Shostakovich arr. Barshai: Chamber Symphony in F major Op. 73a

“Cynical, pernicious grotesquerie,” wrote Soviet music critic Israel Nestyev in 1946 of Dmitri Shoastakovich’s latest symphony, “[a] tone of relentless mockery and ridicule, emphasis on the ugliness and cruelty of life, the cold irony of stylization.”

Most musicians and artists understand the sting of a negative review; few, however, have felt the horror that Shostakovich and his contemporaries in the Soviet artistic scene felt at a poor review from exactly the wrong reviewer– Nestyev, for example, or even Stalin himself. In 1946, the year during which Shostakovich composed the 3rd string quartet which his student Rudolf Barshai later arranged into a chamber symphony, the tides of official opinion were turning perceptibly against him. His ninth symphony, premiered in late 1945, was officially censured for “ideological weakness,” the first event in a downwards slide of governmental favour that would eventually culminate with his second official denunciation in 1948 and dismissal from the teaching post that had provided a large portion of his income.

The atmosphere into which the 3rd quartet was written and performed, then, was one of abject terror, which is reflected in the mystery surrounding its meaning and intention. The five-movement quartet originally came with programmatic subtitles, suggesting that Shostakovich intended the work to be a rumination on war: not the triumphant celebration of victory over the Nazi Germany that he originally promised (and failed to deliver) in the Ninth symphony, but a more contemplative and sombre view of violence. The first movement depicted “Calm unawareness of the future cataclysm,” the second “Rumblings of unrest and anticipation,” the third “The forces of war are unleashed,” the fourth “Homage to the dead,” and the fifth “The eternal question: why and to what purpose?” Perhaps it is the title of the fifth movement, a questioning of the machinery and object of war itself, that gives a clue as to why Shostakovich removed the subtitles almost immediately: he no longer had the latitude to make statements that could be read as putting “emphasis on the ugliness and cruelty of life.”

“I have a burdensome and horrifying memories of the events I witnessed,” said Rudolf Barshai of the period of Shostakovich’s censure, during which Barshai was a student at the Moscow Conservatory. For all that government officials and the ignorant public abandoned and ostracized Shostakovich, however, he never lost the respect of his students: “All the pupils always regarded Shostakovich as a God. His advice in composition class was so wonderful, so precise, and so precious.” Barshai emigrated to Tel Aviv in 1977 to escape the constraints of anti-Semitism on his career in Russia, and his adoration for his friend and mentor “DD” (the students’ nickname for “Dmitri Dmitrievich”) is evident in his transcriptions of Shostakovich’s string quartets. Barshai uses his experience both as orchestral musician and a conductor (including as music director of the Vancouver symphony from 1985-1988!) to expand Shostakovich’s moody, intensely personal quartets into the declamatory and outwards-facing genre of the symphony; drawing his burdensome memories of totalitarianism out of the darkness and into the light.