OF THE MONTH
Dvorak Opera Premiere
Eleven 11s 5. Second Movement
by David Barker
Second Movement - Allegro: January 9
This is the only movement that takes its inspiration from actual
events: the Imperial troops firing on unarmed protesters
in the Square, resulting in the deaths of 100 and injuries
to 300 more.
It begins with scurrying strings, which I take to represent
the Palace guards hurriedly gathering to confront the masses
assembling in the square. Shostakovich employs the song “Oh
Czar, Our Little Father” as the movement builds to its
first climax, trumpets carrying the tune, cymbals crashing.
As this subsides, the second and crucially important song - “Bare
Your Heads On This Sad Day” - is sung mournfully by the
brass. Shostakovich then works the two themes through variations
until the next climax. Much of the quieter music between these
climaxes is melodic and flowing in nature, reflective of the
crowd’s peaceful intentions. I see the climaxes as warnings
from the troops, ordering the crowd to disperse.
The second climax is more aggressive than the first, and the
quiet music after it much less flowing: the atmosphere is growing
more tense . The bleak Palace Square music from the first movement
intrudes: the mood has changed, and not for the better. A snare
drum erupts from the silence, and chaos descends. The scurrying
strings are now front and centre, accompanied by drum and brass.
An alarm siren sounds insistently and terrifyingly, and just
when you think it can’t get anyway louder or violent,
it does. The “Bare Your Heads” theme is hammered
out in the brass, and driven by the bass drum, the troops,
represented by the snare drum and percussion open fire. There
is one more triumphal statement of the theme, and the drums
The Palace Square music returns, slightly altered, with a celesta
doubling the harp, the strings weeping quietly, brassy interruptions
mocking the dead, a sweet, sad flute crying.
This is the key episode in the whole symphony - this is Bloody
Sunday - and for a performance to be successful, it must convince
here: terror is the emotion that must be communicated.
Timing differences are much less pronounced than the movements
either side. Rozhdetvensky takes the longest at over 22 minutes,
Petrenko again the swiftest at a little more than 18. However,
the tempos are not as crucial as before. Here it is the dynamics
that make or break a performance: the best “shock and
I’m not sure what Rozhdetvensky was endeavouring to express
with the very slow tempo adopted throughout both quiet and
loud passages, and I don’t feel that it works musically.
Rostropovich is almost as slow, but curiously the performance
doesn’t sound it for the most part, and he regains some
of the ground lost in the first movement. Unfortunately, he
slows down towards the end of the shooting episode, losing
momentum and drama.
DePreist continues in the same sluggish fashion as the first
movement: the great climaxes do no more than begin, rather
than burst shockingly upon you. Barshai is not much better,
having little drama or effect.
Haitink, so good in the first movement, is less convincing
here: it is a little bloodless and I use that word very deliberately.
The playing of the orchestra is, however, stunningly good (no
great surprise). Stokowski is surprisingly sedate in the big
So who are the best here?
The spectacular sonics of the Caetani are shown to great effect
here, and the performance is good as well. Berglund’s
is a curious mixture of magnificent and ordinary: up to the
final scene, I had this marked down as the best by a long way,
but then it all goes astray. He adopts a very slow tempo through
this passage, only speeding up at the end, and in doing so,
sacrifices the shattering impact that it should have.
Kitajenko contrasts the tender moments with the violent very
effectively and handles the slaughter episode brilliantly:
the snare drum opening explodes, and he adopts a slower middle
section before the final shattering burst.
My initial concerns that Petrenko’s fast tempos would
again cause problems proved to be unfounded. The massacre scene
was frantic, spectacular and shocking as it should be, and
the quiet passages actually benefitted from proceeding a little
faster, and had a real Russian flavour.
The best of all is Lazarev. He may not reach the heights early
in the movement attained by Berglund, but the massacre scene
is spectacular beyond belief - the siren motto in the brass
is so chilling, and the massive explosion of sound initiated
by the bass drum is overwhelming. The shocked quiet that follows
is unnerving, and played with absolute control.
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