A Shostakovich Enigma
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No 2 in B major To October, Op. 14 (1927)* [18:28]
Symphony No 15 in A major, Op. 141 (1971) [48:35]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir* and Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. *14 June 2011: 26-27 October 2011, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. DDD
Russian text (transliteration) and English translation included
NAXOS 8.572708 [67:03]
Vasily Petrenko’s Shostakovich cycle marches on. This is volume seven. I presume there are four more to follow as and when Petrenko sets down the Fourth Symphony – to which I’m particularly looking forward – and numbers 7, 13 and 14.
This latest instalment pairs symphonies from the opposite chronological ends of the composer’s symphonic output. Number 2 was written to mark the tenth anniversary of the 1917 Revolution. Perhaps ominously – in terms of potential for artistic merit – it was commissioned by the Propaganda Division of the State Music Publishers’ Section. Interestingly, Richard Whitehouse relates in his notes that, initially, the work was not designated as a symphony; Shostakovich only took that step, it seems, a couple of years later. The work is in one continuous movement and in the last six minutes or so an SATB chorus is introduced. Their task is to deliver the four-stanza poem by one Alexander Bezimensky (1898-1973). Richard Whitehouse describes him as an “’official’ proletarian poet” but if this is a fair example of his work the term “party hack” might be more appropriate. Clearly, Shostakovich had no say in the choice of text and, apparently, he didn’t think much of it.
Richard Whitehouse observes that the symphony was composed during the most overtly modernist phase of his career. One might suggest that the term “brutalist” might also fairly apply to this score. Naxos helpfully split the piece into three separate tracks and these are reflected in the liner-notes. Shostakovich can be a forbidding composer at times but in this score we find him at his most experimental and intractable. For a start there are virtually no melodic themes in it – the trumpet tune that appears a couple of minutes into the score is more or less the only melody, as Whitehouse points out. Given the absence of themes it’s perhaps unsurprising that I struggle to discern any sort of development in the conventional sense. For example, I find it hard to see what relation the first five or six minutes of the score (track 1) bear to the music that follows, except as an unrelated introduction, perhaps. The music that opens the second section (track 2) is reminiscent of parts of the First Symphony. As this section unfolds the music becomes ever more strident. After a solo violin passage the texture becomes increasingly complex but it’s hard to see what all the activity signifies. Hereabouts the playing of the RLPO is tremendously vigorous and earlier, when the music was stirring to life from very subdued beginnings, there was no little finesse to the playing. So far as I can tell the performance is also very precise.
It would be kind to describe the words of the concluding choral section as banal; the poem is unmitigated Revolutionary tosh! Shostakovich “rewards” the poet with choral writing of no great distinction; these final minutes are brash and boldly coloured but, to be honest, one feels it’s a case of sound and fury signifying nothing. It’s richly ironic that when Shostakovich produced the sort of music that the authorities expected he wrote such stuff as this but when he composed music that was not in keeping with official expectations – in the Sixth or Eighth Symphonies, for instance – he produced his finest work. Vasily Petrenko and his orchestra – and choir – do their best for the score and give a colourful and committed account of it but, really, this is base metal. I find it perplexing, to say the least, to trace Shostakovich’s development as a symphonist from the precocious First Symphony through to the magnificent, complex Fourth. Indeed, the Second and Third Symphonies don’t really seem to offer much in the way of a bridge between those two tremendous scores.
I find the Fifteenth Symphony just as perplexing but in a very different way. Just what was Shostakovich saying this late score? What was going on behind that impassive face and those slightly owlish thick spectacles? A troubled spirit, it would seem, but what was troubling him?
One of the great enigmas of this score lies in the use made of quotations. Shostakovich made use of self-quotation in his music but to the best of my knowledge it was rare for him to quote other composers. Yet here, in what turned out to be his last symphony, we find him quoting from two composers – and from two radically different composers at that – as well as from himself.
The first movement opens deceptively with perky material on flute and then bassoon. The opening pages are reminiscent of the Ninth Symphony it seems to me. Then, at 1:57 the trumpet plays a familiar motif from Rossini’s William Tell overture. The Rossini motif has been foreshadowed in the moments leading up to its first appearance – the first of several in the movement – but what is the meaning? I confess I’m far from sure except to note that the motif is of a piece with Shostakovich’s characteristic sardonic streak and that, though the fragment of tune stands out every time we hear it, it is well integrated into the composer’s own material. The music becomes increasingly urgent, alarmed and, indeed, strident in tone and the reappearances of the Rossini quote seem to act as a brake on proceedings and to bring the music back to a less stressful, more insouciant level. Throughout this movement, whatever the mood of the music, the playing of the RLPO is crisp and characterful.
The second movement takes us to an altogether deeper level – though in saying that I don’t wish to imply that the first movement is superficial; it’s not. The Adagio opens with a brass chorale, which recurs at intervals as the movement unfurls. I think it’s hugely significant that this chorale is taken from the opening movement, The Palace Square, of the Eleventh Symphony, a work that I still think has yet to receive its full recognition within the composer’s output. It will be remembered that the Eleventh commemorates the failed Russian Revolution of 1905. The chorale is followed by extended glacial passages in which cello and viola solos are prominent. Here we are in the world of the string quartets. This is spare, searching music that has the character of a threnody. Petrenko and his players are excellent in maintaining the tension in these sparsely scored paragraphs, a virtue I admired in their traversal of the first movement of the Sixth Symphony. Eventually (at 6:50) we hear an idea on the flutes but it’s not until this is taken up at some length by a solo trombone that it becomes clear that this is a funeral march. Eventually (at 11:01) the march erupts almost out of nothing into a huge climax. When this is spent the chorale returns, firstly on hushed strings and then on the brass. Now, I think, having experienced the funeral march we perhaps understand the significance of the quotation form the Eleventh. Is it that Shostakovich had unfinished business with the failed revolutionaries of 1905? Is he saying in this movement that those revolutionaries were betrayed by the Stalinist excesses in the years that followed the successful revolution of 1917?
The third movement, which follows attacca, is extremely brief. Richard Whitehouse rightly draws attention to the “barbed humour”. This is real nose-thumbing, sneering music and it’s adroitly done by Petrenko’s orchestra which offers some suitably pungent playing. Unless my ears deceive me the horns make a reference to the old DSCH motif one last time in a Shostakovich symphony.
The finale brings us the quotations from a second composer: Wagner. Right at the start the low brass intone the ‘fate’ motif from Die Walküre, followed by the soft timpani tattoo from Siegfried’s Funeral Music in Götterdämmerung. A few moments later (at 1:07) there’s surely another Wagner reference. The violins have an extended melody and as a kind of upbeat to it they play the same three notes with which Tristan begins. It’s possible that this is a coincidence but I don’t think so. The melody itself is described by Richard Whitehouse as “graceful”. I know what he means but I’m not sure that description is the full story: it sounds to me to be a spectral kind of grace; as so often with Shostakovich ambiguity is everywhere. This long, winding violin theme serves as the impetus for much of the content of the succeeding paragraphs. After another appearance of the ‘fate’ motif (5:28) what is at first a ghostly passacaglia begins. The music grows in temperature and intensity until a substantial climax is reached (10:08). This is another – and the last – of Shostakovich’s trademark towering symphonic climaxes and in it I hear definite echoes – grim ones – of the Leningrad Symphony. After the climax has subsided the music becomes wan and lean again; here the playing of the RLPO is once again most effective. The ending is enigmatic; the soft, tintinnabulating percussion over soft string chords recalls the conclusion of the Fourth Symphony, albeit the passage is longer this time. With a soft bell chime Shostakovich writes finis to his canon of symphonies.
The Fifteenth is a difficult symphony, not because its language is difficult in the way that the language of the Second is gratuitously difficult. It’s difficult because it’s so hard to grasp what are the composer’s intentions. I bought Maxim Shostakovich’s 1972 première recording when it came out – I still have the LP – and yet, even after all these years I’m not confident that I fully comprehend this elusive piece. I am sure, however, that it’s a fine and expressive composition and it’s the work of a mature and highly experienced symphonist whereas the Second is the work of a young, iconoclastic innovator. I don’t believe that earlier piece is genuinely symphonic in the sense of including any conventional development of ideas.
I doubt I shall listen often to the Second, though I’m sure that Vasily Petrenko and his choir and orchestra serve it well. I’m certain, however, that I shall return to this performance of the Fifteenth which strikes me as being excellent both in terms of the interpretation and the execution. The Naxos sound is very good: it reports the massive climaxes very well but conveys equally successfully the many quiet passages, both at the start of the Second and during the Fifteenth. As usual, Richard Whitehouse’s notes are very good at outlining the background to the works and at describing each score. However, it’s slightly disappointing that he doesn’t attempt any real discussion of the quotations in the Fifteenth beyond saying that they’re present.
This is another fine instalment in this important Shostakovich symphony cycle and I hope we won’t have to wait too long for the next release.
Dan Morgan also listended to this release and was not so impressed:
‘A particular activity or cause that has suddenly become fashionable or popular’ is one definition of the term ‘band-wagon’. After hearing earlier instalments in Petrenko’s Shostakovich cycle, starting with No. 11 – review – I can’t understand why these performances have been so well received. Faced with a frankly formidable list of fine alternatives Petrenko’s readings of Shostakovich seem insignificant. Granted, they’re outwardly exciting and well played – he’s done wonders for the RLPO’s sound and stature – but what irks me most is that this technical mastery seldom extends beyond the notes.
As I’d hate to be labelled a curmudgeon – surely no-one enjoys writing a bad review – I approached this new issue in a spirit of discovery and reassessment. Mark Wigglesworth’s recording of the first three symphonies – review – was still fresh in my mind, so I was particularly keen to hear how this new version of To October compares. First impressions are quite favourable, the level of instrumental detail very impressive, but it doesn’t take long before old doubts resurface. That quiet, louring introduction is devoid of the menace of its best rivals – Mark Elder especially – and what follows lacks the dramatic, tugging undertow that others find here.
As for the Liverpool chorus, they sing well enough, but for spine-tingling fervour and raw excitement Elder’s and Wigglesorth’s choirs are unequalled; their ecstatic antiphons are uniquely thrilling. Petrenko is just loud and showy – the recording is very aggressive, too. The whole experience is desperately underwhelming. This may be early Shostakovich, but that’s no excuse for such shallow treatment. Indeed, this kind of performance just gives succour to those who insist the composer never modulated out of keys of crudeness and banality.
At the other end of the spectrum we have the Fifteenth Symphony, a strange, fleet-footed work that bubbles with subversive wit and elegant tunes. Bernard Haitink’s classic Decca account has long been a favourite of mine. The Dutchman is at one with Shostakovich’s musical mind-set. In his capable hands – the London Philharmonic are in vital, virtuosic form and the work’s dark ambiguities are readily exposed. There’s a quirkiness here, a snap and bounce, that Petrenko only hints at. Haitink colours the music with immense subtlety and skill. It’s not a particularly long symphony, but this newcomer makes it seem interminable. That intensely personal last movement is sheerly beautiful but ultimately rather bloodless.
Alas, these performances have done nothing to persuade me of Petrenko’s virtues in this repertoire. And it isn’t only Shostakovich, a Proms Manfred last year exhibited all the same enervating superficialities. Perhaps in twenty years or so he will offer us more penetrating versions of these enigmatic, painfully human symphonies, but for now the band-wagon will just have to roll on without me.
Outwardly bright, inwardly dull; not remotely competitive.
This is another fine instalment in this important Shostakovich symphony cycle and I hope we won’t have to wait too long for the next release. [JQ]
Outwardly bright, inwardly dull; not remotely competitive. [DM]
Reviews of the Petrenko Shostakovich cycle on MusicWeb International:-
Symphonies 1 and 3
Symphonies 5 and 9
Symphonies 6 and 12
Symphony No 8
Symphony No 10
Symphony No 11 and an alternative view
Masterwork Index: Symphony 2 ~~ Symphony 15