AOM Logo August 1998

Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme; Pezzo Capriccioso; Nocturne
Shostakovich: Concerto for Violincello and Orchestra No.1

Nathaniel Rosen, cello / Sofia Philharmonic / conducted by Emil Tabakov

John Marks Records JMR 3

David Aspinall

Record Cover

Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich are seldom paired on disc. Even though a case might be made that the two were musical martyrs to successive repressive regimes - Tchaikovksy suffocating amid the social and sexual proprieties of Tsarist Russia, and Shostakovich resisting the aesthetic enervation of the next generation of Russian composers and compelled to knuckle under to Stalin's iron fist and tin ear.

For twenty five years I have collected Shostakovich. He fascinates and irritates in approximately equal measures. I confess a reactionary romantic's inability to like most of his music, although I've read sufficient liner notes and biography to sympathize with its sensibility. But if rap's chief virtue, as music, is that it's effective sociology, then Shostakovich is at least evocative history. His deification in the west may owe more to martyr's status than musical genius. Most of his music, for this listener, has the detachment of a news report: he seems to be observing rather than participating. Did his heart become as fossilized as the face in those later photographs?

Shostakovich suffered. So did Tchaikovsky. If one adds the critical opprobium which quickly succeeded earthly success, Tchaikovsky has suffered more. As late as the sixties it was commonplace to condescend to his obvious gifts, melody and orchestration, and to lament the flaws that prevented Tchaikovsky from scaling the loftiest aesthetic altitudes, especially his self-admitted failure to master larger structures. The highest compliment I remember Tchaikovsky receiving from that era's critical establishment was the admission that as a melodist only Schubert surpassed him.

But who today, save that rarest of species, the lieder specialist, would rate Schubert a greater melodist? The public has never condescended to Tchaikovsky, just as it has never preferred modishness to melody. In the last twenty years, with the inevitable pendulum swing away from arid intellectualism and atonality, the critics have officially blessed the public's estimation of the composer. Yet it is still not generally noticed that Tchaikovsky is the only composer to have at least one standard work in every major musical category (programme music, concerto, symphony, ballet/dance, chamber, solo instrumental, vocal/choral, opera).

This new CD, juxtaposing the two composers, contrasts their response to life's cruelties. Tchaikovsky is represented by his underrated Rococo Variations and two other rarities for cello and orchestra; Shostakovich by the most popular of his pair of cello concertos, written for Rostropovich who premiered it in 1959. In view of my overwhelming preference for the Tchaikovsky, I was surprised to discover that while I had three other versions of the Shostakovich (Khomitser, Ma, Wallfisch), I had only one performance of the variations (Rostropovich/Karajan). This statistic underlines how we take Tchaikovsky for granted. Listening to dour Dmitri, especially immediately after the graceful variations and less familiar Tchaikovsky delicacies, I am struck by how purchasing patterns, if not musical tastes, lean to the fashionably ephemeral. To be blunt, this Shostakovich work irritates me far more than it fascinates. I could not but reflect how similarly I respond to Shostakovich and film composer Miklos Rozsa. In fact, the principal theme of the first movement sounds very much like typical Rozsa -- all jagged edges, developed by motival elaboration. The major difference between the two composers is that the prevailing angst is, in Rozsa, usually interrupted by lyrical interludes, whereas with Dmitri, concentrated discord (agitato) is most often followed by attenuated discord (largo), with the final result acute dyspepsia! Certainly Shostakovich can write arrestingly, but as with Rozsa, his mannerisms become wearing on record. I find myself looking forward to his unsettling (but blessedly quiet) denouements -- for instance, in the 5th and 8th Symphonies.

That said, Rosen plays the tar out of the concerto (asphalt and concrete seem inevitable metaphors when describing Shostakovich). The recording is lifelike, with hall ambience infrequently encountered on CD. The Tchaikovsky pieces decidedly do not evoke asphalt. Rather, fragrant meadows and Caucasian forest, where the composer could forget - for a while - his demons. True, Slavic melancholy suffuses most of Tchaikovsky's work. Yet the final effect is not angst, not even ambiguity, but apotheosis. The great exception is the Pathetique, but even there the despair is less bitter than beatific. Why do so many of our century's artists prefer to transmit their pain, whereas their predecessors transcended it? Or even transmuted pain into beauty, as in the St. Matthew Passion, Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante, or the aforementioned Pathetique?

Ironically, Shostakovich unreservedly admired Glazunov, who was as out as the former was in with the critics (until recently). Glazunov was an anachronism even in his prime (WW1), a true scion of Tchaikovsky in assuming art's chief task is to increase the sum total of beauty in the world. Shostakovich admired his teacher, but didn't imitate him. Like most of his peers, he chose to amplify the world's discord, not augment its concord.

John Marks, in his annotations for the cello concerto, cannot help but use words such as "gritty", "unease", "dread", "alienation" and "clangorous", noting also that cellist Rosen hears in the rondo finale "echoes of the trains taking unfortunates to the Gulag". Well, in my bookshop, Nietzsche, Kafka, Camus and the apostles of despair sell much faster than Solzhenitsyn, who actually spent some time in the Gulag. But on CD, just as on LP and 78, Tchaikovsky still outsells Shostakovich by some margin. Have we proved anything? Maybe that from a window perch in the realm of ideas, lit only by the frosty light of reason, where most of our century's sainted artists have chosen to live, the universe appears only in shades of gray. But from the warmer climes of the heart, which, says Pascal, has its own reasons, and where most of the rest of us usually hang out, we grasp the beautiful with untaught hand. Could it be that finally the world is as dark - or as bright - as we want it to be?

Copyright © 1998 Audiophilia Online Magazine Home