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CLASSICAL  April 2007

CLASSICAL April 2007

Subject:

Hope's Shostakovich

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 10 Apr 2007 07:03:34 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (170 lines)

Dmitri Shostakovich

*  Violin Concerto No. 1 in a, op. 77
*  Violin Concerto No. 2 in c#, op. 129
*  Romance from The Gadfly

Daniel Hope (violin);
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Maxim Shostakovich
Warner Classics 2564 62546-2 Total time: 77:33

Summary for the Busy Executive: Fire and ice.

I don't know how it is for real musicologists, but for me Shostakovich's
music breaks into four periods: the early work (Symphony No. 1, first
piano concerto); the modernist work of the Thirties (Lady Macbeth, the
Fifth Symphony); the music during World War II (Symphonies 6, 7, and 8);
the music beginning around the infamous 1948 Zhdanov decree in 1948,
which put the best Soviet composers on notice that Siberia and worse
were real possibilities.  One might argue a for a fifth phase (the last
symphony and string quartet, possibly the violin sonata).

The two violin concerti come from early in the fourth period.  The
composer wrote them both with David Oistrakh in mind.  Both sum up
the nightmare of the last century that continues to our own day.  I
begin to hear that strain as early as the Sixth Symphony, a view of the
world that goes beyond despair to pure acid and angry lament and where
Modernist exercises and literary horrors (as in Lady Macbeth) step aside
for everyday horrors.  Shostakovich had completed the first violin
concerto as his op. 77 in 1947 but felt that the political atmosphere
would not tolerate it.  He put it away and brought it back in 1955 as
op. 99, when it finally got published.  Even then, the Soviet regime
(and its attendant resources) were less than thrilled.  Essentially,
they did their best to ignore the work.  Oistrakh's enthusiasm for the
concerto, however, kept it alive.

In four movements, the concerto begins with a "Nocturne," a brooding
discourse on two major themes.  If night really inspired the composer,
it may have been one of those bitterly cold, eerily clear Russian nights.
The movement proceeds as a modified sonata, at least on paper, but
dramatically something else goes on.  The two themes gradually interpenetrate
and wind up as something new and more intense than either separately.
One also finds a curious little melodic turn that a few years later the
composer will tie to his iconic D-S-C-H (D - Eb - C - B) musical signature,
notably in the first cello concerto.  Indeed, I hear DSCH starting in
the second-movement scherzo, but it comes across as momentary rather
than as something of great rhetorical import.  The riff of the first
movement delivers the main matter here, and the movement spits like a
drop of water on a hot grill.  Neither of these movements are by any
measure routine.  The third movement, however -- a passacaglia, a
contrapuntal display over a repeating bass line -- lifts the concerto
even higher.  In fact, it may count as one of the finest symphonic
discourses in Shostakovich's output.  The composer, from early on, had
a fascination with older forms, like passacaglia and fugue.  In many
ways, he puts on a virtuoso compositional display.  The bass line is not
only unusually long, it's an odd seventeen bars.  He gradually moves the
bass line away from the lower instruments, and the theme makes its way
through various registers of the orchestra with increasing power, climaxing
in an overwhelming statement on the solo violin.  From there, it's as
if things have shattered.  The violin increasingly confines itself in
and around a single note -- an enervated echo, perhaps, of the "one-note"
theme of the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh.  However, he makes
you almost forget the formal aspects in favor of hard talk.  Different
listeners, of course, get different things from this music.  For me,
it's a lament -- Lear on the plain, railing against a horrible reality,
not mad, but clear-eyed and aghast at the desolation.  Shostakovich has
dug himself a deep hole.  How can he possibly follow this?  Yet, he does
indeed move to a finale, using the Beethoven-Brahms strategy of transition
and quasi-recitative.  This takes the form of a long violin cadenza,
which allows the listener to decompress.  The solo instrument, exhausted
by the passacaglia, begins with the "one note," the psychological ebb
of the concerto, and from there gathers steam.  Wisps of previous movements
are recalled, including the riff and even a very close relative of DSCH.
The rhythm becomes more and more insistent, until finally a rondo finale
erupts with a boom from the kettledrum.  It sounds like an update of the
finale to the Tchaikovsky concerto, with the same general dance rhythm
but with Shostakovich's acid harmonies and far more brutal outlook as
well.  Instead of Tchaikovsky's peasant joy, we get pure manic.  Toward
the end, the beginning of the passacaglia bass sounds almost subliminally
on the French horns.  The violin seems to notice this and throws it into
the glare of a frantic coda.

The second violin concerto comes from the stormy Sixties.  Symphony
No. 13 "Babi Yar" had already made a huge hit in the West, to the dismay
of Soviet officialdom, and indeed began to force a re-evaluation of
Shostakovich from party and musical hack to something like his current
status, at least in the West.  Ironically, young Russians now tend to
see him as the old time-server, toadying to Stalinists and post-Stalinists
alike.  Compared to the first, the second concerto concentrates more.
It is less public and more personal an utterance.  If anything, it's
even bleaker than the earlier work.  The orchestral sound is leaner, the
lines more sinewy.  Fewer instruments tend to play at any moment.  The
first of its three movements contrasts a darkly lyrical idea with a
ghostly little marche militaire.  The riff appears here, too, but more
as a generating principle, rather than as a full-fledged theme.  Shostakovich
seems to have absorbed it into his musical DNA.  As in the first concerto,
Shostakovich flirts with sonata form in his characteristic way: the two
moods often proceed simultaneously, with one or the other momentarily
gaining the upper hand.  The dark song comes back toward the end, and
we reasonably expect the movement to end with that.  But no, Shostakovich
brings back the little march, even more skeletally than before.  This
confounding of expectations characterizes the composer's late period.
If Shostakovich seemed emotionally elusive before (and the fights over
the "meaning" of his music bolster this idea), he becomes Sphinx-like
as he gets older, until we get something like the Symphony No. 15, which
tantalizes us with keys to the composer's entire musical corpus but hides
the locks.

The second movement has affinities with the first concerto's passacaglia.
It's not a passacaglia, but it does tend to repeat the same ideas with
little variation.  This builds intensity.  One hears two main themes,
of different shapes but the same in mood -- unrelieved melancholy.  The
movement ends in a kind of affectless funk.  As in the first concerto,
a brief transitional passage on the solo violin (considerably shorter
than its counterpart) leads us directly into the finale, another rondo.
For the first time in this concerto, we get genuinely fast music, though
hardly extrovert.  The folk element, relatively strong in the first
concerto, lies deep beneath the surface, if at all.  Shostakovich doesn't
even feign exuberance here, for the most part.  The music doesn't dance
so much as lacerate.  The scoring is as lean as rawhide.  About half-way
through, the violin takes its full cadenza, mainly a discussion of the
rondo but with ideas from the earlier movements occasionally peeking
out.  The orchestra re-enters, fuller this time, but keeping its leanness.
The big ending strikes me as ironically pro forma.

The disc ends with a Shostakovich lollipop: the romance from The Gadfly
concert suite, arranged by another hand from Shostakovich's film score.
The composer made money through his film work, and much of the music to
The Gadfly sounds like it.  The film itself is a silly romance-adventure
-- the Soviet equivalent to Rafael Sabatini's Scaramouche or Orczy's
Scarlet Pimpernel.  This is Shostakovich doing his best Tchaikovsky
impression, and it's pretty damn good.  When we compare it with the two
concerti, the cream toffee of it all jars.  Even one of the Satirical
Dances would have worked better.

Since their early obscurity, the violin concerti have become
often-played and often recorded.  You have your choice of violinists:
Chang, Hahn, Josefowicz, Kremer, Midori, Mordkovitch, Oliveira, Perlman,
Salerno-Sonnenberg (I've heard her live -- wonderful!  -- but not the
recording), Spivakov, Vengerov, among others.  The premiere violinist
-- in both senses of the phrase -- remains David Oistrakh.  The two
concerti's entrance into standard rep has, to a great extent, smoothed
out the rough edges, and for me rough edges make these concerti.  With
Oistrakh, one gets a sense of struggle with new, difficult music, as
well as an uncanny affinity for or familiarity with the composer's psychic
world.  Daniel Hope does, I believe, a smart thing by joining with Maxim
Shostakovich, the composer's son.  I had the pleasure of hearing the
younger Shostakovich on a regular basis.  For certain kinds of music --
and I include the music of his father -- he was damn good as well as
smart about what he programmed.  By his own admission, Hope learned
something.  However, structure is not the conductor's strong suit.  He
goes mainly for the gut, rather than for the head.  He does best in
things like the last three movements of the first concerto and the finale
to the second, and it's a very good best.

Yet the composer aims for both gut and head.  This becomes a problem in
the "Nocturne" of the first concerto, where the thread occasionally gets
fumbled.  It's also a problem in the second concerto, which has fewer
obvious jolts.  Where Oistrakh and Rozhdestvensky build spans of almost
unbearable tension, Hope and Shostakovich give us something far more
relaxed.  Hope, however, remains a fabulous violinist, but there are
other fabulous violinists out there.  Still, for the coupling and the
price, this disc remains in contention.

Steve Schwartz

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