Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D minor The New York Philharmonic Orchestra Leonard Bernstein, Conductor

Shostakovich (L) and Leonard Bernstein in 1959.

Shostakovich (L) and Leonard Bernstein in 1959.

In 1936, Dmitri Shostakovich, who had been the pride of the Soviet Union ever since the premiere of his First Symphony ten years earlier, suffered a dramatic fall from grace.  In January of that year, Joseph Stalin attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtensk”, and, as the saying goes, he was not amused.  Within days, a devastating polemic – some say penned by Stalin himself – appeared in Pravda denouncing both the opera and its composer.  Overnight, Shostakovich went from the darling of Soviet music to composer non grata and in fear for his life, as this occurred during the Great Purge, when official disfavor could quickly get one exiled to Siberia, or worse.

Shostakovich’s response to this criticism took the form of his 5th Symphony, which he composed in 1937.  This symphony is more accessible than “Lady Macbeth”, and both its public and critical reception were overwhelmingly positive.  Shostakovich was restored to official favor, at least for the time being, but ever since, critical opinion has been divided on whether in the 5th Symphony he acquiesced to political pressure, or only appeared to, while in fact composing a veiled protest against the totalitarian regime under which he labored.  Much of the controversy concerns the triumphal 4th movement: Does it convey real rejoicing or is the rejoicing meant to be seen as forced?

It’s impossible to know for certain what was in Shostakovich’s mind when he wrote this symphony.  I like what Herbert Glass, long-time music critic of the L.A. Times, wrote about it:

One can ramble on forever about the meaning and intent of the Fifth Symphony – and whether or not it is entirely straight-faced, or disingenuous, or self-serving, although there can be no doubt that the first and third movements are profoundly serious.  What it ultimately comes down to is that, without disregarding the harmonic language of the 20th century, Shostakovich succeeded here in recalling the grandeur and the weight of the late-Romantic statements of Borodin and Tchaikovsky, without for a moment sounding like those composers.

Personally, I don’t detect even a hint of irony in the 4th movement, which is as unequivocal an expression of triumph as any piece of music I know.  I’m inclined to take Shostakovich at his word when he writes in his preface to the score, “The theme of my Symphony is the stabilization of a personality.  At the center of this composition – conceived lyrically from beginning to end – I saw a man with all his experiences.  The finale resolves the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements into optimism and the joy of living.”

Perhaps Zoya Leybin, violinist with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and former citizen of the Soviet Union, put it best.  She said, “Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony – to me it’s a mirror which represents the life and the era in which he lived.  He was the messenger, and I think his music is a hymn to all of us who lived, survived, and passed on.”

Like so many other pieces I’ve featured on this blog, I was introduced to this symphony during my student days, through the famous 1959 recording by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.  In the video that follows, we again hear Bernstein and the New York Phil, but twenty years later, in a compelling performance from 1979.  The tempo indications and start times for the four movements are as follows:

Moderato (00:21)
Allegretto (18:12)
Largo (23:32)
Allegro non troppo (40:04)

Published in: on October 31, 2015 at 6:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1 in F minor The Teresa Carreño Youth Symphony Joshua Dos Santos, Conductor

Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich

This performance of Shostakovich’s First Symphony is notable for the youthfulness of just about everyone connected with it.  Shostakovich was 18 years old and a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory when he wrote it in 1925.  The members of The Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra of Venezuela are all between the ages of 14 and 20.  The oldest person in the entire enterprise is the conductor, Joshua Dos Santos, who was all of 26 when this video was made.

Even I was a youngster when I was introduced to this piece.  I was 19 and in the hospital, having broken a leg while learning to ski.  As it turned out, this mishap had a fortunate consequence: my friend George Banks brought me a recording of this symphony to keep me company, and from the very first, I was enthralled with it.

My appreciation has only grown over the years.  What an achievement for a student composer!  What assurance, maturity, and overall mastery!  In this symphony, Shostakovich takes us on a journey from satiric wit to the very depths of human emotion.  We embark as detached observers, but conclude as fellow sojourners.  Gerard McBurney describes this progression beautifully in his notes to this symphony on the Boosey and Hawkes website:

The teenage Shostakovich made his international reputation with his First Symphony, written while he was still a student between 1923 and 1925; few composers in history can have pulled off such an auspicious opening to their career. Astonishing brilliance and quicksilver fluency of orchestral writing are matched by dark undertones of mockery and tragic foreboding. This work is at once unique in the composer’s output and yet filled with premonitions of all to come.

At first hearing, this symphony’s four movements have an almost playfully neo-classical surface, but the music is constantly unpredictable, full of strange twists and turns, sometimes hilariously funny, sometimes startlingly moving and personal. From its sinewy sinister opening for solo trumpet and bassoon, through its helter-skelter piano-dominated scherzo and sombrely thoughtful slow movement right to its strident blast of trumpets and trombones at the very end, this piece – composed eighty years ago – still keeps audiences amazed and on the edge of their seats.

This performance took place in Simón Bolívar Hall in Caracas, Venezuela on January 14, 2012.

Concert Review: Gerard Schwarz Conducts The Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Toradze – Pianist

Under the baton of Conductor Laureate Gerard Schwarz, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra gave a concert last night at Benaroya Hall that was a joy and a revelation from first note to last.

The music ranged from the brand new to the altogether familiar. First on the program was the world premiere of Five Sky Interludes by Daron Aric Hagen.  These five pieces are all orchestral interludes from Hagen’s opera Amelia which premiered in 2010, though they would not have sounded out of place a hundred years earlier.  An American composer previously unknown to me, Hagen’s Five Sky Interludes has a distinctly American sound.  It is a dramatic, imaginative piece of music, easily accessible, yet certain to reward repeated hearings.  Having heard these excerpts, I would eagerly seek out the complete opera, and look forward to hearing more of Hagen’s music.

The next piece on the program was Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, featuring the Georgian-American pianist Alexander Toradze.  The Third is the most often-played of Prokofiev’s concerti.  The brilliance of its piano writing and its lush melodic content have made it a favorite among pianists and audiences alike ever since Prokofiev himself gave its premiere in 1921.  I confess to feeling some apprehension prior to this performance: I’ve been listening to this piece, off and on, for forty-seven years.  Surely I’ve heard it all before, right?

My concerns were laid to rest by the opening notes, rising from the first clarinet to greet me like a old friend.  How could I have worried?  Prokofiev is endlessly inventive, and even his best-known melodies retain their originality.  In addition, Toradze has a refreshingly individual approach to this piece.  His performance was studded with unexpected emphases and retards.  Perhaps his most dramatic departure from the routine were the expansive tempi he employed to good effect during the second movement.  The climax to the lyrical central section of the third movement was especially moving.

Overall, Toradze emphasized the dramatic and lyrical as opposed to the virtuosic and percussive.  His approach clearly resonated with the Seattle audience, which gave him an enthusiastic and well-deserved standing ovation.

Following the intermission, Mr. Schwarz led the orchestra in a stunning performance of Shostakovich’s monumental Symphony No. 8.  This symphony was composed in 1943, in the middle of what in Russia is still called The Great Patriotic War.  While it is usually risky to ascribe programmatic intent to a piece of music, it is impossible to separate this symphony from the circumstance of its composition.  At the very least, it was conceived during that horrific time, and it is impossible not to see it as a reflection of that conflict.

Certainly, the scale of the symphony mirrors the scale of the war.  The Symphony No. 8 is a full-blown epic, encompassing many different spectrums of expression: from playful to tragic, lyric to martial, heavenly to hellish.  One must admire Shostakovich’s daring in writing such an ambitious work.  Did he not fear that the critics would scold him for its length?

Personally, I think its length is one of its best features.  Music this personal and profound must be allowed to go its own way and reach its own conclusion.  Throughout all five movements, Mr. Schwarz exhibited brilliant, precise conducting, and the orchestra responded in kind.  The greatest credit, however, must go to Shostakovich himself; I am in awe of what he achieved in this piece.  During the ineffable final bars of the last movement, one particular phrase suggested itself to me, “the peace which passeth understanding.”  The audience’s prolonged ovation was well-earned and certainly to be expected, but it would have felt more fitting just to depart in silence.

I cannot conclude this review without giving you, the reader, an opportunity to see and hear this extraordinary work for yourselves.  What follows is a video of another, earlier performance of this symphony by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.  This one took place in 2006, and was originally broadcast on PBS.  [Note: After this post was published, the featured video was deleted from YouTube, probably because of a copyright violation.  In the video below, I present a different performance of this symphony, equally compelling, with Valery Gergiev conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.]

Derrick Robinson

Shostakovich: Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 61 Pianist – Valentina Lisitsa

As much as I love listening to a favorite piece of music, I love even more hearing great music for the first time.  When listening to something new, I often think of Humphrey Bogart’s line at the end of “Casablanca”, “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  I was overjoyed when I found Valentina Lisitsa’s recent recording of Shostakovich’s second sonata – which was altogether new to me – on YouTube.  I was moved not only by her playing, but by her writing as well.  I had only the vaguest awareness of what happened at Leningrad in WW II, but was inspired by her notes to look more fully into this horrific event.

I will have more to share regarding the Siege of Leningrad in a future post.  What follows are the notes Valentina wrote that were so moving to me.  I invite you to read what she has to say about it, and to hear what she has to play.


We all wonder from time to time how things look “on the other side”, but resign ourselves to the thought that nobody ever came back from “there” to tell us how things are.  With a few exceptions…

Dmitri Shostakovich

Dante created his own, albeit imagined, Inferno.  Shostakovich descended into a real inferno, lived through it, and came out alive to tell the story, to bear testimony to a hell on earth.  What else can you call it when people – bright, thinking, loving people, millions of them – are sentenced to living on 125 grams a day of 50% sawdust/bread ration (and only for those who are able-bodied or well-connected), then to eating their pets and pests, belts and shoes (with scraped-off-the-walls wallpaper paste an exquisite delicacy), then – their dead, and then – their living.

This September (8th- 21st) marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Siege of Leningrad, one of the deadliest and darkest episodes in the history of European civilization (if you can still call it “civilization”).  This magnificent city, rightly called the Venice of the North, a cradle of modern Russia, a hotbed of progressive thought, a showcase of the best in Russian art, music, and literature, was condemned to a most cruel death by starvation by two tyrants, dictators, who despite being on opposing sides of a war, shared a common hatred of humanity.  In the 900 days of the siege, 750,000 people died out of a population of 2.5 million.  Shostakovich, abandoned like the rest of the population of Leningrad, lived through it and continued composing.  His 7th (the “Leningrad”) Symphony, the sheet music of which was smuggled across enemy lines and performed around the globe, was a call of defiance, a promise of eventual victory, of imminent triumph of life over death.

There is nothing triumphal about this sonata.  Instead, it is a sad and subdued reflection, the testimony of a witness to an abyss of human suffering and death.  Everything is warped here: a waltz turns into a funeral procession; usually “happy” major key episodes are the most sinister and menacing.

The first movement is full of foreboding and unease.  There are two main themes here.  The opening one – in a minor key – is rather sad and very sincere.  The second theme, in a blazing major key, is reminiscent of those awful Soviet-era patriotic marches.  If music can be called “creepy”, this theme personifies the word.

The second movement is a slow and unsteady waltz, constantly on the verge of falling apart.  It is more a reminiscence of happier times than a real dance.  The waltz bore a special significance in the lives of these people. It was a waltz that commenced graduation from school, a waltz that was the first dance at a wedding.  In the middle of the movement, the waltz gives way to a bone-chilling half-march/half-sarabande theme.  You can hear the steps of a funeral procession, but these steps are hesitant and halting, just as in the iconic Leningrad documentary videos of starvelings dragging their deceased in makeshift sleds to common pits while those still alive walk by unfazed.

The last movement: a finale.  Those words have more significance here than in other sonatas, with the sole exception of Chopin’s Sonata in B Flat minor.  This movement is a set of variations written on a very simple, folk song-like theme.  The opening theme is for one hand only – an ultimate expression of loneliness and desolation in music.  A set of variations follows the theme, some maniacally busy and high-strung, some solemn and grave.  The last ones deserve our particular attention.  Just as in other movements, everything is in a minor key and ANY sign of major (usually a symbol of something nicer, happier, gentler in music) pierces the music like a ray of bloodied sunrise on the eve of a storm.  We get more and more “major” – at 5:20 when octaves in left hand are decidedly major, then at 6:00…  Then, at 7:00 we enter the final agony in the drama of life.  This variation is hauntingly similar to the “dotted” variation from Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes.  This repeated dotted rhythm is like a heartbeat: heavy, boomy, halting, weakening.

This variation is probably the most powerful and graphic depiction of death – of actual dying and death – in music.  Eventually everything transforms into a vibrant, shining major key (at 10:19) and comes to a complete, final, stop.  Death comes in a scintillating major here, but it doesn’t sound like a promise of paradise awaiting, but rather a complete resignation and making peace with everybody and everything, a complete cessation of life, passion, and struggle.  The only thing left for onlookers is a brief prayer (at 10:30) and one final act of kindness to what was once a living, breathing human being – closing his eyes (a truly chilling moment at 10:57).  Then there is a gaping silence… and life returns to its daily, almost banal pace – for everybody else, of course – while we bury our dead (12:30).

Valentina Lisitsa

Published in: on November 29, 2011 at 10:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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