SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 14 (Ladislav Slovak/ Leos Komarek/ Magdalena Hajossyova/ Pat Donaldson/ Peter Mikulas/ Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.550631)
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Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975)
Symphony No.14, Op.135
Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906, the sonof an engineer. He had his first piano lessons from his mother when he was nine and showedsuch musical precocity that he was able at the age of thirteen to enter the PetrogradConservatory, where he had piano lessons from Leonid Nikolayev and studied compositionwith the son-in-law of Rimsky-Korsakov, Maximilian Steinberg. He continued his studiesthrough the difficult years of the civil war, positively encouraged by Glazunov, thedirector of the Conservatory, and helping to support his family, particularly after thedeath of his father in 1922, by working as a cinema pianist, in spite of his ownindifferent health, weakened by the privations of the time. He completed his course as apianist in 1923 and graduated in composition in 1925. His graduation work, the First Symphony,was performed in Leningrad in May 1926 and won considerable success, followed byperformances in the years immediately following in Berlin and in Philadelphia. As apianist he was proficient enough to win an honourable mention at the International ChopinCompetition in Warsaw.
Shostakovich in his early career was closely involved with thetheatre, and in particular with the Leningrad Working Youth Theatre, in musicalcollaboration in Meyerhold's Moscow production of Mayakovsky's The Flea andin film music, notably New Babylon. His opera The Nose,based on Gogol,was completed in 1928 and given its first concert performance in Leningrad in June 1929,when it provoked considerable hostility from the vociferous and increasingly powerfulproponents of the cult of the Proletarian in music and the arts. The controversy arousedwas a foretaste of difficulties to come. His ballet The Golden Age was staged withoutsuccess in Leningrad in October 1930. Orchestral compositions of these years included asecond and third symphony, each a tactful answer to politically motivated criticism.
In 1934 Shostakovich won acclaim for his opera Lady Macbeth
of the Mtsensk District, based on a novella by the 19th century Russian writer NikolayLeskov, and performed in Leningrad and shortly afterwards, under the title KaterinaIsmailova, in Moscow. Leskov's story deals with a bourgeois crime, the murder of hermerchant husband by the heroine of the title, and the opera seemed at first thoroughlyacceptable in political as well as musical terms. Its condemnation in Pravda in January1936, apparently at the direct instigation of Stalin, was a significant and dangerousreverse, leading to the withdrawal from rehearsal that year of his Fourth Symphony
and the composition the following year of a Fifth Symphony, described, in terms to whichShostakovich had no overt objection, as a Soviet artist's creative reply to justifiedcriticism. Performed in Leningrad in November 1937, the symphony was warmly welcomed,allowing his reinstatement as one of the leading Russian composers 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 the country andthe siege of Leningrad, commemorated by Shostakovich in his Seventh Symphony, a work hehad begun under siege conditions and completed after his evacuation to Kuibyshev.
Stricter cultural control enforced in the years following theend of the war led, in 1948, to a further explicit attack on Shostakovich, coupled nowwith Prokofiev, Miaskovsky and Khachaturian, and branded as formalists, exhibitinganti-democratic tendencies. The official condemnation brought, of course, social andpractical difficulties. The response of Shostakovich was to hold back certain of hiscompositions from public performance. His first Violin Concerto, written for David Oistrakh, was notperformed until after the death of Stalin in 1953, when he returned to the symphony withhis Tenth, which met a mixed reception when it was first performed in Leningrad inDecember 1953. His next two symphonies avoided perilous excursions into liberalisation,the first of them celebrating The Year 1905 and the fortieth anniversary of theOctober Revolution of 1917 in 1957, and the second The Year 1917, completed in 1961.
In 1962 there came the first performance of the ThirteenthSymphony, with its settings of controversial poems by Yevtushenko, and a revival of therevised version 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 whichhe suffered a continuing deterioration of health, brought intense activity as a composer,with a remarkable series of works, many of them striving for still further simplicity andlucidity of style. The remarkable Fourteenth Symphony of 1969, settings of poems byApollinaire, Lorca, Rilke and K??chelbecker, dedicated to his friend Benjamin Britten, wasfollowed in 1971 by the last of the fifteen symphonies, a work of some ambiguity. The lastof his fifteen string quartets was completed and performed in 1974 and his finalcomposition, the Viola Sonata, in July 1975. He died on 9th August.
The career of Shostakovich must be seen against the politicaland cultural background of his time and country. Born in the year after Bloody Sunday,when peaceful demonstrators in St. Petersburg had been fired on by troops, Shostakovichhad his musical education under the new Soviet regime. His own political sympathies havebeen questioned and there has been controversy particularly over the publicationTestimony, The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov,once accused of fabrication in his portrayal of the composer as a covert enemy ofBolshevism. The testimony of others and a recent scholarly survey of the life and work ofShostakovich suggest that the general tenor of Volkov's Testimony is true enough.
Shostakovich belonged to a family of liberal tradition, whose sympathies would have lainwith the demonstrators of 1905. Under Stalinism, however, whatever initial enthusiasm hemay have felt for the new order would have evaporated with the attacks on artisticintegrity and the menacing attempts to direct all creative expression to the aims ofsocialist realism. While writers and painters may express meaning more obviously,composers have a more ambiguous art, so that the meaning of music, if it has any meaningbeyond itself, may generally be hidden. Shostakovich learned how to wear the necessarypublic mask that enabled him to survive the strictures of 1936 and 1948 without realsacrifice of artistic integrity.
As early as 1936 Benjamin Britten had been impressed by themusic of Shostakovich, a concert performance of whose LadyMacbeth of the Mtsensk District he reviewed in that year. In 1960 he met theRussian composer, during the course of the latter's visit to London for the firstperformance there of his first Cello Concerto.
The friendship continued during Britten's visits to Russia in subsequent years and leddirectly, in 1969, to the composition of the FourteenthSymphony of Shostakovich, a work that he dedicated to Britten. The work isscored for an orchestra often violins, four violas, three cellos and two five-stringdouble basses, a percussion section of castanets, wooden blocks, tom-toms, whip, bells,vibraphone, xylophone and celesta and for soprano and bass soloists. In conception thesymphony continues the vein of Mussorgsky's Songs andDances of Death and consists of settings of poems that are concerne