Alban's Blog

Thoughts about Shostakovich and interpretation in Mauritius…

What is a good interpretation? I made some conflicting statements in the past few years in this direction: on the one hand I demand to understand what the composer had in mind when he wrote the music down. I am on the other hand not at all satisfied when I “only” play what is written in the music, especially since I know from living composers that they expect us musicians to do something more personal than that with their works. This doesn’t mean one should ignore the composers instructions in general, but we have to make them our own so that at the end we can make our own statement with it. But there is a third, more serious problem: listening habits and traditions of interpretation which developed by the consumation of recordings, especially so-called reference recordings.The problem with these reference recordings is that they have been recognized as the ultimate interpretation which already is sad, because there are so many possibilites to perform a piece. Listening to one and the same interpretation over and over again results often in teh fact that anything differing to it sounds wrong. My brother-in-law and me were listening last week to a live recording of the Carmina Burana in the radio. He didn’t like one of the movements: “That’s far too slow!” – he was right, it was slower than what I was used to from other performances. But I don’t know the score, maybe the conductor chose a speed which was much closer to Orff’s imagination and we just needed to get used to it? Maybe the slower and less flashy approach brought a deeper side out?

Shostakovich writes in his Second Cello Concerto the metronome marking of crotchets equals 100 above every single movement. The reference recording of the reference cellist Mstislaw Rostropovich, the “dedicee”, who as first performer and friend of the composer must know “the truth”, doesn’t seem to care much about it, practically ignores this pretty clear instruction of the composer. Most interpretations use this pattern and hardly any cellist tries to understand what Shostakovich really wanted. What does a composer intend by putting the same metronome marks above a Largo, an Allegretto and an Allegro? Is it laziness or stupidity? The result would be a rather flowing Largo, a dragging Allegretto and a not so comfortable Allegro.

Whenever I learn a new piece I ignore any tradition. I treat any piece as if it is being performed for the first time. When I saw these metronome markings I understood them as instructions to feel the Largo alla breve, that means not in crotchets but in semi-crotchets. This results in a pulse of 50 which feels much rather like a Largo and gives much more logic to the first movement. Suddenly the beginning is not an emotional whimpering on the C-string but something torn and incredibly sad appears instead. The syncopations in semi-crotchets which appear throughout the first (and as reminiscence through the last) movement are not recognisable in a much slower speed. Following Shostakovich’s marking we don’t have to do a big accelerando towards the middle part (which was neither noted nor intended by him) which then always gets too fast. With the speed of 100 the middle part won’t come along as coquettish as usually but in its pseudo-naivitiy rather dangerous.

Also the second movement looses any kind of joyfulness, also the suggestions of jazz get lost, instead we see a relentlessness and vulgarity (for example the octave glissandi) which gives this movement a completely different substance and message. The second movement bases anyway on a very banal Russian folkstune which Shostakovich takes as the synonym of the lowness and wickedness and which in the last movement fights its way up and destroys the good. The last movement itself just simulates a brave world – the rather nervous cello accompaniment in speed 100 to the flute solo floats almost above the sick world, never connects with it and is always ready to crash into the sad and brutal reality.

Besides this, it’s heaven here in Mauritius, this morning we were swimming alongside a swarm of dolphins, yesterday we windsurfed and waterskied, and today there will be tennis and maybe some catamaran sailing. Greetings from Paradise! Alban


  • Guido

    Interesting points. This is one of my very favourite concertos, and I am very pleased that you play it (lots of cellists don’t even know it exists!).

    I’ve always seen tempo markings as somewhat problematic – as you say people often say ‘that’s far too slow’ when they compare recordings to ideals that they hold in their mind (usually taken from other recordings). However, I doubt many composers would object if their tempo markings were subtly changed if it made a performance and therefore the presentation of the piece more successful. How boring would it be if all cellists chose exactly the same tempos for the Dvorak concerto! (Another piece where the normal tempos that one hears very rarely bear any relation to what is printed in the score).

    To take the example of the Shostakovich – He’s clearly trying to tell us something, but it’s not immediately obvious what (apart from play the damned movements at 100 perhaps! Just a little point – the second movement is actually minim = 100, but the basic pulse is the same as before of course). If we look at this concerto in the wider context of his other late music, we see that he often slips into a sort of desperately sad ambivalence – no longer the angry, dissonant, desperately struggling works of his earlier pieces (e.g. the first cello concerto). That is not to say that this music does not contain the pain and struggle, agony, ecstasy, irony, and beauty that makes Shostakovich’s works so brilliant and popular, rather that it is expressed with a different voice, sadder, more desolate, perhaps ‘deeper’. We could ruminate for hours about what it means – whether he is saying, that whatever you do, you are constricted by the ‘meter’ of you society; or whether we can have meaning and expression despite the oppressive monotony of the regime; or maybe as I said before, a sort of numb ambivalence, that in the end, all our choices come to the same end. The fact that it is exactly 100, and not say 96 or 104 is surely also significant, and perhaps indicative of the regime’s insistence on shoehorning everyone into the same artificial moulds, the same strangling designs and compartments. But maybe not!

    I could probably highlight hundreds of my favourite moments in this great work, but I think the odd ending, the bleakest and bare moment in the whole work, finished by that small sudden crescendo to a staccato, is possibly an evocation of death.

    All this is highly subjective of course, and possibly not even worth stating in the public arena, but I just felt the need to respond to this post in my non-sequitur rambling way because I liked it so much.

    As Casals amply demonstrates in many of his recordings, it is not speed but energy that dictates how fast we experience something as. And I think (though you may not agree), that Rostropovich captures the core of this work better than any other cellist on record, even if he does take certain liberties with the speeds. Shostakovich might have mentioned something to him if he was displeased, but then of course, Shostakovich was such a shy character that he praised everyone, no matter what they played like, just to save his and their own embarrassment.

  • Alban

    Yes, but this is exactly the point: “I doubt many composers would object if their tempo markings were subtly changed if it made a performance and therefore the presentation of the piece more successful” – subtly change would be at a speed of 100 going 90, not 70 as it often happens. I am not at all talking about taking these speeds absolutely literally, but the emphasis is on trying to understand what a composer might have heard in his inner hear before writing down the music, and if he goes through the hassle to actually write down metronome markings he probably meant something by it. But one needs to really understand it and not stupidly just turn on the metronome and play the whole piece or movement in the same speed. I assure you, my performance of it was not a metronomic exact whatsoever, but it was definitely felt “in two” and not in four. We were doing lots of rubato, but not your typical stop-and-go, because it is not self-indulgent music, but portrays real suffering in a very subtle, longing ay.
    You are absolutely right, it is not about the speed but energy, and at the end of the day a good performer can make the music work at any speed or pusle.
    But if a composer like Shostakovich writes a rather slow speed for a seemingly funny and jazzy tune, too slow for it to become bouncy, then maybe this is what he wants. And now I just learned (from conductor Vladimir Jurowski) that the song he is using in that 2nd movement is a song of (or about) prostitutes – very low and definitely not “funny”; maybe it reflects how Shostakovich felt in the system, “prostituting” himself for writing “Soviet music”.

    “< the same metronome marking is an> is an indicative of the regime’s insistence on shoehorning everyone into the same artificial moulds”
    Very good point! Never thought of it that way, but makes great sense, thank you for pointing it out.

  • Guido

    Very interesting, I agree of course – I always thought that song had the words “buy my bagels, come buy my bagels! ” or is that just the PC classical music worlds story!?

  • Alban

    well, I don’t speak Russian, so I have to trust what the Russians tell me. Nobody has translated it yet to me, but Jurowski said something about prostitutes. Maybe some of them were selling bagels as a sidekick?! Sorry, I don’t know…


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