Of all the great composers, it was Dmitri Shostakovich who most closely experienced the horrors of war.
In World War II, Shostakovich was out there on the perimeter of Leningrad with other men digging the ditches that failed to stave off one of history's most awful sieges. Throughout it all, Shostakovich risked his life nightly as a volunteer.
His most important musical expression of the war was the Eighth Symphony--sometimes desolate, sometimes thunderous, and surely as powerful a depiction of the destructive side of war as any composer has created. Mstislav Rostropovich and the National Symphony Orchestra played it stunningly last night at the Kennedy Center in a preview for their Far Eastern tour. Tonight it will be repeated and then their next performance will be April 12 in Tokyo. One can only wonder how this remarkable piece, in such a performance, will affect listeners in the country that experienced Hiroshima.
It is the second of the two Shostakovich war symphonies--and by far the finer, though the often gung-ho Seventh got more attention at the time and remains better known. With the Eighth, Soviet authorities were faced with an ideological quandry. For this almost unrelievedly grim and uncompromising symphony was something less than the paean to the glories of Mother Russia that they wanted, declaring it, as the composer is quoted as saying in "Testimony," his memoirs, to be "counter-revolutionary and anti-Soviet" because it was "tragic."
The hour-long symphony opens with a lengthy threnody for strings alone projecting a sense of utter hopelessness. This spell is broken by one of the most violent sections in all of music--the orchestra at full blast repeating over and over an extended sequence of hammer blows evoking battle; then desolation returns.
Two scherzos follow, almost totally lacking the usual Shostakovich irony. Another brooding slow movement is followed by a finale in which the hammer blows return and the music then ends full circle. The composer has returned to where he started, soft music for strings alone--with a little sense of emotional resolution, but not much.
The kind of supercharged intensity that Rostropovich brings to conducting is invaluable to such music. Not all details of ensemble were worked out last night, but the overall effect was overwhelming. And the soft playing the strings gave him was exceptional.
Lovely Copland and Prokofiev works that came before were repeats from earlier concerts this week.