Shostakovich Study Day and Concert, Southbank Centre, January 2017

This review was originally written for the DSCH Journal, but ultimately did not appear there.


“We’re talking about a game-player here.” That’s how Gerard McBurney summed up Shostakovich’s approach to the Fifth Symphony at the study day he and fellow expert Pauline Fairclough presented at London’s Southbank Centre on 28 January 2017. With the help of two student pianists from the Royal Academy of Music, McBurney, Fairclough and about a hundred audience members spent a fascinating afternoon unpacking some of the rules of the game.

The key, McBurney explained, was not to think of the Fifth as an “episode in the history of music,” but to try to hear it as its first audience in Leningrad would have. To help us with this, he read excerpts from Kharms, Akhmatova and Platonov, and played YouTube clips from show trials and propaganda films. A scene from The Return of Maxim, in which the hero and his fellow strikers rescued their wives and children from the Tsar’s troops, showed how Shostakovich had exploited the “intense interconnection between the rhetoric of film music and the rhetoric of orchestral symphonic music.” The scene’s score, McBurney explained, had the “same hooks, the same intonations, the same rhythms” as the last movement of the Fifth. In his view, the symphony’s finale depicted the same struggle between good and evil as the film. But whereas the film scene ends with Maxim’s victory, in the symphony “the baddies strike back and win.”

Fairclough focused on composers’ struggle to determine - through an extraordinarily high-stakes process of trial and error - what a socialist realist symphony should sound like. She illustrated this by comparing the endings of several Soviet symphonies from the 1930s (although, as she pointed out, endings weren’t everything; Stalin didn’t stay till the end of Lady Macbeth, after all). The finale of Popov’s First Symphony, which pumped along like a factory, was one example of what not to do. The symphony was banned the day after its premiere, and while Popov kept composing, his genius was stifled thereafter.

The next cautionary example, unsurprisingly, was Shostakovich’s own Fourth, whose finale Fairclough described as sounding “like Russia going into a deep freeze.” Considering the trouble he was already in, why did Shostakovich try to have the Fourth performed? Fairclough suggested that he had committed himself to composing symphonies on Mahlerian principles, and possibly believed that the Fourth’s incorporation of everyday music would be welcomed by a regime that claimed to be creating the most democratic society in the world. He was, of course, mistaken.

After a few moments with Myaskovsky (“the master of the unremarkable ending,” according to Fairclough) we moved on to the Fifth itself. Here, Shostakovich seemed to have found a symphonic ending that was acceptable to the authorities; yet, as Fairclough pointed out, even at the time of the premiere several Soviet critics recognised the brutality hiding behind the triumph. (Once again, I was reminded that Testimony’s revelations were less shocking than either its critics or its supporters claimed.)

Having considered the background, McBurney and Fairclough's next step was to break the symphony down into its elements. These were illustrated by the Academy’s students, Niklas Oldemeier and Harry Rylance, using an adaptation of Shostakovich’s own transcription for piano duo.

McBurney made a good case for the unbilled star of the symphony being Elena Konstantinovskaya, the translator for whom Shostakovich had briefly left his first wife. By the time he wrote the Fifth, she was married (or something like it) to the documentary-maker Roman Karmen. McBurney and the pianists demonstrated how Shostakovich mimicked the Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen in the second theme of the first movement, and again at the beginning of the last movement (something only confirmed relatively recently by examining Shostakovich’s sketches). McBurney also suggested that the constant repetition of A (“ля” in Russian) in the symphony’s final bars might have been a reference to Shostakovich’s nickname for Konstantinovskaya, “Lyalya.” Perhaps Konstantinovskaya even influenced the solo violin melody in the second movement, which is derived from an aria in Carl Zeller’s Der Vogelhändler. The same tune was being used for drinking songs in Russia at the time, and its inclusion reflects what McBurney called Shostakovich’s “huge hunger for trash music." But he also pointed out that the lyrics of Zeller’s song are “Beloved, come back to me.”

Interesting though this was, I felt nervous as I imagined the potted history of music being rewritten: Far from being a secret message of dissent, the Fifth was a torch song to an ex-girlfriend! But -- leaving aside the ridiculousness of claiming that any great symphony is “about” just one thing -- there is evidence within the music itself that there’s more going on than that. McBurney drew our attention to another quotation, this one in the final movement. It’s from Shostakovich’s setting of Pushkin’s poem “Rebirth,” one of his Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin (op. 46). 1937 was the hundredth anniversary of Pushkin’s death, so the allusion wouldn’t have been surprising to the few listeners who recognised it. But Pushkin’s text (“an artist-barbarian with a sleepy brush/Blackens the painting of a genius … But the alien paints with the years/Fall off like old fish scales”) is impossible to read without thinking of Shostakovich’s plight.

It isn’t often that a scholarly presentation includes a scholar admitting he was wrong, but that’s what happened as McBurney and Fairclough discussed the influence of Bach on the symphony’s opening bars (with their chromaticism and French overture rhythm). McBurney told us he had once thought of this as Shostakovich’s “message in a bottle,” signalling his determination to cling to the Western musical tradition in spite of pressure. But Fairclough’s research for her recent book Classics for the Masses had revealed that “huge amounts of Bach” were being played in the Soviet Union at that time, in line with the official goal of making all of world culture available to the people.

McBurney and Fairclough's technical explanations of the music proved just as exciting as the treasure hunt for allusions. McBurney talked us through how, after the Bach-like opening bars, a flattened melody in the violins and an errant-sounding E flat “spilling like ink across the score” cause the symphony to drop into “a shadow world completely at odds with the surface world.” We learned how the second movement imitates the journey of the first movement, but one-fifth up; how the third movement uses the “remote” key of F sharp minor - borrowed from Orthodox chant - to sound like “music from far away”; and how the repeated use of B flat in the final movement keeps trying to bring the key down to D minor, requiring the real key of D major to assert itself through pure force. To show what a difference tempo made to the finale, Fairclough compared Mravinsky’s 1938 recording of the finale to Leonard Bernstein’s version using Shostakovich’s original metronome mark.

The study day had been organised to prepare listeners for a performance of the Fifth by Yuri Temirkanov and the St Petersburg Philharmonic the following day. Temirkanov presented us with a Fifth in high relief, his dynamics sometimes deviating from the score - in the opening bars, for example, the second violins and cellos played noticeably softer than the first violins, despite Shostakovich having marked both as forte - and giving reverent treatment to the solos. During the first movement, the focus sometimes seemed to be on detail at the expense of drama, with the march in the central section having considerably less violence than usual.

Of course, I was listening to the performance with McBurney and Fairclough’s talk in mind. I don't know whether they'd tailored their presentation to suit Temirkanov's interpretation of the Fifth, but there were several moments when the two seemed to fit together perfectly. This was particularly true during the Allegretto. There’s been a tendency for conductors to make this movement sound either sardonic (as Vasily Petrenko did on his 2008 recording with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic for Naxos) or menacingly stupid (as Andris Nelsons did on his 2015 recording with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon). Temirkanov, however, emphasised the movement’s demotic elements and its similarities to Shostakovich’s lighter works of the 1930s, such as the first Suite for Jazz Orchestra (I even heard a few chuckles from the audience during the bassoon crescendo). It wasn’t at all hard to believe that the solo violin melody had its origins in a popular operetta tune. The Largo, by contrast, conveyed a deeper sense of tragedy and anxiety than any other performance I’ve heard, while the finale was heart-stoppingly intense.

The Fifth, it should be said, was only the second half of the programme; many people probably attended for the first half, which featured Martha Argerich playing Prokofiev's Piano Concerto no. 3. Argerich prefaced her performance by dabbing her nose with a tissue, which she dropped into the piano, and giving a loud sigh. Fortunately, whatever distress she was suffering didn't seem to affect her playing. You don't need me to tell you that Argerich is a great pianist, but I will say that whenever I've seen her play, I've been struck by how she and the orchestra work as a team – a piece never becomes a mere vehicle for her. This performance was no exception, and the St Petersburg Philharmonic was of course more than able to keep up its side of the dialogue. The concert opened with uncomplicated, full-blooded performances of two extracts from Khatchaturian’s Spartacus.

The odd, sketchy programme notes (which claimed that Shostakovich’s music included “honky-tonk” elements and suggested he had completed The Nose at the age of 20) were a minor drawback in an otherwise remarkable event.