On Saturday evening, December 1, I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall given by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sergey Smbatyan, a very young conductor.
What great seats I had! Box 15 in the first tier. A seat near the front of the first tier which overlooked the stage. I prefer not to sit in the so called Parquet section (the lowest, orchestra level). The acoustics, I have been told by other concertgoers, are better higher up, and one has a view of the whole orchestra.
The program included a very recent work: Travel Notebook Suite for Piano and Orchestra (2017) composed by Alexey Shor, a young Ukrainian composer. It was an engaging piece that “worked” and that kept one’s interest sustained with variety of content from movement to movement. (Shows the advantage of being willing to listen to new music.) The pianist, Ingolf Wunder, a young Austrian, was outstanding. He drew applause that led to his performing a Chopin piece as an encore.
The second half of the concert was comprised of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47. I have posted about the Shostakovich fifth before.
To hear it or any favorite work live is a revelation. With my great seating, I was able to “see” the entrances of the different players and sections of the orchestra — the two flutes (especially important in this work); the trumpets, trombones, and bassoons; the timpani and cymbals; and, yes, the two harps – occurring. One sees as well as hears them (as one might not on a rerecording, not being quite sure what instrument one is hearing).
Shostakovich, it is well known and has been frequently noted, was a master of tone color. This is fully recognizable in a live performance.
And, the way the instruments play off one another is brilliant. I had a similar feeling while watching a performance of a Mozart symphony recently. (I forget if it was Mozart’s 40th or the Jupiter Symphony.)
Shostakovich is a master of the ironic, the sardonic, and the unexpected. Not adverse to clashing sounds and dissonance (along with beautiful, elegiac melodies). Sort of reminds one of Stravinsky. But the framework, the overall construction of the piece, is worthy of a Haydn or a Beethoven.
The instruments seem to be having a conversation (notably in the first movement, Moderato), and the piece has an undeniable, irresistible sense of logic and forward movement that never flags. As is invariably true of the greatest symphonies.
The first movement of Shostakovich’s fifth. Note the interplay and “handoffs” between the instruments. The thematic variations. Note how carefully, and with such artistry, Shostakovich builds an aura and a sense of suspense.
The Symphony No. 5 was composed between April and July 1937. Its first performance was on November 21, 1937, in Leningrad by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Yevgeny Mravinsky.
The symphony has four movements:
1. Moderato—Allegro non troppo
4. Allegro non troppo
The work is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets and E-flat clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three B♭ trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, glockenspiel, xylophone, two harps (one part), piano, celesta and strings. Regarding the typical ingenuity of Shostakovich in this respect, note, for example, the brief piano passage (in which the piano’s percussive qualities resonate) in the first movement and a passage for a celesta at the end of the first movement.
I became acquainted with this symphony during my teenage years, when I was first getting into classical music. I had not had much exposure to modern classical music then.
I consider it not only an outstanding work among Shostakovich’s ample and varied (astonishingly so) oeuvre, but one of the truly great symphonies of all time. I would be inclined to go out on a limb and say that it is exceeded by few symphonies since Beethoven’s Fifth, perhaps only by Schubert’s ninth and Brahms’s first and fourth symphonies.
The Fifth Symphony quotes Shostakovich’s song “Vozrozhdenije” (Op. 46 No. 1, composed in 1936–37), most notably in the last movement, which uses a poem by Alexander Pushkin that deals with the matter of rebirth. This song is by some considered to be a vital clue to the interpretation and understanding of the whole symphony. In addition, commentators have noted that Shostakovich incorporated a motif from the “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen into the first movement, a reference to Shostakovich’s earlier infatuation with a woman who refused his offer of marriage; she subsequently moved to Spain and married a man named Roman Carmen.
With the Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich gained an unprecedented triumph, with the music appealing equally—and remarkably—to both the public and official critics, though the overwhelming public response to the work initially aroused suspicions among certain officials. The then-head of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Mikhail Chulaki, recalls that certain authorities bristled at Mravinsky’s gesture of lifting the score above his head to the cheering audience, and a subsequent performance was attended by two plainly hostile officials, V.N. Surin and Boris M. Yarustovsky, who tried to claim in the face of the vociferous ovation given the symphony that the audience was made up of “hand-picked” Shostakovich supporters. Yet the authorities in due course claimed that they found everything they had demanded of Shostakovich restored in the symphony. Meanwhile, the public heard it as an expression of the suffering to which it had been subjected by Stalin. The same work was essentially received two different ways.
An article reportedly written by the composer appeared in the Moscow newspaper Vechernyaya Moskva a few days before the premiere of the Fifth Symphony. There, he reportedly states that the work “is a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism.” Whether Shostakovich or someone more closely connected with the Party actually wrote the article is open to question, but the phrase “justified criticism”—a reference to the denunciation of the composer in 1936—is especially telling.
Official critics treated the work as a turnaround in its composer’s career, a personal perestroika, or “restructuring,” by the composer, with the Party engineering Shostakovich’s rehabilitation as carefully as it had his fall a couple of years earlier. Like the Pravda attack at that time on the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the political basis for extolling the Fifth Symphony was to show how the Party could make artists bow to its demands. It had to show that it could reward as easily and fully as it could punish.
The official tone toward the Fifth Symphony was further set by a review by Alexei Tolstoy, who likened the symphony to the literary model of the Soviet Bildungsroman describing “the formation of a personality”—in other words, of a Soviet personality. In the first movement, the composer-hero suffers a psychological crisis giving rise to a burst of energy. The second movement provides respite. In the third movement, the personality begins to form: “Here the personality submerges itself in the great epoch that surrounds it, and begins to resonate with the epoch.” With the finale, Tolstoy wrote, came victory, “an enormous optimistic lift.” As for the ecstatic reaction of the audience to the work, Tolstoy claimed it showed Shostakovich’s perestroika to be sincere. “Our audience is organically incapable of accepting decadent, gloomy, pessimistic art. Our audience responds enthusiastically to all that is bright, clear, joyous, optimistic, life-affirming.”
Not everyone agreed with Tolstoy, even after another article reportedly by the composer echoed Tolstoy’s views. Asafiev, for one, wrote, “This unsettled, sensitive, evocative music which inspires such gigantic conflict comes across as a true account of the problems facing modern man-—not one individual or several, but mankind.” The composer himself seemed to second this view long after the fact, in a conversation with author Chinghiz Aitmatov in the late 1960s. “There are far more openings for new Shakespeares in today’s world,” he said, “for never before in its development has mankind achieved such unanimity of spirit: so when another such artist appears, he will be able to express the whole world in himself, like a musician.”
During the first performance of the symphony, people were reported to have wept during the Largo movement. The music, steeped in an atmosphere of mourning, contained echoes of the panikhida, the Russian Orthodox requiem. It also recalled a genre of Russian symphonic works written in memory of the dead, including pieces by Glazunov, Steinberg, Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. Typical of these works is the use of the tremolo in the strings as a reference to the hallowed ambience of the requiem.
After the symphony had been performed in Moscow, Heinrich Neuhaus called the work “deep, meaningful, gripping music, classical in the integrity of its conception, perfect in form and the mastery of orchestral writing-—music striking for its novelty and originality, but at the same time somehow hauntingly familiar, so truly and sincerely does it recount human feelings.”
Shostakovich returned to the traditional four-movement form and a normal-sized orchestra. More tellingly, he organized each movement along clear lines, having concluded that a symphony cannot be a viable work without firm architecture. The harmonic idiom in the Fifth is less astringent, more tonal than previously, and the thematic material is more accessible. Nevertheless, every bar bears its composer’s personal imprint. It has been said that, in the Fifth Symphony, the best qualities of Shostakovich’s music, such as meditation, humor and grandeur, blend in perfect balance and self-fulfillment
The final movement, often being criticized for sounding shrill, is declared in Testimony * to be a parody of shrillness, representing “forced rejoicing.” In the words attributed to the composer in Testimony (a work, although attributed to Shostakovich himself, that has been shown to have serious flaws in its credibility):
The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,” and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, “Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.”
This is symbolized by the repeated A’s at the end of the final movement in the string and upper woodwind sections. It includes a quotation from the composer’s song “Rebirth,” accompanying the words “A barbarian painter” who “blackens the genius’s painting.” In the song, the barbarian’s paint falls away and the original painting is reborn. It has been suggested that the barbarian and the genius are Stalin and Shostakovich respectively. The work is largely sombre despite the composer’s official claim that he wished to write a positive work.
* Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, As Related to and edited by Solomon Volkov (1979), was supposedly based on interviews Volkov had with the composer. I have read the book in part and always doubted its accuracy.
I attended a performance of Shostakovich’s fifth at Carnegie Hall on July 24, 2018. The conductor was Carlos Miguel Prieto. He was outstanding.
I jotted down the following notes on my way home that evening.
To say Shostakovich’s Fifth is his best symphony, which I think it is, is saying something, because he wrote (among a total of fifteen) so many outstanding symphonies.
I have never heard Shostakovich’s fifth live before…. to hear it live is a revelation.
There is a sort of mishmash or “mushy” affect with almost all recorded music — you don’t hear the individual instruments clearly enough. It’s sort of like a Jackson Pollack effect (I never had a taste for his works) of various colors oozing together.
In the Fifth Symphony, the instruments each “hold their own” and maintain their separate identities, yet they talk with the other instruments … there is a beautiful interplay among them. Yet, the overall architecture of the piece is never “lost in the shuffle.” Shostakovich, like Beethoven, is admirably clear. There is such clarity and such a sense of being propelled forward by an irresistible musical logic which recalls Beethoven’s Fifth.
To be able to visually see which instrument(s) are playing. The piano in the middle of the first movement (Moderato). Shostakovich uses instruments, orchestral color, brilliantly, but with restraint. The celesta at the very end of the same. At the end of the fourth movement (Allegro non troppo), I heard — could it be? — yes indeed, two harps playing, not one — interacting, so to speak, and sharing a melody — listening to a recording, one does not get this. To see how important to the overall piece the flute and other woodwind passages are. To see and hear the cymbals and timpani drums in the rousing finale. To see and hear how important the brass instruments are to the piece …. the trumpets held aloft blaring.
“Shostakovich’s Fifth–the Russian composer’s most popular symphony–was written during the darkest period of Stalinist oppression, and has set off an endless controversy about his ideological intentions and musical codes. The music is powerful, emotionally varied, and exceptionally lyrical. Like many Shostakovich symphonies, it is indebted to Mahler, especially in its juxtaposition of the sublime with the banal, its fondness for marches, the garish folk tunes in the scherzo, and the hymn-like lyricism in the slow movement.”
— program notes
Shostakovich’s fifth can stand on its own without extra-musical discussions or associations, and I think it’s better heard this way.