Alpha is now reissuing three recordings from its back catalogue, the first discs of the conductor Teodor Currentzis. An opportunity to discover or rediscover three very different styles, and three facets of the talent of "the enfant terrible of classical music", as Le Figaro called him, for whom "music is intended to transport into the waking world the sentiments we feel when we dream". With their invitation to travel through different periods and territories, these reissues may be appreciated both separately and as a triptych revealing the artistic approach of Teodor Currentzis and his ensemble MusicAeterna, from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (here served by an exceptional cast of singers) to Shostakovich's Symphony No.14 (conducted like a dance of death) by way of Mozart's Requiem, the Salzburg composer's last work, here given an invigorating reinterpretation.
After a striking Dido and Aeneas, Teodor Currentzis and his Siberian orchestra present a new version of Shostakovich's 14th Symphony, dedicated to Benjamin Britten, that leaves us breathless. He maintains a scrupulous respect for the score and the musicological context in order to give a new energy to the music. Currentzis is not an artist who barges into the music to produce artificial effects. On the contrary, this recording proves again that the strength of his work comes, above all, from a meticulous respect for the score's details, with a coherent larger picture of the interpretation. A lesson that teaches us what the "early music spirit" can provide to all repertoire.
|Teodor Currentzis (Photo by Aleksey Gushchin)|
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
♪ Symphony No.14 in G minor "Lyrics for the death", Op.135 (1969)
i. Adagio. "De profundis" (Federico García Lorca)
ii. Allegretto. "Malagueña" (F. G. Lorca)
iii. Allegro molto. "Loreley" (Guillaume Apollinaire)
iv. Adagio. "Le Suicidé" (G. Apollinaire)
v. Allegretto. "Les Attentives I" (On watch) (G. Apollinaire)
vi. Adagio. "Les Attentives II" (Madam, look!) (G. Apollinaire)
vii. Adagio. "À la Santé" (G. Apollinaire)
viii. Allegro. "Réponse des Cosaques Zaporogues au Sultan de Constantinople" (G. Apollinaire)
ix. Andante. "O, Del'vig, Del'vig!" (Wilhelm Küchelbecker)
x. Largo. "Der Tod des Dichters" (Rainer Maria Rilke)
xi. Moderato. "Schlußstück" (R. M. Rilke)
Julia Korpacheva, soprano
Peter Migunov, bass
Conductor: Teodor Currentzis
Recorded in July 2009 at the Opera Theatre, Novosibirsk, Russia
Alpha Classics / Outhere Music France 2017
First publication: March 12, 2018 / Last update: April 22, 2019
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|Dmitry Shostakovich in the early 70s|
The "Requiem" Symphony
By Levon Akopian
By the end of the nineteen-sixties Dmitry Shostakovich was at the height of his fame, and with the days of the Stalinist persecutions over, he reaped success and reward. The Soviet authorities smothered him with decorations, countries abroad presented him with honours, and each new work he composed was hailed by the critics. However, the composer's correspondence, published after his death, shows that he was not particularly overjoyed. Early in February 1967 he wrote to his close friend Isaak Glikman: "I am disappointed in myself. Or rather I have come to the conclusion that I am a very dull and mediocre composer. When, from the height of my sixty years, I survey the ‘road behind me’, I would say that only on two occasions has my work been successful: Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and my Thirteenth Symphony. The success hit home hard. Yet, when everything had calmed clown and things were back to normal, it turned out that both Lady Macbeth and the Thirteenth Symphony went ‘splat!’ as they say in The Nose".
Another letter to Glikman, written on 24 September 1968, is even more expressive: "Tomorrow I'll be sixty-two. People of that age love to show off; when they answer the question ‘If you were to be born again, would you spend your sixty-two years in the same way as you have already?’ they reply, ‘Yes, of course. There were setbacks, there were upsets, but all in all I would spend my sixty-two years in just the same way’. My reply to that question, were it put to me, would be: “No! A thousand times, no!’"
Shortly after that Shostakovich was to express similar existentialist negativism in one of his most despairing works: the Fourteenth Symphony, which is in effect a vocal cycle for soprano, bass and chamber orchestra. The first two songs are settings of pieces by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936) who died tragically, shot during the Spanish Civil War. The third one is to a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), after a ballad by the German Romantic poet Clemens Brentano (1778-1842), and the next five (4-8) are also settings of poems by Apollinaire. The ninth section presents the only Russian poem in the cycle, written by Wilhelm Kückelbecker (1797-1846), and the words of the two remaining songs (10 and 11) are by the Bohemian Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). At the first performance all the texts were sung in Russian, translated by Inna Tynyanova and Anatoly Geleskul (Garcia Lorca), Mikhail Kudinov (Apollinaire) and T. Silman (Rilke). Songs 1, 7, 8 and 9 are for solo bass voice, 2, 4, 5 and 10 for solo soprano, 3, 6 and 9 for soprano and bass, with the final movement in duo.
Shostakovich was strongly aware of the importance of this work. In another letter to Glikman dated 19 March 1969, he wrote: "The Fourteenth Symphony [...] is, as I see it, a landmark composition. Everything that I have been writing over a great number of years has been a preparation for this composition". Yet in this composition, written by an experienced musician of sixty-two, there is none of the calm and serenity that one generally finds in the recapitulative works composed by great artists at the end of their lives. Most noticeable here are the protestation, the despair, the terror at the thought of nonexistence, which at the same time has its lure. Eight of the eleven movements (1 to 6, 10 and 11) are on the subject of death, invariably represented as tragic, premature, violent and unjust. And in No.7, the monologue of an innocent man (Apollinaire) who finds himself in goal (La Santé in Paris), loss of freedom is tantamount to death. The Symphony's short Conclusion ends – or rather shatters – on a violent, aggressive note. The last words leave no room for hope: "Death is great and we are his to mock: when we think we are in the midst of life, death dares to weep among us".
The only movements that do not have death as their theme are 8 and 9, which thus stand out strikingly from the rest. No.8, relating an episode in Russian history, expresses virulent hatred for a tyrant and torturer. No.9, to the only Russian poem in the cycle, sings of the "proud, joyful, free" union of artists, "lovers of the eternal Muse". This piece stands out as an isolated instance in the work of positive emotions, peace and harmony. Furthermore it is written in a very pure major key, whereas all the others show a predominance of atonal lines, capricious, sinuous and often grotesque.
We know from Shostakovich himself that the main historical prototypes of his Fourteenth Symphony were Mussorgsky's Song and Dances of Death and Mahler's Song of the Earth. But it is possible that other works written earlier in the nineteen-sixties had some influence on its composition. At least four major innovative works, each laden with metaphysical meaning, may have left their mark: Shostakovich knew (or could have known) them during the years before he composed his Symphony. Most important is Benjamin Britten's War Requiem (1962), a setting of the Catholic Mass for the Dead interwoven with poems about war by Wilfred Owen. Shostakovich was undoubtedly very fond of this work and, viewed from a certain angle, his Fourteenth Symphony, which is dedicated to Britten, may be seen as a polemical response to the vision of human existence developed by the English composer in the War Requiem. (For further explanation of this, see below.)
Another work to which Shostakovich cannot have been indifferent was Witold Lutoslawski's Paroles tissées – Woven words – for tenor and chamber orchestra (1965), to a text by the French poet Jean-François Chabrun. Apart from the theme of death (which Chabrun treats in a surrealist manner calling to mind the poems of Garcia Lorca), the choice of instruments is similar to that of Shostakovich's Symphony. Both works are scored for strings and percussion (with seventeen string instruments for Lutosławski, nineteen for Shostakovich).
The third work that Shostakovich may have known is Krzysztof Penderecki's oratorio Dies irae (1967), which would have attracted his attention by its use of an original process: its text draws on various literary sources that have nothing in common, and yet the composer succeeds in creating a dramatic line running through the work.
Then there is a composition I would like to look at in more detail, as regards its similarities to the Fourteenth Symphony: Igor Stravinsky's last important work, Requiem Canticles, which had been written and premièred three years previously, in 1966 and published the following year. I do not know whether there is any evidence that Shostakovich was familiar with this "pocket Requiem", as Stravinsky called it, but the two works do have features in common.
The Requiem Canticles recall, through quotations, many of the stylistic touchstones of Stravinsky's career, including Oedipus Rex, Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Symphony of Psalms, and Les Noces, which he presents in a new, dodecaphonic environment that makes them more distant, less familiar. Both composers began to master the twelve-note system – music in which all twelve notes of the chromatic scale have equal importance, i.e. music that is not in any key or mode and may therefore be described as "atonal" – quite late in their careers. In both, that process is used as a metaphysical means of looking back at what is irredeemably of the past and letting it go.
Like an idée fixe, the twelve-note system haunts all the movements of the Fourteenth Symphony except the ninth (O Delvig, Delvig!) and the eleventh (Conclusion). It is no use seeking an elaborate system like that of serialism. For the must part, the twelve-note series used in the Fourteenth Symphony have no common denominator. Basically, in movements 2, 5 and 8 we notice above all series in which the fourth (fifth) is predominant, and in movements 1, 3, 4, 7 and 10, series in which the second and third (sixth) are most noticeable. The series of the former type are generally associated with ideas of cold indifference, ugliness and absurdity, the series of the latter type with sorrow, sadness and compassion.
As in Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles, the motifs from earlier works that are scattered throughout the score are deformed, as in a distorting mirror, by the use of the twelve-note series. Generally speaking, in the mature works written towards the end of his career Shostakovich liked to quote his earlier works; doing so had a symbolic meaning for him that is more or less clear to us. In movement 8, for instance, he recalls his Tenth Symphony of 1953, the year of Stalin's death, which had signaled the victory of the Artist who had not been broken by the régime; here he is quite openly identifying the odious tyrant of Apollinaire's poem with Stalin. In many of the movements we notice a motif consisting of two descending minor seconds identical that of the Fool for Christ in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. Clearly fond of its plaintive intonation, Shostakovich used it in almost all of his works from the Second Symphony onwards. It is particularly expressive in movement 7 of his Fourteenth Symphony (the prisoner's monologue). As for the syncopated "violence motif" from Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which he used in key works such as the Seventh, Tenth and Thirteenth Symphonies and the First Violin Concerto, it is quoted not only in the "anti-Stalinist" eighth movement, but also in Loreley (No.3), where it fits in perfectly with the idea that is central to the Brentano-Apollinaire ballad, that the moral code commonly admitted does violence to free will. But few associations are as direct as that one. The Fourteenth Symphony, unlike the three previous ones, in which ideological intentions came to the fore, is a deeply metaphysical work, and is therefore open to many interpretations.
Now I would like to put forward a hypothesis. The content of the Fourteenth Symphony is not unconnected with Benjamin Britten, the work's dedicatee; it is, so to speak, an atheistic response to the "religious" conception of the War Requiem. In the arrangement of its movements, the Symphony has much in common with the Catholic Mass for the Dead: 1 and 2 correspond to the Requiem aeternam and Kyrie, 3 to 6 to the Sequentia, 7 to the Offertorium, 8 and 9 to the Sanctus and Benedictus, 10 to the Agnus Dei and 11 to Libera me. Britten's War Requiem follows exactly the same pattern. We may suppose that Shostakovich borrowed the Catholic model directly from Britten and used it, intentionally or unintentionally, to create his own personal variant of the Requiem.
Obviously, this hypothesis must be treated with caution. But if we compare the content of the poems used by Shostakovich in his Symphony with that of the canonical requiem, we discover some very eloquent parallels. In the War Requiem, the Sequentia (Dies irae) presents the menacing and incorruptible Judge; the sinner begs him to save his soul from the fires of Hell and from everlasting damnation. In Loreley that relationship is completely reversed: the Lorelei beseeches the bishop to burn her at the stake, but the bishop replies that he cannot condemn her because he is bewitched by her and his heart is aflame with love. Further on, the canonical Sequentia ends with the Lacrimosa, whereas in the corresponding part of Shostakovich's Symphony (section 6) the words "But Madame, listen to me" ring out almost like hysterical and obscene laughter. The words of Apollinaire's poem At the Santé gaol (7), in which the prisoner is buried in his cell like a dead man in his grave ("In a pit like a bear... Here the grave arches over me, here there waits only death"), are like a tragic parody of the Offertorium, the prayer for the salvation of souls: "Free the souls of all the faithful departed from infernal punishment and the deep pit". In the stream of insults that the Cossacks pour on the Sultan in No.8 ("more criminal than Barabbas... executioner of Podalia...), it is easy to see a blasphematory equivalent of the Sanctus ("Heaven and earth are full of thy glory"). Likewise the Conclusion, which speaks of the majesty of death, is the sacrilegious counterpart of Libera me. It is interesting to note, by the way, that the Conclusion is a direct polemical response to the finale of the oratorio by Penderecki that we mentioned earlier, at the end of which an excerpt from Paul Valéry's poem Le Cimetière marin (The Churchyard by the Sea) is heard: the fateful last words "Let us try to live".
Following this pattern, O Delvig, Delvig! replaces the Benedictus, which is traditionally the brightest part of the Mass, since it is dedicated to the glorification of the Holy Spirit – and sin against the Holy Spirit is the only sin that cannot be forgiven "either in this age or in the age to come" (see Matthew 12: 30-32). It is not just a coincidence therefore that this movement is the only one completely free from the negativism that permeates the rest of the Symphony.
Source: CD Booklet | Translation: Mary Pardoe
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