by Paul Robinson
|Photo by Craig Chesek/Carnegie Hall|
Symphony No. 11 in G minor Op. 103 “The Year 1905”
Over 44 years ago, Leopold Stokowski
conducted the first North American performance of the Symphony No. 11 by
Shostakovich. Stokowski was then music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra (HSO) and had
already conducted a number of important Shostakovich (photo: right) premieres. Around the time
of those 1958 performances of Symphony No. 11, Stokowski and the HSO also made
the first commercial recording of the piece.
Hans Graf, the current music director
of the Houston Symphony, is making news again with this Shostakovich
masterwork. The May 3rd HSO program paired Symphony No. 11 with one
of the composer’s lesser known works, the Anti-Formalist Rayok. A few days
later Graf took this same program to New York’s Carnegie Hall, and on June 9th
of this year the Houston Symphony, with Graf conducting this same program, will
be featured in the “Festival of the World’s Symphony Orchestras” in Moscow –
the first American Orchestra ever to be invited to perform at this event.
Leopold Stokowski came to Houston as an
authoritative Shostakovich interpreter. Can Hans Graf present similar
credentials in New York and Moscow? Judging by the Houston concert I heard, the
answer is an emphatic “Yes!”
Satire: Political Comment for Private Consumption
Maestro Graf’s (photo: below right) Houston concert opened with a
rarity; Anti-Formalist Rayok is a piece that Shostakovich wrote for the
private amusement of his friends in reaction to government heavy-handedness.
In 1936 Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District had been condemned as "immoral," and in 1948 he was denounced
again at the First Congress of USSR Composers. The charge was “formalism.” The
Soviet authorities held the view that all music should serve the ideals of
communism, which meant that it should draw on “folk” or “popular” music, it
should avoid anything critical of the government, and it should be music that
is easily understood by the masses. Obviously, music that is excessively
dissonant or complex was unacceptable.
The seriousness of these issues cannot
be underestimated. Many artists of the period, and some of Shostakovich’s
closest friends, were not only denounced but often rendered unemployable,
beaten, sent to labour camps or even murdered.
Anti-Formalist Rayok, a slight piece
but vitally important to understanding the composer and his times, was given
its first public performance in Washington in 1989, fourteen years after
Shostakovich had passed away. The conductor was Mstislav Rostropovich, one of
Shostakovich’s longtime friends and a fervent champion of his music.
Staging, Visuals and Surtitles Engage, Amuse and Inform
In Houston, Hans Graf gave Rayok a
first-class performance, featuring the excellent and entertaining bass Mikhail Svetlov, (photo: below right)who literally “changed hats” to portray all three government officials
lampooned in the piece. Stalin himself was one of these and we can only imagine
what the composer’s fate would have been, had the piece been performed
publically in his lifetime. Svetlov sang and acted with power and comic skill.
Shostakovich wrote the piece with piano
accompaniment only, but in Houston we heard a version for chamber orchestra by
Milman. In this version, the bass soloist is joined by a chorus whose role is
basically to reinforce the party line espoused by the lead characters. Having
decided that professional singers would produce an overly polished sound,
Maestro Graf chose instead to use members of the Houston Symphony for the
chorus, dressing them in red shirts for the occasion. They rendered their
conformist interjections with great enthusiasm!
The performance of Anti-Formalist
Rayok was greatly enhanced by the use of historical projections on a screen
behind the performers. The younger members of the audience – and there were
many in Jones Hall for this concert – probably benefitted as much, if not more
than the rest of us, from these contextual visuals.
No. 11: “The cup of evil has run over”
After intermission came the Symphony
No. 11, in a performance that was clearly well-rehearsed and extremely
powerful. Shostakovich wrote this symphony four years after Stalin’s death,
having outlived the ruthless dictator responsible for the deaths of millions of
Soviet citizens. As of its composition in 1957, very little had changed in
Soviet life and speaking out against the government was still very unhealthy.
On the face of it, Symphony No. 11
would have been exactly what the authorities demanded from their composers. The
program attached to it concerns the failed Russian revolution of 1905 in which
workers and peasants staged a massive protest in front of the Winter Palace in
St. Petersburg, demanding that the Tsar relieve their oppression and suffering.
The Tsar answered by ordering his troops to massacre the defenseless
As one digs a little deeper, however,
it becomes apparent that there was more on the composer’s mind than the bloody
events that led to the downfall of the Tsar and the coming of communism.
Shostakovich quotes prison songs in the symphony and those who knew
Shostakovich personally claim that he was secretly sympathizing with the
Hungarian victims of Soviet guns in 1956. Although I haven’t seen any
conclusive evidence for this interpretation, in his Memoirs Shostakovich’s
words about this symphony ring true. He recalls that he and his family often
discussed the 1905 revolution and what it meant for the Russian people.
It is surely a short-sighted view of
Shostakovich to think of him only as an artist in constant fights with the
Stalinist regime. He was Russian too and cared deeply about his country and his
fellow citizens. In paying tribute in 1957 to those who died in the 1905
revolution, Shostakovich was also saying something profound about Russian
leaders of that time. In his own words: “I wrote it in 1957 and it deals with
contemporary themes even though it’s called 1905. It’s about the people, who
have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over.”
Searing, Heartbreakingly Beautiful Music
The opening movement of Symphony No. 11
depicts the unearthly quiet in the Palace Square before the massacre. Graf and
the Houston Symphony captured perfectly that unbearable calm before the storm.
Then came the massacre in the second movement and the orchestra unleashed
searing torrents of sound. Never have I heard the bass drum part executed with
such devastating effect. In the third movement, the violas have music of
heartbreaking beauty and the Houston Symphony players outdid themselves. The
final bars were memorable too for the pealing of enormous “bells” at the back
of the orchestra.
I suspect that New Yorkers were duly
impressed by the quality of the Houston Symphony and the authoritative
leadership of Maestro Graf. And Moscow? Critics may say he's "bringing coals to
Newcastle," but more thoughtful observers will see his all-Shostakovich program
as a tribute to Russia and great Russian music. Those who know may also remind
Russian listeners that it was the Houston Symphony that gave the North American
premiere of this very symphony, and that Hans Graf himself studied conducting
in Russia (St. Petersburg) early in his career.
Music lovers outside Houston may not
realize that under Hans Graf, the Houston Symphony has been making recordings
on a regular basis; these deserve to be better known. Among the most recent are
a CD recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (Naxos 8.572498), and a DVD
devoted to Holst’s The Planets with visual images from space assembled by
The historic 1958 recording of the
Symphony No. 11 by Stokowski and the Houston Symphony was recently re-mastered
and re-released on CD by EMI.
The Memoirs I quoted from in my
review are perhaps better known as Testimony, the book compiled from the
composer’s diaries by Soviet musicologist, Solomon Volkov. Although the authenticity of
the book has been questioned over the years, it remains a valuable source
of information about Shostakovich and his innermost thoughts and beliefs.
Labels: Anti-Formalist Rayok, classical music blog, Concert_Review, Festival of the World's Symphony Orchestras, Hans Graf, Houston Symphony, Moscow, shostakovich, Stokowski, Symphony No. 11