Shostakovich October

by Sedgwick Clark

It’s amazing, really. This month New York has been graced by a veritable deluge of Shostakovich. I remember when the Fifth Symphony was all we could hope to hear with any frequency. These days, I can barely stand to hear it because of the unbearably “meaningful,” post-Testimony manner in which most conductors distend the finale. My first exposure to the Fifth was Bernstein’s 1959 New York Philharmonic recording, made immediately following the orchestra’s return from its Soviet Russian tour. Bernstein tears through the finale like a bat out of hell (this was long before his meaningful, slow-is-profound period began in the 1970s), and all other interpretations appear schleppy to me. Shostakovich was in the audience for the Moscow performance and wrote to a young Russian conductor a year later: “I was very taken with the performance of my Fifth Symphony by the talented Leonard Bernstein. I liked it that he played the end of the finale significantly faster than is customary.” (Quoted from Laurel E. Fay’s Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford), page 309, note 83, in which she sorts out this most controversial of Shosta Sym questions.) Happily, the Fifth wasn’t played this month.

Free association: Before I go on with the Shostakovich works that were performed this month, I must alert readers to a DVD of a Bernstein/London Symphony Orchestra performance of the Fifth from December 1966—an incredibly exciting example of his impassioned music-making at its zenith—on the Idéale Audience label, released by EuroArts. For those who never saw Bernstein conduct live (“Ah, youth!”), this video is a must. The film quality shows its age, but who cares? The BBC also filmed a two-hour rehearsal to go with the concert performance, and an extremely disappointing five-minute snippet of perhaps that morning’s only temperate moments is included. It’s nothing like the incendiary excerpts contained on Teldec’s first “Art of Conducting” video, now retrievable on UTube, in which an ill-tempered Bernstein savagely berates the LSO musicians for not committing themselves completely to the piece.

I wrote last week in this space of the welcome reprise of William Kentridge’s wild production of The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera and the Mariinsky Orchestra’s devastating performance of the Eighth Symphony and the soloist-challenged First Piano Concerto, all conducted by Valery Gergiev. I missed Semyon Bychkov’s performance of the Eleventh Symphony (“The Year 1905”) with the New York Philharmonic but was reliably informed that he didn’t allow it to drag and that the playing was excellent. Its most recent performance hereabouts was by the Houston Symphony under Hans Graf at a May 2012 Spring for Music concert at Carnegie Hall that failed, in my estimation, to raise the piece above the level of a politically calculated tub thumper. The Russian music authority Boris Schwarz told me that maybe one had to be Russian to recognize the work’s true stature.

Bernard Haitink led the London Symphony at Lincoln Center for welcome concerts on the 20th and 21st, headlined by the mid-Thirties’ Fourth and the composer’s final symphony, the Fifteenth (1971). Characteristically, the Dutch conductor let the composer’s notes speak for themselves, without stressing the element of menace that many expect in Shostakovich interpretations. As in his Chicago Symphony performance of the Fourth at Carnegie Hall in May 2008, this allowed the occasional lyricism of the score to peek through the composer’s symphonic tirade that younger conductors emphasize. Haitink’s London Philharmonic recording, available in his Decca set of the complete symphonies, times out longer than any other performance in the catalogue, and both the Chicago and LSO concerts were slower still. Some may have missed the greater energy of his recording, but the breadth of his pacing imparted undeniable reason to what I used to characterize as a musical enactment of a nervous breakdown.

In his Fifteenth, Shostakovich inserts quotes from Rossini’s William Tell (familiar in America as the Lone Ranger theme) in the first movement and the “fate” motive from Wagner’s Ring in the last. Not surprisingly, Haitink integrated these quotes, and briefer ones detailed by Christopher H. Gibbs in his excellent program notes, into the score’s fabric more than I’ve ever heard—and for the first time in any performance I’ve heard live there was no laughter when the brass chuckled the Tell motive. Both concerts were cannily paired with early and late Mozart piano concertos, the 9th and 27th, genially played by Emanuel Ax.

The final Shostakovich symphony to be played this month was the Ninth, by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s under its 36-year-old music director, Pablo Heras-Cassado, at Carnegie Hall on 10/23. The neoclassical Ninth was a major disappointment to government officials, who had expected the country’s most prominent composer to come forth at the close of the Second World War with a rousing paean to Soviet supremacy. It’s not played often, which is too bad; divorced from the time of its composition, it’s an engaging mix of delight and disquietude that lights up any concert program when performed with as much effervescence as on this occasion.

Important tip: The Juilliard Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski will perform an all-Shostakovich concert at Alice Tully Hall on November 25. The program of early works includes selections from the film score to The New Babylon (1929) and the orchestral suite to Hypothetically Murdered (1931), and the First Symphony (1924-25). For those like your devoted blogger who have never even heard of the second work, Juilliard’s press release describes it as “drawn from the composer’s one and only venture into music hall entertainment with one of Soviet Russia’s biggest vaudeville and jazz celebrities in 1931. Buried in the Soviet Archives, it was reconstructed from a variety of scores and sketches of this “Light-Music Circus” combining comedy, slapstick, and politics in the dark Russian style of satire.”

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