Thursday, 18 February 2016
Living with Shostakovich 9
Recorded my Building a Library script Tuesday last for broadcast on BBC Radio 3's Record Review (as CD Review has now been re-named), 9.30am this coming Saturday morning. Obviously I'm not going to give anything away about interpretations, but it's the first time I've found myself with a neat set of examples that didn't need editing down and down - in fact the total came to several minutes under the three-quarters-of-an-hour mark, but I felt I'd communicated what I wanted with all the right connections. The only drawback, as on previous occasions, was that several respectable middle-of-the-road versions didn't make the script.
How did I feel at the end of two months with this most curious of Ninth Symphonies, having suggested it in the first place? Surprisingly churned up, with the darkest portions of the work running round in my head. Never believe anything the public Shostakovich said about his works. He knew he was going to get stick for not producing a triumphal ode to the end of the war after the externalised tragedy of the Seventh and the much deeper soul-searchings of the Eighth. Even so, to describe the Ninth as being 'dominated by an airy, serene mood' is absurd.
Amazing how the fallacy has clung to so many of the liner notes for the 28 recordings I listened to. Doing a Building a Library on those alone would be fascinating in itself.I jotted down some of the plums, won't shame the writers by naming them in just a few examples: 'unquestionably the wittiest and most cheerful of all his symphonies'; 'tiny, undramatic and transparent'; 'the composer really is celebrating the end of the past years of war'; 'a pronouncedly classical piece full of enchanting cheerfulness and bright colours...innocuous traditional symphonic close'. Pictured below: the nearest portrait of Shostakovich I could find to the year of the Ninth: the composer at Bach celebrations in Leipzig, 1950.
If you tot up the passages of unequivocal cheerfulness, they total less than three minutes out of an average 23. And even that's doubtful: note the sarcastic trill in the opening, Mozart-Haydn theme. Outer movement developments are fierce, even violent; the transformation of the finale's neutral main theme into a goosestepping parade should be terrifying. I'm not proposing any Ian MacDonald-style 'Stalin subtexts' here - he goes too far in suggesting that the slow movement sheds 'crocodile tears of mourning'. The clarinet melody is a sad, limping waltz, no two ways about it, preferably taken at a moderato pace sufficient to show that, not as an Adagio, but there are persuasive examples at the much slower pace.
As for the bassoon solo, as tragic and lamentatory as its cor anglais equivalent in the Eighth Symphony? One proponent of 'happy symphony' concedes it could be 'a homage to the dead on a day of general rejoicing'. But, in the words of the dubious Shostakovich in Testimony, they are beating the symphony to rejoice. That's not my fancy, it's there in the dissonances and the chromatic twists added to initially straightforward material. Below: Monty with Marshals Zhukov and Rokossovsky and General Sokolovsky of the Red Army leaving the Brandenburg Gate in 1945.
One should never forget that Shostakovich's aim is to entertain as well as to chasten, to give the orchestra its rewards - and all the woodwind have their moments in the sun (though the oboe's is very brief). It's a wonderful, a perfect work, especially in dialogue with its vast(ly different) but similarly five-movement predecessor - in both the last three movements run without a break - and I hope something of that perfect originality comes through on Saturday. Any Building a Library worth its salt should be as much about the subject as the performances, taking you through the piece and pointing out its treasures, and a short symphony is in many ways the perfect candidate for that.
Top image: Shostakovich's greeting to Sibelius on his 80th birthday, inscribed with formal congratulations and a quotation of the finale's main theme. Snapped during my heavenly five hours at Ainola; discussed in context here