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.