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ClassicsOnline Home » SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: Symphonies, Vol. 5 - Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, Petrenko)
Shostakovich’s First Symphony propelled the teenage composer to international prominence, its emotional range and innovative orchestration marking him as a daring and precocious talent on the scene. The Third Symphony, ‘The First of May’, originally intended as part of a symphonic cycle inspired by dates on the revolutionary calendar, has been described as ‘a reckless and at times chaotic accommodation between modernist intent and revolutionary fervour’. ‘Thrilling, perfect, essential…the modern reference recording’. (Classicstoday.com on Naxos 8.572461 / Symphony No. 10)
By Steve Moffatt
Village Voice – Balmain
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Symphony No. 1 • Symphony No. 3 ‘The First of May’
35 years after his death and the fifteen symphonies of Dmitry Shostakovich have moved to the centre of the repertoire: with those of Mahler, they represent ‘modern’ music to present-day concertgoers. Yet they differ from any comparable symphonic cycle since Beethoven in the absence of a logical progression as might parallel their career-spanning inclusiveness with an evolution from aspiration to fulfilment.
Of the symphonies, the First is a graduation work that accorded the teenage composer international prominence. The Second and Third represent a reckless accommodation between modernist means and revolutionary ends, while the Fourth stakes out the boundary between the individual and society that was to remain a focal point. The Fifth clarifies that boundary by paradoxically making it more equivocal; a process the Sixth continues by subverting the relationship still further. The Seventh is a reaction to civil conflict and social collapse that finds its equivalent in the Eighth, which in turn finds its opposite in the Ninth. The Tenth marks the genre’s culmination as the outlet for an abstract programme. The Eleventh opens a period in which Russian concerns were foremost, its historical acuity diluted by the impersonality of the Twelfth then intensified by the explicitness of the Thirteenth. The Fourteenth stands outside the genre as regards its form but not its content, while the Fifteenth marks a belated re-engagement with abstract symphonism that might or might not have been continued.
The First Symphony was preceded by a sizeable amount of music. The composer destroyed almost all his juvenilia in 1927, but a few piano pieces have reemerged, notably a Funeral March in Memory of the Victims of the Revolution (1917) and a fragmentary Sonata (1919). The surviving five of Eight Preludes for piano (1920) find him grappling with Debussy and Scriabin, while the Scherzo for orchestra (1921) adopts a more overly late-Romantic tone. Glazunov is evident in the Theme and Variations for orchestra and also pervades the Three Fantastic Dances for piano (both 1922) [Naxos 8.555781], whose idiomatic writing is a reminder Shostakovich was a pianist of some distinction. None of these adolescent works, however, whether the Rimskyian Two Fables of Krïlov, the Rachmaninov-like Suite for two pianos (both 1922), the Brahmsian First Piano Trio (1923) [Naxos 8.553297] or the Prokofiev-like Scherzo for orchestra (1924), prepares one for the individuality and maturity of what followed.
Shostakovich began his First Symphony in October 1924 (initial ideas may date from a year earlier) as a composition exercise while at the Leningrad Conservatoire, completing the first two movements by December. The third movement was finished by mid-January, but the finale proved troublesome. A concert in Moscow featuring several of his works received only a lukewarm reception, but it brought him into contact with the music theorist Boleslav Yavorsky and Civil War hero Mikhaíl Tukhashevsky, who became prominent supporters. Returning to Leningrad, he completed the fourth movement at the end of April. A two-piano transcription was given on 6 May and well received, while the orchestration was finished during the period June 30th–July 1st. Despite the doubts of his teacher Maximilian Steinberg, Shostakovich strove to secure a hearing, gaining the support of the musicologist Boris Asafyev and, most crucially, the conductor Nikolay Malko, who agreed to take on the first performance.
The première took place in Leningrad with the Philharmonic Orchestra on 12 May 1926, a resounding success whose date Shostakovich was to mark for the rest of his life. Bruno Walter gave the West European première in Berlin on 6 February 1928 and Leopold Stokowski the United States première in Philadephia on 2 November, with Hamilton Harty giving the British première in Manchester three years later. Stokowski made the first recording, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, in November 1933, followed by Artur Rodzinski with the Cleveland Orchestra in April 1941 and Arturo Toscanini with the NBC Symphony in March 1944. 1951 saw the earliest Soviet recordings, by Constantin Silvestri with the All-Union Radio Symphony, and Kirill Kondrashin with the Bolshoy Orchestra.
The First Symphony is scored for woodwind in pairs (but three flutes – with one doubling piccolo), four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (three players), piano and strings. Although its four movements outline the standard classical trajectory (with the scherzo placed second), the opening movement is a highly innovative take on sonata-form, while the expressive divide between the first two movements and the slow movement is such that the finale has to open-out its emotional range still further to ensure a convincing resolution.
The first movement is the most original in conception. It begins with a laconic idea on solo trumpet, commented on by woodwind and passed to clarinet then strings as it reaches a brief climax. A stepwise ascending idea on strings acts as transition to the first theme, a sardonic one for clarinet which is taken up by strings then woodwind in another brief climax. The second theme is a balletic one for flute over pizzicato strings, elaborated in bewitching orchestration. The development initially alights on the ascending idea, heard as an accompanied ‘cadenza’ for violin, then strings take up the clarinet theme and a violent climax ensues. The flute theme is reprised, again with evocative orchestration, before the clarinet theme provokes another violent climax. The latter fades out, leaving a paraphrase of the introduction to conclude matters.
The second movement is a scherzo of wide contrast. Competing cellos and basses set in motion an angular theme that moves between woodwind and strings, then piano, before a percussive outburst makes way for the trio, a liturgical-sounding chant intoned by flutes then clarinets. The initial idea on lower strings quietly appears (at a slower tempo) then oboes, flutes and clarinets continue pensively with the chant. The angular theme emerges at the same pace, suddenly accelerating in a return to the scherzo music. This time the chant is shouted out by brass over skirling strings, only to be cut off at its apex. Three stark piano chords, and the initial idea returns on lower strings (and at a slower tempo) to see the movement through to its plaintive close on upper woodwind and strings, rounded off by a final percussive gesture.
The third movement opens with an eloquent melody heard initially on oboe, continued by cello then strings as an expansive climax is reached. A six-note ‘motto’ becomes prominent, paving the way for a central section centred on a sombre theme for lower strings, with a regretful oboe aside. A funereal climax pits anguished strings against baleful brass, then a further inward transition sees the return of the main theme on violin, now with its second half taken up by full strings with the motto again in attendance. A rapt coda initially recalls the oboe’s regretful aside on trumpets, now extended downwards so that it runs into an elegiac recall of the main theme’s initial phrase on cellos then woodwind, the motto distant on upper strings as the music dies away.
Without pause, a side-drum crescendo leads into the finale. Woodwind then lower strings unfold a brooding introduction before the movement lurches into greater activity with a scurrying theme on clarinet then piano as a powerful climax ensues. Strings declaim a passionate theme that is soon recast as a warmly expressive melody in the violin’s lower register, complemented by a soulful theme on horns against airborne trumpets and glittering piano. Plangent strings recall the introduction, then the scurrying theme returns on the way to a massive climax. This is brutally cut short, timpani thrice sounding the six-note motto, then the expressive melody returns resignedly on cello. It builds gradually to an expansive restatement of the introduction, the music all the while gaining pace and ardour, before launching into the decisive final bars.
The two years between the Second and Third Symphonies saw a number of pieces, from the transcription of two Scarlatti sonatas for wind ensemble and Tahiti Trot (both 1927, the latter [Naxos 8.555949] an orchestration of Vincent Youmans’ Tea for Two), via incidental music for Vladimir Mayakovsky’s The Bedbug (1929), to The Nose (1928), Shostakovich’s first opera and his most radical yet impressive work of this period; also a score for Grigoriy Kozintsev’s and Leonid Trauberg’s film New Babylon (1929), marking the start of a long-term collaboration.
Shostakovich wrote his Third Symphony ‘The First of May’ during the summer of 1929, much of it while on a six-week cruise along the Black Sea coast. Like its predecessor this is a one-movement work with a choral ‘finale’ (the text belatedly provided by Semyon Kirsanov), both being instalments of an intended symphonic cycle inspired by dates on the revolutionary calendar that was then abandoned. Following the ‘struggle’ inherent in the earlier symphony, this one focuses on what the composer referred to as “the festive spirit of peaceful construction” and is accordingly less complex in idiom but not in technical demands. Boris Asafyev wrote of its having been fashioned from the fervour of the revolutionary spirit.
The piece was well received at its première in Moscow, Alexander Gauk conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra and the Academic Cappella, on 21 January 1930, the Leningrad première following on 6 November 1931. Leopold Stokowski gave the American première in Philadelphia on 30 December 1932, while Frederick Stock introduced it to Chicago on 19 January 1933 (on both occasions with the choral writing omitted). The work then fell into oblivion and was not revived until 1964. That performance, by the Leningrad Philharmonic with Igor Blazhkov, became the first recording, followed by Morton Gould with the Royal Philharmonic in 1968, Kirill Kondrashin with the Moscow Philharmonic in 1972 and Václav Smetáček with the Czech Radio Symphony in 1974.
The Third Symphony is scored for SATB chorus, woodwind in pairs (one piccolo), four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (four players) and strings. Although its single movement plays continuously, a four-movement trajectory is easily discernible. Shostakovich spoke around the time of its completion of his desire to create a symphony where no single theme was repeated – and succeeded to the extent that, despite its abundance of melodic ideas, there is no exact or literal repetition of any theme during the course of the work.
It opens with a ruminative dialogue for clarinets over pizzicato strings, the introduction to a ‘first movement’ moving rapidly from a stealthy trumpet, via circling woodwind and impetuous strings, to breathless exchanges between instrumental groups that alternate with strident passages for full orchestra. The second of these brings a climactic pause, after which the music continues with unabated energy, slowing latterly for a noble theme on strings borne by striding woodwind. The activity continues with exchanges centred on a repeatednote idea which is taken up by brass and hurtles to an aggressive climax that collides with a march-past for brass and side drum. This alternates with perky woodwind passages as the music loses its impetus, fading away in lower strings to leave sparse chords from timpani and double basses.
Above them, violins in their highest register initiate a ‘slow movement’ that, following a stark outburst from brass and percussion, unfolds as a speculative dialogue between upper and lower strings, offset at first by ironic brass comments then by folk-like woodwind exchanges, before gaining in expressive warmth and assuming a Mahlerian aura for probably the first time in Shostakovich’s output. When he resumed this manner of writing (in his Fourth Symphony), it was within a very different musical context and from a much-changed cultural perspective.
Such expressiveness proves unable to take hold, and a running pattern in the strings marks the onset of a ‘scherzo’ that gains in momentum before climaxing in a syncopated idea which makes its way across the orchestra in all guises of instrumentation. The music grows theatrical in its immediacy, switching ceaselessly between motifs and taking in a full-blooded theme on strings, before the syncopated idea reaches a resplendent apotheosis. This is cancelled-out by a side-drum tattoo, over which unison strings and brass unfurl stern declamations marked by bass-drum strokes. At length these strokes lead towards silence, the tattoo fading to a dejected response from lower strings and tuba.
What follows is an extended introduction to the ‘finale’ (and most likely modelled on the Intervention of the Prince music from the ‘Introduction’ to Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette). Upwards string glissandi alternate with fanfares on trombones and trumpets, the latter taking precedence as the music gains impetus and climaxes on a unison chord for full brass.
Although the choral peroration has no overt connection with what has gone before, it provides an appropriate ending. Kirsanov’s verse, firmly in the lineage of ‘revolutionary’ poems, is set so that the unison chorus alternates with passages for male then female voices. There is little space for any emotional progression: rather the music surges forward to a climactic statement of intent: after which, trumpets and strings sound a defiant recessional on their way to the final, triumphantly conclusive cadence.
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