Monday, February 11, 2019

Another Side of Shostakovich from Other Minds

1940 photograph of Dmitri Shostakovich (center) with two other composers also contending with Soviet authority, Sergei Prokofiev (left) and Aram Khachaturian (right) (photographer unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Yesterday afternoon in the Taube Atrium Theater, Other Minds continued its 2018–2019 season with a program of music that few have encountered or even knew existed. Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies played two arrangements for two pianos created by Dmitri Shostakovich. The earlier of these was an arrangement of Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms,” made shortly after the work’s composition in 1930. (Much later, Shostakovich would present a copy of this arrangement to Stravinsky during his 1962 visit to the Soviet Union.)

Specifics about the other arrangement, of Shostakovich’s own fourth symphony (Opus 43 in C minor), are unclear, since Shostakovich withdrew the full score from rehearsal in 1936 under severe pressure from Soviet authorities. Most likely both the score and the orchestral parts were relegated to the composer’s famous “desk drawer;” and the music was never heard until Shostakovich and fellow composer Mieczysław Weinberg gave a private performance of the two-piano version in 1945, subsequently given limited printing (300 copies). The full orchestral score was not performed until December 30, 1961, conducted by Kirill Kondrashin (whose recording legacy was discussed on this site at the end of last month).

To call Opus 43 an intense composition borders on understatement. From an architectural point of view, it recalls Gustav Mahler. The outer two of the three movements are both about half an hour in duration, sandwiching a ten-minute Moderato con moto between them. Like Mahler symphonies, each movement abounds with passionate expressiveness within a framework of conventional structures. However, those passions go far beyond Mahler, even at that earlier composer’s most excessive rhetorical turns, almost as if the music was waiting for Arthur Janov to develop his technique of primal therapy (documented in the book The Primal Scream).

As might be assumed, the full score demands abundant instrumental resources, deployed in an imaginative variety of different combinations. Before beginning yesterday’s performance, Davies said that he hoped all of us in the audience would have an opportunity to experience the orchestral version in concert. Given that Esa-Pekka Salonen recorded this symphony during his tenure with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, we have every reason to hold such hopes for a future visit to Davies Symphony Hall!

Nevertheless, because the two-piano version was Shostakovich’s own, it would make sense to assume that he knew how to guide our listening experience of the symphony, even in the absence of “symphonic instrumentation.” The arrangement served up the just right balance of the most significant technical details (such as the intricacy of fugal writing in that brief second movement) and the “primal scream” moments that could be mustered by two pianists going at their instruments with full force. Since the pianos faced each other, one could not experience both “keyboard sides” during performance. I opted for my usual left-side orientation, which meant that most of my attention was fixed on Namekawa. Nevertheless, I could observe how her attention was consistently fixed on Davies; and I was struck by how her lips would move to reflect overall phrasing, even when that phrasing was coming from Davies’ part.

From an emotional point of view, it is clear that two pianos could never summon all of the decibels put out by a full symphony orchestra. However, Davies and Namekawa had clearly developed strategies for working their more limited dynamic range for all it was worth. Yes, the roar of the chorale at the conclusion of the final movement approaches the threshold of pain when given the full orchestral treatment; and two pianos could not come close to that threshold. Nevertheless, one could still appreciate the agonies of that concluding gesture, followed by the hushed cowering qualities of the very last measures. This was definitely a fully authentic “Shostakovich experience.”

Presumably, Shostakovich prepared his Stravinsky arrangement to cultivate a better understanding of what was going on in that score. This was probably particularly the case where fugue was involved (again in the second movement). While fugue was one of Shostakovich’s favorite devices, it is almost never encountered in the Stravinsky canon. It would not surprise me to learn that Shostakovich began by working on the second Stravinsky movement and then proceeded to the two outer movements.

Needless to say, the choral parts of Stravinsky’s symphony became instrumental music; and the words were lost. Personally, I do not think that the loss is a serious one. I have come to call “Symphony of Psalms” the most secular piece of sacred music ever written. In each of the three movements, it seems as if the Latin syllables (not even words) are just there as a prop for the selection of appropriate note values. In other words the Shostakovich version is probably a closer approximation to the “pure music vision” that Stravinsky may have had in mind in the first place.

Nevertheless, the arrangement process was still a challenge. “Symphony of Psalms” was scored for a very generous supply of winds and brass, while the only strings were harp, cellos, and bass. In addition, there were already two pianos in Stravinsky’s full score. Thus, just about all of Stravinsky’s thematic expression grew out of the interleaving of different instrumental sonorities. Shostakovich, on the other hand, had to work with a far more limited spectrum of sonorities. For the most part he succeeded; and, if he never rose to the expressive intensity encountered in the Shostakovich symphony, the odds are good that Stravinsky himself did not seek that kind of expressiveness.

“Symphony of Psalms” is only about twenty minutes in duration. That meant that the Stravinsky in the first half was much shorter than the Shostakovich in the second. Davies and Namekawa thus decided that they would begin the program with their “encore” selection. This consisted of two of the movements from a score that Shostakovich composer for the soundtrack of the film Unity. The first of the two movements was a waltz, followed by a polka. These were performed by all four hands on a single keyboard. The music abounded with a relaxed wit, balancing the intensity of all that would follow with a more lighthearted “overture.”

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