Dmitri Shostakovich leaves the world of classical music with an enormous legacy of music. Central to that body of work are the 15 symphonies, which chart the musical development of a composer living and working within the severe confines of Russia's communist regime. While most professional orchestras have performed some of these symphonies, it is a rare event for an orchestra to cover all fifteen in order. Starting in 2000 and finishing in December 2001, The Royal Scottish National Orchestra are doing just that, and those fortunate to live within easy reach of the major Scottish cities will be able to witness these great works at first hand. The driving force behind this major undertaking is the RSNO's principal conductor, Alexander Lazarev. Having been born and educated in Russia, and witness to some of the concerts given by the composer himself, Lazarev is in a unique position to present these symphonies with empathy and authenticity.
Some analyses of the Symphonies of Shostakovich describe them as "inconsistent" and they are indeed a diverse group of works. Rather than chart a linear progression of musical development like for example Beethoven or Mahler (with whom he is most frequently compared) these works seem to explore a variety of different avenues of expression. Although certain elements of the composer's style remain fairly constant throughout, the musical form and the emotional intensity seem to vary considerably. Although for some people this makes them difficult to appreciate, for others it makes them all the more interesting. The fact that they were composed within a state which sought to constrain artistic freedom is perhaps one of the reasons for their variety. At the same time, the extreme pressures on the composer may well have contributed both to a unique style of creativity and to the intensity of the feelings expressed.
At the time of writing we have been treated to the first season of these concerts consisting of symphonies 1 through 9. We now eagerly anticipate the concluding season begining with symphony number 10 in September 2001 and culminating with 14 and 15 given at a single concert in December. We have already experienced the following :-
Numbers 1, 2 and 3 at a single opening concert. The first symphony is a fresh, classically modelled rollercoaster, yet with some depth and the trademark Shostakovich grotesqueries. Two and three are not particularly well-known and show the composer in experimental mode, while at the same time playing the model soviet citizen.
Number 4 is a work of enormous strength and passion almost overwhelming in its intensity. Shostakovich withdrew this before its first performance, since he was already censured by the authorities and it was not performed until more than 2 decades later. His debt to Mahler is clear here and spelled out by some references to Mahler's first symphony.
Number 5 is equally powerful but in a controlled way which is closer to classical roots, more easily approachable to an audience and most importantly acceptably within Soviet ideals. Perhaps this symphony is a compromise but a very satisfying one it is too.
Number 6 has some similarities to its predecessor, but its 3 movement structure moves gradually from dark intensity through to apparent lighthearted frivolity.
Number 7 is the "Leningrad" symphony composed during the seige of that city, and hailed by allied forces in both East and West as an anti-Nazi work. Although overtly this is the theme of this work, nevertheless its martial sounds (and particularly in the many repetitions in the first movement) tread a intentionally delicate balance between the ridiculous and the sublime. As ever there are layers to this work.
Number 8 is a much darker work at times veering between grotesque satire and a deep depression. Within its 5 movement structure, the middle movement is an energetic scherzo whose middle section has a wonderful trumpet solo, the 4th movement a sombre passacaglia and the finale achieves something which is not quite peace but a certain degree of resolution and acceptance.
The positioning of Number 9 reminds one of the Beethoven 8 in that it is a small symphony sitting between two much larger ones. On first listening it comes across as a work with a lighter mood, but subsequent familiarity betrays darkness and a bitter irony lying close to the surface.
Alexander Lazarev clearly knows his Shostakovich and is absolutely dedicated to the cause of laying out a definitive chronicle of the composer's symphonic development. While giving full vent to the lighter whirlwind movements, the conductor aims to bring a serious and empassioned expression to the complex and sometimes contradictory messages that the composer displays (or perhaps hides) in these works. Again comparisons with Mahler are hard to avoid. Whereas Mahler would express all the ups and downs of life in his symphonies in close juxtaposition, Shostakovich piles all these emotions on top of one another for simultaneous display. This is indeed a symphonist from the midst of the 20th century, displaying all the complexities and contradictions of life, and allowing his art to be approached in a number of different ways. The interpretation is very much in the ear of the listener.
Neither conductor nor orchestra are strangers to these symphonies. Lazarev has performed them before, and the RSNO have recorded a few under their previous principal conductor, Neeme Jarvi. But these seem like an apprenticeship for the more ambitious complete cycle as things stand prior to the second season. We look forward to hearing symphonies 10 to 15 in the coming months, and wonder whether Lazarev and the RSNO are considering recording the complete set.
To be continued.....