Summary for the Busy Executive: Scream, sucker.
One of the most savage reviews I've ever read was an article (Virgil Thomson may have written it, but I'm not sure) from the 1940s on Shostakovich's Piano Quintet. The writer characterized the work as cynically facile – full of the gestures of Great Music, missing the substance, all for the purpose of conning the gullible. Indeed, until the appearance of the 10th Symphony and, even later, the 13th, this seems to have been the standard view of Shostakovich – a major voice of Modernism artistically cheapened and silenced by Stalin. The composer's reputation, however, received a major boost in the 1960s, and his stock continues at high levels, with respectful attention given even to those works once reviled. Most now, of course, look on him as a major voice of Modernism, who occasionally had to engage in fancy footwork to keep on the good side of Soviet authority. It usually strikes me as fairly funny when I hear folks arguing about "objective" standards for greatness. We're not really objective creatures, and over music we tend to become passionate, rather than reasonable. Examples like the paradigm shift toward Shostakovich fill the history of music. We would spend our time much better listening to what we like, rather than guarding the gate.
Shostakovich's chamber music in particular has enjoyed great esteem. These days, some go so far as to rank it above the symphonies, and yet Shostakovich came seriously to chamber music somewhat after he had established his position as one of the two best Soviet composers. His first string quartet appeared in 1935 (ie, after the Third Symphony), the Piano Quintet in 1940, and the Piano Trio #2 in 1944. An earlier piano trio, written in 1923, comes nowhere near the intensity of its younger brother. To me, in purely musical terms and leaving aside for the moment the considerable emotion in these works, Shostakovich's chamber music seems "about" finding a sharper vocabulary of musical images, figures, and gestures than the composer permitted himself in the early symphonies and, indeed, allowed into the symphonic work only from about the first violin concerto on. Shostakovich seems to have followed two different paths – one representing the public rhetoric and a striving for the epic or the theatric, the other more inward, even psychological. Eventually, these two paths meet, with profound result, in the masterpieces of his late period.
As to the Piano Quintet, the mystery critic and I must be listening to two different works. One person's "facile" is another's "naturally musical" or "directly expressive," I suppose. I don't see how anyone with the ears to hear could have called the musical substance of the quintet into question. The themes of every movement grow out of the opening pages. Although Shostakovich isn't always relentlessly logical about motific variation, it's certainly not mere noodling around, either. Shostakovich seems one of those fortunate artists – like Schubert or Britten – where conception encounters few hitches on the way to the page. Of course, a great technique doesn't hurt. The work consists of five movements, but three large sections, with the first and fourth movements serving somewhat as extended introductions. Listen hard to the ideas in the first measures, because you will hear them again in various guises throughout the work.
I've heard all-Russian groups perform this piece, but they don't do any better than Beaux Arts and friends. From the opening "pedal and toccata" of the piano and the bite of the massed strings, the players lay a lot of emotion on the line, and yet they always seem to know not to step over. They show great judgment and planning, particularly in dynamics and dynamic transitions. The final pages of the first movement to the quiet opening of the second-movement fugue apparently stopped my breath. Furthermore, despite the relatively large chamber forces, Shostakovich rarely has all instruments playing at once, favoring a constant shifting of combinations, often of just two or three players. Beaux Arts is absolutely seamless here. They don't give us sections, but a spectrum of color. "Relentless" describes the Scherzo third movement fairly well. Pressler is especially effective with a "hard" touch, often like a riveter's gun, while the strings give out with a moony (even lunatic) waltz. The tone is typical of Shostakovich's "sardonic humor." It reminds me a good deal of Jewish humor, although I don't know the composer's background – that is, the humor of Sholom Aleichem without the sentimentality of the musical version. Aleichem ends one of his Tevye stories, where a daughter has married a Catholic and is therefore dead to him, "But let us talk of more pleasant things. Have you heard about the cholera in Odessa?" There's a savagery behind Shostakovich's grin as well.
The opening of the Lento fourth movement stops time as violin quietly soars over a "walking bass" cello line. The movement represents for me the emotional deeps of the quintet. Shostakovich marks the movement "appassionato," but that sometimes deceives performers into excessive schmalz. The Beaux Arts players don't make that mistake. They hold back, as if keeping the lid on a pot that wants to boil over, so that when the climax comes, it releases the energy that their restraint has built up. The diminuendo to the end and the beginning of the finale again is another high point of the performance. After the power of the slow movement, a listener may have problems deciding what to make of the frisky theme of the finale. It turns out that Shostakovich sets us up with sudden, powerful surges and dark transformations of the basic cell. It replaces the comparative directness of the contemporary symphonies with a vertiginous inner dream state, where the smiling man holds a knife or a friend calmly talks you into going with him to climb a high cliff and, reaching the summit, you find you have no way to get back down. The return to a relatively light-hearted ending comes too abruptly to console.
Compared to the second trio, the quintet seems almost classical in its reliance on a set of well-defined forms. The trio uses classical forms as well, but less insistently. The overall impression is one of the liberation of the imagination. The quintet manages to reinforce its classical forms. In the trio, the forms constantly threaten to break down and "pure music" to take over. In part, this stems from Shostakovich combining procedures from different genres in one movement or truncating forms. For example, the first movement shows features of both sonata and Prélude-and-fugue, while the second shows both scherzo and rondo.
The trio sings closer to the bone than the quintet. Various explanations of the inspiration for the trio have been proposed, but I know too little of Shostakovich's life to lean toward one or the other. One reason for the many explanations is, of course, the power of the trio: something this intense must mean something. When I first heard the work, it struck me as a Dance of Death, not surprising given Shostakovich's early and deep study of Mahler. The introduction to the work – a bare-bones line on high cello harmonics, arrestingly played by Peter Wiley with a "dead" tone – exhibits striking affinity with the final number of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, at the words "Hat mir niemand Ade gesagt" ("No one has said goodby to me"), although Shostakovich very quickly adds the inflections of Russian folk song. Given the date of composition, several writers have suggested that Shostakovich wrote the work in response to reports of the Nazi death camps. However, a long-time friend of the composer had died shortly before Shostakovich began writing the trio. Perhaps the trio is partly a "saying goodby" to a friend. Nevertheless, to me the music overwhelms any such reductive explanation.
The first movement engages in violent mood swings, from opening despair to an almost athletic joy to pure fury. Shostakovich brings the latter two into even sharper opposition in the following Scherzo. The triple-time rhythm pounds relentlessly. The scherzo trio, which normally brings some kind of rhetorical relief, dances just as manically. To that extent, the movement might almost be described as a scherzo without trio. The slow third movement is a chaconne. Like Brahms in the Fourth Symphony finale, Shostakovich uses a sequence of chords as the background to a set of variations. His basic harmonic progression moves from Bb-minor to B minor – a feat in itself – in a way that really doesn't allow a listener to get his bearings. When the composer adds melody lines, however, the progression begins to make more sense. This runs counter to the composer's usual symphonic practice, where "recitative" melody makes little sense without its harmonic underpinnings. The movement doesn't rise to the passion of its counterpart in the quintet, and consequently serves as a kind of bitter relief. But it's like looking over a battlefield, fighting ended, numb at the slaughter. In the finale, the trio becomes a klezmer band, in an idiom that owes much to Prokofieff's Quintet. Themes from earlier movements reappear, transformed in the fun-house mirror of Shostakovich's klezmer. The movement becomes progressively angrier, until the opening theme of the entire work breaks the tension in an imitative passage for all instruments. The klezmer begins again until it hits one last surprise: the chords of the chaconne, against which the strings eventually are reduced to the strumming of mandolins and guitars. Given the original context of those chords, the work should end in a blank of despair, but the effect really comes off as more of a resolution of grief.
The Beaux Arts play even better than in the Quintet. They meet the trio's greater emotional demands, and it is withal a performance of equals. The pianist, Pressler, for example, makes his points but doesn't hog the spotlight. He also doesn't give the impression of driving the performance. It really does seem to come from a meeting of three minds. Recorded sound is Philips's usual excellent – fitted to the music, neither too bright nor overblown and never calling attention to itself. One of the best CDs I've heard this year.
Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz