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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 fall silent.

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.

Comparative remarks
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 awe”.

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 moments.

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.

Best: Lazarev, Petrenko, Kitajenko
Worst: DePreist, Barshai

Second Movement

 

 


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