Presenters propose programs sometimes a year or more before God disposes how they might resonate on the day of the performance. Luck would have it, that an evening of Russian and Soviet string quartets landed in the middle of a war unleashed by Russia on its former Soviet neighbor and of an active public discourse on the matter of projecting this war into the cultural realm. A brilliant delivery of Weinberg, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky by the Quatuor Danel at the Harvard Musical Association on Friday April 1st provoked some thoughts in that direction. The concert will be streaming on the Harvard Musical Association YouTube Channel HERE.
Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Quartet No. 9 sounded the least conflict ridden of the three works. The Warsaw-born composer got sucked in into the meatgrinder of the Stalin’s regime like many of those caught in the middle of the great friendship of Hitler and Stalin circa 1939; though he spent the rest of his life in the great Socialist motherland, he remained an outsider. While the frightening intensity of the ff-fff-ff first movement and its occasional jagged melodic lines inevitably draw parallels to his friend and passionate supporter Shostakovich, Weinberg delivers his own musical paradigm, having been no mere epigone of the friend. Paris-based Quatuor Danel had taken upon themselves the honorable mission of exposing the musical world to the richness and abundance of this oeuvre, and no one could ask for a more knowing and engaged traversal. Attacked by the frantic Allegro and escaping into the haunting hushed and muted world of the Allegretto second movement, the listener travels from the terrifying world outside to feeble attempts to preserve one’s own fragile microcosm. It’s a travelogue written by a horrified outsider who got stuck.
Shostakovich could never claim a similar stance of a detached observer. His fame grew contemporaneously with Stalin’s ambitions in the cultural world and in geopolitics, and he got repeatedly tossed between the extremes of positions: that of Stalin’s whipping boy and of a great ambassador of Soviet Socialist Realism for the impressionable supporters of the Soviet Union abroad. It might sound hopelessly nostalgic today, but classical music mattered then. Unlike Putin, Stalin had no Olympic force to invest in as a propaganda tool, so he relied on musical representation. Composers whose works reached foreign audiences and soloists winning international competitions basked in attention and glory matching if not exceeding that in later days reserved for cosmonauts and Olympic champions. After 1941, the cultural program grew in importance because public opinion of the United States immediately translated to increased fund raising and lend-lease funded vital flow of arms and supplies that kept the Red Army alive. Shostakovich’s music, just like the US-focused public relations activities of the Soviet Jewish Antifascist Committee, served the man of steel’s tactical purposes. Both the composer and the committee fell quickly from usefulness after the end of the war, whereupon a new public abuse campaign against Shostakovich and a massive antisemitic campaign ensued, and most of the former fund raisers were shot. Weinberg also got roped in at the apogee of the witch hunt had spent some horrifying months in the Lubyanka prison before the death of Stalin released him.
During the World War Two, no subtleties were to be expected within Shostakovich symphonies: the semantics worked to enhance the appreciation. While some professionals, exemplified by Bartok, complained about the stolid Mahlerian underpinnings, at least the message of the 7th Symphony, withstanding the onslaught by the common foe, was admirable. You did not have to be a Stalinist to feel an uplift. To paraphrase Churchill, if Hitler invaded hell, devil’s top 40 would deserve consideration for our orchestras’ programs.
The post war and post Stalin years revealed a more nuanced image of Shostakovich. On top of symphonic mastery, his chamber music emerged, and in parallel music lovers in the West had at least the possibility of understanding that his lack of independent political statements did not paint him a communist. Not everyone accepted the take, that his most famous symphonies— the 5th, 7th and 8th especially — represented hymns of progressive humanity.
In the meantime, back in the Soviet Union, the composer’s status as an island of non-conformist creativity dominated. With main proponents of his music, most importantly Rostropovich, gaining some Western mindshare, a different semantic emerged. Today the 5th Symphony according to Rostropovich may not be universally accepted, but most listeners would share his sense that 5th Symphony ‘depicts’ a desperate attempt to keep some semblance of dignity by a human being caught in the vice of the brutal regime. Still, great PR tools rarely slide into complete oblivion. Subtleties of Shostakovich’s relationships with his abuser in chief matter very little for the present tsar. What matters is the tradition that links his 7th Symphony with the history of the Victory against Hitler, a main cornerstone of Putin’s mythology. So it can still serve the imperial ambitions, as in an example below.
The Quartet in D-flat Major, one of many masterpieces of late Shostakovich, was a stern affair. In a fully idiomatic and satisfying interpretation by the Danel, it started with a somewhat serialist passage that got quickly subdued by the fully tonal and sarcastic mood. The second — and the meatier — movement of the quartet started with its obsessive main theme, sometimes compared with Beethoven’s four-note theme of fate from his 5th Symphony. For me it rather evoked the memory of a beautiful meditative theme from the finale of Shostakovich’s 2nd piano sonata, but distilled to a very bitter and austere summation. It saw development and variations, but ultimately faded and led to a very different kind of solace and a different kind of world, traversing from haunting to moments of almost peaceful.
That brings us to the second half of the concert and to the controversies of our days. While Shostakovich in the eyes of the Soviet regime amounted to a useful fellow-traveler, Tchaikovsky stands smack in the cultural epicenter of the ‘Russian World’ so dear to the current dictator. Russian battalions rolling towards Kiev with expectations of a great triumph worthy of their superpower ambitions, reportedly packed parade uniforms. Would anyone in the world be for a moment surprised if plans for that celebratory parade included a concert conducted by Valery Gergiev with Denis Matsuev banging the beginning of Tchaikovsky First? Putin’s court kapellmeister did conduct Tchaikovsky at the end of another ‘liberation operation’ — the conquest of Georgian territory known as South Ossetia, where the 2008 pattern of the big Russian brother coming to the rescue of abused separatists eerily predicted the attack on Ukraine in 2022. He also conducted Shosty’s 7th. Powerful stuff these weaponized hits . . . called warhorses even in times of peace.
Just a few short weeks ago, BSO earned a standing ovation for its robust performance of the 2nd of the symphonies by the flagship composer of the ‘Russian World.’ The storm clouds were already gathering, but nobody seemed bothered by the bombastic, if not altogether tiresome piece whose well-accepted semiotics relegate Ukrainians to country bumpkin little brothers. Today, when Symphony Hall enthusiastically greets a surprise rendition of the National Anthem of Ukraine, such performance would be hard to keep. While censorship of musical programming driven by authorities remains unconscionable in our society, the question of what can be tolerated by the audience makes for a legitimate ask.
The HMA audience reserved the right to apply its preferences selectively. Not a whiff of imperial pomp emerged from Danel’s masterful exposition of the Quartet in E-flat Major. Even Tchaikovsky skeptics, those who watch out for excessive dosage of high-fructose corn syrup, could be satisfied by the soulful themes of the Andante, the Mendelssohnian scherzo, and by the haunted and muted world of the Andante funebre, an ample reminder that Tchaikovsky also hid a fragile microcosm that he needed to protect from the abusive Russian public sphere. Loudly expressed gratitude for this French foursome’s take on the Russians earned an encore of some ‘lighter’ Shostakovich: the allegro fourth movement from his first quartet.
Victor Khatutsky is a software developer who reviewed music as a US-based freelancer for the Kommersant Daily of Moscow. He has been known for occasionally traveling long distances to catch his favorite performers.