The Shostakovich Chamber Symphony op. 110a: the greatest cover song ever (even including the Clapton Unplugged “Layla!”)

I had the great pleasure of conducting the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony on my Master’s Conducting Recital (followed by Plink, Plank, Plunk by Leroy Anderson, just to give you an indication of my inability to take anything seriously). I knew enough about the whole DSCH motive and his relationship with Stalin and the Volkov-ish idea that the string quartets said everything that the symphonies couldn’t and all that shit, but I never really appreciated just how God damn cool a piece it is.

There’s so much emotional weight permeating the entire score. It’s like a primer on everything Shostakovich is all about: grief, terror, cynicism, melancholy, scathing humor. Even something as absurd as the door-knocking business in the 4th movement, which in the wrong hands would sound not just trite but outright stupid, has a menacing quality that somehow works. There’s no way that THAT gesture, surrounded by a brutally cynical scherzo and the creepy chorale-like rest of the 4th movement, should be as frightening as it is; it makes me want to get into a defensive crouch and keep my eyes peeled for attackers.

The crown jewel of the piece, for me, is the cello solo in that same movement, with the strings holding steady underneath. It’s so delicate and heartbreaking, and it’s also the scene of my own personal musical integrity Waterloo. I asked for and received a crescendo from the cellist (and the strings a bar later) that was absolutely uncalled for in the score, and it really kinda fucked up the atmosphere in hindsight. I listened to it again last night to see if it was as egregious as I remember it being. It was, but it also pretty awesome. Worth the abandonment of basic musical decency? No. An interesting take that no one should ever do in live performance? Maybe. If enough people give a shit, I’ll look into uploading part of the performance so you can decide for yourself if I have an scruples left.

I’m curious to know if anyone did the homework of listening in the dark and seeing where your mind went. Mine went to some pretty interesting places, and I think there’s a 20% chance I was asleep a minute or two before the last movement actually ended, but it was still pretty neat. It’s a pretty fun exercise with a lot of music actually (for the opposite emotional experience, do it with Mysterious Mountain). If you’re a) reading this blog and b) considered listening in the dark, holler about it below. I’m interested to know about it.

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6 thoughts on “The Shostakovich Chamber Symphony op. 110a: the greatest cover song ever (even including the Clapton Unplugged “Layla!”)

  1. Hi! I am interested! I like shosta, I generally listen to symphonies and opera. but came to know this piece thanks to your recent post. It is great, enough for me to go searching for a nice version. I need to listen to it several more times to know it better. I couldn’t do the homework in the dark; will try tonight!

  2. Anibal, you might like Barshai and The Chamber Orchestra of Europe on DG. Available in a 2 disc set with the full set of Chamber Symphonies. (spoiler alert: this is a cello crescendo-less version!)

  3. I have mad respect for Barshai as an arranger and conductor, but I didn’t do the homework because I prefer this piece in the quartet version and it hurts my head to hear it any other way. (FWIW, I feel the same way about Barber’s 11th quartet and ‘Adagio for Strings’.)

    In the Shostakovich mood, however, I did listen to Bernstein’s CSO recording of Shosty 7, and (to go off topic) it reminded me of an idea I saw on this blog a long time ago that I’d like to see renewed: a list of recordings that are so towering and awe-inspiring, and that own a piece of music so thoroughly, that they are unsurpassable. I’m pretty sure everyone should just GIVE UP trying to record Shosty 7 again, and I’d be interested in your thoughts on other recordings that have lapped the field.

  4. Thanks, exactly, thats the one Ive got. Very nice. I did the dark listening and was good, maybe a good excuse to listen without distraction. I find nice touches from the 4th and 7th symps, even Betho 9th. of course from the cello concerto. I was expecting more of a pompoues ending, but then I remembered storms, they come, they explode, and they go slowly like extinguishing, and therefore accepted that peacefull end.
    PD: I should say I liked the quartet too, what is surprising since I don´t like very much chamber music.
    cheers

  5. Pingback: Death and the Maiden’s New Clothes | Everything But The Music

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