Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Shostakovich Symphony No. 2 in B major, Op. 14, 'To October'

A strange beast, this one. This 'symphony' is a short single movement work (my recording is just under 19 minutes), composed to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution. It starts with a quiet, gradual emergence from nothingness, with no obvious thematic material, building up a mass of sound, and then progressing into a fast, scherzo-like dash. Here there are some more recognisable Shostakovich features - high shrill woodwind, and a rising solo violin line. The music gradually slows, leading to the entrance of the chorus, men first, in a setting of a poem by Alexander Bezymensky, praising Lenin and the revolution. This is now like a completely different piece of music - less experimental, no longer abstract, and much more obviously tonal. Ultimately this juxtaposition just doesn't really work. Shostakovich tries to link the two sections with two rising surges from the orchestra towards the end, like shortened summaries of the opening. Audiences at the time didn't know what to make of it, and even Shostakovich later acknowledged the work's shortcomings. Still, he was still only 20, and there are signs even here of some of his stylistic traits that would develop in time. 

My recording is from a live performance in 1996 at the Royal Festival Hall, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir, and is conducted by Mark Elder. It was released with the BBC Music Magazine (Volume V No. 2). Nothing wrong with the performance as far as I can tell, but I get the feeling they are not entirely convinced by the work either. Interestingly, the rest of the disc contains the much more substantial 'Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution', Op. 74, by Prokofiev. This is pretty crazy, with gunfire, passages for an accordion band, and a speaker complete with megaphone! Clearly much more programmatic than the Shostakovich symphony, it is as a result more successful in terms of the subject matter. Yet it was still too daring, and was not actually performed until 1966, thirteen years after Prokofiev's death. I haven't been able to confirm whether it was actually banned, or whether Prokofiev just realised it was too risky to publish - I'd be interested to find out, if anyone knows. There are lots of folk inspired themes, and similarities to his Alexander Nevsky score, which was composed the following year. This would certainly be a fun piece to sing sometime!

Shostakovich. Symphony No. 2. BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Geoffrey Mitchell Choir, Mark Elder. 1996. Compact disc. BBC MM50.

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