KVT – Shostakovich by Song Hong

Posted on Wednesday 30 Jan - 2013

KVT 2013Song Hong Chamber

KVT chooses his composer for the year

Shostakovich playing the Piano Quintet with Glazunov Quartet in Leningrad

 After a night at L’Espace with the Song Hong chamber music group I have decided that my favorite composer for 2013 will be Shostakovich. Song Hong’s interpretation of his 1940 Piano Quintet Op 57 made my muscles tighten and my toes curl  with the tension of it all.

Shostakovich was still on the outer with Stalin and I always feel that his compositions from the late thirties till he was partially back in favor have undertones that make my hair stand on end. The Quintet put him on the rocky road until 1948 when he didn’t have as much to fear for himself or his relatives being shunted off to a Siberian gulag. In 1941 the Quintet was awarded the initial Stalin Prize and Shostakovich immediately and politically handed the 100 000 ruble prize to a fund to assist poor Muscovites (and one hopes that the poor actually benefited) He was relatively safe from Party pressure during the war with Germany, probably due, in no small amount to his fabulous 7th Symphony which was premiered in 1942 in Leningrad during the infamous Siege (an emotive account of the lead up to and the premiere is right at the end of this well deserved praise of the Song Hongs).

The Quintet is Shostakovich’s most well known chamber music composition and is a 40 minute marathon of effort for all players, especially the pianist’s, sometimes almost solo role. It tests any pianist to the max because Shostakovich wrote it for himself to perform at its first outing because. In her biography ‘Shostakovich, a Life Remembered’  Elizabeth Wilson recounts a conversation she had with him in 1941… ‘Do you know why I added the piano part to this quartet? So that I could have the chance to perform myself and thereby travel on concert tours. Now our most famous chamber music groups won’t be able to do without me – and I’ll get a chance to see the world.’

And Pham Quynh Trang was all magnificent fire, ice and concentration at the keyboard and did the composer proud. And here’s a link to the man himself playing part of it

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Because L’Espace is such an intimate auditorium it was impossible for the other players to disguise the sweat and effort that they expended in a performance that a musical acquaintance of mine who has an ear for the very best -and also the worst notes-said, when it was all over, that all she needed now was a glass of excellent champagne to compliment the music that had bought tears to her eyes…mine too! Not to mention the muscle stretches involved to get rid of the tension brought on by all that clenching they made me do as they played. Sheer pleasure and excitement!

Congratulations to the magicians on strings, Pham Truong Son, Phan Thi To Trinh, Ho Viet Khoa and Dao Tuyet Trinh.  If they keep this standard up the Song Hong will definitely be my top of the pops music group for the year.

Here’s a great clip of the entire Quintet (unfortunately not by the Song Hongs)

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The concert started with Haydn’s Piano Trio, ‘Gypsy’ and as my musical acquaintance said…in the third movement she felt like transporting the musicians to Eisenstadt where Haydn had composed so many works – at the Austrian Hungarian border where they’d be able to feel those gypsy vibes that had so imbued their playing. You couldn’t help but have your fingers and toes tapping. I had to clamp my feet to the floor in case I started drumming with them.

The middle composition of the night was Schubert’s String Quartet No 12 op 703-and its dramatic start had my eyes popping with appreciation that didn’t stop until the applause at the end..here played by that other fabulous group Acies who visited us last year and played in concert with Song Hong at the Opera House

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A superb winter night’s music that has ensured that I will definitely be up front, left hand side (to see those fingers on the ivories) when Song Hong , assisted by friends from the Vietnam Symphony Orchestra will reprise the work they played so thrillingly with Acies last October, Mendelssohn’s famous ‘Octet’…..Feb 24….watch this site for details.

LENNINGRAD…The SEIGE    IMDb Mini Biography By: Steve Shelokhonov

In the summer of 1941 Nazi Germany and its allies invaded the Soviet Union, and German and Finnish forces and encircled Leningrad (St. Petersburg). The city of 3.5 million was the fourth largest in Europe and the main industrial center of Russia, producing 11% of the nation’s GDP. All roads south of Leningrad were blocked by the Nazis, and all roads north of Leningrad were blocked by the Finnish army by September 1941. Defenders and civilians in besieged Leningrad were doomed, because the besieging forces cut supplies of food and energy to the surrounded city. It wasn’t long before the city’s population of birds, pets and even rats had been eated, and not long after there were reports of cannibalism brought about by starvation. The siege of Leningrad was so impenetrable that by December of that year an average of 4000 to 6000 residents a day were dying of starvation, disease, shellfire, bombardment and a variety of other causes.

During the first months of the siege Shostakovich was in Leningrad. He survived the first bombardments and joined the “night watch” patrol, helping to put out fires during massive Germany air bombardments. Shostakovich personally neutralized several incendiary bombs and was actively involved in firefighting. After aerial and artillery bombardments, during the rare quiet moments, Shostakovich was back to his piano composing new music. He was evacuated from the besieged city in the end of 1941.

The Seventh “Leningrad” Symphony, which Shostakovich started composing during the Nazi aerial and artillery attacks during the siege, was the masterpiece that won him national and international recognition. The symphony is a showcase of Shostakovich’s musical genius; it also is a document of the composer’s personal courage and creativity amidst the deadly war. His music helped lift the spirits of Leningrad citizens in a time when they were struggling to survive.

On August 9, 1942, Karl Eliasberg gave a premiere performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in Leningrad. That famous concert was made possible because Eliasberg specially created an orchestra of survivors who were still able to perform in spite of starvation and dystrophy. The first rehearsal lasted only fifteen minutes, because the starving musicians were exhausted. Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony is known to be hard to perform, and for the hungry and emaciated Leningrad musicians it was doubly so. Some of them were not even strong enough to hold their instruments. Despite the fact that for the period of the rehearsals which lasted two months the musicians had their food rations increased, several of them did not live to see the day of the concert.

In the Radio Orchestra archive there is a fragment of an order from the Leningrad Communist Party command with instruction to officers: By any means, get a score of the Seventh from Moscow. Transport it to Leningrad as soon as possible”. On June 2, 1942, 20-year-old pilot Litvinov, on a light plane flying the perilous route over Nazi lines to bring first aid, also brought the manuscripts of Shostakovich’s Seventh. The plane landed in Leningrad safely, and the music score was delivered to Eliasberg. “When I saw the symphony”, Eliasberg later told reporters, “I thought, ‘We’ll never play this’. It was four thick volumes of music”. The ‘s Seventh is a colossal work demanding battalions of strings, but what worried Eliasberg most were the voluminous arrangements for woodwind and brass in a city short of breath. The score had Shostakovich’s handwritten instruction: “All instruments must play their parts!” Eliasberg procured a list of Leningrad musicians, on which 25 were already blacked out, dead. Those known to be alive were circled in red and ordered to report for duty. The first rehearsal was a torture: the drummer collapsed on the way to rehearsal and the leading violinist died from starvation. Those who made it to the concert hall were unable to hold their musical instruments longer than ten minutes.

Eliasberg, who was also extremely emaciated, spent some time in the hospital in the Astoria hotel and came to the rehearsals straight from the sick ward. On the score of one of the musicians of that legendary orchestra you can still see a drawing showing hollow-cheeked Eliasberg conducting his orchestra sitting on a chair. The legendary performance was broadcast live from the Radio Hall in Leningrad, so millions of civilians and defenders of the besieged city were able to hear the powerful music. The symphony written in the conventional four movements is Shostakovich’s longest, and one of the longest in the repertoire, with performances taking approximately one hour and fifteen minutes. The scale and scope of the work is consistent with Shostakovich’s other symphonies as well as with those of composers considered to be his strongest influences, including Bruckner, Gustav Mahler and Igor Stravinsky.

Much had to be done before the Leningrad premiere could take place. The Leningrad Radio Orchestra under Karl Eliasberg was the only remaining symphonic ensemble. The orchestra had survived-barely-but it had not been playing and musical broadcasts had ceased due to deadly bombardments and air-strikes by the Nazis. At the beginning of the siege, only warning signals and political appeals were broadcast. Even then, there were hours of silence because of the lack of surviving radio hosts. As for the city itself, Leningrad surrounded by the Nazis had become a living hell, with eyewitness reports of people who had died of cold and starvation lying in doorways in stairwells. “They lay there because people dropped them there, the way newborn infants used to be left. Janitors swept them away in the morning like rubbish. Funerals, graves, coffins were long forgotten. It was a flood of death that could not be managed. Entire families vanished, entire apartments with their collective families. Houses, streets and neighborhoods vanished.”

The official hiatus on musical broadcasts had to end before the symphony could be performed. This happened quickly, with a complete about-face by Party authorities. Next was reforming the orchestra. Only 15 members were still available; the others had either starved to death or left to fight the enemy. Posters went up, requesting all Leningrad musicians to report to the Radio Committee. Efforts were also made to seek out those musicians who could not come. “My God, how thin many of them were,” one of the organizers of the performance remembered. “How those people livened up when we started to ferret them out of their dark apartments. We were moved to tears when they brought out their concert clothes, their violins and cellos and flutes, and rehearsals began under the icy canopy of the studio.” Orchestral players were given additional food rations that was 250 grams of bread per day, because no other food was available under the siege.

Before they tackled Shostakovich’s work, Eliasberg had the players go through pieces from the standard repertoire-Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov-which they also performed for broadcast. Because the city was still blockaded at the time, the score was flown by night in early July for rehearsal. A team of copyists worked for days to prepare the parts despite shortages of materials. At rehearsal, some musicians protested, not wanting to waste their little strength on an intricate and not very accessible work. Eliasberg threatened to hold back the additional food rations, quelling any dissent.

The concert was given on 9 August 1942. Whether this date was chosen intentionally, it was the day Hitler had chosen previously to celebrate the fall of Leningrad with a lavish reception for the top Nazi commanders. But instead of Hitler’s plan, all loudspeakers delivered the live broadcast of the symphony performance throughout the city as well as to the German forces in a move of psychological warfare. The Russian commander of the Leningrad front, General Govorov, ordered a bombardment of German artillery positions in advance of the broadcast to ensure their silence during the performance of the symphony; a special operation, code-named “Squall,” was executed for precisely this purpose. Three thousand high-caliber shells were lobbed onto the enemy. Then the music of Shostakovich came out of the speakers all over the siege perimeter, so the Nazis had to face the music.

The Bolshoi Philharmonic Hall in Leningrad, the famous cultural gem of music, was overcrowded for the first time during the siege of Leningrad. People dressed in their best and attended the concert regardless of starvation and danger. Many notable survivors of the siege were in the audience. Writer Nikolai Tikhonov noted that in the hall over a thousand civilians were joined by several hundred soldiers: the best defenders were rewarded with a short break from the front-lines. The music of Shostakovich brought the much needed support and catharsis to survivors who loved the symphony and applauded to Eliasberg and his orchestra. General Govorov with his staff came backstage to thank Eliasberg and his musicians for their art and courage.

The news about Dmitry Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony premiere in besieged Leningrad spread all over the world. It was an important message to all nations that Hitler’s attack on Leningrad failed. Shostakovich who began to write his famous symphony before evacuation from besieged Leningrad in 1941, could not go back to attend its premier performance in 1942. The composer sent the conductor and the musicians who performed his work in the besieged city a telegram with words of gratitude.

Kiem Van Tim is a keen observer of life in general and the Hanoi cultural scene in particular and offers some of these observations to the Grapevine. KVT insists that these observations and opinion pieces are not critical reviews. Please see our Comment Guidelines / Moderation Policy and add your thoughts in the comment field below.

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One comment

  1. Shostakovich in Hanoi! To this westerner, it sounds so – exotic!

    It is undeniable that the feelings evoked by this music are universal: tears in the eyes, tension in the facial muscles (and, I dare say, in the stomach).

    What moves me especially about DDS’s music is that he persisted – he had to write – even under the most repressive conditions. I think it was Laurel Fay in her 2000 DDS biography “Shostakovich – A Life” who quoted him as saying the music frequently came to him in his dreams, and he felt compelled to transcribe it to paper.

    Your comments on the Quintet will make all Shostakovichistas do a happy dance!