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Views And Reviews: Shostakovich - Symphony No.3

...My feeling is that Shostakovich deliberately sacrificed the relatively conventional form and much of the melodic invention of his First Symphony at the altar of colourful and rhythmic effect, so that he could concentrate on honing his argumentative techniques – and that’s why the Second and Third symphonies are generally regarded as the crucibles in which he forged his mature style. Once he’d cracked that, he would turn his attention – in no uncertain terms – to the question of symphonic architecture...

Paul Serotsky brings us a perceptive assessment of a performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 3.

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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 – 1975)

The Symphonies (Complete) –
Nos. 1, 2 “To October”, 3 “First of May”, 4, 5, 6, 7 “Leningrad”, 8, 9, 10, 11 “The Year 1905", 12 “The Year 1917" (“To the Memory of Lenin”), 13 “Babi Yar”, 14, 15.
WDR Symphony Orchestra/Rudolf Barshai, with WDR Chorus (Nos. 2, 3), Sergei Aleksashkin (bass, No. 13), Moscow Choral Academy (No. 13), Alla Simoni (sop., No. 14), Vladimir Vaneev (bass, No. 14)
Brilliant Classics 6324-1/11, Box of 11 CDs in individual cardboard sleeves, with booklet.
Recorded at Philharmonie, Koln, 10/94 (Nos. 1, 3), 1/95 (No. 2), 4/96 and 10/96 (No. 4), 7/95 and 4/96 (No. 5), 10/95 (No. 6), 9/92 (No. 7), 3/94 and 10/95 (No. 8), 7/95, 9/95 and 4/96 (No. 9), 10/96 (No. 10), 5/99 (No. 11), 9/95 (No. 12), 9/00 (No. 13), Sometime in 1999/2000 (No. 14), 6/98 (No. 15)
[670 mins.]

Symphony No. 3 op. 20 “First of May” (1929)

Having its origins in pre-Christian fertility rites, the traditional May Day festival celebrates the coming of spring-time with garlanded processions and maypole dancing. Or at least it does where it survives – I often wonder why in this day and age we forego the simple rustic pleasures of innocent little fertility rites. It’s likely that the festival’s association with “rebirth” or “renewal” influenced the 1889 International Socialist Congress in its designation of May Day as an international labour day, which in its turn was adopted by the Soviets to celebrate their victory over the Tsarist regime. Looked at this way, the seemingly obscure connection between floral frolics on the village green and parades of military might in Red Square becomes crystal clear, doesn’t it?

Shostakovich cheerfully opted for the same “one continuous movement with choral ending” format as he had for the Second, but adopting otherwise (as you might expect) a lighter, more festive overall tone. Doughty points out that “again there is little attempt at true symphonic form”, whatever “true” might mean in relation to such an all-embracing, infinitely flexible musical model as the Symphony. My feeling is that Shostakovich deliberately sacrificed the relatively conventional form and much of the melodic invention of his First Symphony at the altar of colourful and rhythmic effect, so that he could concentrate on honing his argumentative techniques – and that’s why the Second and Third symphonies are generally regarded as the crucibles in which he forged his mature style. Once he’d cracked that, he would turn his attention – in no uncertain terms – to the question of symphonic architecture.

Performance-wise, it’s much the same tale as before: right at the outset, the pastoral tone – presumably representing workers peacefully working – is finely spun (those luscious clarinets again!), and the ensuing balalaika-like thrumming of strings – presumably representing workers downing hammers and sickles for the festivities – sounds as fresh as new paint. The ensuing whirl of merriment seems to go on for fun-filled ages, and to my ears Barshai never puts a foot wrong, even by the merest whisker. The playing of the WDRSO is vivid and alive in every bar, trumpets and horns in particular having a whale of a time. Towards the end of this allegro, there’s a comical passage for woodwind (shades of the composer’s contemporary The Age of Gold) which is deliciously done.

The allegro struts off into the distance, leaving behind what I imagine as nocturnal, vodka-induced hallucination: eerily groping high strings are punctuated by ’ecky thumps from drums and brass, and ghostly dancing veers from weird to wonderful by way of whacky – and that’s exactly how it’s played! Come the “dawn”, and the shenanigans resumes, this time firmly in “Keystone Kops” territory with Barshai deftly choreographing the orchestra’s frenetic antics. Artfully vaulting from Shostakovich’s “chase” to “riding” mode, the conductor displays an almost equestrian proficiency, steering his surging stallion with a nudge of the heels here and a tug on the reins there. A big, bold climax triggers a drum roll over which jut jagged unison phrases (the birth of another Shostakovich trademark?). Shuddering basses, miry tuba, sonorous tam-tam, slithering strings conspire to lecture us on the bad old days – the cue for the chorus to make resonant pronouncements about “hoisting flags in the sun”, and marching sturdily into a (sadly) fairly commonplace conclusion.

Good music, or bad music? Maybe here that’s not the question. Good performance or bad? Ah, that is the question! This orchestra may not have been born to play Shostakovich, but by golly it sounds like it. That is I suspect all due to Mr. Barshai, who leaves no stop un-pulled.

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