Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Chamber Symphony in C minor Op.110a (1960) (arr. R.Barshai) [23:11]*
Mieczysław WEINBERG (1916-1996)
Concertino for violin and string orchestra Op.42 (1948)† [16:49]**
Chamber Symphony in A flat major Op.118a (1964) (arr. R.Barshai) [25:23]**
Candida Thompson (violin)†
Amsterdam Sinfonietta/Candida Thompson
rec. Muziekgebouw Amsterdam, Netherlands, 3 May 2013*; Stadsgehoorzaal Leiden, Netherlands, 13-15 April 2012**
+ DVD Amsterdam Sinfonietta Revealed, a portrait by Claire Pijman [32:27]
CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS SA 34313 SACD [65:41]
I’ve always had an ambivalent attitude towards the two chamber symphonies on this disc; some might call it one coloured by shades of purism. My initial reaction when I first came across them was annoyance that anyone should tamper with the two string quartets. I am such a fan of Shostakovich that I felt that if the composer had thought it a good idea to arrange them for string orchestra he would have done it himself; this despite the fact that he readily approved conductor friend Rudolf Barshai’s arrangements giving them each the ‘a’ suffix to the opus numbers.
On the other hand I recently reviewed a disc which included some arrangements for flute and vibraphone of a number of his piano preludes from op. 34 and some more from the op. 87 set of preludes and fugues for piano - a couple of those with an added clarinet. I found them absolutely delightful. I suppose it is rather similar to those people who are always disappointed with films of books they’ve enjoyed where they feel the film strays too far from the book, sometimes even adding characters and events. My counsel to such people is always to put the book out of their mind and regard the film on its own merit. If I follow my own counsel with these two works then it becomes easier to be objective.
Shostakovich always used chamber music to express his most private thoughts with cleverly concealed references he knew the population who shared his experience would pick up on while the cultural watchdogs would inevitably miss them. Therefore in the cause of objectivity in relation to the Chamber Symphony in C minor Op.110a should I also discount the controversial nature of its creation? In 1960 while near Dresden to complete the music for the war film Five days - five nights Shostakovich saw with his own eyes the devastation caused by the Allied bombing of Dresden on 13-15 February 1945 and this affected him deeply. He wrote the 8th string quartet quickly and when interviewed said he wished to dedicate it to “the memory of the victims of fascism and war”. It has since emerged that it is probable that the Soviet authorities coerced him into saying that and though the printed scores bear that quotation the autograph doesn’t; the true inspiration was different. Today it is widely accepted that he wrote it as a self-memorial as he also saw himself as a victim. His daughter Galina confirmed the point saying that he had declared this the day he completed the quartet. In addition, in a letter to his friend Isaak Glikman, he went into considerable detail about the quartet saying “I started thinking that if some day I die, nobody is likely to write a work in memory of me, so I had better write one myself”. He went on to list the self quotations contained within the quartet as well as quotations from the funeral march from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony. Finally the quartet begins with his oft-used musical signature, DSCH: (in German transliteration D, Es, German for E flat, C and H, German for B). It recurs throughout. The quotation of the old Russian funeral anthem Tormented by the weight of bondage you glorify death with honour and his suggestion to Glikman that the title page could bear the inscription To the memory of the composer of this quartet removes any remaining doubt about its raison d’être. The implication that both fascism and communism, as practised in the Soviet Union, were two sides of the same coin is clear; there are also Jewish musical references to tie them to him - all victims. Around the same time as he wrote the quartet he had finally been forced, after years of resistance, to join the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union), making him feel particularly depressed. He even contemplated suicide.
There is no doubt that the chamber symphony is a powerful work of great poignancy. If you come to it without knowing the quartet or are able to discount it while listening then it is certainly hugely impressive. However, if you do know the quartet then you cannot fail to agree that the stark nature the four instruments create gives the music a far greater atmosphere of desolation, horror, anguish and torment than an orchestra of twenty-one can achieve … and with the addition of double bass. It’s a perfect example of ‘less is more’. Others feel differently: music critic James Leonard said of the chamber symphonies some years before Barshai’s death “There is no reason why Rudolf Barshai shouldn't continue making arrangements of Shostakovich's string quartets for chamber orchestra and calling them chamber symphonies. He's good at it ...”.
By the time Leonard wrote that, Rudolf Barshai had also arranged four more of Shostakovich’s string quartets as ‘chamber symphonies’: the youthful first, the third, the fourth and the tenth which is the other one on this disc. There is a neat link here with the remaining work, Weinberg’s Concertino for violin and string orchestra, since it was to Weinberg that Shostakovich dedicated his tenth string quartet. The booklet says that Weinberg met ‘the thirteen-year older Dmitri Shostakovich in 1943’, when in fact Weinberg was only ten years younger. What is not in dispute is their close friendship and the mentoring that Shostakovich gave to Weinberg as well as championing his music. Also it should be remembered that Shostakovich supported the younger man when he spent some time in prison on the ridiculous and meaningless charge of ‘Jewish bourgeois nationalism’. Add to this the ‘cross pollination’ that existed between the two composers.
There was friendly rivalry between them and in a letter dated 21 July 1964 Shostakovich wrote to Glikman “I have kept my word - another quartet, the tenth, was finished yesterday. It is dedicated to Moysey Vainberg (these days spelt Weinberg). He wrote nine quartets and with the last of them overtook me, since at the time I had only eight. I therefore set myself the challenge of catching up and overtaking Vainberg, which I have now done.” Eventually Weinberg, who outlived Shostakovich by 21 years, overtook him again, writing a total of 17 string quartets to his friend’s 15. Shostakovich’s tenth is a wonderful quartet but then I’m biased since I consider them all masterpieces. Nevertheless among them some are particularly outstanding and the eighth and tenth are two examples. The long ominous opening theme played on the lowest registers of the bank of cellos is magnificently rich before the more relaxed tune for all the strings calms the mood down. The second movement is immediately one of agitation and dissonance but its tight construction and thick sounds make it irresistible. The adagio is sober, even stately, but extraordinarily beautiful and as the closing notes come from violin and cello a lone viola whispers above them and segues into the final movement. Summing up all the material that went before this movement is quite wondrous with a dance-like tune that gives way in the middle to nightmarish dissonance. Elements from the sacral adagio cut through with the dancing tune re-emerging before it is deconstructed so that the quartet ends with elements of it morphing into a quiet gentle A flat major chord. This is where my ambivalence about Barshai’s arrangements affects me since it seems to me that this one works much better than op.110a and I don’t get that feeling of irritation at its existence. It may be the profoundly personal nature of the eighth quartet that makes me feel it should be allowed to exist on its own; that it is too private to have anyone else manipulate it. I recognise the argument that says that as ‘symphonies’ they are more likely to be heard and appreciated than as quartets; if this really is the case then I very much hope that people eventually discover their origin and learn to love them as such.
Mieczysław Weinberg’s Concertino for violin and string orchestra only received its world première recording in 2010 with Sergey Ostrovsky the soloist and Thomas Sanderling and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (Naxos 8.572631). In my review of that disc in 2011 I wrote the following: ‘This concertino from 1948 is fascinating in that the opening movement sounds very English and reminds me of Walton, Vaughan Williams and Bax in style, with that pastoral sweep that always brings the English rolling countryside to mind. The second movement with its cadenza is full of lovely melodies while the last is also extremely melodious. The whole is about as far removed musically from what we have come to expect from Soviet composers as it is possible to be. This work, the earliest of his nine written for solo instrument and orchestra, may never have received a public performance, and was published only as recently as 2007. This recording certainly shows its merit and perhaps it will now find a permanent place in the violin repertoire’.
Listening to both recordings today I can say I haven’t changed my mind about the work which is a wonderful addition to the violin concerto repertoire. It has everything one could possibly wish for in a violin concerto. The music extends from lyrical, deeply moving and bittersweet to wistful and dancing. It is interesting that there was a lot of what I described above as ‘cross-pollination’ between the two composers. Weinberg once commented about Shostakovich “although I never had a lesson from him, I consider myself his pupil, his flesh and blood” there is no hint of any influence from that quarter in this work. Both recordings are very good and I was not aware of any difference in orchestral texture despite the Naxos recording involving a considerably larger numbers of players.
The accompanying DVD, issued as part of the Sinfonietta’s 25th anniversary, is a nice addition that shows it rehearsing the op.110a chamber symphony with comments from various members, including its artistic director and leader Candida Thompson whose lovely tone is a pleasure to hear. Despite my personal reservations about the existence of arrangements of Shostakovich’s string quartets and not wishing to appear to be damning with faint praise this disc is a fine example of them and of the Sinfonietta’s warm sound.
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