FoM Recordings

Shostakovich Chamber Symphonies

The Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra
Kenneth Slowik, conductor

"No other music [than Shostakovich’s]—indeed, I would not hesitate to say, no other body of texts—so radically forces engagement with the most fundamental issues of interpretation. No other body of texts so compellingly demonstrates that meaning is never wholly immanent but arises out of a process of interaction between subject and object, so that interpretation is never wholly subjective or wholly objective to the exclusion of the other. And no other body of texts so fully convinces us that the meaning of an artwork, indeed of any communication, is never wholly stable but is the product of its history, a history that only begins with its creation."

In his penetrating study Defining Russia Musically, American musicologist Richard Taruskin elegantly diagnoses the central issue at stake in the study of Shostakovich’s music. Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (1906-1975) was the Soviet Union’s most prominent composer, yet his music was alternately celebrated and condemned by the state. Since the controversial 1979 publication of Solomon Volkov’s Testimony, a book represented as the memoirs of Shostakovich but whose fidelity to facts has been mistrusted, two camps of scholars—one (revisionists) epitomized by Elizabeth Wilson and Ian MacDonald, the other (anti-revisionists) by Taruskin and Laurel Fay—have attempted to parse Shostakovich’s biography for all evidence of his attitudes toward the Soviet government. Was Shostakovich staunchly opposed to the Soviet regime, as Volkov and the revisionists contend? If so, did he express his disapprobation in his music? Volkov’s questionable memoir, which must be addressed with skepticism but which cannot be ignored, is typical of the historiographical mire through which Shostakovich scholars trudge. The presence or absence of extramusical meaning in the composer’s oeuvre hangs on their answers.

. . . The Third Quartet is among the moodiest and most grotesque of Shostakovich’s early chamber works. The first movement, in an unstable sonata form, fails to achieve harmonic resolution in the recapitulation until the coda. The series of jarring dissonances in the double fugue of the development and tonal instability until late in the piece suggest an underlying turmoil that mars the picture of prewar tranquility Shostakovich recounted to Valentin Berlinsky, cellist of the Borodin Quartet. The two scherzi that follow both begin with violent, powerful themes that evoke the crude physicality of battle. The fourth movement presents a series of themes that may be read as ruminations on various forms of postbellum grief, presaging the requiem-like fourth movement of the Eighth Symphony. The final movement, beginning in F major, ventures to harmonically distant F# in its development, but its recapitulation does not successfully restate the initial material. This failed recapitulation recalls the structural insecurity of first movement, implying that post-war catharsis is as elusive as prewar serenity.

Shostakovich’s best-known contribution to the string quartet repertoire, his Eighth Quartet, was written in an unprecedentedly quick three-day period in the summer of 1960, after the composer visited Dresden to work on a score for Leo Arnshtam’s film “Five Days, Five Nights.” The film was to be an East German/Soviet collaboration showing the devastation resulting from the aerial bombardment by Allied forces during the Second World War. After touring the city, which was still struggling with reconstruction, the composer repaired to the nearby spa town of Gohrisch, but instead of writing the promised film score penned the Eighth Quartet (12-14 July). The work was instantly popular: at premiere on 2 October 1960 the Beethoven Quartet—like the Borodin Quartet, closely associated with Shostakovich’s works— played the entire quartet a second time as an encore, and they produced the first recording of the quartet within a few weeks. Shostakovich described the new piece in a letter to his friend Isaak Glikman, written just after the quartet’s composition:

“When I die, it’s hardly likely that someone will write a quartet dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write it myself. One could write on the frontispiece, “Dedicated to the author of this quartet.” The main theme is the monogram D, Es, C, H—that is, my initials [first heard in this recording at the opening of track 6]. The quartet makes use of themes from my works and the revolutionary song “Tormented by Grievous Bondage” [track 8 @ 2'16"]. My own themes are the following: from the First Symphony [track 6 @ 0'43"], the Eighth Symphony [the opening of track 8], the Piano Trio [track 7 @ 1'03"], the [First] Cello Concerto [track 8 @ 2'03"], and my opera Lady Macbeth [track 9 @ 3'58"]. The Funeral March from Wagner's Gotterdammerung [the opening chords of 9], and the second theme from the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony [track 6 @ 1'10"] are also hinted at. And I forgot—there’s also a theme from my Tenth Symphony [the D-Es-C-H motif with which the Chamber Symphony begins]. Quite something—this little miscellany! The pseudo-tragedy of the quartet is so great that, while composing it, my tears flowed as abundantly as urine after downing half a dozen beers. On arrival home, I have tried playing it twice, and have shed tears again. This time not because of the pseudo-tragedy, but because of my own wonder at the marvelous unity of form.”

The musical monogram to which the composer refers, the backbone of the Eighth Quartet, falls into the tradition, cherished by Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, of encoding messages in musical ciphers. In the German musical alphabet, E-flat is called Es, while B-natural is H; the notes with which the celli introduce the first movement, D—E-flat (Es)—C—B-natural (H), thus reference the composer’s name as it appears in German transliteration, Dimitry Schostakowitsch. The theme also recalls the C#-minor fugue (C#—B#—E—D#—C#) from the first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, as well as his theme B (B-flat)—A—C—H (B-natural) from the final, unfinished fugue from the Art of Fugue (of which the DSCH theme is a near-perfect inversion), and the sphinx-like four-note motives in Beethoven’s late quartets, especially Op. 131 and Op. 132. In the quartet, the numerous self-citations,
“musical ghosts” of the composer’s earlier career, interact with the DSCH motive, appearing roughly in order of their composition. The inclusion of the composer’s well-known themes certainly contributed, at least initially, to the Quartet’s tremendous popularity. The urge to self-reflection may have been motivated by Shostakovich’s tormented application, evidently made much against his personal desires but under official pressure, to join the Communist Party. Having yielded to state duress in the matter, Shostakovich may well have included himself among the “Victims of Fascism and War” to whom the quartet was officially dedicated. Shostakovich’s close friend Lev Lebedinsky reported that the pressure to join the Party was so taxing to the famously sensitive composer, who equated the gesture with moral death, that, having assembled a hoard of sleeping pills, Shostakovich was brought to the brink of suicide, and had composed the Quartet as a requiem to himself. (The Quartet was indeed among the works played at the composer’s funeral on 14 August 1975.)

. . . Rudolph Barshai (1924-2010) produced chamber symphonies from five Shostakovich quartets (nos. 1, 2, 3, 8, and 10). His first Shostakovich arrangement, of the Eighth Quartet, was explicitly authorized by the composer after Barshai impressed Shostakovich with his completion of the unfinished final fugue from Bach’s Art of Fugue. Barshai’s interest in orchestrating Shostakovich’s quartets for the Moscow Chamber Orchestra united two musical forms with specific social meanings in the Soviet Union. As Taruskin has pointed out, Shostakovich’s widely known symphonies could be read as propagandistic by censors or as dissident by discontents, and thus Shostakovich’s symphonic music, equally popular and polysemous, gained an unmatched social value in the Soviet state. But as the letters to Glikman and others suggest, the quartets—in particular the Third and Eighth—were intensely personal and diaristic. The arrangements occupy a space between two genres which, when viewed separately, seemed to signify the effects of opposing (internal and external) stimuli for their composer.
—from Catherine Slowik's liner essay

Op. 73A: Allegro non troppo [movement III]

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$16.00 + $2.98 shipping and handling
On this album: 

Dmitri Shostakovich, arr. Rudolf Barshai: Chamber Symphony in F Major, Op. 73A

[1] Allegretto

[2] Moderato con moto

[3] Allegro non troppo

[4] Adagio

[5] Moderato

Dmitri Shostakovich, arr. Rudolf Barshai: Chamber Symphony in C Minor, Op. 110A

[6] Largo

[7] Allegro molto

[8] Allegretto

[9] Largo

[10] Largo