Shostakovich’s Shock and Awe
by Sedgwick Clark
I attend around 125 concerts annually and am often asked what good ones I’ve heard recently. At a time in my life when I can barely remember the prior sentence, I just heard the fourth concert of the year that I’ll bet I can recall next week without consulting my calendar: the London Philharmonic under Vladimir Jurowski in Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony on March 7.
Both conductor and orchestra have seemed rather pallid to me in previous New York appearances, mostly in standard rep. But not this time! Shostakovich’s tuttis raged with uncompromising fury, made all the more ear-splitting by Fisher Hall’s harsh acoustics. Three days later, my ears still feel clogged (but that may be my allergies). Several times during the performance I feared for the musicians’ hearing; at least I was in row U. The LPO’s quiet playing was no less impressive, but those moments were fidgety valleys between onslaughts. This was superb Shostakovich, in every way. At under 59 minutes, it was a fast performance—far more aggressive than Bernard Haitink’s monumental interpretation two years ago with the Chicago Symphony, which timed out to just over 70 minutes and revealed that the piece has its lyrical moments as well.
One might argue that Haitink’s daring approach is wrong-headed in looking for subtlety in this music—that works of this decibel quotient are simply, as PK calls it, “guy music.” One female friend used to fulminate during standing ovations for Mahler’s music: “Look at them—they’re all men!” Indeed, Mahler is everywhere in Shostakovich, and nowhere more than in the Fourth. Structurally episodic, its sections contrast wildly between manic prestos and dogged mumbling, ironic waltzes and polkas and jackboot marches. It’s long, too, but like Mahler’s even longer Third, the first movement of Shostakovich’s Fourth is in sonata form. Apparently Vivien Schweitzer, who called it “incoherent” in her Times review yesterday, is not convinced by the symphony, and I urge her to keep trying. This is the toughest nut to crack in his oeuvre—it took me years—and now I won’t miss a performance.
I’ve often thought of Shostakovich’s Fourth as a nervous breakdown in music. He began composing it during a time of great success, in mid-September 1935, when his satirical opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, was enjoying immense popularity with audiences and critics. All Soviet productions of the opera ended abruptly, however, when Stalin attended a new production at the Bolshoi on January 26, 1936, and two days later, Pravda published an editorial entitled “Muddle Instead of Music,” condemning “formalist” composers whose music did not speak to the Soviet masses. Shostakovich, a nervous man in the best of circumstances, went from being the Soviet Union’s most highly regarded composer to a man in mortal terror. He spent the next months composing the symphony, in December it went into rehearsal under a conductor apparently ill-equipped to cope with it, and it was withdrawn before its premiere for reasons that may still only be conjectured. It was finally performed for the first time in 1961, conducted and recorded by Kirill Kondrashin.
Shostakovich’s state of mind is all in the music. Laurel E. Fay—author of the most reliable, i.e., factual, book on the composer, Shostakovich: A Life, and also my friend and frequent concert companion (especially for Shostakovich works, and the Fourth in particular)—would label such an assertion “fantasy,” but I believe it.
The first half of the concert opened with Shostakovich’s aptly titled Five Fragments, written “reportedly in a single day in June 1935,” writes program annotator Paul Schiavo. He conjectures that these pieces “may well have served as preparatory exercises for the large and teeming Fourth Symphony that was already gestating within him.” The Allegretto piece undoubtedly does in its all-but-literal quote on solo violin, but I also heard long-line resemblances to the Fifth Symphony in a couple of the other Fragments. At any rate, while I’m glad to have heard it in tandem with the symphony, which is the only way I can imagine it is worth programming, it’s of interest solely to Shostakovich scholars and fanatics.
Then came Ravel’s ever-delightful Piano Concerto in G, played by Alexander Toradze. Russian audiences cheer his overtly emotional style, with its edge-of-cliff tempos and heavy rubato. But my own prescription for effective Ravel interpretation requires a certain elegance and simplicity, neither of which is in Toradze’s lexicon and certainly not on Sunday in the ineffable Adagio assai. There’s surely a happy medium between this and David Fray’s faceless account at the New York Philharmonic in December. Jurowski and the LPO’s accompaniment was first-rate, keeping up admirably with the soloist’s breakneck third-movement Presto, which they encored when the audience wouldn’t stop applauding.
Coda: Another Testosterone Favorite
Another of my favorite testosterone pieces is Prokofiev’s Third Symphony; and somewhat less so, his “age of steel” Second Symphony, with which Shostakovich must have been acquainted when he wrote his Fourth, at least in score if not performance. In my younger salad days I used to play the Leinsdorf/Boston recording of the Prokofiev Third at ear-splitting volume when I was pissed at something or someone. There were only two recordings of the Shostakovich Fourth then, and I had neither, but it surely would have been on my letting-out-steam list.
Note to Regular Readers
Last week’s blog was posted before I had finished everything I wanted to say about the Minnesota Orchestra’s phenomenal March 1 concert at Carnegie Hall. You might want to check out the complete version as it now stands.