Krzysztof Penderecki

Krzysztof Penderecki
Krzysztof Penderecki (1933-2020) conducting his oratorio "Seven Gates of Jerusalem" at the Winter Palace, St Petersburg, in 2001. Photo by Dmitry Lovetsky

Monday, January 28, 2019

Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No.15 in A major – Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Santtu-Matias Rouvali (HD 1080p)

A longed-for challenge for Santtu-Matias Rouvali – chief conductor of Gothenburg Symphony, who is a great admirer of Dmitri Shostakovich.

In the 15th Symphony, with its quotes from Rossini and Bartók, Shostakovich makes fun of the music itself while still being deadly serious. There are also very emotional parts in deep hues, from individual string instruments to powerful brass.

Filmed at Gothenburg Concert Hall, on November 23, 2018.

Shostakovich's Symphony No.15 differs in several substantial ways from his other late symphonies. The Eleventh (1957), subtitled "The Year 1905", and Twelfth (1960), subtitled "The Year 1917", are both programmatic and relate to the political and historical events associated with the year in the title. The next two symphonies have sung texts, with the Thirteenth (1962), for bass, chorus, and orchestra, carrying the subtitle "Babiy Yar" (texts by Yevtushenko), and the Symphony No.14 (1969), for soprano and bass soloists and chamber orchestra, not really a symphony but a collection of songs based on texts by Lorca, Apollinaire, Küchelbecker, and Rilke.

With the Symphony No.15, Shostakovich's last foray in the genre, the composer at last returned to the purely instrumental and non-programmatic realm, which, one could argue, he had not revisited since the 1939 Symphony No.6. While it is true that the Symphonies 8, 9, and 10 carry no official program, the first two are clearly associated with the war (the Ninth is a victory celebration), and the Tenth allegedly contains a portrait of Stalin in its second movement. But the Symphony No.15 inhabits a purely emotional and intellectual plane, quite removed – as far as we know – from the world of politics and history. Yet it is generally agreed that the work is autobiographical, not in the sense that it depicts specific events, but rather that it expresses reflections on the past.

The Fifteenth is also unique in that it is lightly scored throughout, certainly the leanest of the composer's purely instrumental symphonies. Shostakovich had moved in this direction with the Symphony No.14 and had found increasing difficulty in writing in the late 1960s, owing to a nervous-system disorder – brittle-bone poliomyelitis – that gradually crippled his right hand, making simple tasks problematic and rendering the process of scoring complicated orchestral works an extremely grueling task. The Symphony No.15 was premiered on January 8, 1972, with the composer's son Maxim conducting. A typical performance of the work lasts from 40 to 45 minutes.

The work is divided into four movements: 1) Allegretto, 2) Adagio – Largo – Adagio, 3) Allegretto, and 4) Adagio – Allegretto. It stands apart from the composer's other symphonies in its quotations and near-quotations from compositions by others and by Shostakovich himself. The Symphony is, in fact, chock full of these quotations. The first movement, for example, quotes the famous (Lone Ranger) theme from Rossini's William Tell overture. The Fate motif from Wagner's Ring cycle and themes from Siegfried and Tristan und Isolde appear in the finale. There are near-quotations from Tchaikovsky and Mahler, and Shostakovich alludes to themes in some of his earlier symphonies.

The first movement, originally subtitled "The Toyshop", has a childlike atmosphere to its playfulness, yet at times sounds under the spell of dark and cynical forces. The second movement is long and enigmatic, having a funereal mood for much of its duration and climaxing in an outburst of what is clearly anger or frustration. The third movement is the shortest in the work (about four minutes) and is bitingly satirical, even nose-thumbing. The finale contains the most cryptic and perhaps most profound music in the work. Because it, too, appears to express the composer's thoughts on death, many have concluded that the autobiographical elements in the work are expressed in a sort of cradle-to-grave story, the first movement representing childhood and the finale the composer's final years and imminent passing.

Source: Robert Cummings (

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Symphony No.15 in A major, Op.141 (1971)

i. Allegretto –
ii.Adagio – Largo – Adagio – Allegretto –
iii. Allegretto –
iv. Adagio – Allegretto – Adagio – Allegretto

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Santtu-Matias Rouvali

Gothenburg Concert Hall, November 23, 2018

(HD 1080p)

Trying to Crack the Code: The Enigma of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No.15, Op.141

By Steve Holtje, 2006

Shostakovich began his Symphony No.15 while convalescing in a hospital. The first performance was by the USSR Radio Symphony conducted by Maxim Shostakovich on January 8, 1972. It's one of the stranger works in the composer's canon, and surprised early listeners with its repeated quotes of the famous theme from Rossini's William Tell and the "Fate" motif and "Siegfried's Funeral March" from Wagner's Ring cycle, as well as references to many of Shostakovich's previous symphonies. These deliberately blatant borrowings have never been definitively explained, but to some extent the composer knew this would be a valedictory work, so some form of autobiography has been assumed by later commentators and analysts, who regularly call it "puzzling" and "enigmatic".

The composer's liner notes to the first recording, by his son Maxim and issued on the official Soviet record label Melodiya, say the first movement depicts toys coming to life at night in a toy shop. No such light-hearted story could distract anyone but the most ignorant Soviet bureaucrat from hearing what a soul-shattering work this is as a whole, however. Here is my alternative, perhaps fanciful, yet plausible alternative interpretation of this movement and the work as a whole.

The musical quote in the first movement which has so long left analysts scratching their heads is the William Tell tune. In the West, this seems banal thanks to its use as the Lone Ranger's radio theme and subsequent appropriations of even greater triviality. But Rossini's 1829 opera was an important turning point – a popular, iconic creation of the early Romantic period (Shostakovich was in some ways an extension of the Romantic style, building upon Mahler), yet also Rossini's final opera before his lengthy retirement (Shostakovich's 15th Symphony was his final work in the genre). Most of all, it's a thrilling story of a fight against tyranny. Tell's talent (archery) places him in a position where his family is threatened (he's forced to shoot an arrow into an apple balanced on the head of his son), but he turns it against the oppressor (killing the cruel Governor Gessler). Shostakovich's musical talent placed him in a precarious position vis-a-vis the Soviet government; at times, he reputedly slept in the hallway outside his apartment so that if Stalin's agents came for him, Shostakovich's family might not be involved. Yet after following orders, he then (if the controversial memoir Testimony is believed) began inserting hidden anti-Stalin messages and double meanings in his compositions. Would it be surprising if in the presumably autobiographical Symphony No.15, Shostakovich were to so strongly identify with the character of William Tell?

Perhaps the high-spirited first movement is the young and exuberant Shostakovich, a rising star in the also-young and exuberant Soviet Union. Then comes the dark, menacing second movement with its crushing brass – Stalin's rise to power. The brass chorale starts with a somewhat heroic tone before turning sour, analogous to the Russian Revolution and its aftermath (a similar chorale appears in the Symphony No.11). The trombone glissandos recall Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, which so offended Stalin when trombone glissandos raucously and vividly depicted a sexual encounter, leading to public denunciation of the composer in an unsigned Pravda editorial, shattering his career and his psyche.

Stirrings of energy in the Allegretto suggest a furtive, hushed transformation of the first movement's bustling hijinks. The percussion ensemble near the end is considered an allusion to the Symphony No.4, which – after Pravda's denunciation – was put into a drawer as too provocative, not to be played until a quarter-century later.

Then the finale opens with the "Fate" motif of Wagner's Ring, which recurs five times, twice linked to the rhythm of "Siegfried's Funeral March": Shostakovich could fight his fate, but not defeat it, and he knew his life was drawing to a close. There are seemingly deliberate doldrums in the finale, similar to the String Quartet No.15 of the same period. (Conductors who tighten up the movement too much lose this effect.) The Symphony opened with two bell chimes; it ends quietly, with a bell's single chime, lower in pitch. All the energy has drained out. Is that bell Shostakovich's spirit, still not completely crushed by the Soviet bureaucrats? Or does it mark the end of his life, as the bell at the beginning might mark his start?


Hailed by The Guardian as ​"the latest sit-up-and-listen talent to emerge from the great Finnish conducting tradition", the 2018-2019 season will see Santtu-Matias Rouvali (b. 1985) continuing his positions as Chief Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony and Principal Guest Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra, alongside his longstanding Chief Conductor-ship with the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra close to his home in Finland.

Rouvali has regular relationships with several orchestras across Europe, including the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Bamberger Symphoniker and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. As well as making his debut with the Münchner Philharmoniker this season, he also returns to North America for concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra and Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Following a very successful Nordic tour with Hélène Grimaud last season, the Gothenburg Symphony is back on the road in February 2019 for a tour hitting major centres in Germany and Austria with pianist Alice Sara Ott, and percussionist Martin Grubinger who premieres a new percussion concert by Daníel Bjarnason. Rouvali looks forward to other ambitious touring projects with his orchestras in the future, including appearances in North America and Japan.

In addition to the extensive tour, Rouvali's season in Gothenburg opens with Strauss' Alpine Symphony accompanied by Víkingur Ólafsson Mozart Piano Concerto No.24, and he looks forward to collaborations with Janine Jansen, Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Baiba Skride throughout the rest of the season.

As another cornerstone to his tenure in Gothenburg, he is adding his mark to the Orchestra's impressive recording legacy. In partnership with Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra and violinist Baiba Skride, a recording featuring concertos from Bernstein, Korngold and Rozsa is released in autumn 2018. This continues his great collaboration with Baiba Skride following their hugely successful recording of Nielsen and Sibelius' violin concertos with the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra in summer 2015.

Rouvali has been Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra since 2013. Highlights of the tenure so far include a Sibelius symphony cycle in autumn 2015, and the Orchestra's first tour to Japan in spring 2017 where they were accompanied by an exhibition of original Moomin drawings by Tove Jansson to mark the opening of the new museum at the Tampere Hall. He opens the 2018-2019 season with a Beethoven programme with pianist Javier Perianes.

Alongside an extremely busy symphonic conducting career, as Chief Conductor in Tampere he has conducted Verdi's La forza del destino and most recently world premiere of Olli Kortekangas's My Brother's Keeper (Veljeni vartija) with Tampere Opera in spring 2018.


More photos

See also

Santtu-Matias Rouvali – All the posts

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra – All the posts

Dmitri Shostakovich – All the posts

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