First Movement - Adagio: The Palace Square
This sets the scene for what is come - it portrays the chilled,
snow-covered square in front of the Winter Palace - and has a
stark and forbidding beauty. The music is almost entirely slow
and quiet and takes (usually) more than 15 minutes, which might
be seen as rather too long. Certainly, it takes a deal of concentration
to listen to the whole movement without the mind drifting away.
Dominating the movement are strings and soft, insistent timpani.
There is a series of short, louder passages throughout, some
military-like fanfares in the brass with snare drum reminding
us of the troops guarding the Square, others gentler in the winds,
the gathering of the protesters perhaps.
Shostakovich uses two popular songs here: “Listen” and “The
Prisoner”. The melody for the former recurs a number of
times and its lyrics are significant in the context of the whole
symphony: “The night is dark as an act of betrayal, as
a tyrant’s conscience”. Little wonder Maxim was worried
about his father’s safety.
The overriding sense here is foreboding - we should begin
to feel uncomfortable as the movement proceeds. Too fast, and
the menace is lost; too slow and it becomes rather soporific.
The majority of conductors take this in something over 15 minutes,
as you can see in the table below.
Rostropovich extends it to more than twenty. Some reviewers have heard a
heightened sense of tension in this, but for me, it has been stretched beyond
point. By the time the movement ends, I am only uncomfortable because of the
time spent listening.
At the other end of the spectrum, some seven minutes quicker, Petrenko is slightly
more successful in convincing me that his unusual tempo works: he doesn’t
manage to portray fully the menace evident in the best.
Showing how it should be done are Berglund and Haitink, who are able to raise
the hairs on the back of my neck. How they create the sense of icy calm and
repressed violence that the others only hint at, or completely miss, I don’t
know, but they make more of this movement than I thought possible (to be honest,
feeling is that it is too long, delaying the drama too much).
Of the others, Barshai and Lazarev are good without reaching the heights attained
in Bournemouth and Amsterdam, while DePreist is surprisingly limp, despite being
faster (slightly) than Berglund. His was the prime recommendation in the Penguin
Guide in the mid 90s, but until I began preparing this survey, I had not
heard it. Now having done so, I find myself quite underwhelmed and at a loss
to understand why it was so highly regarded.
Stokowski’s main failing is not tempo, but volume. Most begin softly, especially
Rostropovich, and slowly increase. Stokowski maintains a more consistent level
throughout - I can’t say whether this was a choice of the conductor or
the sound engineer. This does have the effect of reducing the build-up of tension,
but it certainly makes for easier listening. In some recordings, much of the
first movement is inaudible unless you turn the volume up significantly. You
then face the problem of the neighbours ringing the police during the massive
climaxes in the second movement.
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