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Spring Symphonies

 Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major (1945)

When Shostakovich began work on his ninth symphony, the weight of tradition—the proclaimed nine symphonies of Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Dvořák and Mahler—had long since acquired mythic expectations. Moreover, in 1945 this was the composer's first post-war symphony, an occasion made for patriotic celebration. Indeed, its key of E-flat suggested nothing less than Beethoven's Eroica. But, as Timothy Day has observed, "Shostakovich wrote within a single month a work which is Haydn-like in its proportions and Rossini-like in its wit."

The premiere took place November 3, 1945, with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Evgeny Mravinsky. To say that Stalinesque officialdom was taken aback is an understatement. In Solomon Volkov's Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, the composer describes the situation:

They wanted a fanfare from me, an ode; they wanted me to write a majestic Ninth Symphony… Everyone praised Stalin, and now I was supposed to join in this unholy affair. And they demanded that Shostakovich use quadruple winds, choir, and soloists to hail the leader... I confess that I gave hope to the leader and teacher's dreams. I announced that I was writing an apotheosis… When my Ninth was performed, Stalin was incensed. He was deeply offended because there was no chorus, no soloists. And no apotheosis. There wasn't even a paltry dedication. It was just music, which Stalin didn't understand very well, and which was full of dubious content.

In spite of all the unacknowledged state-sanctioned intimidation used to bully the most original artists in the Stalin era, Shostakovich had by then attained the highest profile internationally of any Soviet artist. Payback would come eventually, but it was delayed both because of Shostakovich's reputation abroad and because Stalin's plate was full with new international diplomatic relationships to manipulate.

Like his Piano Concerto No. 1, composed twelve years earlier, the Symphony No. 9 is rife with Shostakovich's unmistakable fingerprints, not least his penchant for parody and sarcasm. Yet it remains faithful to the classical model. Its first movement follows sonata form, complete with repeat of exposition, but then switches the major triad into minor, introducing a tonal ambiguity that carries through like an undercurrent to the often raucous goings-on otherwise.

The elegiac second movement is followed by the last three, which are played without a break. The fourth movement is really an introduction to the finale, with stentorian trombones answered by an impassioned bassoon that at last dissolves into triviality. Timothy Day concludes, "This is music for a hollow victory."

Dmitri Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 1 in  C minor (1933)

Shostakovich gave the first performance of his Piano Concerto No. 1 in October 1933, with the Leningrad Philharmonic conducted by Fritz Stiedry—five years before the legendary Mravinsky made the orchestra his own. (As an historical note, the composer recorded both of his piano concertos with the French National Radio Orchestra in 1958.)

On paper, the concerto is in four movements, though, like his Symphony No. 9, the next to last actually serves as an introduction to the finale. The solo trumpet straddles a line that divides a fully equal partnership with the piano from a concertante role—an orchestral part that provides occasional solo cameos. (A more accurate title has been suggested: Concerto for Piano, Trumpet Obbligato and String Orchestra.)

The work favors brilliance over depth, and at the outset recalls the sarcastic tone that begins the composer's precocious Symphony No. 1. The main theme hints at the opening of Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata, and, in the final movement, a solo cadenza paraphrases Beethoven's Rondo a capriccio in G (also known as "Rage over a lost penny.")

Other paraphrases reference a Haydn piano sonata and some of Shostakovich's own incidental music of the period (including a circus piece called Allegedly Murdered.) The slow movement's melancholy mutes the strings, and the trumpet when it enters, while the piano follows a simple unadorned line. Bravura passages acknowledge the great romantic Russian piano tradition, while sassy bits take an occasional snarky turn that seems calculated to annoy the Soviet musical establishment.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major
Even without the more famous odd-numbered symphonies, Beethoven's reputation would be safe with the Second, Fourth, Sixth and Eighth. Characteristically, the composer, like most great artists, created new artistic problems to solve here, and solved them with resourcefulness and innovation. Because the Symphony No. 4 in B-flat is the least often played, it will come to some listeners as a new experience. Moreover, it will give the conductor an opportunity to make it appear to be Beethoven's greatest.

At first glance, some of the even numbered symphonies seem to echo the classical example of Haydn. Yet Beethoven's Eroica" (Symphony No. 3) had already altered the direction of the symphony in particular and the classical style in general. The composer was well around the curve away from Haydn and toward his "symphonic ideal." The article on Beethoven in the New Grove Dictionary, co-authored by Joseph Kerman and Alan Tyson, cites Beethoven's "projection of the underlying principles of the sonata style on…the total four movement work, rather than that of a single movement in sonata form." The composer's intellectual power, it continues, penetrates to the "gestural" level beneath sonata form, and grasps the "essences" of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic implications.
The fourth Symphony exemplifies this vision and mines those implications with the same concentration as can be found in all the remaining symphonies by the deaf genius. The character of the work cannot be distilled to a single idea. The mysterious slow introduction to the first movement's allegro wanders around in the minor tonality, like walking into a fog, as the conductor Christoph Eschenbach characterizes it.

The second movement, a rondo in E-flat, is motivated by a tripping dotted-rhythm 'heart beat.' The scherzo—though not so titled—replaces the A-B-A pattern of Haydn with a surprising A-B-A-B-A in which the B (the 'trio') gets more prominence than the A. The jocular finale gallops in perpetual motion and throws a notoriously daunting solo at the bassoon in its closing moments. 

The Symphony No. 4 was composed quickly, during one of Beethoven's most productive periods, interrupting work on Symphony No. 5, which was well along. His opera, Fidelio, the "Razumovsky" string quartets, "Appassionata" Sonata, Violin Concerto, Piano Concerto No. 4, Triple Concerto and Symphony No. 6 were all occupying his thoughts (just as the young widow Josephine von Brunsvik occupied his heart.) The Symphony No. 4, together with the Piano Concerto No. 4 and the Coriolan Overture, was premiered in March 1807 at a private concert at the Lobkowitz Palace in Vienna, with Beethoven as the concerto soloist.

Program notes by Scott MacClelland



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