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Views And Reviews: Shostakovich's Symphony No.12

Critics thought that Shostakovich, who had finally become a member of the Communist Party, had thrown in the towel and had produced a crude piece of Soviet propaganda with his Twelfth Symphony.

Paul Serotsky begs to differ. "Shostakovich’s Twelfth is, under its propagandist clown’s mask a damned fine symphony that doesn’t deserve to be as damned as it has been...''

To read more of Paul's sparkling essays on some of the greatest music ever written please click on Views And Reviews in the menu on this page.

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. 12 “The Year 1917" op. 112 (1961)

Back in 1997, I wrote a programme note for two performances (and cracking performances they were too, I might add) of this symphony given by the Slaithwaite PO under the baton of their redoubtable conductor Adrian Smith. The first paragraph is worth quoting here, to set the scene: “In 1960, at the frozen heart of the Cold War, Shostakovich finally became a member of the Communist Party, subsequently ‘contributing’ to Pravda a series of articles condemning bourgeois western music. At that time, the West, not comprehending the consequences of the alternative, understandably damned Shostakovich with the rest of the Soviet Union. When the Twelfth Symphony was first heard at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival, the critics were appalled at this crude piece of blatant, poster-painted Soviet propaganda. After all, that was exactly what it sounded like, lacking even the one redeeming feature of the much-maligned Second Symphony, that extraordinary, undisciplined crucible in which Shostakovich forged his mature style. [Whilst] the Second was seen as experimental, the Twelfth seemed merely excremental.”

After having held out for so many years, why did Shostakovich chuck in the towel and meekly pick up his Party membership card? Was he going soft? Not a bit of it! He joined up because he was forced to (think of “the consequences of the alternative”), by a Soviet State that was dispassionately measuring the propaganda value of his burgeoning international reputation. I observe those cosseted pop and film “stars” who whinge on about the excessive media attention that they attract, when it is nothing more than “the price of fame”, a price that’s clearly enough displayed on the goods they so desire, and if they think it’s too much it they can simply walk away. Perhaps the tale of Shostakovich’s “price of fame” ought to be compulsory reading?

Ah, but had he chucked in the towel? Those critics who heard the Twelfth Symphony clearly thought so, and the music certainly sounded like it – as a piece of blatant agitprop, the Twelfth left even the Eleventh gasping in its wake. In recent years, though, a different view is emerging, a view that finds in the Twelfth possibly the pinnacle of Shostakovich’s achievement as a two-faced subversive, a view that sets up Shostakovich as the epitome of the fabled “white man speak with forked tongue”. If it’s true, then it’s an incredible feat, which makes this an incredible piece of music.

The one argument that it doesn’t settle is whether this is a “proper” symphony. That apart, the only question is this: is it true? Well, I can’t tell you one way or the other, but in all honesty I can say that I think it is true. Even disregarding both what preceded and what followed the Twelfth, the evidence and arguments are strong enough to cast severe doubts regarding the simple “agitprop” postulate, and that alone makes this symphony deserving of our attention. The good news in this respect is that Barshai and the WDRSO deliver an outstanding performance, with excellent recorded sound, to maximise the pleasure of our labours!

To get back to the tale: that “price”, in addition to the compulsory subscription and his signing his name to those articles (it’s certain that he didn’t write them himself. I get the impression that nobody ever did – there’s nowt new about “spin doctors”, is there?), he was required to produce a new symphony dedicated to the memory of Lenin. The prospect filled him with dreadful dismay. Sure, he had on previous occasions put out the word that he was working on such a project, but this time the jackboot was on the other foot, and he was faced with the daunting prospect of “forced labour”. The crux of his problem was Lenin. In the officially atheistic Soviet Union, Lenin was as near to a “god” as they got. Shostakovich had to be extra careful. In the past, the risk had been that of “merely” upsetting the Party. But to be caught out criticising Lenin, whom apparently he hated almost as much as Stalin, would be tantamount to “blasphemy”. He could, of course, have copped out and simply given them what they demanded, and punched home the glorification of Lenin with a choir singing a suitable text. It goes without saying that his technical skills would have been up to it, but by this time the stoic resistance which had built up over the years simply would not allow him to stoop to such a genuflectory gesture, which would have in any event ruined his international reputation. He struggled for inspiration and, it would seem, made progress only when he had committed himself to producing what was on the face of it the most agitprop work ever, whilst bending his subversive powers to the limit – and it would have to be instrumental. His hope, forlorn as it turned out, was surely that someone in the West would “get the message”.

His basic method was simple: a code to represent Lenin (basically phrases with even numbers of beats), a code to represent “the People” (odd numbers of beats), and a lot of creative thought to marry symphonic form, surface impression, and “true” subtext. Even this brought problems, with toffee-nosed pundits declaring, “This symphony is almost devoid of ideas”. So what? Following that kind of logic, so is Sibelius’ Seventh, to name but the most obvious! You may shoot me for being biased, but I’m going to stick my neck out anyway: I think this is a terrific piece of music, by any standards, and no, you don’t need to know the underlying politics to get the message – invent your own storyline if you wish, and so long as it’s properly consistent with the musical ideas and their abstract adventures, I am fairly convinced that your tale will be as riveting as the one Shostakovich had in mind when he wrote the work.

Surprisingly, the catalogue boasts well over a dozen recordings of this symphony – not that I’ve been worried about that: I’ve lived quite happily for years with my old Classics for Pleasure LP featuring the Philharmonia under Georges Pretre. But, because it was one I had only on LP, this disc happened to be the first onto the CD tray when I received the review set. Right at the start of the first movement (Revolutionary Petrograd), I was struck by the extraordinary quality of the WDRSO bass strings, a full bodied, dark brown sound with some unruly, growling resonances that (it seemed to me) betokened playing more concerned with musical effect than technical refinement. If these chaps had been short of rehearsal time, they’d made economies in all the right places!

This black-browed opening subject, brimming with two-note phrases, we must perforce associate with the “subject” of the symphony. This lunges from looming menace into purposeful action, crisply articulated at speed, with bags of fire and momentum. The second subject also first appears on bass strings. Gentle, flowing, and of course brimming with three-note phrases, this blossoms into an aspiring climax whereupon it is beset by two-note thuds. This is but the first example of how Shostakovich works these two elements against one another, augmented by significant quotations from the Eleventh Symphony and Lady MacBeth (the “betrayal” motive!), to underline “Lenin” as a cynical manipulator of the naive and trusting “ People” (and, to cap it all, at 9'48 I’ve also just spotted a reference to the aggressive climax of the first part of the finale of the Seventh!). I was mightily impressed by the utter conviction with which Barshai drives his WDRSO forces, bringing out these interactions between the “driver” and the “driven”, interactions which the unwary can easily lose behind the gaudy curtain of orchestral pyrotechnics. Sure, there is a fair bit that can be described as “mechanical movie action music”, but Barshai never lets us forget that even this is part of the overall “message”.

The music slips into the brooding beginning of the second movement with a seamless ease that belies the degree of judgement required for such a transition (only the CD display switching from “1" to “2" betrays it!). Shostakovich’s title, Razliv, drops a massive hint that here he is concerned with Lenin hatching his master plan. Throughout, Barshai maintains a wonderful veiled quality, strings velvety, wind solos cold and soul-less. He balances to a “T” the active bass-line, so that the “People” really do seem to creep into Lenin’s mind from “below”, providing the basis for Lenin’s self-deification in the ironic “holy music” that Shostakovich floats aloft. As the solo trombone announces the Plan, shivers run through the orchestra like lances of ice. Ian MacDonald said of this movement, “Thus, with infinite finesse, Shostakovich lays at Lenin's door the ultimate guilt for the fifty million victims of his Glorious Revolution”, and with equal finesse the WDRSO and Barshai would have us believe every word of that.

In basing the furtive flurryings of the start of the third movement, Aurora, on the second movement theme betokening Lenin’s inspiration, Shostakovich neatly suggests “plan” becoming “action”. If Barshai seems to underplay this first part of the movement, it’s because he’s aware that there’s only one real climax. Through restraint, the tension is if anything increased: in the calm before the storm you could cut the air with a knife. Then the strings start crawling like guerrillas in the undergrowth, and the “People” rise up with a tremendous rallying-cry – a beautifully-engineered crescendo, by both composer and performers. The cynical will observe that now the bullets are flying, there’s no sign of the Glorious Leader himself! The problem for performers with this “battle music” is that there is only a hairline between too clog-footedly slow and too frenetically fast – in both cases it ends up sounding just plain silly. Barshai splits the hair with a scalpel, right down the middle, and the impact is mesmerising.

The battle music spills into victory music, though Shostakovich might well have been hanged for it, as the horns announce The Dawn of Humanity by gloriously intoning the theme of his early, abortive work Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution. This theme had appeared fleetingly in the second movement, as a sly, caustic rejoinder to Lenin’s “inspiration”, but here he replaces that former finesse with seemingly suicidal blatancy. I presume he must have known that only his nearest and dearest would actually be aware of the connotation. I presume also that Barshai is privy to the connotation, bearing in mind his friendship with its composer and judging by his handling of the theme – he encases its feet in concrete overshoes! The subsequent dizzy “dancing in the streets” (c.f. Eighth Symphony!), loosely based on the “People” is made to chitter cheerfully by the strings and woodwind, with the “Lenin” theme drifting amiably in the crowds.

It’s at the end of this development that Barshai brilliantly delivers Shostakovich’s coup de grace. Winding up the tempo, he plunges into a gaily lilting rendition of the “People”, immediately recognisable as being in the style of Rimsky Korsakov, who was (of course) well known as a revolutionary sympathiser. Shostakovich thereby associates the victorious people with the Narodniks, the “proper” People’s Revolutionaries of 1905, and delivers a right old poke in the eye to Lenin and his Bolsheviks. “Lenin” is naturally furious, becoming a militaristic bulldozer before rising in his true colours, as per the very beginning of the symphony. Barshai caps his superb interpretation with a massive, grinding coda. Taking a deliberate tempo, and ramming it home with power and passion, just as he did at the ends of the Fifth and Seventh he negates the sense of triumph: while “Lenin” is not heard, his presence is felt – the “People” and the “Funeral March” themes in pointed juxtaposition under a dead weight, as the long suffering ordinary folk of Russia jump out of the frying pan . . .

As you may have guessed, I’m with MacDonald on this one: Shostakovich’s Twelfth is, under its propagandist clown’s mask a damned fine symphony that doesn’t deserve to be as damned as it has been. Rudolf Barshai’s reading may not be the most physically exciting, but he does do the music justice, gets some very fine playing from the WDRSO, and is well-recorded in a very convincing, beautifully balanced sound field.

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