SHOSTAKOVICH: October, Op. 132 (Abraham Kaplan/ Gerard Schwarz/ Seattle Symphony Chorale/ Seattle Symphony Orchestra/ Zsolt Nagy Major) (Naxos: 8.5578.12)
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Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975)
The Execution of Stepan Razin, Op. 119 October, Op. 131 Five Fragments, Op. 42
Dmitry Shostakovich must be reckoned among theleading composers of the twentieth century. Heralded bySoviet authorities following the Bolshevik revolution,his fortunes rose and fell in response to the thoughts andactions of Joseph Stalin. During the 1920s he had beenhailed as the most promising of the new generation ofRussian -- that is \Soviet" -- composers, one who had,in fact, captured the enthusiastic attention of Stalinhimself. The Soviet dictator especially liked the seriesof politically correct film scores Shostakovich wascomposing in the populist style known throughout thearts as Soviet Realism.
Beginning with his opera, The Nose (from Gogol),in 1927-28, powerful Stalinists started faulting thecomposer for forsaking the principles of the Revolution.
Still, Shostakovich remained in good stead until hisaudacious opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk Districtwas skewered by Stalin after an initially successfulpremi?¿re in 1934. A year later Pravda published aneditorial, titled "Chaos Instead of Music", echoingStalin's judgement. Though he regained favour with hisostensibly populist Symphony No. 5, still his mostplayed symphony, he faced renewed censure beginningin 1948, when the Cold War began to intensify anddeviations from the party line were punishable offences.
Creating music under totalitarian rule is fraught withperilous consequences, and Shostakovich strovemightily to fashion music that would enable him tosurvive in a landscape of political quicksand.
For the rest of his life Shostakovich faceduncertainty and suppression from Soviet authorities. Acontroversial book by Solomon Volkov, purportingaccurately to reproduce interviews with Shostakovich,posits the argument that beneath Shostakovich's pro-Soviet "manifest" musical themes is a dark strain ofcovert anti-Stalinist messages. Though most scholarlywriters now discount Volkov's veracity, opinion in theWest about Shostakovich has in any case changedradically since the 1960s, when many commentatorstended to view the composer as a lackey of the Sovietsystem. No one denies the fear of reprisal thatShostakovich and other Soviet creative artists lived withduring the long Stalinist era. Today Shostakovich isrightly regarded as one of the dominant symphonists ofmodern times. Specific hidden messages or not, hismusic is inventive, dramatic, and spiky, frequentlybalancing public declamation with intensively broodingintrospection.
Moody both by nature and in reaction to the anxiousenvironment of Stalinist repression, Shostakovich hadan unerring and Mahler-like propensity toward darkutterance and musical parody. Yet he also had a capacityfor joyful expression that served as a balance to hisdepressive tendencies. In common with works by hisolder colleague, Sergey Prokofiev, Shostakovich'smusic reveals a palpable undercurrent of irony. HisPiano Concerto No. 1, dating from 1933, is filled withsardonic humour and parody, leavened by a trulybeautiful slow movement. Twenty years later, followingthe death of Stalin, Shostakovich wrote his dark, angstriddenSymphony No. 10, judged by manycommentators as his finest symphonic work. Itsferocious Scherzo has been described as a portrait ofStalin's murderous personality.
The Execution of Stepan Razin, Shostakovich'ssymphonic poem for baritone, mixed chorus andorchestra, is an intentionally ambiguous work thatoperates on two levels. Its manifest content, to useFreud's term, relates to the seventeenth-century Cossackrebel who led an unsuccessful revolt against Tsar AlexisI, father of Peter the Great. Captured, tortured andeventually beheaded in 1671, Razin became aposthumous folk-hero, a symbol of the downtroddenand disenfranchised individual standing up toentrenched, brutal power. As a son of the Revolution,Shostakovich composed this cantata-like work tocelebrate the life of Razin and by extension, all ordinarypeople who fought the great ongoing battle againstrepression. At the same time, the latent content (tocontinue with Freud's phraseology) points tellinglytoward Soviet repression personified by Stalin and hisminions.
Though Stalin had been dead for more than adecade when Shostakovich composed this work in1964, Stepan Razin made party loyalists squirm since itcould be taken as both a celebration of revolutionaryfervour and a condemnation, not of Soviet Realism, butof Soviet reality. Adding to the apparatchiks'discomfort, the text for Stepan Razin came courtesy ofYevgeny Yevtushenko, who had already denouncedRussian anti-Semitism in Babi Yar, which Shostakovichhad used in his Symphony No. 13.
The baritone soloist in Stepan Razin serves as bothnarrator and the eponymous Cossack leader. A virtualGreek chorus, the supporting singers echo and commenton the swirling events. Shostakovich's energetic scoreshows a mastery of orchestral colour achieved over alifetime of symphonic writing, ranging from aptlyabrasive sonorities to heartfelt evocations of Russianfolk-song. Much the same can be said of his treatmentof the choruses, which resonate to the magnificentcrowd scenes in Mussorgsky's epic opera, BorisGodunov.
One of Shostakovich's last orchestral works,composed fourteen years after Stalin's death in March1953, was the tone poem October, Op. 131, whichreceived its premi?¿re in October 1967. It was not thefirst time the composer had commemorated the OctoberRevolution: both the Second and Twelfth Symphoniesbore musical witness to that signal event inRussian/Soviet history. The 1967 score,commemorating the Golden Anniversary of that iconicevent, is a short tone poem that, as with several other ofShostakovich's works, quotes from previous works, inthis case Partisan Song from his score for a mid-1930sfilm, Volochayev Days, with another from the TenthSymphony. An opening section, Moderato, serves as anintroduction to an Allegro that builds to a fever-pitchedmarch.
Shostakovich composed his rarely heard FiveFragments (1935) as experimental "practice runs" forhis Fourth Symphony. They are brief aphoristicutterances in a spare style redolent of Schoenberg, Bergand Webern. The first two Fragments are rhythmicallyquirky and tersely "modernistic." No. 3 is slow andpensive, with long-held notes high in the violins. Shortthough it is (though it is the longest movement at a littleunder four minutes), it is strangely affecting, both sadand tender. No. 4 begins with bassoon soon joined incounterpoint by clarinet, then oboe, followed by thearrival of strings in the final minute. The edgy fifthnumber opens with snare drum and violin, recalling thelife/death battle between the devil and the haplesssoldier in Stravinsky's L'Histoire du soldat.Steven Lowe