Shostakovich Chamber Symphony op 83a- final thoughts…

I’m feeling almost too busy to think this week, but I really, really wanted to share a few final thoughts on Shostakovich, Barshai and the op83a Chamber Symphony we performed in Guildford on Saturday.

I’m generally very open to arrangements and transcriptions, as were Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schoenberg, Liszt and Ravel. I see nothing at all wrong putting a string quartet into the more-public arena of an orchestra concert, or bringing a Mahler symphony into the parlor, or even to playing Elgar with a baroque orchestra.

In these and many other instances, we become aware of a conversation between the composer and the arranger- even when selflessly executed, a good arrangement does represent a creative response to the original work. What is fascinating about this particular arrangement of Shostakovich’s Fourth String Quartet by Rudolf Barshai is that Barshai, by this point in his life, had digested Shostakovich’s quartet and orchestral languages so deeply that he has managed to make his own contribution seem to disappear. It is an arrangement so idiomatic that it ceases to feel like an arrangement- the sense of dialogue between composer and arranger is lost, and we’re left with something that sounds and feels shockingly like original, vintage Shostakovich. No wonder he allowed Barshai to use his opus numbers.

(Interestingly, to those of you who know this arrangement through Barshai’s classic recording with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe on DG, you might have been surprised to hear some significant changes in orchestration. It turns out that Maestro Barshai’s thoughts have continued to evolve on this piece in the 20 or so years since that recording was made. Fortunately, I was able to track Barshai down and get some clarification as to his preferences, although there is one change I wouldn’t have made)

However, I think there’s more to the uncanny success of op 83 as an orchestra work than simply Barshai’s skillful transcription. Plenty of works fit into a particular genre because that is the only one in which the musical idea would work. Shostakovich’s own 7th Symphony is the classic example- the musical content demands a huge orchestra, and would never work with smaller forces. Many of the chamber works also are suited exclusively to their home forces, like the Blok songs, the 2nd Piano Trio and the Piano Quintet.

However, there were other works in Shostakovich’s catalogue that seemed to be assigned to a given genre not because of their musical content, but because of their extra-musical content. Shostakovich knew full well, and said, that the Jewish themes in the 4th Quartet meant it could never be played during Stalin’s lifetime (and it was not premiered until 1953, despite being finished in 1949). He also knew that even post-Stalin, it’s message was too direct and too dangerous for the spotlight that always shone on his symphonies. A quartet about anti-Semitism might stir a bit of controversy among the Russian intelligentsia, but a symphony covering that territory was sure to cause a firestorm. When he finally wrote such a symphony, the 13th, just such a firestorm did occur, in spite of the much more lenient times in which it was written.

After a nearly Shostakovich-free 2008, I’m doing tons of his music in the current year, and I can feel my old Shosty-mania coming back to the surface. As I learn the 6th and 7th symphonies, I’ve been spending a lot of time re-reading the 30 or so Shostakovich books on the shelf that survived the PDT fires. Sadly, this has not been a completely satisfactory experience. The “Shostakovich Wars,” as many call them, have not done performers and listeners any favors, and it would be lovely if some of these scholars would pull their heads out of their bottoms and do some real research and suspend the food-fights. What we really need is a systematic, bar-by-bar catalogue of all the use of quotation in the music of Shostakovich, referenced to all surviving letters, sketches and drafts. Arguing over who signed what is easy, real analysis takes time, patience and clarity. Every time I learn a Shostakovich score, or return to one I’ve studied before, I’m struck by how many more quotes I find, but I’ll never spot all the Russian drinking songs and folk songs, because I’m not from that culture. This is where scholars can be an invaluable support to performers.

Anyway, I’ll long remember the last note of the concert Saturday- a single thread of sound disintegrating into molecules, then atoms and finally quarks, and an audience for once not breathing, not coughing, not clapping, just waiting…..

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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3 comments on “Shostakovich Chamber Symphony op 83a- final thoughts…”

  1. rbonotto

    My difficulty with string-orchestra transcriptions is they don’t go into solo passages (however short) nearly enough for my taste. The Nonesuch CD of Dohnanyi’s Serenade is a case in point: it’s a trio that’s too large for its boots, yet the constant all-string sound gets dull after a while.
    More to my taste is the Chandos’ issue of Janacek, Haas, and Szymanowski, played by the Australian Chamber Orchestra — quite a few jump-cuts from string ensemble to solo instruments, sometimes with such scary accuracy that it’s truly startling.
    –Robert B.

  2. Zoltan

    When you mentioned the other day that you were doing the Chamber Symphony, I started thinking again about getting a recording of it (somehow didn’t get around to do so until now). I haven’t been listening to the SQs as much (except the 8th); I somehow favor the sound of an orchestra. Perhaps this is a good way to get into listening to them more often…
    You make a very strong argument about the 4th Quartet and why its music has been written for a SQ! Very interesting!
    Must be fascinating to be able to hear from Barshai himself; you mentioned that you’re busy, but if you’re in a need of a topic to write, I would be interested to hear about your correspondence. Of course, there’s just a hop to Barshai’s Mahler 10th…
    You also mention your upcoming conducting of the 6th and the 7th: Would love to hear your take on the structure of the 6th. Also, I’d be interested in many aspects of the 7th, for example: I took a look at the score and noticed the extra brass section, but in recordings, I rarely noticed them before (perhaps didn’t listen carefully enough). What I found interesting, they aren’t only used in orchestral climaxes (like in Mahler’s 8th) but sparingly and throughout the movements, so it’s surely not only about loudness…

  3. Mikko Utevsky

    I’d also like to hear about your correspondence with Barshai, if you have time to share it, and perhaps to suggest that you take a stab at the quotation catalogue – you certainly have a handle on many of them, and if you start a list, someone will eventually add to it.

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