Shostakovich's 14th Symphony, which had its Washington premiere Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, is one of those cathartic works in which a creative artist who has long used death as a theme finds his view transformed by circumstance, as death is no longer just a problem for mankind but is an immediate personal threat.
In 1969, when he wrote the 14th, Shostakovich was trying to recover from a near-fatal heart attack and had only a little more than five years to live, which is probably more than he expected, judging from remarks in "Testimony," the memoirs attributed to him by Solomon Volkov.
So what he wrote was a piece unlike any other of his symphonies, except in its considerable length. It is a setting for soprano and bass of 11 poems dealing with death by Garcia Lorca, Apollinaire, Ku chelbecker and Rilke. There is the outrage of the opening, Garcia Lorca's "A Hundred Ardent Lovers Have Fallen Into Eternal Sleep." There is the extraordinary pathos of Apollinaire's "The Suicide." There is the autobiographical anguish in the setting of Rilke's "The Poet Was Dead." And Shostakovich never more forcefully characterized the police-state mentality of his Soviet oppressors than with "In Prison" (Apollinaire, again), a portrait of a prisoner awaiting execution.
From the beginning to the end, his view is unremittingly grim and angry. The brief final poem (Rilke's "All Powerful Is Death") allows none of the sense of repose and reconciliation on which ends the most famous work of this kind, Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde."
In the 14th Symphony, which was performed here by the National Arts Centre Orchestra of Canada, Shostakovich throws to the winds the cautious habits of composition that his work had taken on in a lifetime of trying to appease the demeaning commissars. It is as if the heart attack were a liberating force; what else now did he have to lose? The attack on the state is now direct. The state-imposed injunction for an exultant ending to even the most despairing work is ignored. And for once Shostakovich allows himself an almost total preoccupation with his subject -- the politics be damned.
As he is quoted in "Testimony" as having said, "Fear of death may be the most intense emotion of all. I sometimes think that there is no deeper feeling. The irony lies in the fact that under the influence of that fear people create poetry, prose and music; that is, they try to strengthen their ties with the living and increase their influence on them."
It is as if to put a brake on these convulsive feelings that Shostakovich dispenses with the huge orchestra used in the rest of his 15 symphonies, cutting it by almost three quarters to a chamber ensemble of strings and percussion.
This combination of emotionally shattering poetry with orchestration on the intimate scale of chamber music hits the listener, compounding the force of the words. If there is any contemporary of Shostakovich whose music it most closely resembles it is Benjamin Britten. And Shostakovich acknowledges this by dedicating the 14th to Britten, who also was dying of a heart condition at the same time.
This symphony was an almost ideal work for the American debut of a small orchestra like the Canadian ensemble. Under Mario Bernardi, the orchestra's founder, the Shostakovich piece was less strenuously inflected than Rostropovich's recording made before leaving Russia, and there is a good case for performing the symphony fairly straight -- letting the words and music speak as directly as possible. Soloists Felicity Palmer and Marius Rintzler did precisely this. It would have been better for the words, though, if the house lights had been up high enough that listeners could follow the text without eyestrain.
Any audience that cannot follow the poems is at a serious disadvantage. As if the original French and German in which most poems were written were not hard enough, their recasting in Russian compounds the difficulties.