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ClassicsOnline Home » SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: Symphonies, Vol. 10 - Symphony No. 14 (G. James, A. Vinogradov, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Petrenko)
At its première in June 1969 Shostakovich described his Symphony No. 14, in effect a symphonic song cycle, ‘a fight for the liberation of humanity…a great protest against death, a reminder to live one’s life honestly, decently, nobly…’ Originally intending to write an oratorio, Shostakovich set eleven poems on the theme of mortality, and in particular early or unjust death, for two solo singers accompanied by strings and percussion. This is the penultimate release in Vasily Petrenko’s internationally acclaimed symphonic cycle.
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Symphony No. 14
The fifteen symphonies of Dmitry Shostakovich presently stand at the very centre of the orchestral repertoire: together with those of Mahler, they can fairly be said to represent ‘modern’ music as it appears to the non-specialist concertgoer. Yet unlike any comparable symphonic cycle since that of Beethoven, these works do not progress in a way that might have endowed their career-spanning inclusivity with a logical evolution which carries them from aspiration to fulfilment.
Of the symphonies, the First is a graduation work that quickly accorded the teenage composer national acclaim and then international prominence. The Second and Third both represent the 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 thereafter. The Fifth clarifies that boundary through paradoxically making it even more equivocal; a process that the Sixth continues by subverting the private/public relationship still further. The Seventh is an unequivocal reaction to civil conflict and social collapse that finds its conceptual equivalent in the Eighth, and 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 initiates a period in which Russian concerns were to assume dominance, its historical acuity being diluted by the relative impersonality of the Twelfth and then intensified by the undeniable explicitness of the Thirteenth. The Fourteenth stands outside the symphonic genre as regards its form though emphatically not in terms of content, while the Fifteenth marks a belated re-engagement with an abstract approach to symphonic thinking such as might or might not have been continued.
The seven-year gap from Shostakovich’s Thirteenth to his Fourteenth symphonies proved the longest between any two of his works in this genre, though it would not be so had the cantata The Execution of Stephan Razin [Naxos 8.557812] been expanded into a new symphony as envisaged. There were several film scores—notably for Grigory Kozintsev’s Hamlet [8.557446]—numerous songs including Preface to the Complete Collection of My Works, the Five ‘Krokodil’ Romances, a Pushkin romance Spring, Spring and the Seven Blok Romances [8.553297], as well as an orchestration of From Jewish Folk Poetry. Non-symphonic orchestral music was represented by the Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Folk Themes, the symphonic poem October [8.557812] and the Funeral- Triumphal Prelude, while larger works comprised the Second Cello [8.550813] and Second Violin [8.550814] Concertos, along with the re-orchestration of Schumann’s Cello Concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich and the Violin Sonata for David Oistrakh. Most significant, however, are the four string quartets that were written during this period—Nos. 9 [8.550973], 10, 11 [both 8.550977] and 12 [8.550975]—which reaffirmed the composer’s identity with the genre (as equally with the Beethoven Quartet) and facilitated that increasing inwardness which is a hallmark of almost all Shostakovich’s music from his final decade.
The genesis of the Fourteenth Symphony goes back to 1962, when Shostakovich had orchestrated Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. Work began in earnest at a hospital stay in January 1969, when he informed Isaac Glikman that he was writing an ‘oratorio’ for soprano, bass, strings and percussion. The piano score was finished on 16 February, with the orchestration completed on 2 March—by which time the composer had decided against the oratorio designation, there being no chorus involved, and opted instead to call the work a symphony (ironically it was three years earlier that the work intended as a Fourteenth Symphony mutated into the Second Cello Concerto)—with a dedication to Benjamin Britten (thereby returning the compliment as Britten had dedicated The Prodigal Son, the third of his Church Parables, to Shostakovich the year before). Considering the new work to be one of his most important, and naturally impatient to hear it, the composer sounded out Rudolf Barshai on performance practicalities and the piece went into rehearsal in June.
Realising a public hearing would not be possible until after summer vacation, Shostakovich agreed to a pre-performance run-through—which took place at the Moscow Conservatoire on 21 June 1969 with soprano Margarita Miroshnikova, bass Yevgeny Vladimirov, and the Moscow Chamber Orchestra with Rudolf Barshai. The response to so unequivocal a work was immediate—albeit marked by the audible departure, mid-way through, of Party functionary Pavel Apostolov who suffered a seizure and died a month later. The official première took place at the Glinka Concert Hall, Leningrad on 29 September with Galina Vishnevskaya (who withdrew from the first hearing through prior commitments) and Vladimirov, again with the Moscow CO and Barshai, while the Moscow public première followed on 6 October. The UK première took place in Aldeburgh on 14th 1970, Britten conducting the English Chamber Orchestra along with Vishnevskaya and Mark Reshetin, while the United States première came in Philadelphia on 1 January the following year—Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra with Phyllis Curtin and Simon Estes. The piece was acclaimed as being among Shostakovich’s greatest, yet his colleague Lev Lebedinsky broke off their friendship on account of its nihilistic message, while the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn took offence to one of the poems as belittling the experience of those who had endured the Gulag.
The first recording came promptly in the summer of 1969, with Barshai conducting the musicians as at the initial hearing. Ormandy made the second studio account immediately after the American première, while Visnevskaya and Reshetin were joined by Rostropovich and the Moscow Philharmonic in 1972. That orchestra again set down the work in 1974 with soloists Julia Varády and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Kirill Kondrashin conducting, while a performance at which Leonard Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic with Teresa Kubiak and Isser Bushkin took place on 8 December 1976 and was later issued on disc. Another recording of note is that from 1981 by Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, with soloists Julia Varády and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, which is sung in the original languages (Spanish, French, Russian and German) of the poems as previously authorized by the composer.
The Fourteenth Symphony is scored for soprano and bass soloists, percussion (requiring at least four players) and strings (ten violins, four violas, thee cellos and two double-basses are specified). The eleven songs can also be divided into five groups according to those attaccas between songs, while a further division into three larger movements—comprising songs Nos. 1–3, 4–7 and 8–11—can also be adduced which serves to reinforce the work’s “symphonic song-cycle” connotation and will be referred to below. Alone of Shostakovich’s fifteen symphonies, there is no key signature attached—though both outer movements tend to G minor and this is the key most often given in published catalogues (qv. Boosey & Hawkes). It is worth noting that the four poets have in common their early and unfortunate deaths: Federico García Lorca (1898–1936) died at the hands of the Spanish Nationalists; Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918) died in the Spanish flu pandemic; Wilhelm Küchelbeker (1797–1846) died in prison for subversive activities; Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) died from leukaemia.
The first part symmetrically comprises a slow introduction followed by a scherzo and sonata-like allegro with slow coda. The first song is Lorca’s De profundis, its evocation of those murdered given an unworldly setting in which the violins’ undulating theme finds little warmth from the wan response of lower strings. The bass both partners and alternates with the strings, the music gradually opening out in expression before soloist and strings join in a brief climax which subsides into a recall of the violins’ opening theme—itself rounded off by ascending then descending glissandi on double basses.
The second song is Lorca’s Malagueña, evoking death in the context of archetypal Spanish images of tavern and guitar—and in which the soprano’s forthright rhetoric is intensified by the feverish idea on violins which rise towards the limits of their compass above the stealthy movement of lower strings. Half-way through a more lilting theme emerges for the soloist then solo violin, though the initial idea resumes (now largely centred on strings) before the climactic return of the lilting theme sees the entry of castanets. A surging crescendo on strings and two snaps from castanets leads straight into
The third song, which is a setting of Apollinaire’s narrative Lorelei interpreted as a dramatic scena for both soloists. Its opening section juxtaposes their impulsive exchanges against jabbing gestures on lower strings and xylophone, building towards a headlong contrapuntal discourse between the strings. Tension subsides as the soprano unfolds an expressive melody that finds contrast with the continual motion of lower strings, before a brusque interjection from the bass brings an interlude for xylophone and violins over an insistent figure on woodblock. This dies down on double basses, leading to a varied recall of ideas already heard before soprano then bass provoke a frenzied upsurge on strings and woodblock, summarily curtailed by two strokes on tubular bells. The coda brings a more resigned version of the expressive melody, soprano then bass recalling the ill-fated protagonist over undulating harmonies on strings, celesta, bells and vibraphone.
The second part comprises two relatively expansive slow movements that frame a compact scherzo then brief intermezzo. The fourth song is Apollinaire’s The Suicide, its unworldly evocation of death and remembrance given an inward setting led off by solo cello then joined by soprano in a haunting refrain that makes inventive play with the initial words. Strings belatedly enter for a brief climax, soprano continuing until an upsurge for violins and xylophone sees an impassioned idea for the violins over heaving lower strings. It dies down, but a vocal outburst provokes a dissonant string cluster and two more strokes on bells. The soprano then brings a return to the initial inwardness that dies away on bells and lower strings.
The fifth song is Apollinaire’s On Watch, its satire on approaching death and incestuous love wholly epitomized by the nonchalant refrain for xylophone and continued by soprano over militaristic tom-toms. The strings are initially pizzicato until their angry exchanges with percussion, after which the soprano invokes greater emotion which leads to an eloquent climax. This subsides—soprano and xylophone then heard as though from afar before tomtoms build to a strident close.
The sixth song is Apollinaire’s Madam, look!, launched by a theatrical gesture on strings with the bass’ statement leading to the soprano’s mock hysterical response which once again makes inventive play with the Russian translation—notably the three-note gesture echoed on xylophone which invokes desperation before being hammered out over receding strings.
The seventh song is Apollinaire’s At the Santé Prison, the poet’s sojourn in Paris’ Santé Prison transformed into an all-encompassing outcry against incarceration. The bass is joined by pensive lower strings for an impassioned climax—gradually subsiding into a speculative interlude for the strings, playing col legno (with the wood of the bow) or pizzicato, and woodblock in a remarkable demonstration of textural ingenuity. At length the bass reenters, and strings duly intensify for a sequence of sombre exchanges into which ideas from the interlude are gradually reintroduced. After a relatively sustained climax the music withdraws to its initial brooding, the bass finally ceasing so that spectral double-basses are the last sounds audible.
The third part comprises three movements of progressively slower tempo which is rounded off by a peremptory epilogue. The eighth song is Apollinaire’s The Zaporozhian Cossacks’ Reply to the Sultan of Constantinople, a flood of invective such as unleashes an uninhibited response—the bass jousting with strings until a climax is reached with the acerbic initial motif engulfed in rapid violin passage-work. Surging to the top of their compass, these are abruptly curtailed going into the ninth song, a setting of Küchelbeker’s O Delvig, Delvig! (and which is often seen as a direct address from composer to dedicatee). The plangently affecting initial phrase for divided strings returns twice, setting in relief the bass’ entreaty which is (not unreasonably) innately Russian in its expression. At first warmly emotional, the music soon rises to a peak of imploring eloquence before gradually regaining its earlier poise—the refrain then affording a measure of stoic serenity.
The tenth song is Rilke’s The death of the poet which, with its stark though soulful depiction of human demise, audibly brings the work full-circle with the undulating theme at its start heard in the violins’ highest register. The soprano for the most part unfolds at a remove from her accompaniment, though becoming more involved with each brief climax, before joining seamlessly with the strings for the final statement of a haunting refrain which is gradually dissolved in the violas.
The eleventh song is Rilke’s Conclusion, which is made the blackly ironic epilogue of the whole work. This commences with expectant tapping from the woodblock (the first notable entry of percussion since the seventh song), with soprano and bass singing in unison throughout as a thunderous climax is reached—during which both of the soloists sustain their closing notes over hammered strokes on un-tuned percussion. A violent crescendo on strings has the final, fateful word.
Shostakovich introduced the piece on 21 June 1969. Recalling Mussorgsky, he explained it as “…a great protest against death and a reminder to live one’s life honestly, nobly, decently, never committing base acts…[Death] awaits all of us. I don’t see anything good about such an end to our lives and this is what I am trying to convey in this work.”
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