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ClassicsOnline Home » SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: Symphonies, Vol. 7 - Symphonies Nos. 2 and 15 (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, Petrenko)
These two hugely contrasting symphonies come from the opposite ends of Shostakovich’s life and career. The Second Symphony was written to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik October Revolution. Its advanced idiom of experimental textures and abstract effects can perhaps be best described as organised musical chaos. The Fifteenth was Shostakovich’s last symphony and is filled with remarkable contrasts, from the rollicking quotes from Rossini’s William Tell Overture and eerie references to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and Tristan und Isolde, to the last and perhaps most imaginative of the composer’s symphonic passacaglias.
By Ronald E. Grames
By Robert Cummings
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Symphony No 2 ‘To October’ • Symphony No 15
The symphonies of Dmitry Shostakovich presently stand at the centre of the orchestral repertoire; together with those of Mahler, they can be fairly said to represent ‘modern’ music to the non-specialist concertgoer. Yet unlike any comparable symphonic cycle since that of Beethoven, they do not share a progression such as might have endowed their career-spanning inclusivity with a logical evolution from aspiration to fulfilment.
Of the symphonies, the First is a graduation work that quickly accorded the teenage composer international prominence. The Second and Third then 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 through paradoxically making it more equivocal; a process that the Sixth continues by subverting the relationship still further. The Seventh is a reaction to civil conflict and social collapse that finds its conceptual equivalent in the Eighth, which in turn finds its opposite in the Ninth. The Tenth effectively marks the genre’s culmination as the outlet for an abstract programme. The Eleventh then initiates a period in which Russian concerns were foremost, its historical acuity diluted by the impersonality of the Twelfth though intensified by the explicitness of the Thirteenth. The Fourteenth stands outside the genre as regards its form though emphatically not its content, while the Fifteenth marks a belated re-engagement with an abstract approach to symphonism such as might or might not have been continued.
The two years between the First and Second Symphonies saw Shostakovich enter the most overtly Modernist phase of his career, evident in the Two Pieces for String Octet with its intensely emotional Prelude written just prior to the First Symphony [8.572396] and its bracingly astringent Scherzo written soon after. With the First Piano Sonata, he produced a combative one-movement piece decidedly in the lineage of Soviet Futurist composers, while the ten piano pieces comprising Aphorisms [both 8.555781] adopts a more stylized yet no less unequivocal approach to form and expression wholly typical of Leningrad in its experimental heyday.
Shostakovich possibly conceived his Second Symphony while correcting the proofs of its predecessor at the start of 1926. The work as it stands, however, resulted from a commission in late March the following year from the Propaganda Division of the State Music Publishers’ Section for a symphonic work to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, which body also supported his intention to introduce the choral second half of the work with a factory hooter. By early June the orchestral first half was complete and the composer began setting the chosen text, by ‘official’ proletarian poet Alexander Bezïmensky (1898–1973), that he rated very poorly. The work was essentially completed by early July and later published with the title ‘To October, a Symphonic Dedication’; at this point, there was no mention of its being his Second Symphony, which term seems only to have come about at the earliest when work on its successor was under way in 1929.
Rehearsals were fraught but the première, Nikolai Malko conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra and State Academic Cappella on 5 November 1927, was judged a success even by those who disliked the advanced idiom. Shostakovich made some revisions for the Moscow première on 4 December conducted by Konstantin Saradzhev and the work was additionally awarded joint second prize at a competition organized in Leningrad. Despite this success, the piece failed to establish itself in the repertory and was embargoed in the era of Socialist Realism and beyond; not to be revived until Igor Blazhkov performed it with the Leningrad Philharmonic and Krupskaya Institute Chorus on 1 November 1965, which became its first recording, while Colin Davis gave the first Western performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in London on 22 October 1969. Ladisláv Slovák recorded it with the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus in June 1967, followed by Morton Gould with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus in 1968 and Kyrill Kondrashin with the Moscow Philharmonic and RFSFR Academic Russian Choir during 1972, but the work has tended to receive performances and recordings only as part of integral cycles of the symphonies.
The Second Symphony is scored for two each of woodwind (with piccolo), four horns, three each of trumpets and trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (three players) and strings with SATB chorus. The instrumental first part consists of four contrasted sections, which the choral second part complements in its four distinct verses.
Over a barely audible bass drum roll (track 1), the strings emerge in ascending order with a freely unfolding polyphony which results in a densely swirling texture of kaleidoscopic timbres. In the midst of this a trumpet intones what is the only sustained melodic line throughout the whole work, soon joined by upper woodwind in a series of angular chords. This dies down against a sombre tuba solo, then a new section begins (track 2) with martial activity in strings and woodwind—the latter with an animated version of the trumpet idea as the music builds to a strenuous climax capped by an unexpected major chord on the full orchestra. Agitated exchanges between tuba and lower strings provoke a brief outburst that subsides into virtual stasis. From here (track 2, 1’45”) the solo violin embarks on a cadenza-like passage that is rapidly joined by woodwind then strings as the texture proliferates into a complex thirteen-part ‘ultra-polyphony’, goaded on by percussion then trumpets and trombones prior to a martial idea that emerges on unison horns. This organized chaos is cut off at its height (track 2, 4’33”) by timpani presaging a grandiose climax derived from the trumpet theme, but this quickly dies down as strings and woodwind muse uncertainly upon previous motifs before solo violin ascends precipitously into silence.
The silence is abruptly shattered (track 3) by the low-pitched hooter (which can be replaced by unison brass) and timpani, whereupon the second half commences with massed male voices. Detailed illustration of the text is eschewed for an emphasis on salient words from each of the four verses. Thus the entry of female voices (the chorus sings in rhythmic unison throughout) sees the swift build-up to ‘Oppression, silence, suffering’ at the end of the first verse, whence orchestral activity increases towards ‘Lenin’ midway through the second verse, the accrued fervency bringing a declamation of ‘Struggle’ at the close of that verse. An orchestral interlude, based on revolving patterns from the woodwind and brass, leads to a third verse that is initially centered on ‘Struggle’ as the music builds to a massive chordal statement on ‘October’. A brief recollection of the hectic activity encountered earlier ushers in the final verse, now permeated by reiterations of ‘October’ as another affirmative chord is reached. The last words—‘October, the Commune and Lenin’—are not so much spoken than shouted out as fervent exchanges between the male and female voices, after which crashing percussion brings an orchestral coda that reconciles aspects of both halves of the work in a final thunderous resolution.
The two years between the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Symphonies produced several varied works, not least the eight fervent choral ballads to texts by Yevgeny Dolmatovsky that comprise Loyalty and the austere score for Grigory Kozintsev’s King Lear that was Shostakovich’s last film project. The Thirteenth Quartet [8.550977], whose single movement finds the composer at his most formally ingenious and expressively uncompromising, preceded the upbeat March of the Soviet Militia for wind band and a second orchestration of Six Romances on Verses of English (sic) Poets whose austerity is very different from the first version of three decades earlier.
Shostakovich seems to have made preparatory sketches for his Fifteenth Symphony early in April 1971, then wrote the work during concentrated activity at Kurgan (where he received treatment for a still undiagnosed illness that caused gradual weakening of his right arm) and at the composers’ residency in Repino. The piece was completed there on 29 July, but a second heart attack led to postponement of its première from October until the next year. That première was entrusted to his son Maxim, who conducted the All-Union Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra in Moscow on 8 January 1972. Critical and public response was notably enthusiastic, as also when Yevgeny Mravinsky gave the Leningrad première on 5 May (his first of a major work by Shostakovich since the Twelfth Symphony over a decade earlier) and at the British première, when Maxim conducted the New Philharmonia Orchestra in London on 20 November with the composer present.
Maxim Shostakovich made the first recording early in 1972, followed that October by Eugene Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Kyrill Kondrashin with the Moscow Philharmonic in May 1974. Milan Horvat recorded it with the Austrian Radio Symphony in 1977, while 1978 brought two notable recordings (in March and May/June respectively) by the London Philharmonic with Bernard Haitink and the Berlin Symphony with Kurt Sanderling. Thereafter it has had frequent performances and recordings, conductors no doubt fascinated by its sheer contrasts in scoring and expression as well as those quotations real or imagined that permeate the music.
The Fifteenth Symphony is scored for two each of woodwind (with piccolo), four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, celesta, percussion (four players) and strings. It marks a return to an abstract four-movement entity after eighteen years, though the conception of form in each of these is anything but conventional.
The first movement opens with two chimes on the glockenspiel, then over pizzicato strings solo flute unfolds a capricious theme which is continued by bassoon as the music gains in animation. What amounts to a second theme is stated matter-of-factly by trumpet and passed to other wind and brass, then trumpets sound the galop theme from Rossini’s William Tell Overture that alternates with scurrying strings as the end of the exposition is reached. The development now sets off with trumpet fanfares over side drum, percussion coming to the fore as activity increases heading into a strenuous string fugato derived from the first theme. This is curtailed by bass drum and, after an allusion to the second theme on solo violin, strings initiate a fugal texture of mounting complexity with all twelve notes of the chromatic scale gradually brought into play. Trumpets and side drum emerge at its height, inducing a climactic reprise of the main theme which dies down menacingly in the brass, after which further soloistic comments and a return of the William Tell motif on trumpets herald a restatement of the first theme with its successor transformed into a circus-like parade across the orchestra. This heads into the coda with a brief polyphonic build-up on woodwind and last Rossini allusion before the curt final phrase.
The second movement opens with a baleful chorale for brass, followed by an eloquent cello soliloquy against rapt strings. Both chorale and soliloquy are repeated to heightened effect, before a variant of the chorale sees the cello merge into a sequence of dissonant twelve-note chords on woodwind and brass. These lead first into a chant-like motif on flutes then a funereal trombone monologue which alternates with the chant motif, both being repeated and intensified before the return of the solo cello and the dissonant chords. There then erupts a massive climax based on the trombone monologue, with the whole orchestra brought into play for the only time in this movement. Dying down on the lower brass and timpani, it makes way—via the chant and chordal ideas—to a restatement of the chorale in block harmony on strings. A haunting passage featuring celesta and strings leads to the chorale variant on strings then brass, thence to the spectral final bars on brass and timpani.
The third movement begins (or rather its predecessor ends) with portentous chords on bassoons, preparing for a sardonic theme on clarinets then solo violin whose barbed humour belies its formal and motivic poise. This is taken up animatedly by strings and woodwind before a trio section launches on brass and percussion, also taking in a stealthy theme for violin then woodwind with lively percussion asides. The latter comes to the fore in a transition that hints at without stating the first theme, which re-emerges just prior to the close when solo violin quizzically recalls it and the second theme prior to a nonchalant exchange for percussion and strings.
The fourth movement begins with twin Wagner quotations—brass intoning the ‘fate’ motif from The Valkyrie followed by the timpani rhythm from Siegfried’s Funeral March. These are repeated, the former a third time, before the tempo increases with a graceful theme on upper strings over pizzicato accompaniment. While this alludes to the ‘fate’ motif, its progress is essentially unruffled as it continues on woodwind and then appears in richer string harmonies, before syncopated brass chords lead into a more ambivalent theme for woodwind then strings in dialogue. The music dies down as the ‘fate’ motif emerges and pulsating timpani usher in on pizzicato strings the last and perhaps most imaginative of the composer’s symphonic passacaglias. Whether or not this derives from the ‘war’ theme in the Seventh Symphony, its rôle here is to provide an unyielding backdrop against which the rest of the orchestra comes into focus. Thus the woodwind and strings gradually appear with fragmentary ideas that presently assume greater substance then, after an evocative passage for solo horn over strings and celesta, tension accumulates remorselessly into the central climax in which the passacaglia theme is hammered out by brass against protesting strings and percussion, and culminating in a nine-note chord whose corrosive dissonance spreads outwards as the passacaglia finally dissolves on lower strings. The two earlier themes are then reprised in reverse order, the graceful theme running up against the second movement’s dissonant chords which, after a recall of the passacaglia theme, lead into the coda. Here, allusions to the first movement’s main theme on woodwind interact with intricate percussion latticework and the passacaglia theme on timpani against a chord of sphinx-like immobility on the strings. This latter is the last sound to be heard, fading out after tuned percussion imparts its fleeting benediction to this leave-taking.
During his last four years, Shostakovich released no more symphonies but managed to complete a further six works. Thus the inward lyricism of the Fourteenth Quartet and the otherworldly deliberation of the Fifteenth Quartet [both 8.550976] were interspersed with the fragile beauty of Six Poems of Maria Tsvetaeva and the ominous ruminations of Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti (whose subsequent orchestral version the composer apparently referred to as his ‘Sixteenth Symphony’, though reports that he had completed two movements of a purely instrumental such work continued to circulate for several years following his death). The grimly sardonic Four Verses of Captain Lebyadkin (a figure invented by Dostoevsky) was followed by the Viola Sonata [8.557231], which ends with a transcendent Adagio ‘in memory of Beethoven’. Four days after correcting proofs of this work from his hospital bed, Shostakovich died in Moscow on 9 August 1975.
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