Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Zuill Bailey Returns - with the Shostakovich 1st Cello Concerto

Zuill Bailey
Who: The Harrisburg Symphony with Stuart Malina
What: Masterworks Concert with guest cellist, Zuill Bailey - with Beethoven's 2nd Symphony (which you can read about, here), Shostakovich's 1st Cello Concerto, and Nicolas Bacri's Symphony No. 4 (which you can read about, here)
When: Saturday, March 19th at 8pm, Sunday, March 20th at 3pm (a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance)
Where: The Forum, behind the State Capitol, at 5th & Walnut Streets, Harrisburg PA

Why: Because Zuill Bailey returns to Harrisburg for the 1st Cello Concerto by Dmitri Shostakovich, a work he recorded for his debut on the Telarc label, a program of “Russian Masterpieces” which included Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme. Already familiar from appearances with Market Square Concerts and the Next Generation Festival which began in 1997, he played the Dvořák Concerto the last time he was on stage at the Forum a couple seasons ago.

He plays a cello made by Matteo Gofriller in 1693, previously owned by the cellist of the legendary Budapest String Quartet. Here, Zuill plays the Prelude from Bach's 2nd Suite for Solo Cello, one of six suites Bach composed around the time Zuill's cello was 27 years old:
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The Shostakovich Concerto is a more recent piece, composed in 1959, in the years following Stalin's death, a time when the composer was feeling rejuvenated creatively after years of not just artistic repression during Stalin's regime. It was composed for his friend, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and the idea for it probably came to him when the two had toured with his Cello Sonata in the mid-1950s and which they recorded (it was released in 1957). As Rostropovich related the story in Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, ever since 1946, the young cellist had wanted to gather up the nerve to ask Shostakovich to write a piece for him but the composer's wife, Irina, explained, if he really wanted that, the best thing was not to ask him directly and never talk to him about it.

It took thirteen years – but one day, Rostropovich was reading an interview with Shostakovich in the newspaper saying he was working on a cello concerto, and completed it the next month. About two weeks later, Rostropovich shows up at Shostakovich's dacha outside Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and is given the score, and asked to play through it four days later.

On a hot August day, the cellist and his pianist showed up at the arranged time and while Shostakovich was rummaging around to find the music stand, Rostropovich said he wouldn't need that.

“What do you mean, you don't need a music stand?”

“You know, I'll play it from memory.”

“Impossible, impossible,” Shostakovich muttered. And then he listened to his new concerto played through – from memory. The cellist had learned the entire piece and memorized it, too, all in four days.

After they'd played the piece through and worked on a few spots, they sat around having some drinks with a few friends when Shostakovich remembered he hadn't written the dedication in the score, writing Rostropovich's name on the title page. Not only did the cellist finally have a work written for him by the great Shostakovich, it was even dedicated to him.

On October 4th, 1959, Rostropovich premiered the work with Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic. This performance, with Charles Groves conducting the London Symphony, was recorded two years after the world premiere:
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Scored for a “reduced” orchestra – to better balance the cello – with only double woodwinds, one horn and no trumpets or low brass, the concerto is regarded as one of the more challenging in the repertoire, along with Prokofiev's Symphony-Concertante for Cello and Orchestra which Rostropovich had frequently performed and which Shostakovich loved.

As Rostropovich recalled, “there are a host of connections [between the two works]... Not only are many details of the Symphony-Concertante reflected in the First Concerto, but indeed, whole sections of the piece (admittedly much transformed) found their way into Shostakovich's work.” One such connection was the use of “rhetorical bangs on the timpani.”

For instance, “At the end of the finale [of the Prokofiev], the cello ascends the heights as if spiraling up to the very summit of a domed roof; on reaching the highest note it is silenced by one bang of the timpani which puts an end to the frenzied madness.”

Now listen to the end of the first movement of Shostakovich's cello concerto, from 6:00-6:24, where the lone timpani strike seems to tell the soloist, “okay, enough.”

Shostakovich, Rostropovich & Rozhdestvensky rehearsing

Much has been made of “secret programs” or “hidden themes” in many of Shostakovich's works – the famous ending of the 5th Symphony, for one; various quotations of song fragments in the 10th Symphony; not to mention the psychological implications in his use of his own “signature tune” based on the notes D-S-C-H (D, E-flat, C, B in German, from his initials, ДШ or D.Sh, turned into D.SCH in German) – and many dismiss these as mere conjecture since the composer never admitted as such (but then, he notoriously said little about his music or himself).

However, in this instance, we have Rostropovich's recollection of one such admission: in the final movement, shortly after the long solo cadenza ends with the return of strings and winds in a rough, almost rude take-off on what sounds like a folk-song.

In the above video, at 22:49 there begins an exchange between strings in one bar, answered by winds (complete with “rhetorical bangs on the timpani”) that Shostakovich pointed out to the cellist.

“The first time [he] hummed this passage through to me, he laughed and said, 'Slava, have you noticed?' [Shostakovich referred to him by the nickname for Mstislav.]

“I hadn't noticed anything.

“'Where is my dear Suliko, Suliko?...'

“I doubt I would have detected this quote if Dmitri Dmitriyevich [the composer] hadn't pointed it out to me.”

It also recurs later in the finale (at 26:55 to the end, along with the opening motive). Wilson's biography includes pages of the score where Rostropovich circled references to the tune (see pp.538-540).

So, what is the importance of “Suliko”?

It was Stalin's favorite song and Shostakovich had parodied it once before in a satirical work called Rayók which means literally “peep show” or “little paradise,” a parody of the Stalinist days probably written in 1957 but only intended for private performance and not for publication (still a concern even after Stalin died).

“These allusions,” the cellist recalls, “are undoubtedly not accidental, but they are camouflaged so craftily that even I didn't notice them to begin with.” [Quoted in Elizabeth Wilson, p.365.]

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Holy Fool (by Surikov, 1885)
In Russian culture, there is this character of the “Holy Fool,” the religious mad-men who were viewed not as “village idiots” as we might in the West but as divinely inspired and therefore closer to God and therefore able to say truths which others normally could not get away with.” The most famous of these iurodiviy is probably St. Basil (the one for whom that most famous of Russian cathedrals is named in Moscow's Red Square) who once rebuked no less than Ivan the Terrible but was not taken off and executed as a Western autocrat might have ordered. In Mussorgsky's opera, Boris Godunov there is a scene between the “Simpleton” (a.k.a. Holy Fool) and Boris when the poor man accuses the tsar of having murdered Ivan the Terrible's son in order to succeed to the throne himself. Instead of ordering his arrest, Boris asks the fool to pray for him.

Dostoievsky novels are full of such characters (the main character of The Idiot, Prince Myshkin, for one, so innocent yet someone who makes others uncomfortable by his innocence). Pasternak, a friend of Shostakovich's, viewed himself as a kind of iurodiviy where the role became an ambiguous form of protest in the subtlety of its sub-text, “by deliberately communicating banalities on the surface level. This concept shaped Russian cultural consciousness during the years of totalitarian rule” [E. Wilson, p.484].

Shostakovich, in rendering unto Caesar what was Caesar's often with an open sense of cynicism, turned his back on much of the reality of his world, the better to avoid open conflict which was not part of his nature. When asked to deliver a speech on Beethoven, government officials “corrected” it, being experts on such things as “Beethoven and Revolution,” but the friend who'd helped him with the original speech described listening to Shostakovich read the speech. “How alien and artificial seemed the text he was pronouncing. Banal, journalistic phrases, textbook quotations, cumbersome and wordy statements. And the way he read this all out! In a quick patter, omitting all punctuation marks and with an intonation that seemed intentionally lacking in sense. It was as if he was poking fun at himself in the role of official orator” [Daniil Zhitomirksy, quoted in E. Wilson's Shostakovich, p.370-371].

Now, consider the opening four-note motive in the solo cello. G – E – B (or -H) – B-flat (or -B)? It doesn't really seem to spell out anything – if Shostakovich used D-S-C-H to represent himself as he already had done in the 10th Symphony (his first post-Stalin symphony) and would clearly do again in his 8th String Quartet written the following year, does this motive have any significance here? It permeates the entire work, after all. Is it a “variation” on D-S-C-H? Or... just a coincidence?

Or is there a bit of Rayók (a work that could only have been written by a “holy fool”) smiling out from behind all the manic energy of the first movement, set aside during the long, introspective, indeed tragic slow movement that builds up through the increasingly manic cadenza to erupt into one more nose-thumbing dance of the Holy Fool?

Or you could just say it makes for a smashing ending.

- Dick Strawser

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