The musical works of the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich (above left) and British composer Benjamin Britten (above right) are still being absorbed by the culture at large even though it seems to me they were unquestionably the two greatest composers of the mid-20th Century. Though both were successful in their own time, performances of their music are still lagging behind Mahler and Brahms symphonies, for instance, or Strauss and Puccini operas, even though Britten and Shostakovich are better or equally great composers, something I am reminded of every time their music is played live.
Last week, the San Francisco Symphony conducted by James Conlon (above left with baritone Sergei Leiferkus), played Shostakovich's penultimate, 14th Symphony for the first time, 42 years after it was written in 1969, which is rather shocking because it's a masterpiece. The symphony consists of a cycle of eleven songs traded between a baritone and soprano that focus on death as an unwelcome reality. It is scored for nineteen strings and a percussion section, which managed to sound like everything from the quietest string quartet to a full-bore symphonic presence.
Shostakovich dedicated the symphony to the living composer he most admired, Benjamin Britten, which was a mutual feeling. When Britten heard a concert version of "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" in 1936, he wrote to a friend:
"Of course it is idle to pretend that this is great music throughout--it is stage music and as such must be considered. But I will defend it through thick & thin against these charges of "lack of style"...The satire is biting and brilliant. It is never boring for a second, even in this concert form...The eminent 'English Renaissance' composers sniggering in the stalls was typical. There is more music in a page of MacBeth than in the whole of their 'elegant' output."Shostakovich decided he was in the presence of greatness upon seeing the score for Britten's pacifist "War Requiem" in 1962, which he thought the greatest work imaginable (Dmitri was right). His only complaint with the piece was the angelic boys' voices singing a prayer at the end which promises some kind of healing and transcendence over death. Dmitri didn't buy that for a second, so with his body falling apart while sitting in a flu-quarantined hospital at the age of 63, he put together a suite of poems about death by Garcia Lorca, Apollinaire, Rilke and Kuchelbeker in Russian translation. They are angry, philosophical, political, despairing, sad, and in the final duet, almost sarcastic. The music is simply phenomenally interesting, and Shostakovich dedicated it to Britten.
(Pictured above are Mstislav Rostropovich, David Oistrakh, Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich.)
The great cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, the Bolshoi diva Galina Vishnevskaya (pictured above with Britten and his tenor lover Peter Pears), were the real glue that bound the two composers. Britten wrote music specifically for Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya, including the female soloist role in the "War Requiem" while Shostakovich also wrote pieces for both of them, including the soprano soloist in the 14th Symphony. Rostropovich died four years ago, but in the year before that he conducted two weeks of all-Shostakovich concerts with the San Francisco Symphony that were revelatory.
So were the performances last week, with Olga Guryakova above tearing into the poems with such intensity, commitment and power that you could swear you spoke Russian by the end of the hour-long symphony whether or not that was true.
The veteran baritone Sergei Leiferkus was perfection, and was a reminder that there are certain kinds of Russian music that really should only be sung by Russians.
The string ensemble was astonishingly good, with concertmaster Alexander Barantschik digging into the piece in way I had not heard from him before, and the two violas, Jonathan Vinocour and Katie Kadarauch above, created small miracles together throughout.
After intermission, the orchestra played the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" but it didn't make much of an impression, even with its huge orchestra, because the Shostakovich was still in our brains.
Note to the New Century Chamber Orchestra: When you're feeling ambitious, please program this piece which was essentially written for your ensemble.