One hesistates to throw around superiatives like "greatest," but it would be an injustice not to describe the Fourteenth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich as the most remarkable work produced by that amazing composer. It stretches the concept of the symphony established by Mahler, (even coming after the somewhat similar and comparably daring Thirteen Sympbony, "Babi Yar") it also extends significantly our concent of Shostakovich's capabilities. It fuels conjectures about what he might have achieved had he been nurtured in a climate more hospitable to cantankerous genius than that of the Soviet Union.
The symphony is actually a song cycle for soprano and bass with a string orchestra and a daunting array of percussion that includes (atmospherically) a whip. The harmonies, ending on an unresolved dissonance, go far beyond the usual Shostakovich vocabulary, and the song texts (most daringly of all) are largely pessimistic, sometimes transparently autobiographical in their overtones, and drawn with one small exception from non-Russian poets: Guillaume Apoillinaire, Federico Garcia Lorca and Rainer Maria Rilke.
Shostakovich campared his intent in writing this symphony to that of Mussorgsky in his great cycle, "Songs and Dances of Death." It is a daring but apt comparison; few song cycles have more power than that of Mussorgsky, but this is one of them. The resemblance be heard sometimes in the curve of a vocal line, but it is most apparent in the frequent violence of images, textual and musical, and in the pervasive, brooding preoccupation with death. THe composer's health, never robust, had taken a bad turn and clearly he was anticipating (six years prematurely) his death. This anticipation may also help to explain the clearcut defiance of authority in the music - remarkable in a composer who was usually, to his artistic detriment, fairly well-behaved.
A new recording (new, that is, to us; it was made in the Soviet Union in 1973) brings the stark contours of the music into sharp focus. It is conducted with razor-edged precision by Mstislav Rosptropvich and played by members of Moscow Philharmonic. Most notably, it brings to records for the first time in this music the two singers who gave it premiere performance: soprano Galina Vishnevskaya and bass Mark Reshetin. With Vishnevskaya's voice in better condition than it has shown in recent years, these two singers do justice to the music more fully than any others on record, and the orchestra is superb. The performance is on Columbia/Melodiya M 34507, and it should be heard even by those who do not usually care for Shostakovich. Columbia's failyre to provide texts is the only serious problem with this record.
There could hardly be a more striking contrast to this music than "The New Babylon," Op. 18, incidental music that Soshtakovich wrote for a long-forgotten film - the first of his many notable efforts in that field. Long thought lost, the score was rediscovered in 1975 and has been recorded on Columbia/Melodiya M 34502 by Genady Roxhdestvensky and a chamber ensemble from the Moscow Philharmonic. It is music from the composer's brash youth - not without its pensive moments but, in overall impact, bright, iconoclastic and devilishly clever. The subject is Paris before and during the occupation in the France-Prussian War, and Shostakovich uses to the fullest this opportunity to exploit French musical cliches. A climax is reached in this sort of foolery when he uses "La Marseillaise" in counterpoint with Offenbach's famous cancan, but that is only one highlight of a marvelously fresh piece of music, charmingly performed on this record.
Whether the delayed release of Rostropovich's Shostakovich Fourteenth was timed to coincide with the conductor's 50th birthday today has not been made clear, but the birthday is mentioned in the liner notes of another new recording - this one by Rostropovich the cellist, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Orchestre National de France (Angel S-37256). The program consists of Ernest Bloch's magnificent lyric rhapsody for cello and orchestra, "Schelomo" and Schumann's almost equally lyric Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129. The soloist's extraordinary technique, his mastery of the subtlest tonal shading and his keen musical intelligence are evident throughout these two works, as well as his intense involvement in the music's (particularly the Bloch's) high-powered emotionalism. Less predictable and therefore all the more welcome is the level of skill and emotional rapport Bernstein evokes in the orchestra. The Shumann receives a performance perhaps somewhat better than it deserves; the Bloch (one of the glories in the relatively small repertoire of cello and orchestra) has never sounded better.
On two other recent Angel records (S-37279 and S-37280), Shostakovich fares only moderately well, with Paavo Berglund conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in his Fifth and Tenth symphonies. The orchestra plays extremely well, the recording is excellent, (here's the problem) is in excellent taste. Berglund's interpretation, particularly when heard in conjunction with the all-out performances Shostakovich gets in Russia, seems cautious and understated; inflections that would be perfectly appropriate for most other composers simply fall short of the special frenzy that is Shostakovich's.