By Kyle MacMillan
CHICAGO – Gennady Rozhdestvensky does not recall exactly when he first met Dmitri Shostakovich during his student years in the early 1950s, but the encounter would change his life. The now famed 84-year-old Russian conductor has gone on to champion the composer’s music during his long, storied career, recording all 15 of his symphonies and presenting the delayed Western premiere of the Symphony No. 4 in C minor at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival. “It would be difficult,” Rozhdestvensky said in a recent interview, “to overestimate the significance of my relations with Dmitri Shostakovich and Alfred Schnittke, in that these two titans opened before me a musical universe, like a gigantic magnifying glass reflecting our fragile world.”
Given Rozhdestvensky’s career-long identification with Shostakovich, it was hardly surprising that he presented a program entirely devoted to the composer’s music for his first appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1999. (He debuted with the orchestra in 1974.) But rather than a standard line-up, such as one of the composer’s concertos and one of his popular symphonies, the conductor chose a more unusual and intriguing approach, pairing the first and last of Shostakovich’s symphonies. The result Feb. 5 was a revealing, gripping night of music.
The obvious appeal of this kind of outlier approach is that it allowed listeners to hear Shostakovich at the beginning and end of his 46-year journey as a symphonic composer. He wrote the Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10, in 1925 as a graduation thesis at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and the Symphony No. 15 in A major, Op. 141, was completed four years before his death in 1975. His musical sojourn is an epic one, colored by the emotional tumult of his life and the agonizing history of the Soviet Union.
The selection of these two works avoided Shostakovich’s more bombastic, albeit more famous, symphonies, with their taunting choruses, explosive evocations of military battles, and frenetic spirals into virtual chaos. Indeed, much of the composer’s work demands almost superhuman ferocity to achieve its full emotional impact. But these two pieces are different. While there are certainly hints of the explosiveness, rawness, and anger generally associated with Shostakovich, both the First Symphony and the Fifteenth are more turned in, more meditative.
These symphonies have a weird emotional ambiguity that leaves listeners at a bit at a loss, and that seems to be the point. At the end of Symphony No. 15, written in 1971 when Shostakovich was already ill (he suffered a second heart attack two months after finishing it), he quotes the drum beat of Siegfried’s funeral music from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, but there is no discernible statement on death or expression of hope, as in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Instead, the piece just stops. Shostakovich seems to suggest that he has no more answers at the end of his life than he did at the beginning.
What is so surprising and uncanny is how alike these two symphonies are. The second is the work of a far more seasoned composer, and it exhibits a greater sense of complexity, adds unusual instruments (like an ominous-sounding celeste), and employs quotations from other composers, none more disconcerting in this context than the famed motif from Rossini’s opera William Tell. But in mood and feel the two works are virtually identical, both possessing an open, amorphous structure and both putting considerable emphasis on often extended solos by many of the same instruments.
Yet this was not a soft side of Shostakovich. Not at all. The roiling emotions were still there, but they were lurking under the surface and not so much bursting into the open. Because of this, these works require a different kind of interpretation. Rather than the clangorous assaults and gut punches that some of Shostakovich’s music demands, these two symphonies need a restrained intensity, and that is exactly what Rozhdestvensky delivered, boring into the subversive core of each.
Little about his conducting was conventional. He chose not to stand on a podium, but rather planted himself flat on the stage floor, and he used an exceptionally long baton. But most important was what he did once the music began. Although he did beat time intermittently in an idiosyncratic, one could even say awkward, way, this was clearly not his main focus. Instead, he seemed much more interested in sculpting the performance than conducting in a standard sense. This meant almost continual cues, some very emphatic jabs of the baton, others a roll of the fingers or a look in a section’s direction, and it meant shaping the sound with an assortment of sometimes spare, sometimes obvious gestures.
If the approach was unorthodox, the results were spellbinding. Part of Rozhdestvensky’s emphasis in cueing was to delineate the all-important collision of voices – a flitting flute, a brass blast, a string tremolo – that was so important in these works, particularly in the first movement of Symphony No. 1. It was like a heated debate, with instruments interrupting and cutting each other off. Rozhdestvensky made sure that these exchanges were not just phrases following in succession, but rather the expressive result of musicians listening and spontaneously reacting to each other. No composer more epitomizes the idea of ugly beauty than Shostakovich, and Rozhdestvensky painstakingly captured the uneasiness, restlessness, emptiness, and bleakness of this music, making sure that it was insistently unsettling and deeply affecting.
Not only did the conductor achieve the haunting sound he wanted with the orchestra as a whole, but he also managed to draw it from the many soloists that these pieces spotlighted. Principal cellist John Sharp has never sounded better than in his achingly plaintive solos, especially in the Symphony No. 15. Assistant principal clarinetist John Bruce Yeh brought a questioning, ironic solo voice to the first movement of Symphony No. 1, one that returned throughout the work. Other musicians who stood out included principal bassoonist Keith Buncke, principal trumpeter Christopher Martin, principal timpanist David Herbert, and principal pianist Mary Sauer.
Unfortunately, attendance at the performance I heard was comparatively thin, with vacancies visible even in prime subscription seating, a reminder that Shostakovich remains a challenge to many listeners more than 40 years after his death. But those who did attend were treated to an unforgettable evening of music from a conductor with a direct link to one the 20th century’s greatest composers.
Kyle MacMillan recently marked his 25th anniversary as a music critic and reporter. After serving 11 years as fine arts critic for the Denver Post, he is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and writes for such national publications as Opera News and The Wall Street Journal.