Tag Archives: Shostakovich

another concert; thoughts about Bartók

 

 

 

Last night, Tuesday, April 10, I saw a chamber music concert by the Artemis Quartet at Carnegie Hall which consisted of Beethoven’s String Quartet in D Major, Op. 18, No. 3; Bartók’s String Quartet No. 2, Op. 17; and Schumann’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 41, No. 1.

I had great seats. The Artemis Quartet played splendidly. Sitting at the front of the concert hall, I could really appreciate their musicianship.

The most engrossing piece (they were all splendid) — the one that by itself seemed to make the concert (it seemed as if others in the audience felt the same way) — was the Bartók.

It is my opinion that Bartók has one rival, and none other, for the designation of best composer of the twentieth century: Shostakovich.

You know when you hear the second Bartók quartet (and the five others composed by him) that you are hearing something different than anything composed before. It is such fresh, intriguing music, yet it’s not avant-garde for the sake of being avant-garde. It is beautiful, haunting, arresting. And totally convincing — the quartets as compositions, that is.

It seems so fresh and new, made of sounds and harmonies one has never heard before. Yet, somehow the musical idiom seems as if it has been time tested and proved in a “musical furnace.” A key may be that the daring harmonies and rhythms are based on a substratum of folk music known to Bartók and used by him. Brilliantly used, and fused with a modern idiom. It’s music that is both old, or traditional, and yet entirely new. A hundred or so years after its composition, it sounds entirely fresh.

I thought of Stravinsky, the first among equals, the pacesetter, of the avant-garde composers of the early 20th century. He broke new ground with daring rhythms and orchestration and new sounds. But I feel that Bartók’s music has much more staying power. His quartets alone, which are surpassed by what other composer’s? (Beethoven and perhaps Shostakovich; but I think Bartók’s quartets outrank even Shostakovich’s), are proof positive of this.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   April 11, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

reflections on yesterday

 

 

I had a long day yesterday.

It began with an early morning appointment in Manhattan. It concluded (the Manhattan part of my day) with a concert at Carnegie Hall.

The concert program included a performance of a lengthy Schubert piano sonata which I have never heard before and two Shostakovich works for piano: his 24 Preludes, Op. 34 (1932-33) and his Prelude and Fugue in D Minor, Op. 87 (1950-51). The pianist, who is young and is apparently a rising star, was Michail Lifits, who lives in Germany.

Somehow, despite my lack of technical knowledge when it comes to musicianship, I knew that he is very good, has a mastery of technique. I liked that he played without histrionics (and affected a like stage manner). Yet his playing was the polar opposite of UNexpressive. It doesn’t overwhelm or dazzle you. It thoroughly engages you. Totally. Before you quite realize what is happening.

I couldn’t help making comparisons with two recent all-Schubert concerts featuring the pianist Mitsuko Uchida that I attended. Dame Mitsuko (as she is now known; she lives in the UK) has quite a following. She is known as a Schubert as well as Mozart interpreter/performer and is doing a series of concerts of all the Schubert sonatas. She plays elegantly and, as far as I can tell, flawlessly. But her performances bore me. Was it — is it — because they were or are too timid? Is that the right word? I had heard yet another pianist perform my favorite Schubert piano sonata, the Sonata in A major, D. 959, a month or so. His performance was anything but “timid,” but it didn’t satisfy me either.

What is it about my experience with Schubert lately? Mitsuko Uchida played several of his lesser known sonatas and they did nothing for me. Can I be thinking that about Schubert? I said to myself. And last night Mr. Lifits played Schubert’s piano sonata in G Major, D. 894. It was good in places, but it didn’t do much for me.

The Shostakovich, after the intermission, was something else. Along with his brilliance, there is such a variety of moods in his music, both within a given piece and from one work to another. Mr. Lifits was the performer to do the preludes justice!

 

 

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In between morning appointment and evening concert, I had a lot of time to kill in the City. I met my wife and a friend of hers for lunch. We had a great time.

After my wife left, I fell into a funk. I would have liked to go home with her, but I had the concert and had to kill time. I was tired and felt depressed. I spent the rest of the afternoon at the library and a Starbucks, plus walking uptown. Brooding. In a mood the opposite of sanguine.

I was so emotionally drained that by the time I got to the concert I didn’t want to be there.

But, what happened was that the concert focused my attention — outside of myself. I had to sit still and pay attention for about two hours the same way a student does in a class or a churchgoer at a Sunday service. This was good for me. If I had gone home, I would have continued brooding or have been trying to indulge myself in unsatisfactory ways, including (but not limited to) telling my wife about all the things bothering me.

I had been up practically all night the night before trying to finish an essay I had been working on for a long time. All week I had been feeling very energized and creative and was very busy.

At the concert last night, and on the way home, I thought about the week and all the little things that were annoying me, despite having gotten things accomplished. Little impediments that seemed like intrusions. People wasting my time. A therapist I was seeing once (himself a writer) made the observation to me that writing is by definition a very self-centered activity. Well (you may be wondering what this has to do with anything), all week last week I was very wrapped up in my own thoughts. When people interrupted me, or started rambling on about this or that, I felt inpatient. When they didn’t seem to be listening closely, I felt annoyed.

Guess what? I thought to myself at the concert, my thoughts and preoccupations are often not of that much interest either, certainly not to others. And, many of my petty annoyances are just that, trivial.

 

 

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You’re down. Feeling put upon. Misunderstood. Neglected. Needy or lonely.

You put on good clothes and go to church. Listen to a sermon. You go to class and listen to a lecture, take notes. You attend a cultural event such as a concert.

You have something in common with all the other people at the concert. They are all listening to Shostakovich, are hoping to like it, and thought it worth their while to attend.

No one in the audience cares about you or your grievances.

You realize that the focus should be elsewhere. That many of the trivial annoyances don’t matter. Balance and perspective are important.

To be energized, to think energetically, to be creative requires an immersion in one’s own self and thoughts, and intense mental effort.

To sort things out requires calmness and a focusing of attention elsewhere.

Shostakovich composed preludes in the early 1950’s. People find them worth listening to decades later. I am in love with what Walt Whitman, talking about himself, called “my great thoughts, as I supposed them.” Other things also require attention. Everything is important, and most things are inconsequential. One needs to both hold on and be able to let go.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   March 24, 2018

Shostakovich (Дмитрий Дмитриевич Шостакович)

 

русский перевод см ниже



The following is an email of mine to a friend which resulted from a conversation we were having yesterday.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  February 3, 2017

 

 

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You asked me yesterday if I liked Shostakovich.

The answer: do I ever!

He’s a quintessentially nationalistic composer. He wrote quite a bit of music with overt programmatic, thematic, or patriotic content. He also wrote much music that is very modern and very twentieth century — worthy of (and, in fact, better than, in my opinion) a Stravinsky.

It is hard to pigeonhole Shostakovich. A Wikipedia article

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dmitri_Shostakovich

states:

A polystylist, Shostakovich developed a hybrid voice, combining a variety of different musical techniques into his works. His music is characterized by sharp contrasts, elements of the grotesque, and ambivalent tonality; the composer was also heavily influenced by the neo-classical style pioneered by Igor Stravinsky, and (especially in his symphonies) by the post-Romanticism associated with Gustav Mahler. [Mahler was indeed a great influence on Shostakovich, and it has been said that one can hear echoes of the former composer’s works in the symphonies of the latter.]

I am not a musicologist, so I can speak only from experience as a listener, for the most part. But, I once said to my former therapist, who had an interest in Russian history and culture, that I believed Shostakovich to be one of the twentieth century’s greatest (if not the greatest) composers. A rival? I might suggest Bartók. I bet few others would make that choice.

Shostakovich reminds me of Aaron Copland. I feel that the two are comparable, except that I feel Shostakovich is the greater composer (which is not to detract from my admiration for Copland, whose works I do not know as well as I should).

Both he and Copland are infused with their country’s spirit, land, and grandeur. Both were prolific and composed in a wide variety of forms on the macro and micro levels, so to speak. Both composed supremely patriotic and nationalistic music which, when you hear it, results in your thinking, saying: it is so Russian or so American; it could only be Russian or American.

Both were not afraid to attempt grand themes — the Russian Revolution and The Great Patriotic War; Appalachia, the heartlands, Lincoln, the Great Depression, democracy — yet both composed highly cerebral, small scale works (e.g., their chamber works).

Nationalism and patriotism notwithstanding, both were fully in touch with the musical trends and styles of their times. Their music is anything but hackneyed, clichéd, or retrograde.

Neither composer was a political stooge or apologist. Shostakovich ran afoul of Stalinism and lived in fear of reprisal, it has been stated in books about him. (His music was criticized by Stalin himself.) Copland had leftist and Zionist sympathies.

 

 

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A word or two about my own experience of Shostakovich.

My parents gave me a portable record player as a gift upon my high school graduation. One of the first LP’s I purchased was a budget recording of Shostakovich’s fifth symphony conducted by Ernest Ansermet.

I was greatly impressed and stirred by the work, which I (by no means alone) regard as a masterpiece and one of the greatest symphonies ever. It is work which, in my opinion, is infused with the “Russian spirit,” whatever that means. It is haunting and powerful and has a sort of inner logic and sense of inevitability, a coherence, and a tightness of construction that remind me of Beethoven’s Fifth.

Another work of Shostakovich’s that I discovered early was his eleventh symphony (“The Year 1905”; 1957). The social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin, a Russian emigre who taught at Harvard, mentioned it in passing in his autobiography. Being an admirer of Sorokin, I had to hear the work. My uncle Roger Handy gave it to me as a Christmas present on an LP of a performance by André Cluytens. It was one of the first performances of the symphony; recordings of Shostakovich’s eleventh were rare then. The eleventh symphony is subtitled “The Year 1905”; it describes, musically, events of the Russian Revolution of 1905. It is extremely powerful and lyrical.

One notices here Shostakovich’s mastery of tone color, which sets him apart — in a class of his own, it would seem. A Wikipedia article notes that the eleventh symphony is scored for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling cor anglais), 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, orchestral bass drum, tam-tam, xylophone, tubular bells, 2 harps, celesta and strings. Similar eerie, powerful effects are accomplished in the composer’s fifteenth symphony, which includes a glockenspiel, celesta, vibraphone, castanets, snare drum, wood block, xylophone, and triangle.

One can also observe such mastery of tone color in, say, the fifth symphony. And, Shostakovich will often surprise, delight, or astonish the listener with original scoring, such as the piano passages in his first symphony and his fifth.

Eventually, I discovered Shostakovich’s quartets, which I feel are right up there with Bartók’s. Shostakovich wrote fifteen symphonies and fifteen quartets. I haven’t even mentioned his concertos. He was prolific!

An observation I would make about Shostakovich — being mindful that I am no doubt stating the obvious and that one doesn’t need my input to realize this – is that he is usually very original from one work to the next. One never knows what to expect or what one is going to hear. His fourth symphony, for example, was a complete break with his second and third symphonies, which were nothing like his brilliant first symphony, which was wholly fresh and original and which seemed to almost come out of nowhere; it did not seem to be indebted to a tutor or predecessor. His seventh, eighth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth symphonies have similarities, but the fourth, fifth, sixth, ninth, thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth symphonies are totally different, and each of them differs a lot from one of the others in that group. Similar astonishing variety of form and mood from one piece to the next can be seen in the quartets.

I should have also mentioned, individually, Shostakovich’s eighth symphony. It is a powerful work and one of his best. It doesn’t seem to be performed as often as it should. Don’t listen to it if you don’t feel like experiencing anguish — it is a work that conveys despair. There is very little sunlight; Vivaldi it is not.

 

 

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See also:

 

Posted on this blog are:

 

 

Shostakovich, symphony no. 11 (“The Year 1905”)

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/01/21/shostakovich-symphony-no-11-the-year-1905/

 

Shostakovich, “Песнь о лесах” (The Song of the Forests), op. 81 (1949)

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/01/22/shostakovich-song-of-the-forests-1949/

 

 

 

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Ниже изложен текст моего электронного письма другу, которое было написано после нашего вчерашнего разговора.

 

— Роджер У. Смит

    3 февраля 2017 г.

 

 

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Вчера Вы спросили, понравился ли мне Шостакович.

Ответ: безусловно!

Это композитор с ярко выраженными национальными особенностями. Он написал довольно много музыки с четким программным, тематическим или патриотическим содержанием. Он также написал значительное количество современных музыкальных произведений, отражающих дух двадцатого века, его творчество не уступает творчеству Стравинского (а, по моему мнению, даже превосходит).

Шостакович и сегодня интересен слушателям. В Википедии в статье

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dmitri_Shostakovich

говорится следующее:

В своих произведениях Шостакович использует уникальный стиль, в котором сочетаются различные музыкальные техники. Его музыка характеризуется резкими контрастами, элементами гротеска, амбивалентной тональностью; на его творчество сильно повлиял неоклассицизм, пионером которого был Игорь Стравинский, а также постромантизм (особенно в симфониях), с которым ассоциируется творчество Густава Малера. [Малер действительно оказал на него огромное влияние; говорят, что отголоски произведений Малера слышны в симфониях Шостаковича.]

Я не музыковед, мое мнение по большей части – это мнение слушателя. Но однажды я сказал своему врачу, который интересовался российской историей и культурой, что считаю Шостаковича одним из величайших (если не величайшим) композиторов двадцатого века. Есть ли у него конкуренты? Я бы назвал Бартока. Немногие сделали бы такой выбор.

Шостакович напоминает мне Аарона Копленда. Полагаю, это композиторы одного уровня, но все-таки Шостакович кажется мне более выдающимся композитором (что не уменьшает моего восхищения Коплендом, с чьим творчеством я знаком не настолько близко, как следовало бы).

Творчество и Шостаковича, и Копленда пронизано духом родной земли и ее величия. Оба плодотворно работали и создавали произведения самых разных форм на макро- и микроуровнях, так сказать. Оба сочиняли музыку в высшей степени наполненную патриотизмом и национальным духом. Слушая их произведения, люди думают: это настолько русская или американская музыка; что ее автор мог быть только русским или американцем.

Оба не боялись касаться великих тем – российской революции и Великой Отечественной войны; Аппалачии, самого сердца страны, Линкольна, Великой депрессии, демократии – но оба писали высокоинтеллектуальные произведения малой формы (например, камерные произведения).

Несмотря на национализм и патриотизм оба были хорошо знакомы с музыкальными тенденциями и стилями своей эпохи. Их музыку точно не назовешь банальной, шаблонной или ретроградной.

Ни один из композиторов не был марионеткой или апологетом какого-либо политического движения. В книгах о Шостаковиче говорится, что его деятельность шла вразрез с идеологией сталинизма, он жил в страхе перед репрессиями. (Его музыку подвергал критике сам Сталин.) Копленд был сторонником левых взглядов и сочувствовал сионистам.

 

 

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Пару слов о моем знакомстве Шостаковичем.

Мои родители подарили мне переносной проигрыватель в честь окончания школы. Одной из первых пластинок, которую я купил, была пластинка с записью пятой симфонии Шостаковича в исполнении Эрнеста Ансерме.

Я был впечатлен и тронут произведением, которое я (и не я один) считаю шедевром и величайшей из когда-либо написанных симфоний. По моему мнению, это произведение пронизано «русским духом», что бы это ни значило. Это запоминающееся, мощное произведение, в котором присутствует внутренняя логика и ощущение неизбежности. Оно характеризуется логичной и четко выстроенной формой и напоминает пятую симфонию Бетховена.

Еще одно произведение Шостаковича, которое я открыл для себя одним из первых, – это его одиннадцатая симфония (“1905 год”; 1957). Социолог и философ Питирим Александрович Сорокин, российский эмигрант, преподаватель Гарварда, мимоходом упомянул его в своей автобиографии. Будучи почитателем Сорокина, я просто обязан был послушать это произведение. Мой дядя, Роджер Хенди, подарил мне на Рождество пластинку с этой симфонией в исполнении Андре Клюитанса. Это одно из первых исполнений симфонии; записи одиннадцатой симфонии Шостаковича тогда были большой редкостью. Подзаголовок одиннадцатой симфонии – «1905-й год». В ней при помощи музыкальных средств описываются события русской революции 1905 года. Это очень сильное и лирическое произведение.

В нем Шостакович мастерски использует разнообразные звуковые оттенки, в этом он отличается от других композиторов. В статье в Википедии описана оркестровка одиннадцатой симфонии: 3 флейты (плюс флейта-пикколо), 3 гобоя (плюс охотничий гобой), 3 кларнета (плюс басовый кларнет), 3 фагота (плюс контрафагот), 4 валторны, 3 трубы, 3 тромбона, туба, литавры, треугольник, малый барабан, тарелки, большой барабан, тамтам, ксилофон, колокола, 2 арфы, челеста и струнные. Такие же мрачные и сильные звуковые эффекты мы слышим в пятнадцатой симфонии, при исполнении которой используются колокольчики, челеста, вибрафон, кастаньеты, малый барабан, деревянная коробочка, ксилофон и треугольник.

Такое же мастерское использование звуковых оттенков наблюдается, скажем, в пятой симфонии. Кроме того, Шостакович часто удивляет, или поражает слушателя оригинальной оркестровкой, например, удивительными пассажами на фортепиано в первой и пятой симфониях.

Однажды я открыл для себя квартеты Шостаковича, которые, я считаю, не уступают квартетам Бартока. Шостакович написал пятнадцать симфоний и пятнадцать квартетов. И это не считая концертов. Это огромное наследие!

Еще одно наблюдение, которое я хотел бы высказать, – я знаю, что говорю очевидные вещи и что никому не нужны именно мои высказывания, чтобы понять, что каждое произведение Шостаковича оригинально. Никогда не знаешь, чего ждать от следующего произведения. Четвертая симфония, например, стала полным прорывом после второй и третьей симфоний, которые даже сравнить нельзя с замечательной первой симфонией, которая свежа и оригинальна и, кажется, возникла из ничего; она не была написана под влиянием наставника или предшественника. Седьмая, восьмая, десятая и двенадцатая симфонии имеют схожие черты, но четвертая, пятая, шестая, девятая, тринадцатая, четырнадцатая и пятнадцатая симфонии абсолютно другие, причем они совершенно не похожи друг на друга. Такое же удивительное богатство форм и настроений наблюдается и в квартетах.

Стоит отдельно упомянуть восьмую симфонию Шостаковича. Сильное произведение, одно из лучших произведений композитора. Его исполняют не так часто, как стоило бы. Не стоит слушать его, если вы не готовы пережить страдание – это произведение приводит в отчаяние. В нем мало солнечного света; это не Вивальди.