Saturday, May 19, 2012

Perfect Pictures: Shostakovich's 1st Violin Concerto

This weekend is the last Masterworks concert of the Harrisburg Symphony’s season when Stuart Malina conducts the orchestra welcomes guest violinist Karen Gomyo back for her third appearance here, this time playing Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1st Violin Concerto.

The program opens with "Starburst," a recent work by young American composer Jonathan Leshnoff and concludes with one of those great sonic experiences with Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

The concerts are Saturday night at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 3pm in the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Stuart Malina will also be giving the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

(Sorry, I wanted to get this posted before, but technical difficulties and time constraints have been working against me.)
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Shostakovich & Oistrakh, late-1940s
Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich is regarded as one of the great names of the 20th Century and one of few composers to translate well to international acclaim outside the Soviet Union. His 5th Symphony has become one of the most popular symphonies from the past century and his 1st (written when he was still a teen-ager) and possibly his 10th may also be familiar to wide audiences. All three have been performed by Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony in past seasons.

The 1st Violin Concerto was written between 1947 and the spring of 1948, written specifically for David Oistrakh. It’s in four movements, opening with a dark, elusive “Nocturne,” a very personal statement compared to the extroverted “Scherzo” that follows. The “Passacaglia” is again perhaps brooding and personal. From this, a solo “cadenza” begins to unfold, gradually building and getting faster until it erupts into the finale which the composer described as a Burlesque, another extroverted, manic dance.

Here is a performance with Julian Rachlin recorded with the Detroit Symphony and Leonard Slatkin recorded this past February:
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Further down, I’ll post a historic recording made in 1955 with Oistrakh who had just given the world premiere in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in October then gave the second performance of it on his American tour in December, 1955, at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic and Dmitri Mitropoulos. It’s an amazing performance, despite the monaural sound quality.

With all due respect to the many violinists I've heard perform this piece in recording (I believe this is the first time I've experienced the concerto live), after hearing Karen Gomyo rehearse it with the Harrisburg Symphony this evening, I can say that she is the first violinist I've heard who can match Oistrakh for his intensity and understanding of the piece. I've always thought the opening slow movement to be too dark, dreary and ponderous, a problem people have with many of Shostakovich's symphonies that open with extremely long, extremely slow and often depressingly dark slow movements. But tonight, even in rehearsal, I found it now moving and heart-rending and, above all, beautiful. And yet they're same notes everybody else is playing: but that is the magic of art.

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Shostakovich's 1st Violin Concerto comes from the same period as the 10th Symphony and, like both that and the 5th Symphony, shared a similar fate when politics becomes too closely involved with the arts.

I’ve discussed this in previous posts about Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony which opened this season as well as the common bond in the 5th and 10th Symphonies.

This violin concerto was written following the unexpectedly light-hearted 9th Symphony (following the war, everyone was expecting a mammoth celebration of the Soviet victory ending with, most likely, a vast choral ‘Ode to Stalin’ or some such, and were sorely disappointed with what could be called his “Classical Symphony” – and yes, I even blogged about this one, here).

And, more significantly, it precedes the 10th Symphony which Shostakovich says he began composing following Stalin’s death in 1953 but which at least one close friend and colleague (the pianist, Tatiana Nikolaeva, for whom he was writing a series of preludes and fugues after Bach) says he was already writing in 1951.

The timing couldn’t have been worse – well, much worse.

Perhaps it was the critical reaction to the 9th – compared to their expectations – that prompted yet another political crackdown on Soviet artists writing “bad music for Soviet listeners” in 1948, leveling charges of “formalism” against composers like Shostakovich who imitated bourgeois Western standards – intellectual abstractions like fugues or symphonies in particular.

He’d been through the horrors of government condemnation before – in 1936 following his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (despite its popularity with audiences) which brought down Stalin’s displeasure and a personal attack published in Pravda famously called “Muddle instead of Music.”

He withdrew his 4th Symphony which was in rehearsal because he knew it would only make things worse. Instead, he wrote a new symphony famously subtitled (presumably not by Shostakovich) “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.” This became his 5th Symphony and one wonders if perhaps there isn’t some “secret program” behind it which Shostakovich knew the politicos would be too dense to realize. It is said that music lovers in the audience understood it and cheered. At any rate, the composer found himself more-or-less rehabilitated, though the road through the future was not always an easy one.

But then, another decree came down in February of 1948 initiated by Stalin's minister, Andrei Zhdanov. Now Shostakovich was being attacked as a “formalist” – he, Prokofiev, Khachaturian and practically any Soviet composer of note – for following bourgeois Western art-forms: using things like fugues and writing symphonies which were considered German art-forms (keep in mind this was now after World War II and his 5th and 7th Symphonies were considered examples of Great Soviet Art).

Shostakovich had been working on a new violin concerto for his friend, the violinist David Oistrakh. He was in the midst of writing the third movement, the Passacaglia, when he received word that he was once again under attack.

Later, when one of his students was showed the finished concerto, he asked Shostakovich where he was working when news of the Zhdanov Decree came down. The composer opened the score and pointed to an exact measure. There were 16th notes before it and identical 16th notes continuing after it, as if there had been no break in the creative continuity, no earth-shattering change or outcry commemorating the moment, reacting to the reality outside the art.  

But this time, Shostakovich was tired of it - all the politics and the betrayals. He was older if not wiser and on the verge of illness. At 30 he might have had that kind of self-preservation and spunk to at least dance with the enemy if not overcome them outright. But at 42, he just wanted to be left alone.

This time, he “retired” from composing.

He completed the Violin Concerto the following month but didn’t want to have it performed or published. He and Oistrakh played through it and each of them made some minor changes. But basically, Shostakovich just put it in a drawer and left it there.

This time, he would wait.

Now, only some works of Shostakovich’s had been banned outright – including the 6th, 8th and 9th Symphonies – yet other works like the 5th Symphony or the Piano Quintet (despite its 2nd movement being a fugue) were not on the list. Considering his name was becoming synonymous with “enemy of the people,” few were the brave artists who would perform even his ‘acceptable’ works.

And so commissions were cancelled and new ones were not forthcoming. Royalties disappeared and performances vanished.

It didn’t happen until autumn but then he was dismissed as a professor from the conservatories in both Moscow and Leningrad.

At one point, Yuri Levitin, a friend and student of the composer's, relates (quoted in Elizabeth Wilson's "Shostakovich: A Life Remembered") how Shostakovich, always nervous (even as a child) was now suffering from constant headaches and frequent nausea and was taken to a sanatorium outside Moscow and kept there for several days ("he was in a terrible state") where his wife told them "You cannot imagine our position. Mitya [Dmitri] is on the verge of suicide!"

They were able to calm him down and some time later that year (or early the next, the context is not clear), Shostakovich informed them "I have decided to start working again so as not to lose my composer's credentials. I shall write a prelude and a fugue every day," taking into consideration "the experience of Johann Sebastian Bach."

Hardly something you'd think an artist accused of "formalism" would consider writing...

A year after the decree was handed down, Shostakovich received a personal phone call from none other than Stalin himself. One can only imagine what was going through his mind when he realized who was on the other end of the line!

The Soviet leader was calling him personally and asked him if he needed anything - medicine, for instance - but Shostakovich told him he had everything he needed. Then, after a pause, Stalin told him he had been chosen to represent the Soviet Union at the “Cultural and Scientific Congress for world Peace” to be held in New York City.

But somehow, during the conversation, Shostakovich had the presence of mind to point out the inconsistency of his representing a state where much of his music was banned.

A month later, Stalin lifted the ban of the previous year.

But still, when he returned from New York, Shostakovich did not immediately begin to publish works like his “hidden” violin concerto. He wrote politically acceptable works like a cantata extolling Stalin’s reforestation program but focused more on more intimate, less public statements like the string quartet, again some of which he placed in the drawer and didn’t perform or publish.

Thinking writing music inspired by folk-songs would endear him to the folk-loving government officials - music of the people, literally - it turns out his settings of Jewish folk poetry became the victim of international politics when Stalin went up against the United States for backing the formation of the State of Israel.

And so on.

The D-S-C-H Motive
It wasn’t until after Stalin died in March of 1953 that Shostakovich’s creativity found its thaw. Whether he had been working on it before or not, he finished and presented his 10th Symphony which, to Western ears, sounds like a celebration of Stalin’s Death, not to mention Shostakovich’s use of his personal motive, transforming his monogram into musical notes – DSCH. In Russian, the first letter of his last name is an “sh” and in German this would be “sch” so, since in German notation H is actually B-natural and S is E-flat, he turns the musical pitches D – E-flat – C – B-natural into a musical signature.

But he had used it earlier in his Violin Concerto.

Most prominently at dramatic points in the demonic scherzo and as the soloist’s cadenza turns from a meditation on fate into a dynamic outburst, exploding into the extroverted finale.

Now, in the 10th Symphony - which includes a quote from his setting of Pushkin's "What is in my name?" - this motive appears triumphantly, as if celebrating the fact that though Stalin is dead, I, DSCH, am still alive! But it's always set at those specific pitches, never transposed interval-for-interval to different pitches.

In the 2nd Movement
In the Violin Concerto it usually appears (and never so extravertedly as in the Symphony) on different pitches, so I'm not sure if its full "significance" had sunk in creatively. Similar to the BACH motive that Bach used so frequently in his own music (and others, ever since, in homage), it is a recognizable shape, whatever the pitches.

in the cadenza before the 4th Movement
In the scherzo, it appears translated a diminished fifth higher (the old "tritone," that devil in music as it was called since long before the days of Bach), and in the cadenza, it's a half-step lower, as part of a series of four-note chords for the solo violin (the cadenza excerpt, by the way, is three separate lines, not a score happening simultaneously).

Later, he would use it to chilling effect in his 8th String Quartet which he dedicated to the "victims of fascism and war," writing it after visiting the bombed-out city of Dresden in 1960, appearing almost constantly amidst a number of self-quotations from many of his earlier works. The autobiographical implications in this motive makes you wonder what the real program is behind this music...

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Anyway, back to the concerto: in 1955, two years after Stalin's death, Oistrakh practically had to coax it out of Shostakovich's desk drawer. Reluctantly, Shostakovich allowed him to work on it, though Oistrakh admitted it took a while for him to “get into it,” as we’d say today. He gave it its world premiere in Leningrad on October 29th, 1955.

It was practically ignored by the critics and was poorly received by the audience.

Oistrakh had already been invited on a tour of the United States and he wanted to take the ‘new’ concerto with him, an opportunity that probably convinced Shostakovich to release it from its desk drawer in the first place.

The second performance of the concerto took place in Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulos on December 29th, 1955. It was subsequently recorded.

Here is the audio of that historic recording:
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It was met with great enthusiasm from the American audience. During the bows, Mitropoulos held up the score and bowed with it in honor of the absent composer.

Later, Oistrakh returned to give the Moscow premiere where it was again greeted by official silence. Only later did it become a successfully regarded work in the Soviet Union.

Here, by the way, is a video of the finale with Oistrakh and the Berlin State Orchestra conducted by Heinz Fricke. I believe the recording was made in 1967.
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- Dick Strawser

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