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Views And Reviews: Dmitri Shostakovich - Symphony No.11

...The thing is that, as an uncultured yob (relatively speaking), I’m very well placed to be moved – or even shaken to the core of my being – by this music, which is one reason why I do so love this symphony (the cultured will, if they read on, be similarly appalled at my attitude to the even more maligned Twelfth). Mind you, one of my assessment criteria for music is that if, as I strive to “understand” a piece of music better, the music gets even more impressive, then it is “good” music. Shostakovich’s Eleventh passes this test with flying colours, so for me it’s “great music”, end of argument! A measure of my affection is that I nearly wore out my LPs of the recording made by Berglund with the Bournemouth SO, which orchestra Barshai has also conducted. Fearing that my stylus might start to slice right through the vinyl, I replaced the LPs with the CD remastering of the same recording...

Paul Serotsky expresses his enthusiasm for Shostakovich's much-maligned Eleventh Symphony.

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. 11 “The Year 1905" op. 103 (1957)

Following Stalin’s untimely death (about twenty years too late), things did get better, though nothing so radical as a return to the heady days of the 1920s. People still had to mind their political Ps and Qs, and stepping out of line still carried severe consequences. Shostakovich turned to the string quartet, finding in this less public medium a safer means of having his say. Then on the horizon loomed 1957, the year of the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution. The State expected great things of its great artists: a major symphony was required of Shostakovich, affording him yet another opportunity to demonstrate his unshakeable faith in the Soviet. After all, since the Second Symphony (marking the tenth anniversary – the “twentieth” on page 21 of the booklet is a misprint!) his track record had fallen somewhat short of his imposed performance management objectives.

The ever-helpful Soviet authorities provided Shostakovich with the ideal incentive – in 1956 they had responded to Hungary’s bid for independence with battalions of tanks and a hail of bullets. Shostakovich responded obligingly with a symphony of epic proportions, cast in his Whit Sunday-Best Propaganda Poster mode, and dutifully casting aside those disgraceful formalist tendencies which had so marred his previous three essays in the genre. You must surely have recognised the overtones of sarcasm in my words – I said all the right things, but it was clear that I meant entirely the opposite. In essence, this was what Shostakovich was doing in his music. Considering that in all probability my sarcasm will be transparent to everyone, it just brings it home how risky Shostakovich’s subversive strategy must have been.

The Eleventh Symphony bore the title The Year 1905, pointedly not the year of the glorious victory of the Soviet, but the year in which a peaceful demonstration, by people who trusted their Csar to give them a fair hearing, was dispersed with shocking brutality. In penning this title, and going on to entitle the individual movements Palace Square, The Ninth of January, Eternal Memory, and The Tocsin, Shostakovich had already done plenty to draw the parallel between that year of “abortive revolution” and the one that had just occurred in Hungary. This is why Maxim, the composer’s son, asked him, “Father, what if they hang you for this?” I think that, had Shostakovich pressed his point any harder, say by sneaking in any quotes of Hungarian songs or even the merest whiff of a Hungarian folk-rhythm, he surely would have been hanged for it.

Over the years, the poor old Eleventh has been slated from all sides: a backward step from its much more “organic” predecessors, a brash, poster-painted piece of “cinematography”, over-dependent on non-original materials (it makes use of no fewer than nine, mainly revolutionary songs), blatant agitprop, and in short unworthy of a composer of his standing. Not a proper symphony at all, don’t you know? Very similar brickbats have been brought down on the head of Malcolm Arnold, albeit for very different “reasons”. Arnold’s Fourth Symphony has been called the “most banal symphony ever written”, largely on account of its containing “inappropriate themes” of a particularly common and vulgar sort. My riposte is to ask, “Are you confusing music that actually is tasteless, trivial, banal, or vulgar, with music which uses materials which are tasteless, trivial, banal, or vulgar?” Arnold and Shostakovich are both symphonists of the first rank, which to my mind is borne out not by their chosen materials but by the use to which those materials are put. Interestingly, both were exceptional composers of film music, and were therefore both well aware of both the techniques of musical drama and the expressive potential of “popular” materials, whether “borrowed” or “original in the style of X”. So, if Shostakovich stuffs a symphony full of themes drawn from popular culture, it’s odds on that he does so for very good reasons, and the experts would be well advised to concentrate on these rather than wittering on about “bad taste”. There – that’s me bound for the Bloody Tower (the one in the bowels of Broadcasting House)! In mitigation, I would say that Shostakovich uses his revolutionary song themes to telling effect both dramatically in their non-musical associations and symphonically in the intricate way he integrates and develops them.

The thing is that, as an uncultured yob (relatively speaking), I’m very well placed to be moved – or even shaken to the core of my being – by this music, which is one reason why I do so love this symphony (the cultured will, if they read on, be similarly appalled at my attitude to the even more maligned Twelfth). Mind you, one of my assessment criteria for music is that if, as I strive to “understand” a piece of music better, the music gets even more impressive, then it is “good” music. Shostakovich’s Eleventh passes this test with flying colours, so for me it’s “great music”, end of argument! A measure of my affection is that I nearly wore out my LPs of the recording made by Berglund with the Bournemouth SO, which orchestra Barshai has also conducted. Fearing that my stylus might start to slice right through the vinyl, I replaced the LPs with the CD remastering of the same recording.

They say that there are better performances on record, but none that I’ve heard convinced me of the need to change horses. The performance of the WDRSO and Barshai runs it as close as any, with only one minor reservation raising its ugly head. The recording is of more concern: the dynamic range seems as tight as a whale-bone corset. Having learnt the hard way from Berglund, and therefore anticipating possible structural damage to my ears, I had set the volume so that the freezing fog of the opening bars floated forth as the merest whisper, only to find that subsequent fortissimi hardly had the strength to dribble out of my loudspeaker cones! If I adjusted the volume to get those about right, the eerie near-silences took on seemingly stentorian proportions. Using the level meters on my MD recorder, I did some quick comparisons. The overall dynamic range is no more than 40 dB. (which is a hell of a lot less than even an LP can manage!). Relative to maximum modulation of 0 dB, the strings at the very start peaked at about -30, but the subsequent recurrences of this sound didn’t get past -35. Solo instruments, including harp (low notes) and celesta, playing above this texture frequently hit -25, leaving headroom between pretty quiet solos and con tutti ghettoblastimento of only 25 dB. This all seems to point not at some foible of the conductor, but firstly at the general level initially being set too high then pulled back as the music progresses, and secondly at the even higher initial levels on soloists’ “spot” mics. not being granted the same consideration. Needless to say, it could have been compensated at least to some degree during editing – then again maybe it was, but not by enough.

Although this is damaging to the impact of the music, it is not altogether disastrous, provided that you crank up the volume by about 6 to 10 dB at the start of the second movement! Making allowances for the spurious levels, the playing itself is vividly atmospheric. The first movement is a quarter of an hour of almost incessant, sparsely-populated “pregnant pause” – and any conductor who messes it about will inevitably come a cropper. Barshai’s control pays real dividends, not only in the measured, almost relentless pace (or lack of pace) but also in the care taken over the all-important “chording” of the string textures. On the melodic front, Barshai equally draws finely the distinctions between the prickly clawing of the anxious, animated passages and the innocence of the trusting people suggested by the sweeter outlines of the quoted songs. In and amongst, the ominous fanfare figures (that suggest the military hidden and waiting in the wings) are chillingly intoned by the WDRSO brass and horns. A couple of the cruel, and cruelly exposed, solo top notes succeed only by the skin of their teeth, but this (happily) seems to add to the icy tension. The tympanist deserves a special mention: hovering throughout the movement like some attendant Angel of Death, his (or her) repeated intonations of a figure which will become a crucial generating motive have a dull “plopping” tone that is absolutely spot on.

Although the four movements are distinct, Shostakovich designed them to run continuously. Thus, the dark stirrings at the start of the second movement steal out of the frozen embers of the end of the first. That “generator” is already busy generating, working up a polyphonic panic mingled with the “military threat” motive and the theme of a song (Oh Thou, our Tsar). Barshai builds the tension unerringly, moving from vague unease to brutalised panic as effectively as Berglund. In the ensuing unquiet, the milling themes are joined by the first intimations of Bare Your Heads (on this Sorrowful Day). The crowd’s growing awareness of the imminent threat crystallises in the increased ardour of their pleading, the greater savagery of the climax, and the even more stunned subsequent “unquiet”, rendering the emaciated sound of the WDRSO woodwind, as they intone the symphony’s glacial opening motive somewhat like a Russian Orthodox chant, all the more horribly enervating. The brazen “military threat” resounds alone, and the hush is shattered by a superbly startling snare-drum rattle, dry as dust. The “generator” now generates a rough-shod fugato, hacked out venomously by the WDRSO strings. Apart from the upward trombone glissandi, which are too clipped to make their full, flesh-crawlingly slimy impact, this entire “massacre” episode is brilliantly brought off, as is (the reservations regarding the dynamics apart) the nerve-jangling aftermath. In the warmth of the flute, reprising the first movement’s Listen (“. . . like the conscience of a tyrant, the autumn night is black”), there is a stark contrast with the surrounding ice and corpses.

The third movement is a comparatively “straightforward” requiem in a “simple” ABA form. Over pizzicato basses picking at the bones of the fallen, the WDRSO cellos gently and with solemn simplicity intone You Fell as Victims. This tune, which Barshai does not let sag in spite of the tempting adagio marking, is played right through before other strings begin to harmonise in condolence. For Shostakovich (or anybody else, for that matter) this is a pretty blatant quote, and what’s more it’s a tune that was used at Lenin’s funeral. The brief development of the theme is equally restrained, but not so the ensuing Welcome the Free Word of Liberty (which was foreshadowed on brass in the “massacre” episode). This is pronounced by leaden, gloomy horns over a glutinous funereal rhythm on bass winds (ten out of ten especially for the oily bass clarinet!), in entire – and I’m sure entirely deliberate – contradiction of its implied words. I do get the definite impression that Shostakovich is trying to tell us something. As the violins take up the line, Shostakovich proceeds to draw out the melody into a throbbing threnody of jaw-dropping fervour. This extended build-up is powerfully wrought by Barshai, but the impact of the volcanic climax, capped by two statements of Bare Your Heads growled awesomely by massed brass, is undermined by some slight uncertainty in the percussion. This is one place where Berglund triumphs, the Bournemouth bass-drummer putting some real whiplash into his crescendi. Nevertheless, it’s still exciting, as is the subsequent, almost inarticulate groping for the solace of You Fell as Victims. It falls, as so often, to that sorrowing WDRSO first bassoon to find the road to a brief moment of private sorrow.

The opening of the finale, ostensibly representing the stirrings of revolution in the aftermath of the massacre but ending in a huge and notably less than optimistic question mark, is discreetly marked allegro non troppo – allegro. Both Berglund and Barshai end up going at the same speed, but while Berglund sets off briskly then winds up the tempo slightly over several bars, Barshai sets a more dogged initial pace then suddenly takes off like a greyhound. That abrupt acceleration sounds disconcerting. Berglund makes more sense musically, but I have a feeling that Barshai may be the more correct, particularly in view of the identity of the opening theme (Rage, You Tyrants!) and the strong smell of the Tenth Symphony’s “Stalin” movement in the shrieking woodwind just after “take-off”. This first of three sections is the only part of the entire symphony to carry any note of optimism. Rage, You Tyrants! and Bare Your Heads are interwoven with several other tunes – Boldly Friends, On We March (a revolutionary song), Warsaw March (a revolutionary song, originally Polish), and a theme from a musical comedy about peasant life in Tsarist Russia by Shostakovich’s one-time pupil Sviridov. Shostakovich’s tapestry is a complex tour de force of hectic activity. In all this mayhem, the only thing that matters is that the players give it all they’ve got, which they do, and to a large extent hang the accuracy (the occasional blooper, and there are some, only adds to the mayhem!).

It comes crashing to a halt in one of Shostakovich’s trademark massed unisons, on the theme O Thou, Our Tsar which is hurled like an angry accusation (though at which “Tsar”, do you think?). This in turn is silenced by the tamtam (and what a terrific tamtam this orchestra has), leaving us confronted by the frozen image of Palace Square for one final time. “Baring his Head”, the WDRSO’s cor anglais excels, voicing the composer’s secret thoughts with sorrowing tenderness. Significantly, the coda commences on the second movement’s “people’s panic” theme, a whirling woodwind miasma out of which Bare Your heads emerges. They combine into a wild build-up to one of the most astonishing conclusions in the entire symphonic repertoire, the whole orchestra balefully thundering along like some juggernaut! Berglund, after getting so much right, saves his Big Blooper for here of all places: right in the middle of this enraged pageant he lets the tempo drop – only a nadge, but a crucially damaging nadge. Not so Barshai. He lacks the sheer weight of Berglund, but his juggernaut is relentless and his WDRSO bells really clang out in brazen alarm. You can’t miss the “Angel of Death” motive, the last note of which hangs in the air for seconds after the clamour has crashed to its conclusion.

The shortcomings of this CD are few and mostly minor (although it is a real pity about that dynamic range!), whilst Barshai’s clear-sighted reading ensures that all the composer’s questions are asked. Shostakovich’s Eleventh may well be dismissed as brash, garish, agitprop clap-trap, but like “beauty” these things are only skin-deep. I think Barshai also compels us to look behind the gaudy curtain (almost certainly erected entirely on purpose by the composer), to see this work in its true colours: as a “proper” symphony – and that, to my mind at least, is exactly what it is.

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