On 26th January 1936 Stalin, accompanied by high ranking government officials, attended a performance of the Bolshoi’s production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s (1906-1975) opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Despite an enthusiastic reception from the audience, Stalin and his dignities left before the end. Just two days later Pravda ran the infamous unsigned editorial ‘Muddle Instead of Music.’
Thus came the first crisis in the composer’s career resulting in the withdrawal of his Fourth Symphony and an extremely difficult and dangerous time for composers generally. In 1948 Shostakovich, along with Prokofiev, Khachaturian and many other composers, suffered further condemnation when Andrei Zhdanov issued his famous decree against formalism in music.
Deutsche Grammophon www.deutschegrammophon.com has recently released a live recording from Andris Nelsons www.andrisnelsons.com conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra www.bso.org entitled Shostakovich Under Stalin's Shadow. This new disc features a live recording made in Symphony Hall, Boston, USA in 2015 of the Passacaglia from Act 2 of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk coupled with the Tenth Symphony.
The Passacaglia from Act 2 of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Op.29 comes at the end of Act 2 Scene 4 where Katerina has just poisoned her brutal husband Boris. Andris Nelsons brings much intense drama to the opening of the Passacaglia creating a terrific impact from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In the following passages he draws dark, tragic gloom, an intense brooding with very fine pacing as he allows the music to slowly rise and develop. As the music rises again to a climax, the power and weight of the orchestra is tremendous, before disappearing in the gloom.
When Shostakovich’s Symphony No.10 in E minor, Op.93 was written is a matter of some conjecture. There is a suggestion that he was at work on a tenth symphony as early as 1947. The pianist and close friend of the composer, Tatyana Nikolayeva was convinced that Shostakovich had completed the symphony by 1951 stating later in her life that he interrupted composition on his Twenty Four Preludes and Fugues to play her an extract from the symphony. Shostakovich gave the date of composition as summer and autumn of 1953. Given that Stalin had died on 5th March 1953 it certainly proved to be a safer time to bring forth a new symphony.
The opening Moderato uncannily seems to rise out of the same gloom as the preceding Passacaglia. Nelsons gives us a true moderato, allowing the heavy weight of the music to unfold without being hurried. The plaintive clarinet theme, when it appears, brings a real sense of withdrawn grief. Nelsons reveals so many of the shifting textures that underlie the music whilst crisply pointing up the lower string phrases. There is subtle tautness to the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s playing. The slower pacing, particularly when the bassoon brings a meditative passage, adds to the tension and, as the music opens out to embrace all of the woodwind, it comes so naturally, the music billowing up with more strength than would otherwise be apparent. As the music increases in power and angst, subtle tempi changes push the music forward bringing an unstoppable force until it tips over the peak. Nelsons holds the tempo, keeping a reign on it, superbly done at this critical point. As the horns cry out there is a real anguish and as the music quietens there are passages of quite wonderful, tender calm with a fine rhythmic pulse in the basses. Nelsons brings an uncertainty towards the coda as timpani gently roll. The hushed coda with flutes sounding brings an uneasy hush.
All the more does the Allegro take off purposefully, building the driven theme with a real spite and deliberation creating a terrific impact with the feel of a faceless, unstoppable force – perhaps less Stalin than the unbridled force of a totalitarian state.
The Allegretto pushes ahead at another fine pace, Nelsons bringing a subtle rhythmic lift. Soon an urgency appears in the woodwind, then strings with the rhythmic lift giving an unsettled, nervous quality. There is a sinister quality to the bassoon theme that appears before the music rises, horns call out and the music drops to a gloomy withdrawn character, the composer’s personal DSCH motif lurking around every corner of this nervous, anguished drama. There are moments of intense, tragic beauty from the woodwind and strings before the music picks up for a curious little woodwind passage, a glimpse of optimism found. A dance like rhythm appears as the music suddenly pushes forward more dynamically, seemingly brushing aside any such thoughtfulness. When the horns sound out again they are louder, this conductor finding so much more passion. A softer horn call brings a pensive coda pointed up by a staccato flute.
Andante – Allegro opens heavy in the basses, weighed down with emotion. An oboe sounds a tragic, motif picked up by a flute, the BSO woodwind really are superb. The basses lead on forlornly before the music becomes passionate as the oboe cries out and a lone flute sounds. The strings rise up from the depths and a clarinet introduces the allegro in which the strings hurtle around the woodwind. There is a complete change of mood, not so much of optimism but wild energy with swirls of woodwind and strings as the music develops a manic, driven propulsion. Nelsons’ timpani bring a terrific roll as the music suddenly drops to a slow, quiet sad reality. The strings gently bring a sense of tired uncertainty. There is a terrific passage for bassoon, followed by a clarinet, then all of the woodwind as the momentum is regained. As the coda arrives there is a sense of shrill anxiety in the orchestra with Nelsons leaving us to decide whether the conclusion is triumphant or merely a sham.
The enthusiastic applause is retained in this stunningly well recorded live performance. This, perhaps the greatest of Shostakovich’s works, is given a performance that ranks with the very best – a superb achievement. The Boston Symphony Orchestra is on wonderful form.
I do hope that Nelsons and the BSO bring us more Shostakovich.