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Radical Shostakovich Symphonies From the Mariinsky Orchestra

He was the perfect composer for another time and place, and in the post 9/11 era his work has taken on a tragic new significance. One of Dmitri Shostakovich’s greatest achievements was to give voice to a people who’d been terrorized. Apprehension and dread are everywhere in his music beginning with the wrenching anguish of his Fifth Symphony well past the venomous, vengeful Tenth and into his string quartets of the early 1960s. The most recent recording of Shostakovich by Valery Gergiev with the Mariinsky Orchestra features richly dynamic versions of two radically different works, Shostakovich’s Second and Eleventh Symphonies. Any preconception of Gergiev as a heavyhanded conductor goes out the window here: this version of the Eleventh is a masterpiece of peaks and valleys, terrifying crescendos and stunned, deathly, practically horizontal atmospherics (it’s also recorded much more quietly than previous releases by this orchestra).

The Eleventh Symphony has been described as cinematic, which is accurate as far as style is concerned. And while it was inspired by the brutal reprisals that followed the 1905 uprising in Russia, it is not any kind of linear depiction of those tragic events. And while it could be interpreted as foreshadowing the triumph of the Communists over the Tsar, it is just the opposite, a portrait of the Tsars’ victims as a metaphor for the millions murdered by Stalin. The second movement is officially supposed to portray the January, 1905 massacre in the St. Petersburg city square, but this massacre appears throughout the piece again and again: after the evocative tone poem that opens the first movement; more dramatically in the second, over and over, and in the third, adagio movement, as if to illustrate the cossacks blowing up a funeral procession (which US drone aircraft have done in Iraq and Afghanistan, in case anyone is wondering). The dynamics all the way through are brilliantly nuanced despite the fireworks all around: for example, a trumpet reveille toward the end of the second movement sounds perfectly distant from the bereavement of the dirge that follows, detached and oblivious to the horror left in its wake.

Likewise, the martial fourth movement offers the feel of a parade nobody wants to march in: to Shostakovich’s infinite credit, he doesn’t end it with the triumphant cymbal crash that punctuates the end of its first segment, instead letting it go on, sad, still and wary until a final reminder of the massacre. Shostakovich just won’t let it go: in 1957, with Stalin dead and Krushchev’s “thaw” underway, he didn’t have to anymore.

The Second Symphony, which opens the album, is a curio. Shostakovich was 21, ambitious and eager to accept commissions from Stalin’s henchmen over at the music office when he wrote it, just two years after his auspicious First Symphony. This wasn’t even designated as such until later and hasn’t aged well despite the young composer’s enthusiastic and considerably original embrace of post-Stravinsky atonalism. The ensemble play (and sing) its martial bombast with a straight face. It was viewed as propaganda at the time it appeared and seems even more so now. Without knowing the author of these two symphonies, one would hardly guess Shostakovich to have written the first one. But the second leaves no doubt. Harmonia Mundi’s distributing this one stateside.

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December 7, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment