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ClassicsOnline Home » SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 15
"I would recommend the Czech release"
"The playing is highly competent and makes this disc one to seriously rival the ruling Rozhdestvensky and Haitnik versions. Well worth the ridiculously meagre $10"
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975)
Symphony No.2 in B Major "To October", Op. 14
Symphony No.15 in A Major, Op. 141
Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906, the son of an engineer. He had his first piano lessons from his mother when he was nine and showed such musical precocity that he was able at the age of thirteen to enter the Petrograd Conservatory, where he had piano lessons from Leonid Nikolayev and studied composition with the son-in-law of Rimsky-Korsakov, Maximilian Steinberg. He continued his studies through the difficult years of the civil war, positively encouraged by Glazunov, the director of the Conservatory, and helping to support his family, particularly after the death of his father in 1922, by working as a cinema pianist, in spite of his own indifferent health, weakened by the privations of the time. He completed his course as a pianist in 1923 and graduated in composition in 1925. His graduation work, the First Symphony, was performed in Leningrad in May 1926 and won considerable success, followed by performances in the years immediately following in Berlin and in Philadelphia. As a pianist he was proficient enough to win an honourable mention at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw.
Shostakovich in his early career was closely involved with the theatre, and in particular with the Leningrad Working Youth Theatre, in musical collaboration in Meyerhold's Moscow production of Mayakovsky's The Flea and in film music, notably New Babylon. His opera The Nose, based on Gogol, was completed in 1928 and given its first concert performance in Leningrad in June 1929, when it provoked considerable hostility from the vociferous and increasingly powerful proponents of the cult of the Proletarian in music and the arts. The controversy aroused was a foretaste of difficulties to come. His ballet The Golden Age was staged without success in Leningrad in October 1930. Orchestral compositions of these years included a second and third symphony, each a tactful answer to politically motivated criticism. The first of these, To October, was written in response to a commission from the state authorities and was intended to mark the tenth anniversary of the Revolution. The Third Symphony, completed in 1929, marked another celebration of the regime and was subtitled The First of May.
In 1934 Shostakovich won acclaim for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, based on a novella by the 19th century Russian writer Nikolay Leskov, first performed in Leningrad and shortly afterwards, under the title Katerina Ismailova, in Moscow. Leskov's story deals with a bourgeois crime, the murder of her merchant husband by the heroine of the title, and the opera seemed at first thoroughly acceptable in political as well as musical terms. Its condemnation in Pravda in January 1936, apparently at the direct instigation of Stalin, was a significant and dangerous reverse, leading to the withdrawal from rehearsal that year of his Fourth Symphony and the composition the following year of a Fifth Symphony, described, in terms to which Shostakovich had no overt objection, as a Soviet artist's creative reply to justified criticism. Performed in Leningrad in November 1937, the symphony was warmly welcomed, allowing his reinstatement as one of the leading Russian composers of the time.
In 1941 Shostakovich received the Stalin prize for his Piano Quintet. In the same year Russia became involved in war, with Hitler's invasion of the country and the siege of Leningrad, commemorated by Shostakovich in his Seventh Symphony, a work he had begun under siege conditions and completed after his evacuation to Kuibyshev, its broadcast performance in the devastated city to which it is dedicated and subsequent performances in allied countries had, as the authorities had intended, a strong effect on moral in Leningrad and in Russia, and aroused emotions of patriotic sympathy abroad.
Stricter cultural control enforced in the years following the end of the war led, in 1948, to a further explicit attack on Shostakovich, coupled now with Prokofiev, Miaskovsky and Khachaturian, and branded as formalists, exhibiting anti-democratic tendencies. The official condemnation brought, of course, social and practical difficulties. The response of Shostakovich was to hold back certain of his compositions from public performance. His first Violin Concerto, written for David Oistrakh, was not performed until after the death of Stalin in 1953, when he returned to the symphony with his Tenth, which met a mixed reception when it was first performed in Leningrad in December 1953. His next two symphonies avoided perilous excursions into liberalisation, the first of them celebrating The Year 1905 and the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917 in 1957, and the second The Year 1917, completed in 1961.
In 1962 there came the first performance of the Thirteenth Symphony, with its settings of controversial poems by Yevtushenko, and a revival of the revised version of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, under the title Katerina Ismailova. The opera now proved once more acceptable.
The last dozen years of the life of Shostakovich, during which he suffered a continuing deterioration of health, brought intense activity as a composer, with a remarkable series of works, many of them striving for still further simplicity and lucidity of style. The remarkable Fourteenth Symphony of 1969, settings of poems by Apollinaire, Lorca, Rilke and Küchelbecker, dedicated to his friend Benjamin Britten, was followed in 1971 by the last of the fifteen symphonies, a work of some ambiguity. The last of his fifteen string quartets was completed and performed in 1974 and his final composition, the Viola Sonata, in July 1975. He died on 9th August.
The career of Shostakovich must be seen against the political and cultural background of his time and country. Born in the year after Bloody Sunday, when peaceful demonstrators in St. Petersburg had been fired on by troops, Shostakovich had his musical education under the new Soviet regime. His own political sympathies have been questioned and there has been controversy particularly over the publication Testimony, The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov, once accused of fabrication in his portrayal of the composer as a covert enemy of Bolshevism.
The testimony of others and a recent scholarly survey of the life and work of Shostakovich suggest that the general tenor of Volkov's Testimony is true enough. Shostakovich belonged to a family of liberal tradition, whose sympathies would have lain with the demonstrators of 1905. Under Stalinism, however, whatever initial enthusiasm he may have felt for the new order would have evaporated with the attacks on artistic integrity and the menacing attempts to direct all creative expression to the aims of socialist realism. While writers and painters may express meaning more obviously, composers have a more ambiguous art, so that the meaning of music, if it has any meaning beyond itself, may generally be hidden. Shostakovich learned how to wear the necessary public mask that enabled him to survive the strictures of 1936 and 1948 without real sacrifice of artistic integrity.
Written in response to a commission from the Commissariat of Enlightenment, the Second Symphony of Shostakovich avoids the conventions of the First Symphony, adopting an astringent musical language leading to an overtly proletarian final chorus, declaring the political orthodoxy of the work in words by Alexander Bezymensky. In one movement if would not overtax the powers of concentration of the unmusical, who might, in any case, be satisfied by the final chorus. The symphony is scored for a full orchestra, including in its percussion section tubular bells and in its additional scoring a siren, for which wind instruments are a permissible substitute. The first performance, by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Nikolay Malko, took place on 5th November 1927 and there was a performance in Moscow a month later. The work was warmly applauded, to the composer's satisfaction, and on the first occasion he was called out tour times before the applause finally died away. In later life Shostakovich seems to have rejected this early work, whether for musical or political reasons is not clear.
The symphony opens in a sombre mood, the double basses followed by the muted cellos, violas and divided violin sections, each superimposing a different rhythm, the whole opening accompanied by the muffled roll of the bass drum, a collage of sound texture. A muted trumpet emerges against the swelling miasma, as the sound diminishes over a divided double bass line. A more energetic figure leads to a passage for solo violin, clarinet and bassoon, joined gradually by other instruments in ever wilder disharmony. Tension relaxes and the solo violin leads to the final chorus, introduced by the basses.
The last of the symphonies of Shostakovich is a very different matter. It was first performed on 8th January 1972 at the Great Hall of Moscow University, with the Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra, directed by the composers son Maxim. In Volkov's Testimony the composer claims a literary source in Chekhov's The Black Monk, a subject on which he had once intended an opera. Elsewhere he is reported to have remarked on the toy-shop element of the first movement. After the first performance Tikhon Khrennikov, a powerful figure in the musical establishment and leading critic of formalism in 1948, detected an air of cheerful optimism. In fact the symphony has a valedictory air about it, in spite of clearly satirical elements. It is not simply with hindsight that this symphony may be seen as an ambiguous farewell to the form and to the vanity of life itself.
Unlike the vocal Fourteenth Symphony, the Fifteenth is purely instrumental, scored for a full orchestra with a large percussion section that includes tubular bells, xylophone, vibraphone and celesta. The first of the four movements opens with a lively and provocative flute solo, followed by the bassoon, before the vigorous entry of the lower strings. Various musical quotations have been detected in the music, the most obvious of which, in the first movement is the sudden reference to Rossinis William Tell Overture, which continues to provide a rhythmic centre to the movement. If this is a toy shop, it must be the sinister magic toy-shop of old Dr. Coppelius. The second movement Adagio opens with solemn chords from the brass, and the introduction of an elegiac melody from a solo cello, the mood sustained in melancholy contemplation until a solo violin leads to an outburst of poignant sound. Celesta and vibraphone usher in a solo double bass version of the cello elegy, as the music draws to an end, its conclusion hinting at what is to come. Without a break the clarinet introduces the bitterly satirical third movement with an angular ascending theme. The composer's initials D S C H (D -E flat -C -B) are heard, as they have been in a number of other works, although less obtrusively than on some occasions. The final movement opens with a quotation from Wagner's The Ring, the Fate motif and there is a graceful violin melody taken from a song by Glinka. A distorted passacaglia builds to a dramatic climax of harsh poignancy and a context that contains a number of further musical references returns finally to Glinka's melody, before the sound dies away with the dry bones of the percussion heard now against a long sustained string note, the composer's farewell to the symphony, in despair rather than triumph.
Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava)
The Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava), the oldest symphonic ensemble in Slovakia, was founded in 1929 at the instance of Milos Ruppeldt and Oskar Nedbal, prominent personalities in the sphere of music. Ondrej Lenárd was appointed its conductor in 1970 and in 1977 its conductor-in-chief. The orchestra has given successful concerts both at home and abroad, in Germany, Russia, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Spain, Italy, Great Britain, Hong Kong and Japan. For Marco Polo the orchestra has recorded works by Glazunov, Glière, Miaskovsky and other late romantic composers and film music of Honegger, Bliss, Ibert and Khachaturian as well as several volumes of the label's Johann Strauss Edition. Naxos recordings include symphonies and ballets by Tchaikovsky, and symphonies by Berlioz and Saint-Saëns.
Ladislav Slovák was born in 1919 in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, where, in spite of straitened circumstances, he completed his earlier musical training at the City Music School and subsequently at the Bratislava Conservatory. As a conductor he was greatly influenced by Vaclav Talich in Bratislava and from 1954 by Yevgeni Mravinsky, to whom he served as assistant in Leningrad. For some two years Slovák attended Mravinsky's rehearsals with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra of the symphonies of Shostakovich, including first performances of Symphonies Nos. 11 and 12. In these rehearsals Shostakovich was present, hearing his music in performance for the first time and rarely interfering, except for occasional adjustments of tempi. He had great confidence in Mravinsky, with whom there was collaboration at the profoundest musical level. Slovák was privileged often to take part in discussions on problems of performance between Mravinsky and Shostakovich, and also learned much from other conductors, including the second conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Kurt Sanderling. On his return to Czecho-Slovakia Slovák was appointed Conductor-in-Chief of the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra in Bratislava, with guest engagements with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, which he conducted on an extended world tour to the Far East, Australasia and Russia in 1959. In 1961 he was appointed Conductor-in-Chief of the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and has continued with similar appointments as far afield as Australia and with a busy career as a guest conductor. His early working collaboration with Mravinsky and Shostakovich has led to performances of particular authority, in particular of the latter's fifteen symphonies.
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SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 15