, the strings at the very start peaked at about -30,
but the subsequent recurrences of this sound didnít get past -35. Solo
instruments, including harp (low notes) and celesta, playing above this
texture frequently hit -25, leaving headroom between pretty quiet solos
and con tutti ghettoblastimento of only 25 dB. This all seems
to point not at some foible of the conductor, but firstly at the general
level initially being set too high then pulled back as the music progresses,
and secondly at the even higher initial levels on soloistsí "spot"
mics. not being granted the same consideration. Needless to say, it
could have been compensated at least to some degree during editing -
then again maybe it was, but not by enough.
Although this is damaging to the impact of the music,
it is not altogether disastrous, provided that you crank up the volume
by about 6 to 10 dB at the start of the second movement! Making allowances
for the spurious levels, the playing itself is vividly atmospheric.
The first movement is a quarter of an hour of almost incessant, sparsely-populated
"pregnant pause" - and any conductor who messes it about will
inevitably come a cropper. Barshaiís control pays real dividends, not
only in the measured, almost relentless pace (or lack of pace) but also
in the care taken over the all-important "chording" of the
string textures. On the melodic front, Barshai equally draws finely
the distinctions between the prickly clawing of the anxious, animated
passages and the innocence of the trusting people suggested by the sweeter
outlines of the quoted songs. In and amongst, the ominous fanfare figures
(that suggest the military hidden and waiting in the wings) are chillingly
intoned by the WDRSO brass and horns. A couple of the cruel, and cruelly
exposed, solo top notes succeed only by the skin of their teeth, but
this (happily) seems to add to the icy tension. The tympanist deserves
a special mention: hovering throughout the movement like some attendant
Angel of Death, his (or her) repeated intonations of a figure which
will become a crucial generating motive have a dull "plopping"
tone that is absolutely spot on.
Although the four movements are distinct, Shostakovich
designed them to run continuously. Thus, the dark stirrings at the start
of the second movement steal out of the frozen embers of the end of
the first. That "generator" is already busy generating, working
up a polyphonic panic mingled with the "military threat" motive
and the theme of a song (Oh Thou, our Tsar). Barshai builds the
tension unerringly, moving from vague unease to brutalised panic as
effectively as Berglund. In the ensuing unquiet, the milling themes
are joined by the first intimations of Bare Your Heads (on
this Sorrowful Day). The crowdís growing awareness of the imminent
threat crystallises in the increased ardour of their pleading, the greater
savagery of the climax, and the even more stunned subsequent "unquiet",
rendering the emaciated sound of the WDRSO woodwind, as they intone
the symphonyís glacial opening motive somewhat like a Russian Orthodox
chant, all the more horribly enervating. The brazen "military threat"
resounds alone, and the hush is shattered by a superbly startling snare-drum
rattle, dry as dust. The "generator" now generates a rough-shod
fugato, hacked out venomously by the WDRSO strings. Apart from
the upward trombone glissandi, which are too clipped to make
their full, flesh-crawlingly slimy impact, this entire "massacre"
episode is brilliantly brought off, as is (the reservations regarding
the dynamics apart) the nerve-jangling aftermath. In the warmth of the
flute, reprising the first movementís Listen (". . .
like the conscience of a tyrant, the autumn night is black"),
there is a stark contrast with the surrounding ice and corpses.
The third movement is a comparatively "straightforward"
requiem in a "simple" ABA form. Over pizzicato
basses picking at the bones of the fallen, the WDRSO cellos gently and
with solemn simplicity intone You Fell as Victims. This tune,
which Barshai does not let sag in spite of the tempting adagio
marking, is played right through before other strings begin to harmonise
in condolence. For Shostakovich (or anybody else, for that matter) this
is a pretty blatant quote, and whatís more itís a tune that was used
at Leninís funeral. The brief development of the theme is equally restrained,
but not so the ensuing Welcome the Free Word of Liberty (which
was foreshadowed on brass in the "massacre" episode). This
is pronounced by leaden, gloomy horns over a glutinous funereal rhythm
on bass winds (ten out of ten especially for the oily bass clarinet!),
in entire - and Iím sure entirely deliberate - contradiction of its
implied words. I do get the definite impression that Shostakovich is
trying to tell us something. As the violins take up the line, Shostakovich
proceeds to draw out the melody into a throbbing threnody of jaw-dropping
fervour. This extended build-up is powerfully wrought by Barshai, but
the impact of the volcanic climax, capped by two statements of Bare
Your Heads growled awesomely by massed brass, is undermined by some
slight uncertainty in the percussion. This is one place where Berglund
triumphs, the Bournemouth bass-drummer putting some real whiplash into
his crescendi. Nevertheless, itís still exciting, as is the subsequent,
almost inarticulate groping for the solace of You Fell as Victims.
It falls, as so often, to that sorrowing WDRSO first bassoon to find
the road to a brief moment of private sorrow.
The opening of the finale, ostensibly representing
the stirrings of revolution in the aftermath of the massacre but ending
in a huge and notably less than optimistic question mark, is discreetly
marked allegro non troppo - allegro. Both Berglund and Barshai
end up going at the same speed, but while Berglund sets off briskly
then winds up the tempo slightly over several bars, Barshai sets a more
dogged initial pace then suddenly takes off like a greyhound. That abrupt
acceleration sounds disconcerting. Berglund makes more sense musically,
but I have a feeling that Barshai may be the more correct, particularly
in view of the identity of the opening theme (Rage, You Tyrants!)
and the strong smell of the Tenth Symphonyís "Stalin"
movement in the shrieking woodwind just after "take-off".
This first of three sections is the only part of the entire symphony
to carry any note of optimism. Rage, You Tyrants! and Bare
Your Heads are interwoven with several other tunes - Boldly Friends,
On We March (a revolutionary song), Warsaw March (a revolutionary
song, originally Polish), and a theme from a musical comedy about peasant
life in Tsarist Russia by Shostakovichís one-time pupil Sviridov. Shostakovichís
tapestry is a complex tour de force of hectic activity. In all
this mayhem, the only thing that matters is that the players give it
all theyíve got, which they do, and to a large extent hang the accuracy
(the occasional blooper, and there are some, only adds to the mayhem!).
It comes crashing to a halt in one of Shostakovichís
trademark massed unisons, on the theme O Thou, Our Tsar which
is hurled like an angry accusation (though at which "Tsar",
do you think?). This in turn is silenced by the tamtam (and what a terrific
tamtam this orchestra has), leaving us confronted by the frozen image
of Palace Square for one final time. "Baring his Head", the
WDRSOís cor anglais excels, voicing the composerís secret thoughts with
sorrowing tenderness. Significantly, the coda commences on the second
movementís "peopleís panic" theme, a whirling woodwind miasma
out of which Bare Your heads emerges. They combine into a wild
build-up to one of the most astonishing conclusions in the entire symphonic
repertoire, the whole orchestra balefully thundering along like some
juggernaut! Berglund, after getting so much right, saves his Big Blooper
for here of all places: right in the middle of this enraged pageant
he lets the tempo drop - only a nadge, but a crucially damaging nadge.
Not so Barshai. He lacks the sheer weight of Berglund, but his juggernaut
is relentless and his WDRSO bells really clang out in brazen alarm.
You canít miss the "Angel of Death" motive, the last note
of which hangs in the air for seconds after the clamour has crashed
to its conclusion.
The shortcomings of this CD are few and mostly minor
(although it is a real pity about that dynamic range!), whilst
Barshaiís clear-sighted reading ensures that all the composerís questions
are asked. Shostakovichís Eleventh may well be dismissed as brash,
garish, agitprop clap-trap, but like "beauty" these things
are only skin-deep. I think Barshai also compels us to look behind the
gaudy curtain (almost certainly erected entirely on purpose by the composer),
to see this work in its true colours: as a "proper" symphony
- and that, to my mind at least, is exactly what it is.
1 Part 3