Prelude: “Temptation” by New Order
Up, down, turn around
Please don’t let me hit the ground
Tonight, I think I’ll walk alone
I’ll find my soul as I go home
I am writing this from the GO train on a Tuesday night. Those of you who read my Facebook updates know that I have developed a tradition of sorts for this train ride home. Some time ago, I found out purely by accident that the Shostakovich 4th Symphony is precisely the right length for the train trip, so that as the train pulls away, I hear the shrill opening notes of the first movement, and as I pull into Burlington station, it’s to the quiet final notes of the celesta.
That’s what I’m doing tonight, but I’m also writing this time. And I started a little late, because the version I am listening to is the world premiere recording of the work from 1961, and conductor Kyrill Kondrashin takes it four minutes faster than Rudolf Barshai (and six minutes faster than Andris Nelsons, whose 2018 recording has become a favourite.). I have a bit of a tradition that I only play the 4th on Tuesdays, but when the CD finally arrived last week (after a long trek from the Czech Republic), I couldn’t resist and put the thing on. So I know where this is all going, and how fast.
Also on the 2-CD set was Kondrashin’s world premiere of the 13th symphony, from a few months later. The two works together tell quite the story. The 4th was almost lost. It was composed around 1936 and was being rehearsed when the piece in Pravda condemning Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was published—the infamous “Muddle instead of music”, thought to have possibly have been written by Stalin himself. The 4th symphony was not exactly the piece to premiere after that. It’s a huge, sprawling work with an immense orchestra, pairing episodes of lyricism with jarring dissonance, moments of quiet with the cacophony of one of the fastest fugatos you’ll ever hear (I am hearing it at this very moment, in fact). It certainly is not “Soviet realism”, whatever that was. So into the drawer it went. Not even that—the autograph score was lost; it seems to have been preserved purely by accident. Twenty-five years later, it was rediscovered and premiered, and Shostakovich is said to have commented that it was better than any of his current works.
And then there’s the 13th, a symphony scored with a bass soloist and chorus, the texts being five poems by Yevgeniy Yevtushenko (thank you, autocorrect!). The controversial one was the first one, Babi Yar, covering the massacre of thousands of Jews by the Nazis during WWII at a site in Ukraine. At that time, there was no monument there, and it simply wasn’t talked about much. Yevtushenko’s poem touches on more than just the massacre—it is about antisemitism in general thought history—a touchy subject in the USSR. Up until this point, all of Shostakovich’s later symphonies had been premiered by conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky—but he declined to premiere this one, and the young Kondrashin stepped in instead. Knowing that the work was controversial, they had a backup soloist “just in case”—and in fact, the planned soloist suddenly found out he was needed for an opera. The premiere went ahead as planned, but received almost no press. It was understood that it was Not to Be Spoken About. Oh, and Yevtushenko was forced after the premiere to alter the text of the poem to state that Russians suffered during the massacre as well. Even with those changes, the symphony received very few performances in the USSR.
So this is a recording pregnant with all kinds of tension. That of the 4th Symphony is not the best in the world, but there is a rawness to the performance that is tremendously suitable to this particular piece. It’s incredibly evocative. The 13th is a fascinating listen; it’s a much better recording, but there are definite signs of tension. You can hear it in the soloist’s voice, in the odd missed note, and even in the applause.
Moving out beyond that, the historian in me is delighted by the fact that these recordings have survived. Shostakovich himself was at both performances–somewhere, in the sounds I hear, he is there. It puts me, the listener, into one of the seats at these performances. I can see myself there, almost feel it. It makes me think of particular parallel, because I have listened to—watched, in fact—a recording of a concert I attended. The two Toronto concerts Rush played during their R40 tour were made into a concert video—primarily the second of the two, where I was in the 13th row, rather than the first, where I was in the front row. When I hear this recording and see the video, there’s a particularly interesting feeling realizing that I am hearing again the sounds I heard live once before. Those notes were played in my presence, and I can reenact that experience—those exact sounds—any time I wish. And for a very brief moment, I can even see myself as I was on that date and time and place, and reenact the emotions I felt. And knowing how this feels, and knowing the context and history of the recording I am listening to right now (well into the third movement), I really do feel as if I am right there.
Opening this wider, this, this is why I have always been interested not just in studying history, but in recreating it. When I wear a dress from the 1940s to a concert of music from that period, or research a Coronation ceremony that gives the verisimilitude of one that might have taken place in 13th century Rus’, or copy a manuscript by hand, as a medieval university scholar would have done—I can in some way put myself in a different time and place, and gain understanding. I know it’s just a faint reflection of what actually was, and subject to the passing of time, modern biases, and full of lacunae, but it is worth doing. It brings emotions to bear on facts—certainly the feeling of my hand cramping after copying 10 pages of text is something my medieval scribal predecessor would have known. It opens up new avenues of inquiry, new questions, and leads in directions that are not always expected.
Much like the 4th symphony, the first time I heard it on headphones. We’re now nearing the conclusion, and I remember standing in Union Station the first time I heard the crashing, intensely loud notes of the final cataclysm, the one before all dissolves away to the silent, intense thrumming of the bass, drumrolls that sound like thunder, and those final notes on the horn and then the celesta. I knew this work was something special, and I thanked whoever it was who stuffed it into a drawer for 25 years. It was almost lost to history. What I am listening to at this very moment—as the drums roll and the brass announce the coming finale, is a victory—one not contemplated as such when this work was composed, one almost not realized, but that is what makes it so complete.
And now, as quiet descends and the horn and harp sound, I rise and prepare to head out into the world. Violins, high and wistful, and then the second violins, and they intertwine. Pulsing in the bass. Thunder, in the distance. It is drawing to an end…faster than I am used to. The sustained note in the violins, the celesta, the horn one last time…and then the final notes sing out into the infinite.
Postlude: “Mystic Rhythms” by Rush
So many things I think about
When I look far away
Things I know, things I wonder
Things I’d like to say
The more we think we know about
The greater the unknown
We suspend our disbelief
And we are not alone
Capture my thoughts
Carry them away
Mysteries of night
Escape the light of day
Under northern lights
Or the African sun
Primitive things stir
The hearts of everyone
We sometimes catch a window
A glimpse of what’s beyond
Was it just imagination
Stringing us along?
More things than are dreamed about
Unseen and unexplained
We suspend our disbelief
And we are entertained…