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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906–1975)
Chamber Symphony in F major, Op 73a [34:55]
Chamber Symphony in D major, Op 83a [27:56]
Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne/Joshua Weilerstein
Bonus: Presentations on the works by Joshua Weilerstein [9:35]
rec. Lausanne 2019
FUGA LIBERA FUG769 [72:32]

These two Chamber Symphonies are, to be clear, arrangements for chamber orchestra of the Shostakovich String Quartets Op 73 (1946) and Op 83 (written in 1949, though not performed until 1953). The adaptations were made by the violist Rudolf Barshai, who was a friend of the composer and worked with him extensively, both as soloist and quartet player. Barshai was also a conductor, and gave the premieres of four of Shostakovich’s symphonies. In 1974, with the blessing of the composer, he orchestrated the Eighth Quartet of 1960, Shostakovich’s most famous work in this medium, and followed that with arrangements of several more, including the two on this disc, Op 73 in F and Op 83 in D.

These arrangements are brilliantly done, so much so that many listeners don’t realise that they are not ‘original’ Shostakovich. Here, they are performed by the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of the young American Joshua Weilerstein. The orchestral playing is of a very high standard; the orchestration, as you’d expect, gives the strings the greatest prominence, yet there are telling interventions from woodwind and harp in Op 73a, and also brass and percussion in Op 83a. Weilerstein, himself a violinist, clearly has deep feelings for this music, and steers his players through it inconspicuously, yet with a strong sense of purpose.

The 3rd Quartet, Op 73, was composed in the wake of World War 2, and followed hot on the heels of the 9th Symphony. This latter work landed Shostakovich in trouble again. Back in the mid-1930s, he had been dangerously ostracised after Stalin heard a performance of the opera ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’, and was only reinstated after the premiere of the famous Symphony No 5. Now – even though he had become a veritable war hero owing to the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony – he once more fell foul of Stalin and his henchmen, who were expecting a fully-fledged 9th Symphony ‘alla Beethoven’, with choirs and soloists praising the great victory over Fascism. Instead, they got an irreverent and enigmatic symphony, and Shostakovich was publicly denounced in the most serious terms.

The result was that, for the next few years until Stalin’s death in 1953, he went ‘undercover’, writing – apart from some ‘apparatchik’ film scores and cantatas - mainly chamber works, performed at small-scale, almost private events. The 3rd Quartet was one of the first examples; what is startling is how remarkably like the 9th Symphony this quartet is. Both have five movements, and set out with blithe, Haydnesque first movements (albeit with mischievous and sometimes sinister undertones). In the 9th Symphony, it is the bassoon that leads the way from the tragic fourth movement to the slow recovery of the finale, and Barshai employs the bassoon in a not dissimilar way here in op. 73a.

Shostakovich had originally, in this work’s early days, added titles to each movement, relating to the horrors of WW2. Those titles are given in this CD’s booklet, even though the composer soon thought better and removed them. Interesting though they are, I am with the composer, and don’t feel that they add anything essential to the experience of the music.

However, there’s no point in trying to ‘unknow’ the titles, and they do at least serve to underline the character of each movement. The fourth, Adagio, is called ‘In memory of the dead’, and is a particularly moving piece. There are expressive solos for oboe and bassoon, which are most beautifully played by the players of the Lausanne CO. Another striking element in this movement is the writing for the low notes of the harp; a cavernous sound that Shostakovich loved, as had Mahler before him.

The Fourth Quartet, Op 83, has a very different character, and is scored slightly differently by Barshai. Whereas Op 73a has only individual woodwind instruments added to the strings, Op 83a has in addition a pair of horns, a trumpet, a celesta and some percussion, including Shostakovich’s beloved xylophone. This quartet was composed in 1949, but was deliberately left unperformed until 1953, after Stalin’s death. With its explicit use of Jewish folk-dance style, particularly in the final movement, and, above all, the context that is placed in, it was bound to be seen as a deeply provocative work, in the days when Stalin was overseeing vicious pogroms aimed at the Jews of the Soviet Union.

And it is an incredibly powerful piece, though in a way different from the ‘in your face’ emotional directness of earlier pieces. The overall profile is more ‘classical’ than that of Op 73, though it is extraordinary to find three out of its four movements given the tempo indication ‘Allegretto’. What that does tell us is that there is no really quick music in this quartet, although the third movement does develop a certain momentum. The first movement is unusual in that much of it is based firmly on ‘pedal’ notes in the bass, while the upper instruments explore different modalities, F naturals and C naturals challenging the hegemony of D major.

The second movement is essentially a slow waltz, starting with an exquisite oboe solo; this music is both tender and deeply sad. Then the third movement, shadowy, furtive, yet with rollicking solos for trumpet and horn featuring Shostakovich’s favourite ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor’ rhythmic patterns. The finale begins with another mournful bassoon solo, which leads to the wonderful ‘Hora’, the sad/happy Jewish dance which goes on to dominate the movement. The trick Shostakovich pulls off here is that this melody feels as if it has been distilled from the essence of all three previous movements. These performers, conductor and players, find the tempo and mood of this music so precisely, and both the dance itself and the disconcertingly dark postlude make an overwhelming effect.

The more I listen to them, the more I believe that the Shostakovich quartets are among the supreme artistic achievements of the 20th century – even more than the symphonies, which is really saying something. These wonderful arrangements by Barshai do not replace the originals – they never could, and were never intended to. They simply reveal them in a different light; and in performances as stylish and deeply felt as this, their impact is renewed and strengthened.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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