SHOSTAKOVICH:  Symphony No. 11 in G Minor, Op. 103 "The Year 1905"
London Symphony Orch; Mstislav Rostropovich, cond.
LSO LIVE LSO 0030  (B) (DDD) TT:  72:24
 

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It amazes me how high Shostakovich's stock has risen in my lifetime. Forty years ago, most western critics viewed him as a talent sucked dry by the Soviets. Even during the Forties, a time of the composer's popular success and perhaps in reaction against it, Virgil Thomson slammed the Piano Quintet as a simulacrum of great music, aping the gestures but missing the substance. Following Bart—k's humorless lead, many writers and composers began busily hammering nails into the coffin of the Seventh. The Tenth represented a temporary spike in Shostakovich's reputation. Believe it or not, very few could get their minds around the fact that Shostakovich had indeed composed something so good. Most of them treated it as a fluke. In Robert Simpson's influential book The Symphony: Elgar to the Present Day, Robert Layton, in a burst of relative empathy, calls the Eleventh "a lowering of symphonic sights," compared to the Tenth and wonders whether the Thirteenth (unheard at this point in the west) will return to the level of the Tenth or continue the sad decline of the Eleventh and Twelfth ("the same revolutionaries making the same speeches"). More than a few compared the Eleventh to movie music, and they weren't handing out compliments.

Some of this devaluation one can trace to different ideas of what a symphony should do. Western European aesthetics from the Twenties through the postwar era has usually affirmed Stravinsky's stated position (actually, a crib of Arthur Lourie): music means nothing other than itself. The notion would have surprised Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler, and even Schoenberg. I wonder how much of this attitude, in the postwar years at any rate, comes down to a relatively secure political situation in the west. One might suffer existential Angst, but one wasn't thrown into jail or psychiatric ward for it. Sometimes you can afford pure aesthetics. Shostakovich wasn't really so lucky. The political mingled with the personal, especially since the Stalinist authorities enthusiastically screened his work for signs of political deviance. Yikes. If the threat of death or disappearance in a gulag happened to me, you can bet I'd take it personally. However, most now see that Shostakovich's symphonic works, no matter how evocative, don't describe. They undoubtedly contain programs, as a Mahler symphony does (Shostakovich learned a lot from Mahler), but most of them work fine as "absolute" music. Furthermore, it's often very difficult to decide what the program is. The Eleventh, of course, carries the subtitle "In the Year 1905," when Tsarist troops massacred a crowd of peaceful demonstrators. The symphony contains several Revolutionary songs of the time as well as Shostakovich's own settings of Revolutionary texts. Soviet officialdom took the symphony as praise. One can legitimately wonder, however, about Shostakovich's attitude. After all, the program in general talks of a government violently oppressing its citizens. Is Shostakovich calling for another revolution, this time against the Soviet tsars? Who knows? Opinions abound and controversies have sprung up, particularly since the publication of Volkov's Testimony. As far as I can tell, however, nobody's settled anything yet.

I know very little about Soviet history, but I've nevertheless always found Shostakovich's Eleventh a powerful, moving work. Indeed, it caused me to re-evaluate the composer's symphonies, which, like those of Brahms, used to lull me into a coma. I couldn't shake the sense of cheapness I got from the composer's music, that he settled for easy outs and easy ideas. I imagine Mahler's first audiences felt some of this toward those symphonies. At any rate, Shostakovich's Eleventh served to wake me up and to take a new listen. Perhaps it helped that the first performance I heard was Stokowski's with the Houston Symphony, a landmark not only in Stokowski's catalogue but also in the western appreciation of Shostakovich. Stokowski took to the Eleventh, so full of dramatic extremes (tempi, dynamics, and so on), like duck soup. People usually talk about Stokowski as a master of orchestral color -- which, of course, he was -- but that concern always related to the emotional content of the music. Even when Stokowski changed a composer's instrumentation (following the practice of many conductors of his and the previous generation, he at times silently substituted his own scoring -- in Beethoven symphonies and, most notoriously, in Stravinsky's Le Sacre, for example), he did so for reasons of achieving greater emotional impact. He viewed his efforts as helping the composer realize the music behind the notes. Critics viewed this as ego -- Stokowski had one -- but I tend to think of him as selfless, a servant of the composer, even when I strongly disagree with or even raise my eyebrows at what he's done. At any rate, Stokowski was very concerned about the color and dynamic range for recording sessions of his account of the Eleventh, even though he didn't alter Shostakovich's instruments. Indeed, it was that very scoring that aroused his special concern for the engineering. The pains he took justify themselves many times over in a recording that remains a sonic and interpretive benchmark for this piece (available on EMI 65206). One might prefer Mravinsky (the recording from the Sixties) or Jansons, for example, but I'd bet the Stokowski would be right behind.

As for Rostropovich, this is one of his best recordings (conductor or player) and right up there in exalted company. Compared to Stokowski, he's a bit restrained (this is a live recording, by the way), but the symphony can bear and can benefit from that kind of approach. The symphony consists of four large movements -- slow-fast-slow-fast -- the first two over twenty minutes apiece. The opening adagio, "Palace Square," supposedly depicts the petitioners waiting in the winter snow. As a piece of symphonic construction, this movement alone gives the lie to the portrait of Shostakovich as shoddy workman. I've always thought this movement one of Shostakovich's best. Among other things, it pulls off the feat of "waiting for something to happen" without the losing the listener's attention. Although in no classical form, it is, like Wagner's operas, genuinely symphonic and, what's more, coherently arches over a great expanse with just five little ideas: two revolutionary songs, an idea based on the melodic interval of a major second, some spectral fanfares, and finally a motto, first heard on the timpani, carried through the entire work. Even the songs get symphonic treatment. Shostakovich breaks these up into their smaller constituents and varies and recombines those. Furthermore, all these ideas carry over into other movements, where in new guises they carry new meanings. This is symphonic thinking of a very high order. As I say, I don't really need the image of the crowd standing silently in the square, despite its power, for the movement to do its emotional work on me. Shostakovich creates a psychic drama, independent of a particular program.

All the anticipation that the opening movement builds has to go somewhere. The allegro second movement, "9 January," follows without a break - a scurrying figure in the strings based on the motto. A new idea shows up (based on one of Shostakovich's Ten Choral Poems on Revolutionary Texts) for extended treatment. Unexpectedly, the opening of the entire symphony returns - calm before the storm - before a savage fugato based on the timpani motto theme breaks out. The theme is rather constricted in its range, and this emphasizes a kind of mindless fury in the music. The rhythms become mechanistic and brutal, heavy on the percussion. The fury dissipates, and the movement ends with the "Palace Square" music.

The third movement, a funereal "In memoriam" adagio, opens with incredibly soft, halting plucks on the lower strings which turn into something very much like a passacaglia ground. The musically interesting thing about it, however, is that the "melody" line above it isn't really a set of variations, but a long, tender melody -- yet another Revolution song. This transforms into a dead march, first for strings, then for low winds and brass. The music builds to an insistent climax, where the opening bass line comes to the fore. The opening passage returns, as (you would think) a kind of benediction, but then Shostakovich startles you with a call to arms, as the last movement ("Tocsin: Allegro non troppo") suddenly bursts in. To me, it's too hysterical and mechanistically rhythmic to be heroic, as the composer may have intended and certainly Party officials inferred. But this is a feature, not a bug. Its insistence on brass fanfares and the shape of its main theme remind me of the finale of Mahler's First. Shostakovich, in his last works, became self-revelatory. We now know that certain pieces, like the William Tell overture, were almost iconic for him. I think that Mahler movement may have been one of those icons. After all, the finale of Shostakovich's Fifth also evokes it. After the march has spent itself, the "Palace Square" music returns, accompanying a cor anglais singing one of the earlier Revolutionary songs. This leads to a trombone singing another, this time against angrily skirling winds and hammering percussion. Here we arrive at genuinely heroic music, but the symphony doesn't end on triumphant note - no great blazing major chord in the brass. It's loud, but it's bare and austere.

This progression strikes me as rather odd and unconventional. Something far more interesting and more genuine goes on here than "the heroic people's Socialist struggle for the proletariat continues." The interruption of the first march, for example, seems a lament not simply for the events of 1905, but for subsequent history, and the final passage a shaking of the fist at the current regime. Indeed, if I thought of a program at all for this symphony, it would be an anti-Soviet one. Fortunately, music's evocative power doesn't translate readily into portraiture and historical thesis. The rhetoric of the movement, however, surprises and runs deeper than what the opening leads you to expect.

Rostropovich does a fantastic job. He not only shows you the architecture of the symphony like nobody else's business, but he also delivers an emotional wallop. This is a subtle reading of a work which -- who knew? -- repays subtlety. Lines are shaped in amazing detail. The LSO matches him, responding beautifully and sensitively to the turns of phrase and argument. Rostropovich of course knew the composer -- which guarantees nothing, incidentally. However, this performance seems to invoke the figure of Shostakovich himself. And the account's wonderfully recorded, besides. The combination of sonics and interpretation move this CD, as far as I'm concerned, to the front of the line. It cuts in front of both Stokowski and Mravinsky.

S.G.S. (April 2003)