Classical Music for All is the musical blog of the Pianist Boris Giltburg. For more articles see here.
In late June 1960 Dmitry Shostakovich travelled from Moscow to Leningrad, where he met with his close friend and confidant, Isaak Glikman. The composer seemed to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown--he was hysterical and was weeping loudly; Glikman recalled never to have seen Shostakovich in a similar state before. After calming down, Shostakovich told Glikman of the cause: he had agreed, in a moment of weakness and under some pressure, to join the Communist Party.
Shostakovich apparently perceived it as a devastating personal and moral defeat--this was the same party which had mounted the vicious attacks on him in 1936 and 1948. Such attacks could have led (and in numerous other cases did lead) to arrest, exile or even death. Shostakovich ‘only’ lost his job and had most of his works blacklisted; as was customary, he became subject to widespread persecution by peers and media, to say nothing of the ever-present threat of worse repercussions against him and his close ones. This was the party under which millions were made to disappear, which in Shostakovich’s eyes was an embodiment of violence, and which Shostakovich had previously sworn never to join.
His ‘escape’ to Leningrad was an attempt to foil the planned pompous ceremony at the Union of Composers--but it proved just a temporary reprieve: the meeting was rescheduled, and Shostakovich announced his decision in a prepared speech, "like a parrot". Shortly afterwards he travelled to Dresden, sent there to compose a score for a propaganda film in collaboration with East Germany. In a letter to Glikman he wryly wrote that the beautiful surroundings did nothing to help fulfil the commission, and instead Shostakovich had composed an "ideologically faulty quartet, needed by no-one". This was his String Quartet No. 8, a tragic autobiographical work, very likely triggered by Shostakovich’s recent ordeal.
It is a compact and taut five-movement work of exceptional emotional and psychological power, even by Shostakovich’s standards. Unapologetically dark and intense, it’s almost monochromatic in mood--though within that darkness the music ranges from pathos and real pain to sarcasm, fright, and crushing aggression. A slow first movement acts as an introduction, leading directly into two scherzo movements: one relentless and percussive, a musical embodiment of a destructive force, full of blind hate; the other a caustic, biting waltz enclosing an eerie, plaintive middle section. The fourth movement features repeated groups of three harsh chords--resembling heavy knocks on the door, a much dreaded sound. A single quiet note is sustained between the chords; to me it seems like a lone soul holding out bravely against the calamities, only to falter and stop at the end (4:09). The closing movement is a prolonged fugato on the main motif, and the quartet ends with a repeat of the opening section, pale and subdued, finally fading into nothing.
"It occurred to me that if I ever die, it is unlikely that someone would write a composition dedicated to my memory," Shostakovich wrote to Glikman. "Therefore I decided to compose one myself. One could write just that on the cover: ‘Dedicated to the memory of the author of this quartet.’" Even without his letter, the autobiographical nature of the quartet is apparent in the music. The four-note motif which opens the quartet and which later recurs over a hundred (!) times is Shostakovich’s musical signature: his initials in German notation--D.S.C.H (D–E flat–C–B). In addition, he quotes extensively from his own compositions: the Totentanz melody from the last movement of his Piano Trio No. 2 (appearing in the wild Danse macabre section in the middle and at the end of the second movement), the opening of the First Cello Concerto, the First and Fifth Symphonies, as well as a prolonged quotation from his last opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the very work which brought on the first attack by the regime, in 1936.
He chose to quote the purest and most lyrical moment of the entire opera: the protagonist’s joy at seeing her lover after a hard day of marching to exile in Siberia, unaware yet that his feelings towards her had cooled down and that he was already courting another. In the large quartet, as in the opera, this section appears as a soft ray of light (3:19)--unexpected, beyond hope, and all too brief, making the returning darkness seem even more oppressive. It follows yet another quotation, this time from a Russian revolutionary song Tormented by heavy captivity (1:58), all too easily applicable to Shostakovich himself…
The Second Piano Concerto, written in 1957 as a birthday present for Shostakovich’s son, Maxim, is worlds apart. A good-natured, slightly humorous introduction played by the woodwinds ushers in a similarly light-spirited melody in the piano. A march-like connecting section follows (0:38); Shostakovich liked this bugle-call motif, and used it often in various guises and moods--not least in the First Piano Concerto. The second theme is more lyrical, though one still feels the energy in the orchestral accompaniment--quiet but very active (1:21).
Things seem to quieten down towards the end of this section, when--BOOM!--the orchestra barges in with a sharp loud chord, and we are thrust into the thick of action, with some enemy marching upon us (2:29). The opening melody is now played by shrieking woodwinds, while the piano hammers out a double-octave passage. A series of variations follows, gradually building up towards a huge climax, which is a return of the second, lyrical theme, this time played with full force by the entire orchestra (4:47)--a radiant sonority, in which the piano must content itself with a secondary role at best; it is simply swallowed by the massive body of orchestral sound. A short cadenza, written mostly as a two-voice invention, leads to a repeat of the main theme (6:09), this time with roles reversed, the woodwinds carrying the tune and the piano accompanying. And finally a coda, based on the orchestral introduction to the movement: happy and energetic, it is as positive an ending as would come out of Shostakovich’s pen.
The second movement to me is a rare instance of Shostakovich without a mask. There is genuine sadness in the long opening, which is lightened somewhat by the gentle tenderness of the piano’s melody (1:30). Both sections are repeated, though the second appearance of the piano’s melody is in a minor key instead of a major (4:42)--a heartbreaking moment, as if the small ray of hope we were given earlier could not hold out. The movement entrenches itself deeper and deeper in the minor key (5:45), and at the very end the piano line slowly climbs up over a sustained C minor chord in the orchestra, reaching a high C and repeating it multiple times, with the sound receding away.
The third movement dispels the mood almost at once, as, rather than stop fully, those repeated C notes come back to life, gain speed, and segue into a light, utterly carefree tune, accompanied first by bouncy woodwinds, later by the strings. A second theme in quirky 7/8 metre follows, boisterous and just as bouncy (0:59), and then a third--a deadpan parody of the endless Hanon exercises Maxim had to play as a child (1:45)--(a place more tricky than its description sounds; large stamina reserves are called upon!). A little shadow is cast over the proceedings in the development, when the theme is transposed to the lower reaches of the piano, and the horns answer darkly (2:09)--but as opposed to the first movement, here it only remains a distant threat, never materialising. The reprise uses the unexpected device of augmentation: the full melody of the opening is played twice as slowly (3:35), leading to some unexpected pomposity later on (3:49). Both the 7/8 theme and the Hanon exercises are repeated, the latter climbing to the edge of the keyboard, and thus leading the concerto--one of the most fun to perform of the entire piano repertoire--to a genuinely joyful close.
Shostakovich was demonstrably attracted to the waltz; on this recording alone there are three examples of the dance--the third movement of the Eighth String Quartet (dry, fast and sarcastic), the second movement of the First Piano Concerto (slow, frozen, very severe), and a standalone waltz, which forms the third movement of his String Quartet No. 2, written in the summer of 1944. A deep-flat key, a hushed tone, a fast tempo--this waltz would almost seem a faded memory, if not for the nervous agitation underneath the surface.
There’s an eerie elegance pervading the music, and the first pages maintain a noble disposition, full of subdued passion, which makes the middle section even more of a shock. Seemingly out of nowhere, the elegance becomes bitingly grotesque, the measured swirls of the triple metre turn into frantic activity, the passion into hysteria (2:21). This mood continues for a long while, winding itself up more and more, until a climax (3:37) brings back the opening theme, now heavy and lumbering.
The hushed sound reinstates itself fairly quickly and the reprise repeats all the sections of the beginning, with the second theme appearing in a major key (4:17)--a short-lived respite. A beautiful moment of hope appears before the coda (5:08), again, only to peter out and dissolve into a last appearance of the main theme, with repeated E flats high above, like ghostly chimes. Almost as an afterthought, a new, sinuous line appears below, supported by short chords (5:28), and the two, like a fade-out effect, dance the waltz to its conclusion.
Nearly thirty years separate the first and last works on this recording. The First Piano Concerto was completed in 1933, shortly before the sustained national and international success of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk brought him widespread recognition and admiration from audience and critics alike. In his letters from that period there is no premonition of the dark days that were to follow due to the regime’s (or, quite likely, Stalin’s own) displeasure with his music. We find him jaunty, cocky, even slightly arrogant.
The concerto, stemming from the same mood, is a masterful example of eclecticism--with the self-assuredness of success and youth (though also of experience), Shostakovich effortlessly draws from numerous sources of inspiration, yet manages to combine them into a fully coherent whole which is still distinctively his own in style.
When asked what the music was about, Shostakovich flatly refused to answer, saying "I cannot describe the content of my concerto with any means other than those with which the concerto is written." Possibly this was a stance he assumed for an interview, but there is a truth to this--simply enumerating the many elements that make up each movement would fail to convey the feeling of that movement as a whole. As he would later do with the Eighth Quartet, he quotes extensively from other works, both his own and of others, including Beethoven’s Appassionata and Rage over a lost penny, a Haydn sonata, and at least three folk tunes (the trumpet solo in the fourth movement begins to the notes of Poor Jenny is a-weeping, which the piano rudely interrupts with a loud bang (3:13)).
The trumpet’s role is fascinating. Shostakovich originally wanted to compose a trumpet concerto, later changed it into a double concerto (trumpet and piano) and finally brought it to its present balance of power. In the outer movements, where the mood, and indeed the musical content, changes every few bars, the trumpet is irreverent, intervening, interrupting, happily snatching the line out of the pianist’s hands--a general mischief-maker. In the second movement, the slow, frozen waltz mentioned above, it plays a long, mournful solo, its muted sound haunting (4:47). As with the multiplicity of sources, Shostakovich handles his unusual instrumental forces with utter conviction--in his hands it seems to be the most natural combination imaginable.
Writing before the premiere to his closest friend, the polymath Ivan Sollertinsky, Shostakovich expressed the hope that the conductor, Fritz Stiedry, should like the concerto and accompany Shostakovich "if not with pleasure, then at least without disgust". Even tongue-in-cheek as this was written, he needn’t have worried--the premiere was a great success, and the concerto has been a favourite of audiences and performers ever since. With its inscrutable coexistence of humour and deadly seriousness, with its brilliant virtuoso writing, with its inspired richness of material all bundled in a compact form, with its overwhelming immediacy of effect, I’d wager it will stay a favourite for as long as piano concerti continue to be played.
To finish, a short note on the two arrangements: Shostakovich is a composer I couldn’t live without. I am addicted to the raw, visceral power of his music, to his intuitive ability to distil into music the most basic, even primitive human emotions--fear, anger, lust, hate, but also love and hope for happiness--and hurl them at the listener with such force that one’s being reverberates in shock.
As pianists we are left with a body of very powerful chamber music from Shostakovich, as well as two marvellous concerti; however, he hasn’t left us a large-scale solo work that could approach the depth and emotional impact of his string quartets or symphonies. It was a strong need to gain access to that kind of Shostakovich which led me to attempt these arrangements. I was tremendously grateful to receive the permission of the Shostakovich family--to be able to experience firsthand some of the most powerful Shostakovich there is, is a true privilege.
Diapason d'Or - Diapason, February 2017
Concerto Choice - BBC music magazine, February 2017
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