‘It would be difficult to think of an ensemble better suited to Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony.’ The Times
‘The quality of the string playing throughout is outstanding: admirably expressive, fearlessly virtuosic and surprisingly full-toned.’ The Strad
‘The Piano Concerto, too, is full of detail and deftness. The trumpet obbligato is rattled off with dry wit by John Wallace.’ Daily Telegraph
This is the premiere recording of a transcription by Rudolf Barshai of the composer’s monument to ‘the victims of fascism and war’.
The Chamber Symphony is a gripping portrayal of the brutality of conflict. Its jagged, dynamic rhythms in the central sections are contrasted by elegiac outer movements that never fail to move the listener.
In contrast the Piano Concerto is one of the most exuberant examples of Shostakovich’s wonderfully subversive sense of humour.
Sophia Rahman and John Wallace are the highly accomplished soloists who excel in this repertoire.
The programme concludes with the rarely heard Two pieces for string octet which includes the feverishly brilliant Scherzo.
In September 1960, the 54-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich sprang one of the biggest
surprises of his career: he applied to join the Communist Party. The decision shocked
and mystified many of his colleagues. Why, after holding out for so long, should
he suddenly throw in the towel now? Through all the terrible years of the Stalin
dictatorship he had held onto the last shred of independence. But in 1960 Stalin was
long dead: his ‘mistakes’ were – up to a point – openly discussed. The regime of the
new Chairman, Nikita Khrushchev, was less oppressive. A strange time to cave in.
But the pressures on Shostakovich were immense. Khrushchev was anxious to
gain support from leading members of the Soviet intelligentsia. It would have been
a major coup for him to persuade an artist of the stature of Shostakovich to join the
Party – a public endorsement of his policies and achievements that would impress
the world. One can imagine how hard the screw must have been turned. Eventually
Shostakovich consented, but privately the decision cost him dearly. And it may well
be that the Eighth Quartet (the ‘original’ of the Chamber Symphony recorded here)
contains a musical testimony to his inner struggles at that time.
Shostakovich wrote the Eighth Quartet during a visit to East Germany in July
1960. When it first appeared there was talk of a programme: the Quartet had been
inspired by the composer’s feelings of horror at the scale of the wartime destruction
in Dresden. It was (we were told), dedicated to the victims of war and fascism –
hence the quotation of the ‘Jewish’ theme from Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio
in the Quartet’s turbulent second movement. The eerie long-held pianissimo violin
note at the beginning of the fourth movement was compared to the distant drone
of a bomber aircraft. Certainly there was no mistaking the tone of personal grief in
the final ‘Largo’. A few questions remained: for example, why were there so many
quotations from Shostakovich’s own works? And what was the significance of the
four-note motif, D, E flat, C, B (in German notation D, Ess, C, H – ie Shostakovich’s
own initials) which haunted all five movements? Still, for a while, the ‘war and fascism’
Then in 1979, four years after the composer’s death, came another shock – the
publication, in the West, of what purported to be Shostakovich’s memoirs, Testimony
(as dedicated to and edited by his friend Solomon Volkov). Tone and content were
revelatory: bitter and tormented, this Shostakovich was at pains to distance his major
works from the official, Soviet interpretations that had clung to them, in some cases
for decades. The remarks on the Eighth Quartet, though brief, were telling. ‘When
I wrote the Eighth Quartet, it was also assigned to the department of “exposing
fascism”. You have to be blind to do that, because everything in the quartet is as clear
as a primer. I quote (the opera) Lady Macbeth, the First and Fifth Symphonies. What
does fascism have to do with these? The Eighth is an autobiographical quartet, it
quotes a song known to all Russians: “Exhausted by the hardships of prison”.’
Eventually confirmation came from other sources. In a letter to his friend Isaak
Glickman, Shostakovich wrote that, ‘When I die, it’s hardly likely that someone will
write a quartet dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write it myself. One could
almost write on the frontispiece, “Dedicated to the author of this quartet”.’ Another
friend , Lev Lebedinsky, remembered what Shostakovich told him when the composer
played him the Eighth Quartet just after his return from Dresden. The dedication to
the victims of fascism was, said Lebedinsky, a ‘disguise...although, as he considered
himself the victim of a fascist regime, the dedication was apt. In fact...it was his
farewell to life. He associated joining the Party with a moral, as well as a physical
death.’ As soon as he returned from Dresden, Lebedinsky tells us, Shostakovich
bought a large number of sleeping pills. ‘He played the Eighth Quartet to me on the
piano and told me with tears in his eyes that it was his last work.’ Lebedinsky managed
to steal the pills and alerted the composer’s son. Maxim. ‘During the next few days
I spent as much time as possible with Shostakovich until I felt the danger of suicide
It all rings horribly true. There is nothing like the thought of imminent death to
make a man look back over his life’s achievements – like Bruckner in the ‘Farewell
to Life’ slow movement of his Ninth Symphony or W.B. Yeats in his death-obsessed
poem The Man and the Echo. Nor can there be any mistaking the tone of private grief
that saturates the Eighth Quartet, or the aching nostalgia when the fourth movement
quotes the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (high cello). The D.S.C.H. motif is at last left
to brood alone.
The contrast between the Eighth Quartet and the Concerto for piano, trumpet
and strings (also known as ‘Piano Concerto No. 1’) could hardly be more extreme.
Glickman remembered the premiere, in 1933, as a ‘joyful occasion’ – at which the
composer himself, at the piano, played ‘exquisitely’. The Concerto is one of the most
exuberant examples of Shostakovich’s wonderfully subversive sense of humour – an
ability to, as nit were, pull the rug out from under the listener’s feet which, amazingly,
never quite left him. It still sparkles amid prevailing darkness in his last symphony,
No. 15 (1971), and there is even a ghostly flicker in the elegiac closing pages of his final
work, the Viola Sonata (1975).
There is no mistaking the insolent, nose-thumbing tone of the Concerto’s
opening gesture (piano and trumpet), and the seemingly solemn tone of the piano’s
first theme is far from convincing. By the time the trumpet enters again, all pretence
of earnestness has been thrown out of the window. The following ‘Lento’ affects
a wistful tone at first (strings), but this too is gently deflated by the piano. After a
short ‘Moderato’ introduction (semi-serious again), havoc breaks loose in the finale –
virtuoso grotesque humour abounds, right through to the trumpet’s brainless fanfares
at the end. The unrelieved tragedy of the Eighth Quartet seems impossibly remote –
though some listeners may detect a nervousness behind the finale’s manic capering.
Just how ‘joyous’ is this music?
The Two pieces For string octet (1924-5), subtitled ‘Prelude’ and ‘Scherzo’, were
written while Shostakovich was still a student at the Leningrad Conservatory – at
about the same time as the composer was working on his astonishingly precocious
First Symphony. At the time, Shostakovich told a friend that the Two pieces, and
particularly the ‘Scherzo’, were a sign that he was ‘becoming more of a modernist’ – a
remark which may have been intended to be taken with a grain or two of salt. They
certainly show that he was becoming much more confident, and in the feverishly
brilliant ‘Scherzo’ one may hear the pre-echoes of greater things to come – including,
the ‘Allegro molto’ second movement of the Eighth Quartet.
© Stephen Johnson
Recorded at City Halls, Glasgow, UK on 4 5 March 1998
Recorded by Philip Hobbs
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