SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 12 (Ladislav Slovak/ Leos Komarek/ Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.550626)
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Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975)
Symphony No.6 in B Minor, Op. 54
Symphony No.12 in D Minor, Op.112
Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906, the son of anengineer. He had his first piano lessons from his mother when he was nine andshowed such musical precocity that he was able at the age of thirteen to enterthe Petrograd Conservatory, where he had piano lessons from Leonid Nikolayev andstudied composition with the son-in-law of Rimsky-Korsakov, MaximilianSteinberg. He continued his studies through the difficult years of the civilwar, positively encouraged by Glazunov, the director of the Conservatory, andhelping to support his family, particularly after the death of his father in1922, by working as a cinema pianist, in spite of his own indifferent health,weakened by the privations of the time. He completed his course as a pianist in1923 and graduated in composition in 1925. His graduation work, the FirstSymphony, was performed in Leningrad in May 1926 and won considerable success,followed by performances in the years immediately following in Berlin and inPhiladelphia. As a pianist he was proficient enough to win an honourable mentionat the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw.
Shostakovich in his early career was closely involved with the theatre, andin particular with the Leningrad Working Youth Theatre, in musical collaborationin Meyerhold's Moscow production of Mayakovsky's The Flea and in filmmusic, notably New Babylon. His opera The Nose, based on Gogol,was completed in 1928 and given its first concert performance in Leningrad inJune 1929, when it provoked considerable hostility from the vociferous andincreasingly powerful proponents of the cult of the Proletarian in music and thearts. The controversy aroused was a foretaste of difficulties to come. Hisballet The Golden Age was staged without success in Leningrad in October 1930.
Orchestral compositions of these years included a second and third symphony,each a tactful answer to politically motivated criticism.
In 1934 Shostakovich won acclaim for his opera Lady Macbeth of theMtsensk District, based on a novella by the 19th century Russian writer NikolayLeskov, and performed in Leningrad and shortly afterwards, under the titleKaterina Ismailova, in Moscow. Leskov's story deals with a bourgeois crime, themurder of her merchant husband by the heroine of the title, and the opera seemedat first thoroughly acceptable in political as well as musical terms. Itscondemnation in Pravda in January 1936, apparently at the direct instigation ofStalin, was a significant and dangerous reverse, leading to the withdrawal fromrehearsal that year of his Fourth Symphony and the composition thefollowing year of a Fifth Symphony, described, in terms to whichShostakovich had no overt objection, as a Soviet artist's creative reply tojustified criticism. Performed in Leningrad in November 1937, the symphony waswarmly welcomed, allowing his reinstatement as one of the leading Russiancomposers of the time.
In 1941 Shostakovich received the Stalin prize for his Piano Quintet.
In the same year Russia became involved in war, with Hitler's invasion of thecountry and the siege of Leningrad, commemorated by Shostakovich in his SeventhSymphony, a work he had begun under siege conditions and completed after hisevacuation to Kuibyshev.
Stricter cultural control enforced in the years following the end of the warled, in 1948, to a further explicit attack on Shostakovich, coupled now withProkofiev, Miaskovsky and Khachaturian, and branded as formalists, exhibitinganti-democratic tendencies. The official condemnation brought, of course, socialand practical difficulties. The response of Shostakovich was to hold backcertain of his compositions from public performance. His first ViolinConcerto, written for David Oistrakh, was not performed until after thedeath of Stalin in 1953, when he returned to the symphony with his Tenth, whichmet a mixed reception when it was first performed in Leningrad in December 1953.
His next two symphonies avoided perilous excursions into liberalisation, thefirst of them celebrating The Year 1905 and the fortieth anniversary ofthe October Revolution of 1917 in 1957, and the second The Year 1917,completed in 1961.
In 1962 there came the first performance of the Thirteenth Symphony, with itssettings of controversial poems by Yevtushenko, and a revival of the revisedversion of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, under the title KaterinaIsmailova. The opera now proved once more acceptable.
The last dozen years of the life of Shostakovich, during which he suffered acontinuing deterioration of health, brought intense activity as a composer, witha remarkable series of works, many of them striving for still further simplicityand lucidity of style. The remarkable Fourteenth Symphony of 1969, settings ofpoems by Apollinaire, Lorca, Rilke and K??chelbecker, dedicated to his friendBenjamin Britten, was followed in 1971 by the last of the fifteen symphonies, awork of some ambiguity. The last of his fifteen string quartets was completedand performed in 1974 and his final composition, the Viola Sonata, in July 1975.
He died on 9th August.
The career of Shostakovich must be seen against the political and culturalbackground of his time and country. Born in the year after Bloody Sunday, whenpeaceful demonstrators in St. Petersburg had been fired on by troops,Shostakovich had his musical education under the new Soviet regime. His ownpolitical sympathies have been questioned and there has been controversyparticularly over the publication Testimony, The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich,as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov, once accused of fabrication in hisportrayal of the composer as a covert enemy of Bolshevism. The testimony ofothers and a recent scholarly survey of the life and work of Shostakovichsuggest that the general tenor of Volkov's Testimony is true enough.
Shostakovich belonged to a family of liberal tradition, whose sympathies wouldhave lain with the demonstrators of 1905. Under Stalinism, however, whateverinitial enthusiasm he may have felt for the new order would have evaporated withthe attacks on artistic integrity and the menacing attempts to direct allcreative expression to the aims of socialist realism. While writers and paintersmay express meaning more obviously, composers have a more ambiguous art, so thatthe meaning of music, if it has any meaning beyond itself, may generally behidden. Shostakovich learned how to wear the necessary public mask that enabledhim to survive the strictures of 1936 and 1948 without real sacrifice ofartistic integrity.
Shostakovich wrote his Sixth Symphony in 1939, star1ing it in Apriland completing the work in October. The pre-war years had brought greatsuffering and the death of musicians, actors, writers and poets, in Stalin'sdesire for political or1hodoxy and the establishment of art that reflected theprinciples of Socialist Realism. By 1939, however, it had proved necessary toconsider a non-aggression pact with Hitler's Germany, eventually signed inAugust 1939, on the eve of Hitler's attack on Poland. Political circumstancesdictated a less rigorous control of music, which would prove to have propagandavalue abroad, if couched in more conventional bourgeois terms. The SixthSymphony, however, written under what might be regarded in part as morefavourable conditions, proved puzzling to contemporary critics. It was firstperformed in Leningrad on 5th November 1939 under the conductor