Prokofiev’s War Symphony

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Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5

George Szell / Cleveland Orchestra

Odyssey Y35923

Between them, Shostakovich and Prokofiev were the poster boys of Soviet-era music. During WWII the former’s Symphony Nos. 5 and 7 (“Leningrad”) were like the soundtracks to propaganda posters, filled with patriotic tunes and horrifying marches depicting the brutality of battle. The latter, however, was a bit more unfettered and experimental in his approach, probably because he wasn’t under the same crazy compulsion as the more popular Shostakovich to win Stalin’s approval and carry the banner of social realism to the ears of the masses.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, op. 100–which premiered in 1944 just as his countrymen were victorious at the River Vistula–commemorated a turning point for Russia. He completed the symphony at a Soviet Composers Union retreat, calling it “A symphony about the spirit of man”.

The symphony opens with an expansive theme, played by the flute and bassoon before being taken up by the strings. A second theme comes along and converges with the first, underlined by a soft melody. Then the movement erupts into a coda with a blaring wall of sound. The snappy Scherzo is vintage Prokofiev, an off-kilter dance that could have been filched from one of his ballets.

From there the symphony turns darker in the penultimate movement, culminating with a coda shared between the piccolos and string section. Shapes and gestures define the last movement until the clarinet chooses an original theme. With incredible power, the many themes of the entire symphony are extrapolated into a grandly blistering finale that absorbs and reconfigures everything that’s been heard up to that point.

Shortly after it premiered, the 5th was imported to America, where it was performed by the Boston Symphony and became an instant classic. Gramophone placed it at number 9 on their list of the 10 greatest symphonies, behind Aaron Copland’s 3rd Symphony and ahead of Shostakovich’s 10th. Szell’s recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, in a sealed album reissued from Columbia is a favorite for many listeners.

Symphony Grotesque

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Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1

(with Kabalevsky: Colas Breugnon Suite)

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra / Vladimir Golschmann

Columbia ML 5120

Vladimir Golschmann, with his “matinee-idol face” according to one contemporary, was one of the great proponents of modernist music. He conducted world premieres of Honegger, Falla and Milhaud’s Le Creation du Monde, among others, and did some of the finest recordings on record with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. With them on this album he tackles Shostakovich’s 1st Symphony.

Shostakovich was a child prodigy in the classic sense; for a time when he was a boy he played piano for silent films at a local theater in St. Petersburg (he was supposedly let go for laughing too much at Chaplin and Buster Keaton flicks). His 1st Symphony was completed when he was 18, his graduate piece for the Lenin Conservatory.

Mark Wigglesworth points to the work’s tension and sarcastic wit, its ping-ponging between nobility and banality that would be so characteristic of Shostakovich’s subsequent symphonies. The composer himself called it a “symphony grotesque”, which begins, in Stravinsky-inflected carnival-ese (it even includes a piano, just like Petruchka), but veers ever more Mahlerian as it goes along. Or, as Shostakovich put it, “It’s turning out pretty gloomy.” Schoenberg and Tchaikovsky can also be heard as serious influences. But what could be called the “Shostakovich Sound” is distinctive, if nascent, throughout.

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When the symphony premiered in 1926, Shostakovich became something like a living Soviet satellite overnight, and he was basically annexed by Stalin, used for propaganda, praised as the greatest Russian composer, persecuted mercilessly. After that premiere, conductors lined up to give national premieres: Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer all waved their batons at the shy young man’s entrance onto the international stage.

Golschmann’s conducting is spontaneous and vital, drawing out Shostakovich’s modernist impulses. The large, somewhat unnerving portrait of an impassive woman with an electric gaze is a neat depiction of art in the USSR. Notably, Golschmann has signed this recording. Besides the Shostakovich, it includes Kabalevsky’s popular suite, from his opera of the same name.

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Will the Real Shostakovich Please Stand Up?

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Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10

National Philharmonic Orchestra / Dmitri Shostakovich, conductor

with Kabelevsky: Colas Breugnon Overture

Coliseum CRLP 173

I can’t be reproached for avoiding that ugly phenomenon of our reality.

-D. Shostakovich

Perhaps no other composer’s music is so autobiographical as Shostakovich’s. (His era, covering the Russian Revolution, WWI, WWII and the Stalin nightmare, gave him a lot of fodder). And among his 15 symphonies, the Tenth might be his most personal.

Often, critics overlook Shosta’s modernist leanings, and instead claim that his works are just notated digs at Stalin, thus reducing him to the status of a political composer. The Tenth does bear some of this politicization, but it’s more of a picaresque symphony documenting the composer’s travails and transfigurations. Shosta inserts his initials, using the German transliteration, as a recurring theme in the work, at first haltingly and transposed, in the uncertain 1st movement.

The symphony changes tack for the Allegro, which is one of the most brutal things you’re ever likely to hear. (The composer’s friend and chronicler, Volkov, says that this movement is a portrait of Stalin’s reign). Stalin had just died before Shostakovich began the symphony, in 1953, and perhaps he felt he had some wiggle room to shy away from social realism and to approach his materials more metaphorically.

As the music continues through a slow third movement and into the Andante-Allegro, Shosta’s initials keep popping up, more and more directly, until they’re stated boldly and without a moment’s hesitation. At the dawn of a freer world, the composer is finally allowed some measure of the self-expression he had to conceal from the totalitarian regime.

Once again, Shosta shows why he was the USSR’s updated Franz Joseph Haydn, with intricate, tight orchestration (paraphrasing not a little from Gustave Mahler) and an almost classical finale that would surely have been condemned by the state. Haydn, yes, but with a lot more drums, dissonances and savagery.

Originally recorded in Europe in 1954, this re-issue presents a rarity: Shostakovich conducting one of his very own symphonies.

“Real Cannons Are Used”

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Don’t be fooled by half-assed recordings: this pressing makes it very clear that “real cannons are used in the finale”. Commissioned to commemorate Napoleon’s defeat by the Motherland, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is one big orgasmic burst of patriotism, which is one sure way to get a lot of fans. It’s crammed full of national airs and folk-songs, and even includes a rendition of the Marseillaise before it is quickly blown apart by the fusillade. One Russian composer called it “very loud and noisy and completely without artistic merit”, and that was the opinion of Tchaikovsky himself. For a symphonist and composer of ballets with Tchaikovsky’s sensibilities, the worldwide popularity of his blustering rah-rah overture must have seemed downright insulting.

A Trio of Rimskys

 

Known for his ridiculously popular Flight of the Bumblebee and Scheherazade, Rimsy-Korsakov was part of The Five, which sounds like the title of a Netflix crime show, but was actually a collective of Russian composers that included Borodin and Mussorgsky. (It’s also the title of a Netflix crime show). Here’s three colorful albums of obscure orchestral works from the composer. The two Mercury sleeves are as Russian as it gets, while the London cover is all about Persian appropriation in the gaudiest way.

And if you need more R-K in your life, visit Rimsky-Korsakoffee House, a classical music-themed coffee and desert establishment in Portland, Oregon.