Slava’s Shostakovich

0 of 5 stars

Adagio Fragment
Five Fragments, Op.42
Symphony No.4 in C minor, Op.43
Symphony No.15 in A, Op.141

“Mstislav Rostropovich remembers his life, in conversation with Jon Tolansky”

London Symphony Orchestra
Mstislav Rostropovich

Recorded in 1998 at concerts in the Barbican Hall, London:
26 February – Adagio Fragment, Five Fragments & Symphony No.4; 28 October – Symphony No.15

Rostropovich/Tolansky conversation recorded in London in January 2002

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: October 2004
CD No: ANDANTE AN4090 (3 CDs)
Duration: 3 hours 3 minutes

“All my symphonies are tombstones” is the disturbing phrase attributed to Shostakovich in “Testimony”, the still much-disputed book of the composer’s memoirs “as related to and edited” by Solomon Volkov. Interestingly enough, Mstislav Rostropovich has been cited as being broadly in agreement with the sentiments expressed in Volkov’s tome, apparently recognising some of the turns of phrase from his own conversations with the composer.

There has been considerable speculation as to Shostakovich’s ‘intentions’, musically speaking, particularly since the demise of the Soviet Union, with further documentary material relating to the time when the composer was alive coming to light. But whatever might be attributed to Shostakovich and whatever he might have done, said or intended, what remains, of course, is his extraordinary musical legacy. And when it comes to performances such as are contained in this set from Andante, the listener is fortunate indeed that they are under the direction of someone who was the composer’s pupil and close friend. There is surely no more authoritative interpreter of Shostakovich’s music alive than Rostropovich, who has elicited performances of remarkable intensity from the London Symphony Orchestra at the top of its form, and whose readings of these works burn with perception, empathy and conviction.

Sourced from BBC Radio 3 broadcasts, these Barbican concert performances formed part of the LSO’s 1998 Shostakovich Festival. No attempt has been made to remove applause or between-movement audience noises. Mercifully, there are no evident distractions during the music itself, and one feels very much as if one were ‘listening in’ to occasions where very special music-making was manifesting itself.

CD 1 begins with a world premiere. An ‘Adagio Fragment’, dated 1934, provides some material which was initially intended for the Fourth Symphony. These ideas were discarded when Shostakovich set to work in earnest on this symphony. I am normally extremely dubious about posthumous exhumations of ‘sketches’ or ‘first versions’ of works that were later revised (not to mention so-called ‘completions’ or ‘realisations’ of music that can only, at best, be pure conjecture). Nevertheless, this Adagio is of immense value, shedding light as it does on the composer’s musical thinking immediately following the success of his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”. The subsequent Stalin-led public condemnation of that work necessarily led Shostakovich to totally re-think his approach to composition. This Adagio is music of an almost indescribable bleakness – even more so than that which appears in the symphony – with, most curiously, a hint of Webern-like spareness at the outset. The more animated section that follows is devoid of any hint of jaunty contrast, but its progress is thwarted since the notation comes to an abrupt halt. Rightly, this is where Rostropovich stops. No attempt has been made to provide a neat – and, necessarily, speculative – conclusion. As an aural document of this musical thinking, this recording is important.

Equally consequential, if not even more so, is Rostropovich’s reading of the Fourth Symphony. This LSO performance is far superior to that which Rostropovich recorded in Washington in his curiously uneven cycle on Teldec. In fact, Rostropovich’s Shostakovich performances with the LSO have been consistently satisfying. His LSO Live recording of the Eleventh Symphony is revelatory, and the recent concert performance of the Fifth (to be released on LSO Live) was shattering.

This 1998 performance of the Fourth lays bare the immense tragedy of this symphony. Right from the grim opening, thorough to the ambivalent conclusion, there is barely a moment’s respite. No wonder Shostakovich withdrew the Fourth from performance in the wake of the debacle following the Pravda article on “Lady Macbeth”. The pessimistic tone of the symphony would surely have sounded – perhaps literally – the composer’s death-knell at the time.

Rostropovich elicits from the orchestra a quite awesome response to the score’s fearsome demands – emotionally and technically. One of the key features of this performance is that the large – and potentially unwieldy – structure is not allowed to sprawl. Thus the two outer movements – both lasting nearly half-an-hour – are full of concentrated energy which, when unleashed, have terrifying power.

Elizabeth Wilson, whose book “Shostakovich: A life remembered” is essential reading, contributes an eloquent essay on these performances in the accompanying booklet and states, “It is as if all hell has been let loose” when describing the climax of the first movement. One senses demonic forces constantly at work in this symphony; Shostakovich surely never wrote such consistently despairing and frightening music. The central Moderato con moto, far from providing relief from catastrophe merely continues the mood of the first movement, rather in the way in which the scherzo of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony does (assuming that movement is performed directly after the first). Shostakovich apparently had a score of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony to hand whilst composing his own Fourth, but it is the general tone of Mahler’s Sixth which seems a more pertinent influence on Shostakovich’s Fourth.

In the finale, there are half-hearted attempts at optimism, but Rostropovich does not force these passages to wear false smiles. Instead, he builds relentlessly to the entry of the chorale-like brass, seemingly attempting triumph, but in fact reinforcing tragedy, world-weariness and resignation. As the music winds down to the desolate coda, one wonders what personal demons the composer – only 29 years old – was attempting to exorcise through this symphony, the bulk of which was completed before the Pravda condemnation, with all its implications for Shostakovich’s personal and professional life.

Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony is not easy listening. Indeed, it is a work whose intensity, in a performance such as that captured here, makes for a draining experience. I have not heard quite so convincing a performance as this one.

The second CD also proves to be of great interest. The Five Fragments, is the work which directly precedes the Fourth Symphony, and some of its elusive and allusive material might well have been considered for inclusion in the symphony. In the event, these fragments stand alone, and their fractured quality provides further food for thought as to the musical path Shostakovich might have taken, post “Lady Macbeth”. These pithy pieces are intriguing and a degree disconcerting. The pointed playing is superb, and the solo violin and side drum who duet in the final piece provide momentary laconic humour. It is a pity the Five Fragments are not separately tracked, and that the audience noises in between each are particular intrusive.

Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony, his final one, oddly enough, seems to hark back, in sonority and evasive and aphoristic mien, to these Five Fragments and the incomplete Adagio. Rather than anything public and explicit, such as may be found in, say, the Tenth Symphony, the Fifteenth tends towards the private and personal, much as Shostakovich’s string quartets do.

Once again, the LSO and Rostropovich find the right course through these enigmatic four movements. If the first movement has a sense of humour in this performance, it is a jester’s leering – artificial and rather uncomfortable. The quotes from Rossini’s William Tell overture are not occasion for belly-laughs; rather, this performance follows the score exactly in delivering the phrases piano, thus acquiring a discomforting overtone. The second and fourth movements – the latter with those puzzling Wagner quotations – touch once again on the areas of bleak despair explored more directly in the Fourth Symphony, whilst the seemingly perky third re-introduces the ticking percussion also first heard in the Fourth, and which features again right at the close of this final symphony.

As elsewhere in this set, the playing is unimpeachable, and the rapport between conductor and musicians is evident at every turn.

The third disc includes a wide-ranging conversation between Rostropovich and Jon Tolansky, in which ‘Slava’ reminisces about his life and career; an absorbing document.

As ever with Andante, the booklet is encased in a hard cover and includes detailed notes about the performers and performances. Interesting as these are, the constant laudatory tone in describing Rostropovich becomes a little tiresome. Some information concerning the actual music would have been welcome. One or two typos suggest that proof-reading should have been a little more thorough.

Nit-picking aside, this Andante set is an important addition to the discography of the LSO, Mstislav Rostropovich and, in particular, the music of Dmitri Shostakovich.

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