Revolutionary life, revolutionary legacy

Overshadowed by the 250th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, the year 2000 also commemorated 25 years since the death of Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich, the undisputed symphonic genius of the 20th century.

There have been few artists whose life and work was so defined by opposites, so littered with contradictions. At different times his music aroused both condemnation and glittering accolades. Twice he was winner of the Stalin Prize and twice anticommunist heretic. Several times a deputy of the Supreme Soviet and several times the personal hate icon of Joseph Stalin. Condemned by Stalin for his "formalism", he was later praised by that same man as the "embodiment of Soviet culture".

In contrast to the opportunist, Prokofiev, and the reactionary, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich not only remained in Russia during and after the revolution, but also actively supported it. As a child of 10 he was taken by his middle class parents, members of the St Petersburg intelligentsia, to witness Lenin's arrival at the Finland station. This event left a lasting impression.

Late in life he said: "The revolution, I am convinced, is what made me a composer. I was very young in 1917, but my first childish compositions were dedicated to the revolution and inspired by it." Alas this idealistic commitment to the revolution did not spare him from attacks and persecution by the Stalinist regime.

A rich legacy of recordings of his finest works has appeared throughout the year, many of them of an earlier, pre-digital, pre-stereo vintage. It is worthwhile assessing some of these important historical recordings in the light of what we now know about this most complex of musical figures.

Symphony No5 in D Minor

The ever-popular 5th was composed in a ridiculously short time span. Between April 18 and July 20 1937, with the third movement completed in an astonishingly brief three days. This was to be the work that secured Shostakovich rehabilitation in the eyes of Stalin.

In 1935 Stalin had walked out from the premiere of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtinsk district. This signalled the start of the composer's persecution at the hands of the bureaucracy. Stalin personally penned an attack, which appeared in Pravda in September 1936, describing the work as "chaos, not music". It was "fidgety, screaming and neurotic". This philistine hostility took a rather more serious turn when Shostakovich was condemned for his "formalism". The subsequent witch hunt saw the man relieved of his teaching posts and effectively banished from Soviet music circles.

It was against this backdrop that the tragic and often bitingly ironic 5th was born (the inscription at the head of the score reads: "A Soviet artist's response to just criticism"). In an official statement we read: "If I have succeeded in putting into my music everything that I have thought and felt since reading the criticisms in Pravda I can rest content." (It is difficult to suppress a smirk when after reading this one hears the grotesque parody of a military march that appears in the first movement. It was one of many that claimed to "praise Stalin", but in reality, of course, it mercilessly mocked him.) Probably the most accessible of all the symphonies, it is perhaps not surprising that is the most recorded. Indeed there are "more Shostakovich 5ths than you can shake a stick at in the catalogue at present" (Gramophone, Classical good CD guide, 1999).

Top of the list has to be Evgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic's superlative 1984 live recording. It was the titanic Mravinsky that premiered the symphony on November 21 1937 - "on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution".

While the later school of Shostakovich interpreters (Prévin, Jarvi et al) insist on giving their Shostakovich a sickly patina of mid-Atlantic gloss, the formidable Mravinsky concentrates on exposing the Sturm und Drang central to this ambivalent masterpiece. As much of an enigma as his composer friend, Mravinsky (a Stalinist loyalist yet a devout, outspoken and committed Christian) was in many ways the perfect foil. It is this element of emotional empathy that infused his performances with such vitality and elemental force.

The moderato has an eerie poignancy that even Kondrashin was pushed to match. The allegretto, infused with a Mahlerian pathos, yet overlaid with typically ironic triumphalist assertions, is handled with an assurance that only Mravinsky could muster. Recorded in the twilight of his life, it brings new insights into a standard of the symphonic repertoire. In response to those who prefer Haitink's admittedly admirable Decca effort, the difference is simply in the life experiences of the respective conductors. While Decca's magnificently 'wide sound' cinematic recording conveys a deceptively authentic gravitas, the truth outs in the final allegretto. The sheer intensity, and breakneck tempo, of Mravinsky's peroration simply slays its competitors on every level.

Symphony No7 in C Major, opus 60

Possibly one of the most seminal moments in 20th century music, the massive 7th, The Leningrad, towers above the pretentious screeching of Penderecki and his ilk as the definitive anti-war statement.

While the work's near mythical status is chiefly remembered as a protest at the horrors of Nazism, it is necessary to point out that the composer intended the symphony to be as much a lament for the victims of Stalin's purges. The summer of 1941, while the city of Leningrad was under siege by Nazi troops, saw Shostakovich hurrying to complete the monumental opus that was to finally secure him international acclaim and recognition. A spirit of heroism and defiance, richly spiced with the introspective poignancy so typical of the man, infuses the work from start to finish. A lengthy work, some 78 minutes without cuts, and adhering to the specified metronome markings, The Leningrad drove maestros to vie for the privilege of performing it.

Of all the many masters that wielded the baton over this magnum opus (and remember, Arturo Toscannini was among their number) Shostakovich had this to say: "The symphony has been played in many towns of our country. In my native Leningrad, it was directed by Karl Eliasberg. But the reading given by the Leningrad Philharmonic under Yevgeny Mravinsky was the one that I, as the work's creator, cherished most."

Easy to see why, when one listens to this 1953 mono recording. Unusually for Mravinsky, he eschews the bold colours, the slashing lines of his usual modus operandi in favour of attention to detail. An emphasis on light and shade. Boxy, primitive sound cannot hide the subtleties and delicate nuances of the music's more haunting moments.

Here, though, the competition is stiffer. Bernstein's Deutsche Gramophon The Leningrad is awesome. Scored for both six trumpets and six trombones, those instruments have never been deployed to so devastating an effect. Some critics expressed surprise that 'Lenny' Bernstein could deliver so formidable a Leningrad. For anyone with the ears to listen, however, there is nothing at all surprising in this. After all, like Mahler, Shostakovich believed, "The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything." And who, other than Bernstein, so completely understood this Mahlerian ethic? To this day, in my opinion, 'Lenny's' 60s recording of the Mahler cycle has never been surpassed. No great leap at all then for Bernstein to deliver one of the finest Shostakovich 7ths. Coupled with the composer's graduation piece, Symphony No1, this represents an excellent choice for collectors.

King of the hill, though, is indisputably Kirill Kondrashin's reading with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. With Mravinsky sadly neglecting to leave us a complete cycle, Kondrashin filled the void admirably. While it would be laughable to compare the relative musical merits of his Moscow with Mravinsky's Leningrad Orchestra, here we have insight on an utterly sublime level. The playing, particularly the ragged upper strings and a rather undisciplined brass, is not by any means particularly virtuosic. But we have instead an authenticity and a degree of empathy that is chilling and strangely disturbing.

Kondrashin's largo evokes a desolate wasteland, an emptiness that leaves an aural aftertaste not yet equalled, let alone surpassed. Of course the sound is primitive. Melodiya's 60s technology cannot compare with, say, Decca's glorious digital soundscapes under Haitink. But to live the music and the times there is nowhere else to go than Kondrashin.

Symphony No8 in C Minor, opus 65

Composed in 1943, a mere two years after the 7th, the 8th sees a more bitterly disillusioned, a more sombre and angry Shostakovich. In place of the triumphalist finale of the 7th there is a rather more uneasy and unsettling calm.

Yet there are moments that are truly terrifying in their fury. Thirteen minutes in and the brass and timpani join in a cacophonous dissonance that sets the teeth on edge and stands up the neck hairs. The waste, the tragedy, the betrayal and the sorrow: it is all here - and then some. Rostropovich's 1992 recording, despite some sluggish, rather dense 'miking' of the upper strings, is a respectable rendering. So too, is Prévin's 1995 effort, despite the irritating glossiness that shaves off the more abrasive moments, particularly in the allegro poco moderato.

Again, though, we must go to Kondrashin for the truly terrifying spectre of war to be fully realised. The 1962 recording, again courtesy of the criminally underresourced Melodiya label, offers a vehemence that steamrollers all in its path with the visceral impact of an earthquake. It is worth pointing out that the composer's 8th string quartet shares the same thematic material. It is dedicated to the "victims of war and fascism", but, like the 7th symphony, it also pays unspoken tribute to the victims of the Great Terror.

The political ambivalence of the composer is no more evident than in the mighty works composed during the war. The outside world believed him to be a loyal and unthinking Stalinist, but those close to him claimed he was a bitter and disillusioned rebel. For the revisionists like Solomon Volkov, Shostakovich hated the very essence of communism, while for some orthodox Trotskyists we have almost a member of the Left Opposition! Both characterisations are, of course, nonsense. We have instead an essentially human man. Yes, he was torn by contradictions and divided loyalties: the youthful supporter of the revolution on the one hand, and the oppressed and vilified cynic of the Stalin era on the other. And yet he stayed. With invitations pouring in from the west to teach, to conduct, to compose in 'freedom', he chose to remain in the USSR.

The 8th Symphony perhaps embodies these contradictions more overtly than any other. A titanic work.

Symphony No11 in G Minor, opus 103

January 9 1905. The tsar's troops fire on an unarmed demonstration before the Winter Palace. The massacre of these protestors became etched into memory of the Russian proletariat and was for ever after known as 'bloody Sunday'.

In 1965 Shostakovich was commissioned to write an epic in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution. With the death of Stalin and the onset of the Krushchev era, the infamous composer of Lady Macbeth of the Mtinsk district was to become a respected and revered Soviet artist. The powerful Composers Union - presided over, still, by Khrennikov, once Shostakovich's most fearsome critic - were now his most adoring admirers. Judged by these worthies to be the spiritual heir of Mussorgsky, it was appropriate that the composer should model his new symphony on a typically Mussorgskyian device.

A tone poem rather than a conventional symphony, the work consists of four separate tableaux, drawing its inspiration from Russian folk songs and overtly revolutionary anthems from the period. It is agitprop at its finest.

We need only consider one recording: that of Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded live in Prague in 1967. The sound is raw and unrefined, in parts positively congested; nevertheless here is a reading of extraordinary passion. The frightening scherzo and the finale are not so much composed in primary colours as hurled onto the wall in death black and bleeding red.

You can listen to Ashkenazy and his respectable Decca recording for an element of virtuosity, but Mravinsky simply does not do it like that. As Gramophone put it, "His [Mravinsky's] brass players yell at the top of their voices, his percussion threatens to overwhelm the rest of the orchestra, his violins come within an ace of breaking their strings with the sheer scorch of their bows impact" (Classical good CD guide, 1999). You get the idea.

The 11th is an important historical document too - the unique sound of a Soviet orchestra from the Soviet period performing a uniquely Soviet work. An uprising took place in Prague not long after this recording of the commemoration of the 1905 revolt. You can almost believe it played a part.

Symphony No12 in D Minor, opus 112

This symphony, one of the composer's most immediately accessible works, bears the dedication, "To the memory of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin". And, at the head of the score, there is the inscription, "The year 1917". The 12th was finished in 1965, and Shostakovich remarked at that time: "Creative activity is fruitless unless the writer, artist or composer has very close ties with the working class."

The enduring memory of the 10-year-old Dmitri Dmitrievich, at the Finland station for Lenin's arrival in April of that momentous year, was no doubt an inspiration. And much more terrifying memories, including one of a few weeks previously, when he had witnessed a Cossack murder a six-year-old child while breaking up a demonstration, provided the artist with the material for this most accomplished of symphonies. A good example of what Soviet musicologist Boris Asafiev termed "musico-historical painting", the 12th had its musical origins in an earlier programmatic work, the 2nd Symphony of 1927 which had the subtitle, 'To October, a symphonic dedication', and ended with the salute, 'To October, the Commune and Lenin'.

The 12th is a relatively short work in comparison - some 40 minutes in total - and follows a distinctive programme. All four movements are played without a break, although each is distinct in its own right. The first movement is called 'Revolutionary Petrograd'; the second 'Razliv' (Lenin's hiding place during those revolutionary times); the third is known as 'Aurora'; and the final peroration is suitably titled 'The dawn of humanity'.

A number of fine recordings are available, but for my money you cannot do better than Haitink's Decca offering. The original material is strong in a way that does not seem to need the intense empathy of Kondrashin or the committed violence of Mravinsky. Haitink plays it straight, aided by a wonderfully accomplished Concertgebouw Orchestra. The lower strings in particular lend the reading a tense richness that suits both the sombreness of the opening bars and the literalism of the notoriously po-faced Haitink. Decca's sound, overall, is as usual quite superb and shows off the huge orchestra to best effect. The massive string section (the composer demanded 64 violins alone) mesh magnificently with the timpani and sonorous brass (what a truly fine outfit the Concertgebouw are) and, to quote Timothy Day, "...intensify the brooding quality and the terror and agitation of the work, which are resolved in the exhilaration of the last movement" (sleeve notes, Decca Ovation, 425067-2).

Dmitri Shostakovich was moved by the events of October, and these mighty works represent the pinnacle thus far of symphonic achievement, in the tradition laid down by Gustav Mahler and later followed by Allan Pettersson. If the mere ideal of communism can inspire such works, we can only contemplate, with something akin to awe, the heights to which future generations of artists will rise following the liberation of humanity itself.

Harry Paterson