A Late and Lean Masterwork

Shostakovich and Rostropovich

Unlike my two most recent trips to hear orchestral works by Dmitri Shostakovich, the one I’m making this evening will involve walking up about three blocks and over one from where I work in downtown Toronto. That certainly introduces a different dynamic to the act of listening, but yet one that better replicates the way this music has entered my own life as a regular part of my commute.

This will be the first time I’ve seen the Toronto Symphony play anything by Shostakovich, and I’ll see them play a second work, the 5th Symphony, in just 17 days.  In this case, it’s the Cello Concerto #2, with soloist Alisa Weilerstein.  I own her recording of this work , which I’ve actually resisted playing until I hear her play it live, and have been listening instead to one by Heinrich Schiff.  If there is one thing I have learned about seeing works by Shostakovich performed live, it’s that something in them always surprises me, and I want to give Ms. Weilerstein the chance to do that.

The TSO schedule describes this particular work as “late and lean.”  It is certainly that. It’s a quirky work to start with, yet intensely virtuostic.  Shostakovich dedicated both it and the first Cello Concerto to the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who I remember hearing play in concerts over public radio as a child.  It was reportedly one of the few works where he actually consulted with a performer to ensure that the notes he wrote were actually possible to play.  The two works were composed seven years apart, the first in 1959, the second in 1966, so they are both considered “late” works.  It’s the Concerto #1 that is considered the masterpiece, however, perhaps the finest Cello Concerto of the 20th century, in the estimation of more than one critic.  The Concerto #2, on the other hand, is considered a bit of enigma, and is not performed nearly as much.  I have talked before about the concept of white space in music; this concerto has a lot of it with its spare, transparent orchestration and its use of percussion, particularly in the final movement, and particularly in its quizzical ending.  It’s the only one of Shostakovich’s six solo concerti to end quietly.

Another hallmark of Shostakovich’s later works is a move away from the massive orchestration of earlier works, particularly when this applies to brass instruments. The first Cello Concerto has no brass at all other than a single horn, while the second has two horns.  Both have a complete complement of woodwinds. Where the Concerto #2 expands on the orchestration of the Concerto #1 is in the percussion.  If you can hit it, it’s likely in this work – so there’s a woodblock, bass drum, snare drum, timpani, xylophone, tom-tom, tambourine, and the ever-popular whip.  (This will be my first experience with whip playing live.  I am excited!)  Shostakovich’s 14th symphony, which would come three years later, and his 15th symphony, which came another two years on, would make use of many of these same instruments, and the percussion-heavy, tinkling ending of the 15th shares some similarities with the ending of the Cello Concerto.  Interestingly enough, this work apparently was conceived as a symphony, but the cello kept getting in the way and becoming more and more prominent.  I am reminded of how the piano reportedly took over what Shostakovich originally intended as a trumpet concerto early in his career–what we now know as his first Piano Concerto, or more properly, Concerto for Piano and Trumpet.

Throughout his life, something was always trying to kill Shostakovich.  Whether it was famine, tuberculosis, Stalin, heart disease, cancer, or a mysterious ailment that affected his right hand and both legs (both of which he broke at one point), he was never particularly healthy, and I suspect he suffered from what we would now call PTSD.  Several called him the most nervous man they’d ever met, although I suspect this developed and augmented over the years as a coping mechanism.    It’s thought that this nervousness contributed to his first heart attack, suffered in May of 1966 not long after he finished writing the second Cello Concerto, and thereafter he spent a lot of time in hospitals–but managed to keep writing some of his most deeply affecting works–works suffused with a deep sense of melancholy and isolation, but not without outbreaks of satire and humour.   The second Cello Concerto was reportedly written as a sixtieth birthday gift to himself, and he was healthy enough to attend its premiere in September, 1966.  Between the brooding first movement and the moody (at times lyrical, at times twitchy) third, there is a second movement based on a Ukrainian folksong called “Come Buy My Bagels”–and by bagels, both circular pieces of bread and sex were meant, as the song was apparently sung by street vendors and prostitutes both.  Shostakovich loved this sort of thing, and I love him for it.

This will be the first of Shostakovich’s truly late works I have heard performed live. I’m rather acutely aware that these works entered the same world into which I was born in early 1967. My own timeline overlaps with this work; I was likely conceived in June of 1966. In an odd coincidence, Shostakovich’s death in August, 1975 overlaps with a key event of my own young life that happened around the same time–my move to a new home, and the subsequent plunge into loneliness of my third grade year at a new school.  There’s no other classical composer that I revere that I can say I shared the planet with for a time, and there’s something to that in the way I look at these late works, placing the events of my own life upon their timeline fifty years in retrospect.  We share eight years of time, even though our stories have barely intersected until now.