Shostakovich - bereft of discernible logic

When a symphony by a famous composer is never played there is usually a good reason. I think we spotted at least three when the Hallé Orchestra, Hallé Choir, RNCM Chorus and Mark Elder bravely tackled Shostakovich’s Third on Thursday.

First, there’s the bombastic choral finale, conjuring the spectacle of proud proletariats uniting on May Day. It’s, well, very Soviet — “The first of May is the tread of miners clutching rifles. Revolution!” — without any of the redeeming irony that the older Shostakovich might have surreptitiously laced into this gaudy patriotic banner.

Then there’s the ferocious technical demands. In 1929 Shostakovich was a young man aiming for maximum shock impact. It’s hard to know which is the more hazardous for the first fiddles: the helter-skelter passage where they have to pump out about a hundred notes a second, or the anguished, Mahlerian line that sends them on a weird chromatic journey into the stratosphere.

And lastly, there’s the music itself: noisily entertaining, but bereft of discernible logic. Just before the chorus enters, for instance, there are massive unison declamations for full orchestra over a mighty drum-roll, followed by a macabre recitative for trombones. What’s that about? All credit to the Hallé and Elder for putting it across with such pulsating vigour. But I won’t be petitioning the gods of concert programming for more performances.

From Richard Morrison's Times review of the Hallé Orchestra performing Shostakovich's Third Symphony under Mark Elder in the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. Good to see that the word critic still has some meaning.

Image credit: Shostakovich from VU-Kamerorchest. He is not looking puzzled because of Richard Morrison's review. He is wondering why his watch is on the wrong hand - I 'mirrored' the image to vary the page format.
Image owners - if you do not want your picture used in this article please contact me and it will be removed. Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Shostakovich saturates - Schumann awaits.


Henry Holland said…
My local band, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, launched a Shostakovich symphony cycle 5 years ago (3 a year, finishing this 05-06 season), all to be conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. They programmed the 2nd & 3rd together; members of the orchestra played the numericaly corresponding string quartets in the lecture hall before hand.

There was a lot of buzz amongst my friends, because, obviously, both symphones and the early string quartets are rarely performed.

We walked out stunned at how bad the symphonies were. I said to my friend Patrick "Um, are you *sure* this is the same composer of the 4th and 14th symphonies?".

For some odd reason, Esa-Pekka Salonen stopped conducting the cycle the next year. :-)

Some of the most interesting concerts I've been to could be lumped under the heading "One's with bad music by major composers". Yes, Beethoven and your Wellington's Overture, I'm looking right at you.

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