Gergiev’s Munich Shostakovich – Symphonies 11 & 15

GermanyGermany Shostakovich: Munich Philharmonic, Valery Gergiev (conductor), Philharmonic Hall, Gasteig, Munich, 19.7.2012 (JFL)

Shostakovich: Symphony 11, op.103 “The Year 1905”, Symphony No.15, op.141

The Eighth and last concert in Valery Gergiev’s cycle of the 15 Shostakovich Symphonies in Munich (divided between his Mariinsky Orchestra and the Munich Philharmonic) appropriately included the 15th Symphony, preceded by the 11th. The vast Philharmonic Hall was full—unlike during several previous concerts. Partly because by now the word had gotten around that these were awe-some events and that nobody need be afraid of unadulterated Shostakovich. Partly because the Munich Philharmonic side of the cycle has its subscription audience—the second largest of orchestras worldwide—to fall back on.

The 11th Symphony was intended for the 40th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution, but when it premiered it would have been in time only for the 41st anniversary. The smiting of the Hungarian Revolution in late 1956 may or may not have had an effect on the belated finishing of the work, but it did most likely have an effect on Shostakovich’s re-dedication of it to the Russian Revolution of 1905 with a greater almost obvious parallel to the Hungarian situation.

available at AmazonDSCH, Symphonies 2 & 11,
V.Gergiev / Mariinsky Orchestra

available at AmazonDSCH, Symphony No.15,
K.Kondrashin / Dresden StaKap.
Profil Hänssler

The fraudulent Volkov diaries suggest the following (imagined) conversation between Shostakovich and his ‘biographer’ about the Eleventh Symphony: “It seems to me that much in Russian history repeats itself often. Of course no event repeats in exactly the same way. Naturally there are differences. But much repeats itself, all the same. The people think and act alike in many ways. You realize that if you study, say, Mussorgsky, or read War and Peace. This repeatability is what I wanted to show in the 11th Symphony. I wrote it in 1957. And it reflects the world of 1957, even though I called it “The Year of 1905”. The Symphony is about a people that has lost its faith, because the chalice of evil has run over.” How do you say “Se non è vero, è ben trovato!” in Russian?

Hungarian message or not, it’s a gripping work and the Munich Philharmonic played the serene and slow opening of the first movement—so alike many other DSCH symphonies, but more delicately-bitter, less gloomy and less darkly lumbering —with a broad sound, sufficiently raw, with eagerness and a touch of duty, engaged, wholly enjoyable, just not quite sensational. If I hadn’t just heard Stanisław Skrowaczewski with the BRSO in the 10th Symphony, I would have been awed even more wholly.

The second movement stirs mightily, without erupting, and the third movement Adagio builds tension in the understated DSCHean-way with a typical release, brief soaring—and then deflating like a misjudged soufflé over the same melody. In the fourth movement the wild ride in a fast machine begins, ensuing in a thunderously mighty, naturally terrific finale in generous sound–aided of course by the fact that most of DSCH, the 11thSymphony certainly, sound their very best in the full dynamics surround sound of a live performance.

Throughout the 11th, Shostakovich weaves a quilt-pattern of musical citations of revolutionary songs: the funeral march “Вы жертвою пали” (You Fell a Victim). The battle-march “Смело, товарищи, в ногу” (Bravely, Comrades, Keep Step!). The student protest song “Беснуйтесь, тираны!” (Rage, Tyrants!). The Polish revolutionary song “Varshavianka”… “For the Russian listener”, Laurel E. Fay points out lucidly, “even a snatch of one of these tunes carries a subtext of symbolic and concrete imagery, much as fragments of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ or ‘We Shall Overcome’ might communicate to an American audience.”

Unless pre-exposed and aware, a modern listener that’s either not Russian or born in the 80s, will get little to nothing of that subtext—but the music doesn’t need a sub-plot to be interesting. Just as it’s perfectly possible to enjoy the 15th Symphony, DSCH’s little toy-shop of horrors, without getting every last classical musical quote, whether the admittedly obvious ‘Lone Ranger’ opening, courtesy Rossini, or the last movement’s Wagner and Lyadov references, the second movement’s premonitory hint of Tristan & Isolde, or the repetitively suggested theme from DSCH’s own Seventh Symphony. [See also: “Dip Your Ears, No.88 (Shostakovich with Kondrashin)”]

The opening movement, with its twisted coyness, was in particularly good hands with Gergiev, a conductor as keen on the humorous side of DSCH, as was DSCH himself, who was greatly pleased when the audience chuckled or smiled when they were hearing one of his symphonies. Admittedly, he didn’t always give his audiences much to smile about – the 4th, 8th, 13th, 14th) are not just grim because of our retrospective gloomification of DSCH. But at least in the 6th, 9th, and 15th, there’s plenty to grin-along with—political messages or death-foreboding (15th) notwithstanding. The performance, trying, but also succeeding, included a magnificent cello solo, the concertmaster had a good day, too, and there was an apt breathless disconnect to the third movement. Different means are needed here than in the 11th, which does well enough on sheer muscle, but if easy with the idiom was missing, it wasn’t missed while the performance lasted.

A suggestive question had allowed Kurt Sanderling to elicit from Shostakovich that his 15th is an “extremely tragic work”. But tragedy and comedy are separate only in Hollywood—underneath a dose of fatalism, there’s more than a wink and a nudge in this work. And Gergiev and his musicians winked and nudged splendidly.

Jens F. Laurson