Thursday, April 2, 2020

Music in a Time of Anxiety: Shostakovich's Piano Quintet

This is Part Two of this week's "Weekly Dose of Great Chamber Music" from Peter Sirotin and Market Square Concerts, this time with two past performances featuring pianist Stuart Malina, conductor and music director of the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra. This season marks his 20th Anniversary with the orchestra and our April concert which has already been postponed (and rescheduled to a future season) celebrated that anniversary as well.

In Part One, which you can view here, he joined MSC Director Ya-Ting Chang in Bela Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion from a 2016 concert at Messiah College commemorating the 15th Anniversary of September 11th, 2001, a performance that includes percussionists Christopher Rose of the HSO and Erik Forst of the Messiah College faculty.

In this installment, he joins the Jasper Quartet in a concert that opened the 2013-2014 season.

There are basically four great piano quintets in the repertoire. Three of these, to list them chronologically, are Robert Schumann's Quintet, followed by the one by his protege, Johannes Brahms which itself is then followed by the second one by his protege, Antonin Dvořák. Each one of these is regarded as a major work of 19th Century Romanticism.

And there's the one by Dmitri Shostakovich, considered one of the great chamber works of the 20th Century.

(You can view a performance of the Dvořák with Stuart Malina, here, included earlier in this series: scroll down to the third work on the program).

Former Director of Market Square Concerts Ellen Hughes, in her role as Patriot-News columnist, interviewed both Peter Sirotin and Stuart Malina for “Art & Soul” about the Shostakovich Quintet prior to the original 2013 concert:

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Sirotin calls this quintet an intensely dramatic, symphonic work. "Shostakovich always thought in terms of the orchestra, so this is ideal for Stuart, as both a conductor and pianist," Sirotin said. "The quintet is triumphant and cheerful on the surface, with sardonic and tragic elements underneath."

Sirotin grew up in the Ukraine. He told me that he identifies with Shostakovich's dilemma as an artist living in a repressive society, as evidenced by this astounding work, especially the composer's use of farce to disguise a sense of menace.

Malina calls it an amazing piece. He's played the piano part four times in concert, each time with a different ensemble. "It doesn't let up," he said. "Though it seems simple at the start," he said, "it becomes crazy and difficult, with the right and left hands playing in a canon with each other." Every time he agrees to do it, he said, he rediscovers just how daunting it is.

But the end result is "really a pleasure," he said. "I feel fortunate and excited to play such an incredible piece with an impeccably prepared string quartet," he added, despite or perhaps because of those challenges.
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This performance, with pianist Stuart Malina and the Jasper Quartet, was recorded at the opening concert of the 2013-2014 Market Square Concerts season in Market Square Church. The video was recorded by Newman Stare.

Shostakovich in 1941
It's a work in five movements – at many of the initial performances, the third and fifth movements were encored, giving rise to the quip “the quintet is a work in five movements of which there are seven.” It opens with a grand flourish in the piano which is eventually answered by the strings' entrance. If the opening proceeds like a Bach prelude, keep in mind the first two movements are, in fact, labeled “Prelude & Fugue.” In that sense, I often think of this as a single movement of which there are two: one does not make sense without the other.

The next movement is called a Scherzo (pronounced skair'-tzoh) which is Italian for “joke.” Beethoven had begun using the term to replace the more stately minuet of his teacher's generation with something a little more down-to-earth. In either case, these third movements were intended to be light-hearted. But frequently they became more dramatic, even demonic (Brahms' C Minor Piano Quartet's scherzo is hardly light) and with Shostakovich, very often his scherzos can be cynical and violent.

By contrast, the Intermezzo is understated, a return to the seriousness (if not the somberness) of the fugue.

Ask most Americans about Russian music and they will find its common denominator being untold sadness. Back in the late-70s, I asked a Soviet ethno-sociologist who was visiting the University of Connecticut where I was then teaching a course in Russian Music, “why does Russian music sound so sad?” She replied as if she'd never thought about it before: “I don't know – perhaps it's the long winters?”

After all this – and keeping in mind the expectations of a finale following the triumphal march we usually associate with Shostakovich's 5th Symphony or the “flippant hilarity” of the 6th's conclusion, both of which he'd recently completed – this finale is at times light-hearted but not vulgar, often more wistful than sad and the ending is almost like a movie's final scene where the characters walk slowly into the sunset as the light fades. I am always reminded, when I hear this ending, that Shostakovich as a boy played piano in a silent movie theater and one of his favorite characters was Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp.

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After the intense symphonies Shostakovich would later compose (particularly the emotionally charged 7th, known as the Leningrad, which Malina will conduct with the Harrisburg Symphony in May, 2021) and the complexities of his personality – not to mention the complexity of his personal situation as an artistic spokesman to the world for official Soviet art, and especially after the still controversial posthumous memoir published as Testimony by Semyon Volkov (largely discredited but frequently discussed and difficult to dismiss) – it is always tempting to go back to his music to look for “hidden programs.”
Dmitri Shostakovich

What a composer “thinks” while he is composing can only be proven if, somewhere, he writes or has said “this is what I was thinking when I wrote this music.”

Beethoven might tell a friend, in order to understand the mysterious opening movement of his D Minor Piano Sonata, “read Shakespeare's Tempest” (which is why it's called the Tempest Sonata), but he also was watching a rider galloping past on a horse and then quickly returned home to improvise what became the last movement of the same sonata (we know this because this same friend was there to witness this: therefore, the sonata could also be called “The Rider Sonata”).

But because Beethoven never said anything about moonlit nights pertaining to his C-sharp Minor Sonata, we cannot say “Beethoven was thinking of moonlight when he wrote the opening of the Moonlight Sonata” – the kind of “sounds-like” thinking we often use to explain the inexplicable that could also lead to the last movement giving it the nickname “The Thunderstorm Sonata” or, just to be confusing, the Tempest...

So we don't know what Shostakovich “meant” by this finale. One writer hears a “kindly babushka” (the quintessential Russian grandmother) consoling us that everything will be alright in the opening theme. The second theme, we are told, with its little fanfares and sprightly melody, is actually an inversion of a traditional fanfare used to introduce the clown acts into the Russian circus (and please let's not call it the Send in the Clowns Quintet...).

It would not be a big leap from here to a discussion on Shostakovich and the traditional Russian view of the “Village Idiot,” the urodivi or simpleton which is better translated as the “Holy Fool.” The most famous example of this to a Western audience is the character in Mussorgsky's historic opera, Boris Godunov where (if you end with the Revolution Scene and not Boris' death) it is the Holy Fool who is left lamenting the fate of the Russian People.

Boris Godunov & the Holy Fool
Earlier in the opera, in a scene frequently cut from Western productions for some reason, there is a confrontation between the Simpleton and the all-powerful Tsar (who reportedly had had the rightful heir to the throne murdered so he could ascend the throne). After the street-children had stolen his last penny, the Simpleton asks Boris to punish the children, to kill them – like he did the Tsaryevich (the rightful heir). But Boris stops his soldiers from arresting the fool – instead, he asks the fool to pray for him. Russians believed that such people were closer to God and could intercede for them and therefore were given more leeway than ordinary people might be granted.

Oh, I should mention that, in 1939, between completing the 6th Symphony and beginning work on his Piano Quintet, Shostakovich did his own re-orchestration of Mussorgsky's opera, Boris Godunov.

But while that's a possible influence and a coincidence of timing, still, it makes it pure conjecture to tie it into the Quintet's finale (and yet...).

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The G Minor Piano Quintet began life as almost his 2nd String Quartet. But friends of his in the Beethoven String Quartet had asked him to compose something with piano that he could play with them, and so the quintet began to take shape. He began working on it during the summer of 1940 and completed it on September 14th. He and the Beethoven Quartet gave it its first performance on November 23rd at the Moscow Conservatory. It was received with universal acclaim and the scherzo and finale both had to be encored.

In fact, it was so well received, it won the Stalin Prize in 1941, something rather unusual for a chamber work without an overtly political programme, given the timing, but also ironic, perhaps, since Shostakovich had been in such political hot water for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District which resulted in the (in)famous attack in the press – the article “Muddle Instead of Music” – brought on by Stalin's dislike of the opera and its “degenerate Western influences” (Stalin and his wife went to the opera and stormed out, highly offended, despite the fact it had already proven to be a box-office success). He was able to save himself – quite literally – by composing his famous 5th Symphony which someone (not the composer) called “A Soviet Artist's Response to Just Criticism.”

To place things in a chronological perspective, that article appeared on January 28th, 1936; in the spring of 1937, he was nearly arrested (he would have been one of over seven million people who'd be arrested in Stalin's purges between 1936 and 1939) and was saved only because the person who was preparing his arrest was himself arrested first!

Interrogated on a Friday, the composer was told to come back Monday. But imagine your relief if, after a weekend's sleepless anxiety, you'd packed a “to-go” bag of personal necessities and gone into the police station to resume the interrogation, expecting it would end in your being sent off to prison, only to find the officer in charge of your “case” no longer there and told instead, basically, to “take your little bag and go.”

This was around the time he'd already been sketching what would become his 5th Symphony. He finished sketching it on September 11th, 1937 and completed the “short score” a week later and the full score in October. The premiere on November 21st was a huge success that no doubt saved his career (and quite possibly his life).

In 1938, he wrote his first string quartet, starting what would become a new interest in chamber music through the rest of his career. If for no other reason, it usually failed to attract the attention of the government bureaucrats who were more concerned about the large-scale “public statements” the composer made in his more public works like symphonies and operas. He would save many of his most personal statements for his chamber music, especially his later string quartets – like the 8th which incorporates his famous musical signature, his initials D SCH in the pitches D – E-flat – C – B-natural in German notation.

His Sixth Symphony, then, composed shortly after the string quartet, was a more “public” work and was being anticipated as “more of the same,” an offering to the concept of Soviet-Socialist Realism. Unfortunately, the work met with almost universal confusion and has always been a difficult symphony to make sense of, in three movements with a long, slowly unfolding first movement (instead of the traditional allegro) and then a seemingly unrelated scherzo and galloping finale, something vulgar when compared to the expected heroic finish.

This was premiered in November, 1939.

The following summer, then, he composed another chamber work – which, as I mentioned, was originally going to be a second string quartet before being turned into the Piano Quintet.

As Shostakovich told the story to his life-long friend, the literary critic Isaak Davidovich Glickman:

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“Do you know why I added a piano part to this quartet? So that I could have the chance to perform [it] myself and thereby travel on concert tours. Now the 'Glazunovs' and the 'Beethovens' [the two quartets whom he'd scheduled performances of the quintet with] won't be able to do without me – and I'll get a chance to see the world.”

We both burst out laughing.

“Are you joking?” I asked.

Dmitri Dmitriyevich [Shostakovich] answered, “Not in the slightest! You are an inveterate stay-at-home, while at heart I'm an inveterate traveller!” But from the expression on his face it was impossible to tell if he was joking or not. We had this conversation in the summer of the year preceding the war [1941].

[Glickman, Letters to a Friend, quoted in Elizabeth Wilson's “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered,” p.165]
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Though Shostakovich performed the quintet often during his career as a composer-pianist, the quintet never became the “vehicle” that allowed him to tour the world. There were trips abroad – one notable one to Paris where he recorded the two piano concertos but where the illness that would make it impossible for him to continue playing was already affecting his hands.

The next-to-last time he performed in public was in February 1964. He was scheduled to play the quintet with the Borodin Quartet in the city of Gorki, but played only the Intermezzo because of the unreliability of his hands. Though he announced it was to be his last public appearance, he agreed to accompany Galina Vishnevskaya, the soprano who was married to his friend and protege, Mstislav Rostropovich, and a baritone in a program in May 1966, but he was so nervous about the concert and whether his hands would cooperate or not. His friend Isaak Glickman who was in the audience saw the composer was in physical agony, presumably brought on by his nerves.

The next night, Shostakovich suffered a serious heart attack and spent the following two months in the hospital. It was while he was in the hospital this time that he chose the texts for his 14th Symphony which is a combination symphony/song-cycle for soprano and baritone with strings: all of the texts deal with death...

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When Shostakovich performed the piece for the first time with the Glazunov String Quartet (in 1941), the cellist recalled how

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“We, the string players, wanted to 'sing,' to play with more emotion. Shostakovich accentuated the constructive, motor elements and achieved his effect through clarity and the flow of the music. The emotional restraint of his playing led to a certain contradiction with the nature of strings. He demanded the minimum use of vibrato. The fast tempi excluded in themselves any possibility of emotional exaggeration and an open cantilena.”
[quoted in Elizabeth Wilson's “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered”, p. 165.]
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Valentin Berlinsky, the cellist of another quartet – this one, not yet called the Borodin String Quartet – recalls their first association with the composer in 1944 when they were still conservatory students. He was coming to hear them play his first quartet and “he had arrived a few seconds after nine [o'clock]. To my amazement, he started apologizing for being late.”

They didn't perform the quintet with him until 1947, but Berlinsky recalls some details from their rehearsals:

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“...which took place at his home. In the Prelude, he asked us not to make a ritenuto [a drawing out of the tempo] despite its being written in the score. 'But ritenuto is written here,' we exclaimed. He came up to us very nervously, took out a pen and crossed out the marking in every part.

“Rudolf Barshai was the violist in the quartet at the time. In the Finale there is an imitation between the cello and viola. It's in the score now but it wasn't then. The cello and viola were supposed to play together but Barshai made a mistake and came in after I did. Shostakovich stopped playing and said, 'Please, mark it the way you played it just now.'”
[quoted in Wilson, “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered,” p.279]
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Barshai told Ms. Wilson separately his side of this story:

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“Barshai was also studying composition [she writes in a footnote] and on occasion would show Shostakovich his scores. Once, just before the rehearsal mentioned [by Berlinsky], he visited Shostakovich and during their meeting they talked about the Piano Quintet. Barshai suggested a small correction in the finale. 'Play it like that tomorrow in the rehearsal and we'll see,' the composer suggested. At the rehearsal Barshai played the suggested correction in the relevant bars without warning his colleagues. Shostakovich then stopped the rehearsal and told him, 'Leave it like that, please.' Berlinsky in turn was skeptical... telling me that it was unheard of that Shostakovich should accept advice from anyone.”
[Wilson, “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered,” p.279]
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Berlinsky continues, saying how, in all, the Borodin Quartet played the quintet eight times with the composer, the last time being that sad occasion where he could only play the Intermezzo.

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“Shostakovich was a very anxious performer. Because of that all our tempi tended to be too fast. The amazing thing is that he appeared to be ashamed of his own music. He used to say, ' Let's play it fast, otherwise the audience will get bored.' He particularly rushed the slow movements. For instance, in the 3rd Quartet, he hurried us on in the great funeral march of the fourth movement. 'No, no,' he would say, 'while you're stretching out that first C-sharp, the audience will fall asleep.' In general, his marking of the tempo often contradicted what he really wanted.

“We would say, 'But, Dmitri Dmitriyevich, your metronome mark is such-and-such.'

“He replied, 'Well, you see, my metronome at home is out of order, so pay no attention to what I wrote.'

“Sometimes he wrote in the metronome markings after the first performance by the Beethoven Quartet [who usually premiered his new quartets]. It's leader, Dmitri Tsyganov, was by nature a fast player, and this influenced Shostakovich's tempo markings. We never played the same tempi that the Beethoven Quartet took.

“Many years later, we recorded the first eleven quartets [there would eventually be fifteen, in all] in Japan and we presented Shostakovich with the records. Shortly afterwards, he wrote us a very detailed letter which didn't contain a single reference to the tempi. Most of the complaints were in regard to the dynamics... and to some wrong notes. These mostly turned out to be misprints in the score.”
[Wilson, “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered,” p.280]
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A violinist who later joined the Leningrad Philharmonic, Yakov Milkis recalled seeing Shostakovich for the first time in the late-1940s when he was in his prime as a performer.

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“I often heard him perform his own works and I particularly remember his concerts with the Beethoven Quartet. He was a wonderful pianist and when performing, he was completely absorbed in his own world. His playing conveyed an ideal sense of form and structure but more than that it was an expression of his innermost world, one that cost him sweat, blood and tears. He played with a special touch and colour, and often quite intentionally treated the piano as a percussion instrument. It is rare that a composer uses the upper register of the piano like a xylophone, making a sharp, percussive sound. This is how he played the Scherzo from the Piano Quintet, for instance. I still have the particular sound of his sarcastic dry staccato in my ears today. It completely suited the style of the music.

“He always sat alone [in orchestra rehearsals] preferring some inconspicuous spot in the stalls. He... seemed to retire into himself, melting into his surroundings, so as to be left undisturbed while listening and working. This incredible modesty was apparent also when he was in a gathering of people. Here too he appeared to fade into the background, doing his best not to attract attention to himself.
[Wilson, “Shostakovich: a Life Remembered,” p.355]
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1948 had been another terrible year for Shostakovich. Unlike the attack in 1936, Zhdanov's decree was intent on rooting out Western influences in Soviet music in which Shostakovich, Prokofiev and several other leading composers were condemned first by the Stalinist bureaucrats and then by their colleagues. This affected Shostakovich differently, this time.

Rather than writing another “Soviet Artist's Reply to Just Criticism,” he ceased composing at all. Or, that is, publishing anything. Life was difficult, his income dried up – no one would perform his music so he had no income and who would risk commissioning new works from him with Stalin's displeasure so close to the surface? – and so he turned inward, writing solely for himself, often leaving things unseen by others in desk drawers, like his Violin Concerto and, perhaps, much of his 10th Symphony which either didn't see the light of day or wasn't begun until after Stalin's death in 1953 (the same day as Prokofiev's, as it turned out).

But he did compose a series of piano pieces inspired by Tatiana Nikolayeva's performance of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier: his own set of 24 Preludes and Fugues.

Imagine what it must have meant for a composer, accused of being too influenced by Western Music and Germanic forms like the symphony, to sit down and write Bach-inspired fugues: there can hardly be a more Germanic formalist approach to writing music than a fugue! How completely un-Soviet!

And yet his Piano Quintet, composed in 1940 before the Nazi invasion drew the Soviet Union into the 2nd World War, opens with a Prelude and Fugue, as Bach-like, Germanic and formalist as anything he was accused of writing in 1948!

And yet in 1941, this Quintet won the Stalin Prize, the Soviet Union's highest award in the arts!

If it had been such a patriotic issue to attack a composer for his “formalist Western” style in 1948, why was the same “formalist Western” style worthy of receiving the government's highest award seven years earlier?

Vagaries of politics aside, given all that, now listen to Dmitri Shostakovich playing his Piano Quintet which he himself premiered in 1940 with the Beethoven Quartet for whom it was composed, but recorded here in 1949, the year he turned 43:

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– Dick Strawser

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