If you're still in a party mood after Mozart's 250th birthday bash, you're in luck. This month marks the 100th birthday of another great composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. As a central musical figure of the last century and a composer who wrote in every genre, Shostakovich was in some ways the 20th century's Mozart.
Shostakovich was born on September 25, 1906. Numerous performances are being scheduled to celebrate his centenary and several new recordings are being produced. Because he was one of the great symphonists of his time, it's not surprising that Yuri Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic have released a new, "live" recording of his Symphonies nos. 5 and 6.
What is surprising is a new CD with Thomas Sanderling and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra that represents a dramatic contrast to his symphonies. In addition to comical, musical vignettes from a cartoon film based on a story by Pushkin, "The Tale of the Priest," the disc includes the first recorded performance of a suite from Shostakovich's opera, "Lady Macbeth of the Mitsensk District." "Lady Macbeth" premiered in Leningrad in 1934 and rode a brief wave of success until Stalin attended a performance two years later. Soon afterward critics denounced the opera for being too erotic. It was banned from Shostakovich's homeland for 30 years.
On this new release, Thomas Sanderling and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra refresh our memories with this previously unreleased material. (Sanderling is the son of German conductor Kurt Sanderling, who worked with Shostakovich in the Soviet Union.) The orchestra has some serious fun on this recording, which is dominated by its brilliant wind and brass sections. The rhythm becomes bolder and more percussive as we follow the downward spiral of the young bride and her tale of unfulfilled love.
After "Lady MacBeth," Shostakovich felt he had to demonstrate that he was an enthusiastic composer of uplifting music for the masses. He responded with his Symphony No. 5. It wasn't until years after Shostakovich's death that the darker side of the symphony started to be discussed openly. The opening measures of the symphony are spacious and tranquil. The climax bursts into a militant march. After the brief, irreverent scherzo, the largo offers a dramatic shift. Here the composer restrains the instrumentation. There are no brass instruments at all in the third movement, and the string scoring calls for three sections of violins rather than the usual two. The composer's anguish is painfully evident, yet this symphony strikes a note of courage and hope.
"His life was much more complicated than any Westerner can imagine," explains conductor Yuri Temirkanov. He lived in his country like a prisoner, where people next to him were being destroyed all the time. "He was a genius," Temirkanov concludes, "but he was frightened. Inside his music is a testimony as to what was going on."
Temirkanov was privileged to know and work with Shostakovich, which gives him sharp insight into the music of this composer. Those insights are quite broad, however, because the composer himself was open to different interpretations of his music. Temirkanov makes a more deliberate musical statement by choosing a slower overall tempo. He keeps his finger on the orchestra's pulse; the energy never wavers. The St. Petersburg Philharmonic has a visceral connection with Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, since it gave the world premiere as the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1937.
To get a broad perspective of what this 20th-century icon was about, give both of these new Shostakovich recordings a try. One offers an unexpected look at the comical, satirical side of Shostakovich, while the other displays his talents as an introspective, serious symphonic composer. These two new releases introduce plenty of food for thought about a composer who for years has been misunderstood.