About this Recording
8.550628 - SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 8

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975)
Symphony No.8, Op. 65

Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906, the son of an engineer. He had his first piano lessons from his mother when he was nine and showed such musical precocity that he was able at the age of thirteen to enter the Petrograd Conservatory, where he had piano lessons from Leonid Nikolayev and studied composition with the son-in-law of Rimsky-Korsakov, Maximilian Steinberg. He continued his studies through the difficult years of the civil war, positively encouraged by Glazunov, the director of the Conservatory, and helping to support his family, particularly after the death of his father in 1922, by working as a cinema pianist, in spite of his own indifferent health, weakened by the privations of the time. He completed his course as a pianist in 1923 and graduated in composition in 1925. His graduation work, the First Symphony, was performed in Leningrad in May 1926 and won considerable success, followed by performances in the years immediately following in Berlin and in Philadelphia. As a pianist he was proficient enough to win an honourable mention at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw.

Shostakovich in his early career was closely involved with the theatre, and in particular with the Leningrad Working Youth Theatre, in musical collaboration in Meyerhold's Moscow production of Mayakovsky's The Flea and in film music, notably New Babylon. His opera The Nose, based on Gogol, was completed in 1928 and given its first concert performance in Leningrad in June 1929, when it provoked considerable hostility from the vociferous and increasingly powerful proponents of the cult of the Proletarian in music and the arts. The controversy aroused was a foretaste of difficulties to come. His ballet The Golden Age was staged without success in Leningrad in October 1930. Orchestral compositions of these years included a second and third symphony, each a tactful answer to politically motivated criticism.

In 1934 Shostakovich won acclaim for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, based on a novella by the 19th century Russian writer Nikolay Leskov, and performed in Leningrad and shortly afterwards, under the title Katerina Ismailova, in Moscow. Leskov's story deals with a bourgeois crime, the murder of her merchant husband by the heroine of the title, and the opera seemed at first thoroughly acceptable in political as well as musical terms. Its condemnation in Pravda in January 1936, apparently at the direct instigation of Stalin, was a significant and dangerous reverse, leading to the withdrawal from rehearsal that year of his Fourth Symphony and the composition the following year of a Fifth Symphony, described, in terms to which Shostakovich had no overt objection, as a Soviet artist's creative reply to justified criticism. Performed in Leningrad in November 1937, the symphony was warmly welcomed, allowing his reinstatement as one of the leading Russian composers of the time.

In 1941 Shostakovich received the Stalin prize for his Piano Quintet. In the same year Russia became involved in war, with Hitler's invasion of the country and the siege of Leningrad, commemorated by Shostakovich in his Seventh Symphony, a work he had begun under siege conditions and completed after his evacuation to Kuibyshev.

Stricter cultural control enforced in the years following the end of the war led, in 1948, to a further explicit attack on Shostakovich, coupled now with Prokofiev, Miaskovsky and Khachaturian, and branded as formalists, exhibiting anti-democratic tendencies. The official condemnation brought, of course, social and practical difficulties. The response of Shostakovich was to hold back certain of his compositions from public performance. His first Violin Concerto, written for David Oistrakh, was not performed until after the death of Stalin in 1953, when he returned to the symphony with his Tenth, which met a mixed reception when it was first performed in Leningrad in December 1953. His next two symphonies avoided perilous excursions into liberalisation, the first of them celebrating The Year 1905 and the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917 in 1957, and the second The Year 1917, completed in 1961.

In 1962 there came the first performance of the Thirteenth Symphony, with its settings of controversial poems by Yevtushenko, and a revival of the revised version of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, under the title Katerina Ismailova. The opera now proved once more acceptable.

The last dozen years of the life of Shostakovich, during which he suffered a continuing deterioration of health, brought intense activity as a composer, with a remarkable series of works, many of them striving for still further simplicity and lucidity of style. The remarkable Fourteenth Symphony of 1969, settings of poems by Apollinaire, Lorca, Rilke and Küchelbecker, dedicated to his friend Benjamin Britten, was followed in 1971 by the last of the fifteen symphonies, a work of some ambiguity. The last of his fifteen string quartets was completed and performed in 1974 and his final composition, the Viola Sonata, in July 1975. He died on 9th August.

The career of Shostakovich must be seen against the political and cultural background of his time and country. Born in the year after Bloody Sunday, when peaceful demonstrators in St. Petersburg had been fired on by troops, Shostakovich had his musical education under the new Soviet regime. His own political sympathies have been questioned and there has been controversy particularly over the publication Testimony, The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov, once accused of fabrication in his portrayal of the composer as a covert enemy of Bolshevism. The testimony of others and a recent scholarly survey of the life and work of Shostakovich suggest that the general tenor of Volkov's Testimony is true enough. Shostakovich belonged to a family of liberal tradition, whose sympathies would have lain with the demonstrators of 1905. Under Stalinism, however, whatever initial enthusiasm he may have felt for the new order would have evaporated with the attacks on artistic integrity and the menacing attempts to direct all creative expression to the aims of socialist realism. While writers and painters may express meaning more obviously, composers have a more ambiguous art, so that the meaning of music, if it has any meaning beyond itself, may generally be hidden. Shostakovich learned how to wear the necessary public mask that enabled him to survive the strictures of 1936 and 1948 without real sacrifice of artistic integrity.

Shostakovich wrote his Eighth Symphony in 1943. In the previous year he had been offered the position of Professor of Composition at the Moscow Conservatory and in April he settled in the city. In the following months he completed the new symphony, which he dedicated to the conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky, under whose direction the first performance was given in Moscow in November. The work proved controversial. The circumstances of composition and timing of the Leningrad Symphony, which had proved so useful to the authorities, had hidden its inner meaning, while its frequently elegiac tone had seemed appropriate enough, however feeble its final celebration of coming victory. The Eighth Symphony, however, aroused immediate hostility, particularly from members of the official musical establishment, who resented the general air of gloom and melancholy that permeates the work, where an element of triumphalism might have seemed more suitable, in view of recent Red Army victories. After the success abroad of the Leningrad Symphony, the Eighth proved a disappointment outside Russia in the context of war-time, but won a later reputation, which has recently been disputed on musical rather than political grounds. At home it was withdrawn from concert performance for some fifteen years and only restored to the repertoire after the death of Stalin. From the evidence of Volkov's Testimony, it seems that Shostakovich intended the work as a requiem, like the Seventh Symphony, a memorial for the victims of Stalinism, but an overt memorial, for official purposes, to the current victims of war and in particular of Statingrad. The symphony is scored for an orchestra that again includes E flat and bass clarinets, in addition to the usual complement of woodwind instruments, and tripartite in structure, brings music of mounting tension and eventual brutality, after a generally meditative and deeply felt opening, a poignant mood that prevails through much of the movement in the intensity of melody. The dynamic climax of the movement is followed by a meditative cor anglais solo, capped by the strings in the final section.

The second movement is a kind of scherzando march, a bitter enough jest, slipping from time to time into triple dance rhythm, but the whole with an air of savage parody, emphasised by strange touches in the scoring, particularly in the writing for piccolo and E flat clarinet and the use of piccolo with bassoon and double bassoon, at extreme ends of the woodwind register.

The third movement opens with a regular viola figure, taken up by the first violins and led in other directions, with the help of the second violins. The continued rhythm is handed from section to section of the orchestra, or shared between them, forming the ostinato substance of the movement and providing a trumpet quick march tune, the texture punctuated from time to time by sudden cries of bitter rage. The near perpetual motion of this movement leads without a break to a slow movement passacaglia, its ground repeated twelve times as the basis of variations of grim omen. The last of the five movements brings a feeling of greater serenity, introduced by the bassoon and generally sustained, apart from a harsher central climax and a curious episode du ring which a bass clarinet and solo violin engage in dialogue. The symphony ends quietly as the sustained C major chord of the strings dies into silence.

Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava)
The Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava), the oldest symphonic ensemble in Slovakia, was founded in 1929. The orchestra's first conductor was František Dyk and over the past sixty years it has worked under the direction of several prominent Czech and Slovak conductors. The orchestra has made many recordings for the Naxos label ranging from the ballet music of Tchaikovsky to more modern works by composers such as Copland, Britten and Prokofiev.

Ladislav Slovak
Ladislav Slovak was born in 1919 in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, where, in spite of straitened circumstances, he completed his earlier musical training at the City Music School and subsequently at the Bratislava Conservatory. As a conductor he was greatly influenced by Vaclav Talich in Bratislava and from 1954 by Yevgeni Mravinsky, to whom he served as assistant in Leningrad. For some two years Slovak attended Mravinsky's rehearsals with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra of the symphonies of Shostakovich, including first performances of Symphonies Nos. 11 and 12. In these rehearsals Shostakovich was present, hearing his music in performance for the first time and rarely interfering, except for occasional adjustments of tempi. He had great confidence in Mravinsky, with whom there was collaboration at the profoundest musical level. Slovak was privileged often to take part in discussions on problems of performance between Mravinsky and Shostakovich, and also learned much from other conductors, including the second conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Kurt Sanderling. On his return to Czecho-Slovakia Slovak was appointed Conductor-in-Chief of the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra in Bratislava, with guest engagements with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, which he conducted on an extended world tour to the Far East, Australasia and Russia in 1959. In 1961 he was appointed Conductor-in-Chief of the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and has continued with similar appointments as far afield as Australia and with a busy career as a guest conductor. His early working collaboration with Mravinsky and Shostakovich has led to performances of particular authority, in particular of the latter's fifteen symphonies.

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