Last night James Conlon began his two weeks of subscription concerts with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) at Davies Symphony Hall. The program consisted of only two works, each of which established a unique approach to an episodic structural foundation. The more familiar came after the intermission: Modest Mussorgsky’s 1874 Pictures at an Exhibition, orchestrated for Serge Koussevitzky in 1922 by Maurice Ravel. The first half of the program was probably new to most of the audience and was receiving its first performance by the San Francisco Symphony. This was Dmitri Shostakovich’s fourteenth symphony, his Opus 135, composed in 1969.
Conlon was clearly excited about bringing this symphony to San Francisco. His prefatory remarks to the audience rambled a bit, but there was no questioning the sincerity of his enthusiasm. It is a composition in which Shostakovich departed from business-as-usual in more ways than can be enumerated. However, it also may be apprehended as an extended composition in which he was taking stock of his life; and a significant element of that stock-taking is a recognition of a rich repertoire of influences, not all of which were viewed as reputable by the Communist Party.
Most important is that this is music through which Shostakovich confronted his most personal thoughts about his own mortality. Among all of those compositions that scholars take to be “coded” to escape Party scrutiny, Conlon held up this symphony as expression at its most explicit and undisguised. One reason for this may have been that, in forming his own thoughts about death, Shostakovich turned to one of his favorite composers, Mussorgsky, and his Songs and Dances of Death cycle. If this was one inspiration to gather a collection of eleven poems on the theme of death, another came from another one of Shostakovich’s idols, Gustav Mahler. By scoring Opus 135 for soprano and bass vocalists, Shostakovich openly acknowledged Mahler’s “unnumbered symphony,” Das Lied von der Erde, although, when we consider the poems themselves, they almost seem to constitute Shostakovich’s own private Wunderhorn collection. From the perspective of overall structural architecture, the elegant Das Lied von der Erde plan of crossing tempo indications signifies less in Opus 135 than the idea of interleaving a variety of different text sources in the interest of a synthesized narrative flow. That narrative awareness reflects another influence: The symphony is dedicated to Benjamin Britten, whose War Requiem, composed in 1962, Shostakovich greatly admired.
If Shostakovich had several sources of inspiration for his use of vocal resources, his inspiration for instrumentation could be found much closer to home. That inspiration came from Rudolf Barshai, who prepared a string orchestra transcription of Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet in C minor (Opus 110) shortly after its premiere in 1960. As I have previously cited, Shostakovich’s reaction to Barshai’s arrangement could not have been more positive:
Why, that sounds better than the original. We’ll give it a new name: Chamber Symphony.
Opus 135 is just as much a “chamber symphony,” scored for ten violins, four violas, three cellos, and two basses (with an extended fifth string). Unlike Barshai, Shostakovich composed individual parts for each of these nineteen instruments (thus raising the possibility of another influence in the form of Richard Strauss’ “Metamorphosen: A Study for 23 Solo Strings”). Shostakovich also departed from Barshai by introducing a collection of percussion instruments: castanets, woodblock, tom-toms (soprano, alto, and tenor), slapstick, tubular bells, vibraphone, xylophone, and celesta. However, in sharp contrast to most of his symphonic work, these instruments are used extremely sparingly (and there is no confusing it with Béla Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta”).
If any association with Bartók would be misleading, I cannot resist the urge to hypothesize one more remote melodic influence. That influence would be Johannes Brahms. The clearest recurring theme in Opus 135 is an undulating passage in seconds that opens the symphony and then returns in the first of the two Lorca settings. Those undulations bear a strong family resemblance to the opening theme of the intermezzo in E-flat minor that concludes Brahms’ Opus 118 set of six piano pieces. This may well be coincidence, but the prospect of a link between late Brahms and late Shostakovich makes for an intriguing possibility.
Where Shostakovich may have been at his most unique was in his selection of texts. Only one Russian poet is included, Wilhelm Küchelbecker. All others are translations from the Spanish of Federico Garcia Lorca (two poems), the French of Guillaume Apollinaire (six poems), and the German of Rainer Maria Rilke (two poems). Each poet is represented by an uninterrupted block of songs, so the symphony amounts to a journey through the four perspectives of these poets.
Conlon also prepped the audience by letting them know that this was music that required attentive concentration. However, his enthusiasm made it clear that such attention would be rewarded. I would certainly not dispute this claim. To return to the metaphor of the preceding paragraph, this was definitely an adventurous journey; and, for those not familiar with it, the Russian language has alien qualities that sharply distinguish itself from both Latin and Germanic tongues. Even with the assistance of transliterated text, one goes through a period of adjustment in getting used to its phonetic sonorities. It is one thing to deal with the narrative of a Russian opera, such as Boris Godunov, Queen of Spades, or even Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Poetry is another matter, and it would be unfair to try to assess Shostakovich’s rhetorical interpretation of the translations of the poems he selected on the basis of a single listening.
Nevertheless, first impressions of this symphony were decidedly striking. Soprano Olga Guryakova and baritone Sergei Leiferkus brought a clear understanding of the texts to their interpretations, which compensated, at least in part, for any unfamiliarity on audience side. The nineteen members of the SFS string section could not have been better, combining their voices in both solo and ensemble settings, all under Conlon’s sure guidance. As I previously mentioned, the use of percussion was spare, but always striking in its sparseness.
After the intermission the entire ensemble gathered to dazzle (one again) in their reading of Ravel’s Pictures orchestration. Conlon’s command of the overall instrumental mix was always well focused and properly balanced. His pace tended to be a bit on the leisurely side; but that just provided more opportunity to appreciate the notes of this music, rather than just its massive blocks of sound. If the unfamiliarity of the first half needed to be balanced by returning the audience to its “comfort zone,” Conlon could not have planned a better transition.