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Truth trapped in a pressure cooker

Shostakovich BernsteinThis extraordinary piece of music (the 5th Symphony – Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, 1960 recording) is here given a wondrous interpretation – though I do have one cavil (more of which later)

Shostakovich was for a while a Soviet darling. His music indelibly Russian, strong, heroic – though of course music without words is a particularly subtle medium of expression. Because it is wordless, and because in the end its reception, in the listener’s ears, sinews, guts, heart, is so subjective, it can be far more covertly subversive than art-form using words, which can be coldly scrutinised and analysed by those looking to outlaw heterodoxy. And the complexity of classical music is a particularly good hiding place, especially as performance itself, of the same notation, can uncover different meanings.

Shostakovich fell from grace when his music was combined with narrative and words – the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk. Stalin walked out of a performance, and that was enough. The composer was then living on the edge; a dangerous time and place to stand accused of being ‘unprogressive’ . Men and women were incarcerated in mental hospitals and labour camps for revisionism or being ‘anti-Soviet’ and of course the labels were often cut by apparatchiks to fit all manner of breaches of a constantly shifting Party Line.

Dmitri Shostakovich

The controversial 5th symphony was composed in 1937, and represented Shostakovich’s (ostensible) desire to make amends; he described it as ‘a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism’ So its controversy resides in part in interpretation and re-interpretation. Did Shostakovich sell-out? Is he therefore pariah as far as other, braver dissenters of the time are concerned? Or (given the possibility of music without words to embrace subtle nuances of meaning) was the piece itself more subversive, still, than the party line ‘approvers’ believed?

A document published in 1979, after the composer’s death, ‘The Testimony’ reported something Shostakovich said :

I think that is it clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth – it’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying ‘Your business is rejoicing, Your business is rejoicing’ and you rise shakily and go off muttering, ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing

And here interpretation in performance plays its part, and where my cavil arises over this otherwise glorious performance.

In 1960 when this recording was made, Bernstein to some extent I think – particularly as he performed this IN Russia with the New York Philharmonic as part of a cultural exchange, friendship programme – plays the finale ‘triumphally’ This was of course ‘pre-Testimony’. He takes the final movement at a fairly ferocious lick. And this has the effect of reducing a particular quality of blaring, shocking dissonance which, when taken a tithe slower, because it is more held, is physically more edgy, uncomfortable, harsh, rather than triumphant. Certainly, a couple of live concerts I’ve attended, in the last couple of years, where this work has been performed, a slight slowing of the pace makes any idea of ‘triumph’ seem full of mockery. In fact, the most recent concert of it, the final notes feel like the end of the world, the ferocious mechanical energy, representing the heavy, productive blows of Soviet industry, which occur in the final movement, speak not of the glory of rising output and economic growth, but of ‘the cost, oh the cost of human life and spirit – it is individual man and woman being beaten under those hammers” Or, as the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich rather more succinctly said

Anybody who thinks the finale is glorification is an idiot

In this version (recorded in 1959) the finale definitely suggests the ‘triumph over adversity’ which the Party Line wanted from its artists, the music is spritely, vigorous optimistic and energetic

Here is Lenny conducting that finale again, 20 years later, and some 90 seconds slower. To my mind, this gives the contrast between the hugely dynamic aspects and the slower, more reflective harmonious sections a kind of manic, angsty, almost deranged quality to the big blaring blusters, like public pronouncements

Leonard bernstein

However, whatever interpretation the composer intended, whether he bowed to pressure or whether the symphony represents a resistant call to those who wish to hear it, one thing IS clear, this is a stunning, profound piece of music. The fact that it has so many possibilities inherent for discovery within it, the fact that performance itself yields such diversity, is testament to its richness

And I do, despite missing the end of the world bleakness of the finale which is uncovered at slightly slower tempo – it is, after all, marked as allegro non troppo, rather than allegro – think this is a wonderfully rich and satisfying interpretation

This version is completed by Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F major with Bernstein conducting from the piano.

Though I must admit, such is the power of the Symphony, that I am musicked out and reeling with wrung out emotion and can’t contemplate listening to anything else.

Rarely has the edgy yet bleak despair after the devastation of war, the horror and emptiness of militaristic blare, the utter exhaustion of a kind of inevitable surrender to the posturings of spin, and the end of the world been so beautifully done. The little threads of quiet hope which arise throughout the piece, the small moments of peace and harmony, have nothing to do with the state. Though crushed, again and again, ‘and still they rise’

(Quotes from ‘Testament’ and from Mstislav Rostropovich are from the CD liner notes)

What a piece, what a stunning piece

As stated, the version I have (which Gramophone Magazine particularly lauded) is a long ago recording, and remastered. I can’t find the version on Amazon’s US site, though there are pairings of that recording with other second pieces.

Here is the link to the Amazon UK version I have and it is also available as an mp3 download, so you can hear snippets from each movement of this interpretation

Shostakovich Symphony No 5, Bernstein/New York Philharmonic Amazon UK

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