Symphony No. 14, Opus 135 (1969)
Galina Vishnevskaya, soprano; Mark Reshetin, bass
Moscow Chamber Orchestra cond. Mstislav Rostropovich
Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok, Opus 127 (1966)
Galina Vishnevskaya, soprano; David Oistrakh, violin;
Mstislav Rostropovich, cello; Moisei Vainberg, piano
Revelation RV10101 [72:45/ADD]

Two historic concert recordings--the surprise being that the more compelling turns out not to be that of the première of the Blok cycle in Moscow on 27th October 1967, but rather a live performance of the Fourteenth Symphony taped, presumably in Moscow, on 12th February 1973. The Blok première is, of course, of innate interest; yet the reading, while possessing the customary intensity of Shostakovich première recordings, is marred by tape deterioration and one of Vishnevskaya's squallier performances. In the Fourteenth, though, she is magnificent: more accurate than in Russian Disc's otherwise immensely gripping Moscow première recording from 29th December 1969 (RDCD 11192) and even more deeply involved in the meaning of the work. Taking into account the atmospheric interference that affects the Russian Disc recording, this Revelation issue, which uses the same forces as at the première but with Rostropovich in place of Barshai on the podium, is arguably preferable.

The Fourteenth Symphony is always a lacerating experience, but this performance is particularly concentrated and ferocious. This mood was almost certainly a by-product of events leading up to the time of the concert, an ominous period of freshly gathering repression in which Brezhnev's KGB were closing in on Solzhenitsyn, with whom Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich had been publicly identified since inviting the persecuted writer to move into their dacha with them in 1969. Such a noble gesture carried frightful risk and consequently brought with it an additional burden of fear for Vishnevskaya and her husband. In her remarkable memoir, Galina (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), she records David Oistrakh's reaction upon learning that his friends had given Solzhenitsyn sanctuary:

"I won't play the hypocrite with you: I would never have taken him in. To tell the truth, I'm afraid. My wife and I lived through '37, when night after night every person in Moscow feared his arrest. In our building, only our apartment and the one facing it on the same floor survived the arrests. All the other tenants had been taken off to God knows where. Every night I expected the worst, and I set aside some warm underwear and a bit of food for the inevitable moment. You can't imagine what we went through, listening for the fatal knock on the door or the sound of a car pulling up. One night a Black Maria stopped out in front. Who were they coming for? Us or the neighbours? The downstairs door slammed and the elevator began its ascent. Finally it stopped on our floor. We listened to the footsteps, and went numb. Whose door would they come to? An eternity passed. Then we heard them ring at the apartment across from us. Since that moment, I have known I'm not a fighter..."

Vishnevskaya, Rostropovich, and Solzhenitsyn were definitely fighters. During the four years that Solzhenitsyn worked in the guesthouse at their dacha, they were forced to endure an increasing number of petty restrictions by the Soviet authorities and became used to being openly spied on by the KGB, which had set up an observation post on the nearby road. A year after the performance of the Fourteenth Symphony preserved on this disc, Solzhenitsyn was thrown out of the USSR for "treasonably" publishing The Gulag Archipelago abroad. Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich, goaded by vengeful official cancellations and obstructions, reluctantly followed him into Western exile some months later. They were under siege when they made this recording--a fact which goes far towards explaining the intensity of feeling contained in it.

Why, though, should such feeling have expressed itself via what many hold to be one of Shostakovich's least "political" symphonies?--a work, indeed, ostensibly, and only, about death. In fact, as anyone who examines the libretto will see (and as becomes blindingly clear from this performance), the Fourteenth is actually one of Shostakovich's most political symphonies--a very personal expression of moral outrage against the spiritual imprisonment of life in the USSR at the time it was composed and of which he by then had over fifty years of bitter experience.

The English composer and musicologist Gerard McBurney made the case for the moral/political message of the Fourteenth Symphony in a talk called "Marking the Graves" which he gave on BBC Radio 3 during February 1993. Lorca's De Profundis [I], he pointed out, speaks of "a hundred fervent lovers [who] fell into eternal sleep beneath the dry soil". In the Russia of 1969, this would naturally have been taken as an allusion to the mass-graves of Stalin's victims which surrounded the country's cities. "Here crosses will be erected," the text continues, "so that the people will not forget them." Preludially preceding the rest of the symphony and reprised in the work's penultimate section, the cold high strains of this music speak of isolation and incarceration of a kind at once literal and metaphorical.

In II (Malagueña)--musically derived from the scherzo of Moisei Vainberg's Sixth Symphony (a work which commemorates the Jewish victims of Nazism)--death "stalks in and out of the tavern" with a repetitive methodical briskness suggesting that of the NKVD at the height of Stalin's purges, as recalled by David Oistrakh. In III, Apollinaire's Lorelei laments that, like those sent to the Gulag or into internal exile, her lover "has gone, he is in a distant country... nothing pleases me, darkness fills my heart". The agony of separation which drives Lorelei gradually towards suicide was the common lot of countless Soviet women, their husbands taken from them and transported to faraway places, rarely to be allowed contact even by letter and often never to meet again. Lorelei's suicide, made explicit in IV, directly reflects the composer's suicidal impulses throughout his life, particularly during periods of persecution. "I remember," writes Vishnevskaya of the rehearsals in 1969, "with what deep self-absorption, with what apparent agony, Dmitri Dmitriyevich listened to the words 'Three lilies, three lilies on my grave without a cross...'" In this performance, the composer's anguish is searingly conveyed by Vishnevskaya in the climactic passage on the lines "the [second lily] grows from my heart which suffers so/Upon a verminous bed; the third one's roots lacerate my mouth". Implied: the verminous bed of Soviet "culture"; the mouth-lacerating disgust of self-traducing words uttered under duress.

The remainder of the symphony is increasingly personal, and only obliquely about the supposed central subject of death. In V (On Watch), Shostakovich turns to the theme of vigil, which, in his case as in countless others', took the form of waiting sleeplessly through the night for the dreaded knock of the Soviet secret police. VI (Madame, Look!) deals with the demoralising effect of such sustained experiences of stress and fear: heartless cynicism becomes a refuge in a society in which love is so hideously vulnerable to violence, separation, and death. While this was an experience shared by millions of his fellow citizens, Shostakovich felt it with particular intensity in that his social conscience detested cynicism, as he emphasises in Testimony. In Vishnevskaya's riveting performance, the ghastly laughter of the protagonist veers from sickening scorn to self-contemptuous revulsion. From this point in the work, she falls silent until the end. The music now darkens even deeper.

Since the external repression of Communism generated an additional dimension of necessary self-repression, Shostakovich, as so many like him, became his own jailer. Hence VII deals with imprisonment both naturalistically and as a psychological condition. (That Shostakovich felt almost literally imprisoned by his predicament has been confirmed by several who knew him in later years, and is explicitly encoded in the opening of the fourth movement of his Eighth Quartet.) The composer's repressed indignation--and the subterranean scheme of the entire symphony--erupts into the open in VIII, The Zaporozhian Cossacks' Answer to the Sultan of Constantinople, which, railing against tyranny, has nothing whatever to do with the work's advertised subject. Section IX (O Delvig, Delvig!) sets a poem by the only Russian included in this collection: an obscure lament for a fellow poet imprisoned under the regime of Alexander I. Here, as in his Tsvetayeva and Michelangelo cycles, the composer vents his anger over the repression of the creative conscience under totalitarianism. In X (The Death of the Poet), Shostakovich pursues an ongoing exposition of his personal predicament ("How can they understand how long this road is?") before returning to a more coldly objective stance in the symphony's grim Conclusion. The work's real subjects--isolation, repression, and the experience of imprisonment--become concealed again in its final section, yet they are unignorably dominant throughout most of the score.

All things considered, it's hardly surprising that the Fourteenth Symphony should have called forth such blazing commitment from its performers during the nadir of the Brezhnev freeze.

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