Da geh’ ich zu Dmitri

On a Friday early in May to hear the SSO, conducted by Oleg Caetani.  The headline item was Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony.

The first half featured  young Armenian cellist, Narek Hakhnazaryan, playing the Tchaikovsky Roccoco Variations and a specifically commissioned companion piece by Paul Stanhope, Dawn and Darkness.  Perhaps inevitably, Hakhnazaryan made a stronger impression in the Tchaikovsky (it’s core repertoire after all) than the Stanhope, and he made an even stronger impression in his striking encore, Lamentatio by the Italian cellist and composer, Sollima, in which he not only played but sang.

As with other young touring artists from the post-1989 eastern edge of Europe, Hakhnazaryan attracted noticeable band of compatriots.  Somewhere on the internet this piece is described as a lament for the Armenian genocide – though I’ve not found a spot where this is mentioned independent of NH’s performance.

I’m not sure if the Armenian contingent would have been quite as ready to cheer the Leningrad Symphony and there was a bit of restlessness from time to time.

I’m naturally a bit suspicious of all of those pictures of Shostakovich wearing a fireman’s hat or wielding a hose, and it might be remarked that he finished the symphony after being evacuated to Moscow.  I think you can nevertheless accept the first movement as genuinely programmatic about emerging senselessness of war – the duality in it is a bit like the (historically parallel) peace and war in Prokofiev’s War and Peace.

Part of the idea, in each case, is that the 1941 war snuck up on a peaceful Russia.  Even before Volkov-Shostakovich issues are considered, there must be a bit of a shadow in the latter integer of that idea – that is, “peaceful Russia.”  You also get a version of this idea in the 2010 film Fortress Brest/Fortress of War.  This starts with a positively idyllic depiction of life in that fortress, which all comes to a terrible end following the surprise attack on the Soviet Union by the Germans.  It’s all a bit like the first movement of the Leningrad.

What the film leaves out is that Brest, site of the signing of the infamous Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, was part of Poland until it was captured by the Germans in 1939 and handed over to the Soviet Union later that year in accordance with the prior German-Soviet pact for the division of Poland.

So it’s all a matter of perspective, really.

But back to the symphony and that famous tune and its Bolero-esque treatment.

Whether Bartok and Shostakovich were both guying Lehar’s “Da geh’ ich zu Maxim” or whether Bartok was having a go at Shostakovich remains a bit up in the air. I didn’t feel any need to resolve this question.  It was kind of (if mindless) fun to go with the flow as the little tune grew bigger and bigger and the counter-riffs more and more grotesque.

The second movement continued the pastoral feel with some lovely woodwind solos over hints of Shostakovich’s William-Tell/Drunken sailor rhythms with a manic waltz in the middle.

Some of the yearning and eventual affirmation in the last two movements seems less specifically programatic, though of course audiences at the time are likely to have been receptive to the declared program.  In 1942 and even 1943, when the work had wide exposure, the prospect of victory was still remote.  Maybe it’s only with hindsight that one can suggest, as Paul Stanhope did, that it would benefit from about 20 minutes’ worth of cuts, though I confess a similar thought crossed my mind.

Still, monumentalism has its own impact, and I certainly enjoyed it.

Caetani is always welcome here, so far as I’m concerned.  His program biography still effaces any mention of his time at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, summarily cut short in 2009.  If your Russian is up to scratch, maybe you might learn more from his interview  given to SBS during his visit.  The summary includes: “Former Artistic Director and Chief conductor of MSO speaks openly about his shocking dismissal in 2009 and uncompromising musical principles he has always followed. ”  The headline is: “Maestro Caetani returns to Sydney but says NO to Melbourne.”  I for one wouldn’t blame him for saying “NO” in the circumstances, though it would be surprising if Melbourne has had the temerity actually to ask.

Broadcast of concert online for a few more days here.

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