Chicago Symphony Orchestra

at Orchestra Hall, May 27 and 29 and June 3, 5, 10, and 11

By Lee Sandlin

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra finished up its concert season with the Dmitri Shostakovich Festival: three weeks of symphonies, concerti, string quartets, opera arias, song cycles, and film scores by the most difficult and elusive composer in modern classical music. There were six orchestra programs plus a chamber recital, and since one of the perks of being a reviewer is that you sometimes get to be a glutton, I went to them all. It was worth it, even though I think I’ll be burned out on concertgoing for months to come. This is exactly the sort of full-immersion retrospective major symphony orchestras ought to be mounting regularly–it’s a shame the CSO has never done anything like it before and has nothing else like it on the horizon. But then I can’t think of many other classical organizations that would even consider such an ambitious and risky project.

The biggest risk was the choice of composer. Shostakovich, unlike Debussy or Stravinsky, doesn’t have a nice, staid, settled reputation. It’s been 25 years since his death, and his career and his music are still the subject of rancorous debate. One of the biggest pleasures of the festival was to see so many first-class musicians participating just because they were Shostakovich fans. It was an even bigger pleasure to see the house so full at each concert and the audience so wildly enthusiastic. I don’t suppose they’d turn out like this if the CSO offered three weeks of John Cage, but who would have thought they’d be there for an intransigent freak like Shostakovich?

The performances were consistently superb and at times astonishing. At the podium was Shostakovich’s longtime friend, cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. I’d never been a big enthusiast for his conducting, but I can’t imagine anyone could have surpassed him this time: concert after concert, he led the CSO through some hair-raisingly tough music with unfaltering confidence and majestic power. The superstar guest soloists–Maxim Vengerov, Yuri Bashmet–were predictably dazzling, but they were also blessedly free of the showboating that so often wrecks big-celebrity events. And the CSO has never sounded better: the ensemble playing had an intensity you rarely hear these days, and the crescendos must have rattled windows for miles around.

And how did the music itself come off? The peaks were extraordinary–Shostakovich’s best music is as good as any written in this century. But it’s a long way down to the valleys. Two of the concert programs were largely taken up with Shostakovich at his worst, and I found those evenings excruciating. Granted, hearing so many concerts in a row is a prescription for critical overload: Shostakovich’s minor flaws and stylistic tics can get irritating after one concert, but by the last they’d swelled into leviathans of annoyance. I got particularly tired of his fondness for the shock tactic of breaking up reflective passages with fortissimo blasts. But cumulatively the worst problem was his characteristic tone, which is so unrelentingly dark and cryptic it makes the most aggressive modern music seem sunny. After enduring the final, shattering crescendo of horror on the concluding program I couldn’t wait to go home and listen to Frank Sinatra.

That tone is part of the big Shostakovich puzzle, the most hotly debated issue in classical music. For raw hostility, the field of Shostakovich studies compares favorably with Usenet–it’s a battleground where gangs of revisionists and antirevisionists are perpetually gunning for each other. The key issue, if I can risk getting in the line of fire, is Shostakovich’s tormented relationship with the Soviet state, which both subsidized and harassed him and which he publicly supported but, depending on which witness you believe, privately reviled. His music is usually read as highly political–the problem is that nobody can agree on what those politics are. Many of his major works seem like expressions of genuine patriotism from a committed Communist Party member–though they might be cynical acts of appeasement, or they might represent the encrypted satire of an anguished dissident, the view currently winning out. It’s even disputed whether his posthumously published autobiography–prime evidence for thinking of him as a dissident–is the real thing or a politically motivated fake.

These riddles might be easier to solve if the music were more straightforward, but nothing else in the classical repertoire is so infuriatingly equivocal. The first thing that strikes most listeners is that it’s ugly: the symphonies are vast expanses of ponderous noise, as strident and bombastic as Stalinist architecture. Most of the thematic materials derive from the melodramatic excesses of late Romanticism, but there’s just enough of an edge of modernist dissonance to make the psychic atmosphere truly stultifying. Yet close listening reveals something unexpected: beneath the harsh surface are deep seams and rifts of beauty and wonder as well as slow, almost geological movements of tremendous emotional power. And there’s another, even more pervasive quality: an unnerving edge of mockery and deliberate self-parody. If you listen to enough of Shostakovich’s music you find yourself wondering if he’s ever being serious–everything he wrote starts to sound like a sinister trick.

The festival offered an unusual opportunity to find out what he thought he was doing because it represented his own choices: In the early 1960s Rostropovich had asked him what he’d like to see included in an ideal retrospective, and he’d worked out the programs for these six concerts. Unfortunately he wasn’t easily tricked into self-disclosure. He had a big catalog to pick from–he was a fast and prolific composer–but he stuck mostly to the same shortlist of masterpieces any of his fans would have come up with. The Fifth and Tenth symphonies, the Violin Concerto, and the Cello Concerto are all exceptional works, and I was glad for the chance to hear them again. But they aren’t exactly full of revelations.

Still, there were a few novelties. The early Piano Concerto, for instance (given a wonderfully acrobatic performance by Constantin Lifschitz), is exuberant, playful, and charming–the last three adjectives you’d expect to hear applied to Shostakovich. I was also interested to hear the sample of his movie music, from a Russian-language version of Hamlet; he wasn’t in Prokofiev’s league as a sound-track composer (or for that matter Bernard Herrmann’s), but nobody else could have conjured up a more ominous atmosphere. And for fans of classical esoterica, there was his rewrite of Schumann’s Cello Concerto; the original is considered a failure because of its unwieldy orchestration, and Shostakovich’s spare and elegant rescoring demonstrates a fine ear for the subtleties of mid-19th-century style. From these three choices you can tell he would have liked to have been recognized for his wit and for being a knowledgeable student of classical tradition. Evidently he got impatient with the popular image of him as the bleaked-out genius of cosmic bombast.

But the festival’s biggest surprise was an unpleasant one. Shostakovich’s shortlist inscrutably omitted his Eighth Symphony, a visionary and tragic work that many people (including, I gather from the program, Rostropovich) regard as his greatest achievement. Yet he found room for two of his most embarrassing exercises in officially sanctioned kitsch: the 11th Symphony, a sort of wide-screen tone poem about the abortive 1905 revolution, and the 12th, an ersatz high-Victorian fanfare in praise of Lenin. Whatever his reasoning, these choices were totally perverse, and the festival organizers should have shown some backbone and overruled him. It was bad enough to have to slog through this sludge–the 11th ran a full, punishing hour–but it was intolerable to think we could have been hearing Rostropovich and the CSO perform one of the best symphonies ever written.

Afterward I heard a lot of speculation about Shostakovich’s motives. The consensus among my friends was that he’d left out the Eighth, with its vast abysses and vistas of horror, because he’d found it too intimate and painful, and that he’d included the 11th and 12th to appease any governmental eyes peering over his shoulder. That could be true. But if he was trying to play it safe, then surely he would also have omitted the desolate and frightening 13th Symphony, his setting of a group of bitterly controversial poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the most openly subversive work Shostakovich ever wrote. The fourth movement alone, titled “Fears,” is the creepiest portrait on record of what another dissident called “the long, magical night of Stalinism.” The poem begins “Fears are dying out in Russia,” but Shostakovich’s weird, insinuating orchestrations, like the tendrils of a nightmare you can’t shake off, suggest that the fears are just as alive and menacing as ever.

My own best guess is that these choices reflect his perpetual need to stay camouflaged. One reason he survived so long under the Soviet system was that everybody found him confusing–and so the festival offers a self-portrait in deliberate confusion. If you want to see Shostakovich as a model Soviet citizen, then you can’t explain the inclusion of the 13th. If you want to see him as a dissident, then you have to wish away the fawning over Lenin in the 12th–the last movement is called “Dawn of Humanity,” for God’s sake. If you’re stunned by the dark vision of history in the 10th, then you have to reconcile that with the sweeping, romanticized Doctor Zhivago-ish historical cliches of the 11th, with its fake poetry of ominous wintry stillnesses and thundering hooves. It’s simply not possible to decide which of these works are sincerely meant and which are bogus–they’re all suffused with the same unnerving blend of impassioned urgency and mocking masquerade.

So how are they supposed to be performed? Rostropovich made an interesting choice: he did them all straight. He ignored the pervasive irony and the bursts of self-parody and went consistently for clarity, balance, and maximum force. This was brilliantly effective, though it did have some curious consequences, such as turning the worst of the bunch, the 12th, into a rousing orchestral showpiece, a real foot-stomping crowd pleaser. I don’t think anybody in the hall was focusing on what the music was supposed to be about–after all, the ideology of the Russian Revolution seems to be as much of a dead issue these days as the wars of the Guelfs and the Ghibellines. Even so, the sight of the bejeweled CSO crowd cheering a tribute to Lenin was unforgettable.

Yet Rostropovich’s triumph wasn’t that he was able to get the 12th to sound better than it deserved. It was that the greater works came through with such stunning power. This was what made the festival–whatever its doldrums and occasional ineptitudes–such a magnificent event. There were so many things to admire, so many fine performances, and so much extraordinary music that I hesitate to single out one highlight. But for full-throttle acoustic fury, the program with the Violin Concerto and the Tenth Symphony was one of the most remarkable I’ve ever heard. The soloist for the concerto was Vengerov, and he was electrifying, even by his own over-the-top standards. Rostropovich’s conducting was superbly balanced between the bleak, fiery surfaces and the dark architectural depths, and the CSO blasted through the fortissimo passages–there were lots and lots of them–with such force that audience members were left visibly shaken. They’d thought they were attending a concert, and they ended up ringside at a nuclear meltdown.

I’d rank almost as high the chamber recital, which featured Rostropovich, Vengerov, CSO concertmaster Samuel Magad, and Yuri Bashmet performing three of the string quartets. Going in this seemed the most dubious of the festival’s events–not many all-star recitals are the equal of their celebrity wattage. Normally you get a lot of glitter and flash covering over some awfully lazy ensemble work. That just won’t do with music as challenging as Shostakovich’s string quartets; performing them well requires years of intimate collaboration, because the players need to be able to read each other’s thoughts as much as they do the composer’s.

These stars weren’t quite able to pull off that miracle. They didn’t have the telepathic cohesion of, say, the Borodin Quartet’s recordings. But there was an impressive compensation: hearing four wildly individual styles managing to reach some kind of common ground. Rostropovich was somber and steady on cello, Magad on second violin was crystalline clarity, Bashmet on viola was dreamily mysterious, and Vengerov on first violin was floating and incandescent. But they all shared a devotion to the music, which is the most personal and eccentric in the modern chamber repertoire. It was a terrific performance, and all four musicians deserved the rapturous applause they got. But the highest praise should go to the music itself, because the three quartets they played–the Second, Seventh, and Eighth–emerged as complex, beautiful, and many hued, rich with interpretive possibilities, yet possessing the spiritual coherence of the greatest art.

If there was one moment in the festival when Shostakovich’s mask slipped, it was here. The quartets–which date mostly from his later years–show him pushing his weird style to its furthest limits: the horror and the vaudeville, the scornful comedy and the mourning beauty are swirled together in hallucinatory dervish dances. The recital could offer only a glimpse of this strange terrain–in the way the traditional forms of the Second begin to dissolve into uncertainty, the terse elegy of the Seventh opens into vistas of grief, and the weird lyricism and sinister tonal jumps of the Eighth create a tangible mood of incipient hysteria. But what also comes through much more strongly here than in the orchestral works is a feeling of imaginative freedom. Despite the inevitably bleak tone, the quartets have a formal inventiveness and a lack of restraint that suggest we’re seeing into some secret reserve of pure creative exhilaration.

Not that this settles anything about Shostakovich. The quartets as a whole are also so inward and peculiar they’re often simply incomprehensible. They seem like a sustained confrontation with what Sir Thomas Browne once called “the dark tribunal of the heart,” but they provide no verdicts and keep opening into further recesses of doubt. Their real message may be that Shostakovich himself didn’t know the answers to his own riddles–perhaps the surface puzzlements of his music are only camouflage for an unfathomable mystery. This isn’t the conclusion I expected to bring away from the festival, but I’ll take it. Before, Shostakovich’s work had seemed one of the harshest, least hospitable byways of classical music. By the end, it had become as strange and tantalizing as Atlantis.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.