SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major, Op. 70; Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 – London Symphony Orchestra/ Giandrea Noseda – LSO Live SACD LS00828 (79:05 (2/5/21) [Distr. PIAS] ****:
In 1945, after the end of WW II, when Shostakovich announced his intention to issue a Ninth Symphony, his imagery of “a symphony of victory with a song of praise,” had all the earmarks of some rival to Beethoven’s epic Choral Symphony. Little did Soviet authorities suspect that the composer, who had been active with Mozart and Haydn piano duets, had conceived a “Classical” symphony frothy with humor and buffo sarcasm, a five-movement parody of ostentation and grandiose occasions. .In a pithy moment, Shostakovich stated, “Musicians will love to play it and critics will delight in blasting it.”
From the opening foray of strings and woodwinds, conductor Noseda keeps a light hand on the formal proceedings, the piccolo’s lyrical polka and the trombone’s rude militancy. The Allegro exposition repeats in true Classical style, the figurations busy and playful, adding a snare drum to the mock heroics. A solo violin adds some gypsy color, but the tenor of the music becomes more threatened, not pacified.
The slow movement, Moderato, presents a tremulous waltz, a bittersweet song led by a clarinet solo and muted strings. The motion becomes chromatic, in staggering steps, now expressive of sorrow and pain, with peaks of cruel memories. The last measures of this slow movement project desolation and bleakness. The scherzo (Presto) movement that follows will initiate a continuous flow of music until the end. This galloping scherzo assumes a manic air –“an antic disposition” – that jars us in demonic, martial, trumpet phrases and percussive jabs in the eye. Oddly, the momentum dies away to segue into a Largo that Mussorgsky might have penned. A mournful bassoon responds to ominous sounds from the trombones and the tuba. The bassoon work carries us into the sprightly tune of the E-flat Major finale, marked Allegretto-Allegro. The Charlie Chaplin circus sensibility dominates, half dance and half march, maybe touched by the irreverence of Richard Strauss of Till Eulenspiegel. The Allegro gains a furious impetus, as if Shostakovich were aware that he would face an implacable, political abyss. The performance from the Barbican, London 30 January and 9 February 2020, has a vibrantly clear presence.
The Shostakovich Tenth Symphony (1953) resonates with the implications of the death of Josef Stalin (1878-1953), the so-called “Great Leader and Teacher” whose brutally authoritarian regime from 1927 had created havoc for the composer individually and for his nation collectively. True, Shostakovich had survived the 1948 inquisitions into Soviet music and whether Russia’s composers were producing music worthy of her people. But the personal costs, both in suppressed compositions and the actual elimination of friends and colleagues lingered; and this music, which incorporates the Dmitri Shostakovich monogram: DSCH, bears a cruel unity of purpose.
Noseda, like his recorded predecessors Mravinsky and Mitropoulos, builds a colossal edifice in the first movement Moderato, a gigantic structure that lasts over 22 minutes and resembles not so much a similar piece by the beloved Mahler as it does Bruckner, and that composer’s reliance on liturgical orisons. Maintaining an eerie and ominous pulse, the first movement proves capable of emotional extremes, its darkly lyrical – at times, waltzlike – and tonal impulse’s rising to a militant anguish. The brooding, extended coda sees not so much hope but wonderment at “what rough beast” lies just beyond the present horizon.
The second movement Allegro proffers likely a musical depiction of Stalin’s brutal personality. A frenzied march, a biting and unforgiving recollection of some eight to twenty million murdered individuals at Stalin’s command, sweeps through the orchestra, a Testimony to the ferocity of a human will seduced by sheer power. Soon into the third movement Allegretto – Largo -Piu mosso – the music invests the Shostakovich motto kernel, here from flutes and clarinets. Yet another musical anagram appears, that of an inamorata, Elmira Nazirova, the composer-pianist from Azerbaijan, whom Shostakovich loved. Her motto: E-A-E-D-A may be converted by solfege into E-La-Mi-Re-A; and thus, the two personalized musical motifs intertwine much in the manner of Robert and Clara Schumann within a sea of turmoil. The Shostakovich figure at first seem artificial, even puppet-like; but the later evolution of the music in tandem with Elmira creates an impassioned, tortured waltz in the midst of tragic fate. This movement ends not with bang but with a fluttered whimper.
The last movement, Andante – Allegro opens with dark strings almost recollecting Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. Woodwinds and horn try to inject some light, but the gloom hovers over a defunct landscape. The sense of menace swells, until a clarinet announces what will become another nervous and parodic martial movement, here imbued with the DSCH motive, whose fff marks its conversion to nightmare. Yet his annunciation halts the swirling frenzy, and a brief respite occurs. The martial elements try to regroup, but the melancholy dominates, until the bassoon assumes a dancelike authority that, like Poe, laughs but smiles no more. The potent climax will once more invoke DSCH, now an ambiguous figure not far from Stravinsky’s Petrushka, a tragic clown of Fate, whose “triumph” may be hollow.