A Century in Music

Classic Arts Features   A Century in Music
Lincoln Center's Great Performers celebrates the centenary of Shostakovich with a towering cycle of the composer's symphonies, led by Valery Gergiev.

Who was he: dissident or conformist, loyal son of the Communist Party or fierce critic of the Soviet regime, innovator or traditionalist? While debates on the political and moral subtext of Dmitry Shostakovich's works continue, his music has firmly settled into the universal canon alongside some of the composer's great predecessors: Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Mahler.

Today Shostakovich is one of the most performed composers from the 20th century, and his approaching centenary will add numerous new performances. The uncontested highlight among them will be Valery Gergiev's cycle of all 15 Shostakovich symphonies, which the Russian maestro will perform worldwide with different orchestras during 2006.

New York via Lincoln Center's Great Performers series gets the most concentrated anthology, divided in two parts (nine symphonies in March and April, six in October) and performed by two orchestras, both of which Gergiev has served as longtime music director: the Kirov Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre and the Rotterdam Philharmonic.

"One does not have to explain at length to the Mariinsky players," notes the conductor, "the content of Shostakovich's symphonies, the meaning of this or that passage, or where these heart-wrenching sonorities come from and why I am looking for these piercing piccolos or these biting, caustic chords. These musicians know, even if they are too young to remember Shostakovich's times. They get the atmosphere of his time and music from everywhere: human stories, books, photos, movies, buildings, et cetera."

The Rotterdam Philharmonic, where Gergiev's tenure started with Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, is equally suitable for the task. During 17 years under Gergiev's artistic leadership the orchestra has gained vast experience in the Russian repertoire, including Prokofiev's symphonies and concertos, music by Stravinsky, and quite a few contemporary composers like Gubaidulina, Kancheli, and Ustvolskaya‹most of whom are direct musical heirs to Shostakovich. "As a result," says Gergiev, "the orchestra has developed many qualities that are necessary for performing Russian music: a sharp attack, a particular color, and the special kind of virtuosity that makes the orchestra capable of reproducing this enormous drive‹these Russian sweeping whirlwinds."

Both the Kirov and Rotterdam Orchestras participated in The War Symphonies, a recording project issued in 2004 by Philips and based on live performances of six Shostakovich symphonies written between 1934, when he started his Fourth Symphony, and 1945, the year of the Ninth. Gergiev considers these works a cycle within the grand cycle of all the composer's 15 symphonic works.

And a grand cycle it is: a life cycle that began with the traditionally structured, yet freshly imagined work of a popular young genius (the First Symphony of 1924-25) and ended with an enigmatic farewell (the Fifteenth in 1971) composed by a physically debilitated man, known to millions, yet understood by few. Much had changed in his style, but in the last symphony there was, just as in the First, a classical four-movement structure and the recognizable combination of pain and irony, profound human drama, and sharp grotesquery.

The symphony as the most universal and philosophical genre, a picture of the world‹this is how Shostakovich saw it, in the old classical tradition. And the symphonies he wrote were as multilayered, complicated, and unique as the world in which he lived.

There were the Second and Third Symphonies with their "propaganda" texts and experimental form; the works of an idealist, who believed‹like many fellow artists‹in the Bolshevik Russia of the 1920s, and in the utopian symbiosis of the new state and the new art. Then came the enormous "Mahlerian" Fourth, buried for a quarter of a century because its complex tragic content was unthinkable in the simplistic, mass-appealing, and cheerful officialdom of mid-1930s Russia, already changed under Stalin's rule. And the Fifth and Sixth were written at a time "when the auto-da-fé of an entire nation," according to Inna Barsova, "was carried out to the accompaniment of hymns and marches"; these two works told the brutal truth of Soviet reality in a language of double meaning.

The Seventh and Eighth, two tragic giants of the war years (when it was alright for Soviet art to cry again, for a while), were followed first by the mischievous lightness of the Ninth and then by almost eight years of involuntary intermission until he could again be himself in the Tenth.

But could he be? What about the Eleventh and Twelfth, which were written in the more benign times of Khruschev's thaw but carried the titles "The Year 1905" and "Vladimir Ilich Lenin"? Were they mistakes, other examples of double meaning, or something else?

The history of a country with its tragedies, sacrifices, illusions, and victories, with its politics alternating between brief periods of relative freedom and long stretches of suppression, is reflected throughout the 15 symphonies. The cycle is also Shostakovich's personal story. His loves and fears; his hatred of the tyrannical, the evil, and the vulgar; his compassion for the oppressed; his memories of friends and thoughts of his own inevitable death; his inner torments and attempts to find solace in the wisdom of artists of the past‹great poets, great composers. These symphonies embody it all.

Much of it is in the Fourteenth (1969), his most lyrical, dark, and reflective work, in which the subject is death, shown through the verses of four poets of the 19th and 20th centuries.

It was Shostakovich's unique social, historical, and psychological sensibility translated into a musical idiom with great mastery, precision, and passion that made his symphonies the documents of his epoch and at the same time a personal journal.

How to convey all of this and much more in performance?

Valery Gergiev is reluctant to discuss meanings behind the music (as was Shostakovich himself). "This project is very important and prestigious for me," the conductor says. "But I do not view it as a part of some mission to familiarize the world with Russian music and, through it, with Russian history‹although people may view it as such. My point is, first and foremost, professional. When I choose the subject, I like to explore it as deeply as possible, to cover as many aspects of it as I can, so I can discover something unknown and unexpected. And at the end of this road I will realize maybe that Shostakovich's Symphony No. 2, which I've never performed before, is a great piece of music, or maybe not."

The greatest impact on Gergiev's understanding of Shostakovich were made by the performances and rehearsals of the late Evgeny Mravinsky, the preeminent interpreter of Shostakovich's music, who premiered many of his symphonic works with the Leningrad Philharmonic. "Listening to Mravinsky was very important for my perception of this music," he says, "especially for its context and emotional gradations. In Mravinsky's readings they were numerous, rich, and clearly pronounced. With him these symphonies never sounded 'Soviet.' One could not mistake them for another example of Soviet Art. Mravinsky's perception of life, like Shostakovich's, was much more complex."

"Why is Shostakovich relevant today?" Gergiev continues. "Because he expressed his time with all its problems, tragedies, and joys. Yes, joys‹they, too, are present in his music as they were present in life, and we should not see behind each theme a KGB agent. I see his music like I see the music of Brahms or Mozart‹just as music: harmony, tempos, rhythmical energy, instrumentation, et cetera. Shostakovich's symphonies are alive today because he was a real human being, full of contradictions and alive. He loved soccer and a shot of vodka, he was shy and attentive to everyone, he was afraid to hurt people, but had a wicked sense of humor and could be very sarcastic.

"It is also important for me that he lived in the same city where I live and spent all his youth surrounded by the aura and sounds of the Mariinsky Theatre because that is where all major musical events of that time happened. The intensity of cultural life in St. Petersburg in the first 20 to 30 years of the 20th century was second to none. And today it is very interesting to feel the connection between that era and ours. My performances of Shostakovich's symphonies are a nod in that direction, too."

In presenting Shostakovich's symphonies at Lincoln Center, Gergiev will be ignoring their chronological order. Instead, he mixes the early and the late‹the First, the Second, and the Tenth in the first program, the Fifth and the Fifteenth in the fourth‹or (in program three) puts side by side the Third and the Fourth, which being written only four years apart, nevertheless represent two different eras in Shostakovich's life.

Shostakovich the composer was many things: classicist, avant-gardist, eclectic inventor of his own modal system, creator of a strikingly individual idiom, author of popular songs and haunting philosophical meditations, and musician of unusual intellectual intensity and delicate emotions. His music is an enormous world, full of mysteries and ambiguities, and more than ever, fascinating and open to interpretations. With the help of Valery Gergiev and his two orchestras, we are about to enter this world.

Maya Pritsker writes frequently about the arts.

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