LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
The meditative piano chords that open Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 are an ideal introduction—not only to the long first movement, but to the work as a whole. Lyrical and unobtrusive, these chords were nonetheless revolutionary in that no Classical concerto had ever opened with the soloist before. Moreover, the solo introduction is then followed by the orchestra playing in a different key. The entire piece, in fact, has an unassuming geniality that masks daring innovations in form and substance.
Orpheus Taming the Wild Beasts
Critics are fond of saying that the remarkable freedom and inwardness of this concerto anticipates Beethoven's late works. These qualities are most evident in the second movement, the most written-about movement of the five concertos. Like the whole of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, it has been compared to a tragedy of fate and viewed as mirroring Beethoven's terrible but inspiring struggles with his growing deafness—a condition that in the few years separating the Fourth Concerto from the Third had advanced dramatically.
Liszt, in the most inventive and often-quoted commentary, described the caressing piano and gruff strings in this movement as Orpheus taming the wild beasts. Donald Francis Tovey found Liszt's analogy fanciful, but added some memorable lines of his own: "The orchestra does not imitate wild beasts, and the pianoforte does not imitate a lyre or a singer. But the orchestra (consisting of the strings alone) is entirely in octaves, without a vestige of harmony, so long as it remains stubborn and rough in its share of the dialogue with the quiet, veiled tones of the solo."
Others interpret this free-form section as not a slow movement at all, but merely an introduction to the finale. The last movement begins with a whispered pianissimo, then bursts ecstatically with trumpets and timpani-instruments that were excluded in the first two movements. This finale is often viewed as too ambitious to be a mere rondo, just as the profusion of ideas and unconventional architecture of the first movement are regarded as a stretching of sonata form to the breaking point.
A Slow Reception
Beethoven premiered the Fourth Piano Concerto himself in a private concert in 1807 on a program that included his Fourth Symphony and Coriolan Overture. The next year, he played it again in an extravaganza that included his Fifth and Sixth symphonies and Choral Fantasy. This was his last performance of a concerto, as his deafness soon ruined his career as a performer. The piece then fell into oblivion, apparently because pianists preferred the more obvious drama of the Third Concerto and the flashy virtuosity of the Fifth.
Only in our century has the Fourth come to be held up as the most noble and intimate of the concertos. Mendelssohn performed the work in 1836 in an attempted revival that moved Schumann to write, "I have received a pleasure from it such as I have never enjoyed ... I sit in my place without moving a muscle or even breathing-afraid to make the least noise."
Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47
Getting Off the Blacklist
At once the most popular and most controversial of Shostakovich's symphonies, the Fifth has always been loved by audiences and conductors for its drama and lyricism. For years, it was castigated by critics for its "conservatism" and capitulation to Soviet censorship—that is, until critics declared it to be secretly anti-Soviet. There is no question that Shostakovich wanted to get off Stalin's blacklist: Denounced by the government newspaper Pravda for his dissonance and "decadent" modernism, he was forced to withdraw his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District after Stalin himself saw and condemned it. His experimental Fourth Symphony, not heard until 1961, was cancelled for the same reason.
Patriotism vs. Pessimism
The political convolutions regarding the Fifth seem endless and ever-changing. Some say that Shostakovich did not label the work "the creative reply of a Soviet artist to just criticism," as numerous commentators have maintained; that nauseating designation came from a Soviet critic during the symphony's unveiling in 1937, not the composer. And the work itself is not nearly as patriotic and conservative as is claimed by its detractors. Although Shostakovich provides Classical structure, diatonic harmony, singable tunes, a folksy dance movement, and a finale with the requisite "heroic" sound, he also gets in a considerable amount of darkness and pessimism.
Were it not for the work's history, it would be difficult to imagine anyone finding facile optimism in a symphony so full of shadows and long stretches of gloom. The somber first and third movements and the wailing from the strings in the middle of the finale are hardly cheering; and the ominous fade-out that closes the first movement seems a haunting echo of the ending of the Fourth Symphony. These elements today are often interpreted as subversive "codes," but they seem more upfront than secretive. How indeed did Shostakovich get such an easy pass from the Soviet censors, even if they did have notoriously tin ears?
Shostakovich had learned from bitter experience when to pull his punches. It wouldn't do to have the last movement end gloomily, but it was okay for the first. As for the blaze of sunlight that closes the symphony, it was apparently written to order. In a startling passage from the controversial Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich from 1979, Shostakovich says about the ending, "The rejoicing is forced, under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, 'Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,' and you rise shaky, and go marching off, muttering, 'Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.'"
Many have questioned the authenticity of Testimony, and no one can say for sure whether Shostakovich actually said this. Still, many maestros insist the basic idea is true. Mstislav Rostropovich, for example, believes the coda should be played with brutal slowness because Shostakovich meant for the ostensibly triumphant fanfares to represent nails hammered in a coffin rather than victory: a grim anti-Soviet protest. But the satirical point, if there really is one, is often lost on the audience, which cheers wildly and unambiguously, as well they might after blazing major-key fanfares and drums. When Leonard Bernstein conducted the symphony in the early 1960s, he made the finale fast and exciting, decidedly non-ironic. His reading was enthusiastically affirmed by Shostakovich and is still one of the most celebrated.
A Touch of Mahler
One can always listen to the symphony as music, without ideological parsing. It is, after all, an eloquent, forceful, strikingly lyrical work. To some extent, it is modeled on the symphonies of Mahler, a composer whom Shostakovich admired. The juxtaposition of the sublime with the banal; the fondness for marches, some funereal, some sardonic; the buffoonish folk tunes in the scherzo; and the hymnlike lyricism in the slow movement all sound at times like Mahler with a Russian accent. There are also touches of Beethoven, especially the motifs binding together the long first movement and their return in the finale. Yet the sensibility and sound world are distinctly Shostakovich's own.
Nobility in Survival
The overall picture is not all that different from that of the Sixth, Eighth, and Tenth symphonies—all powerful, emotionally ambiguous works that generated political controversies of their own, though none like the contentious back-and-forths attending the Fifth. Conductor Marin Alsop perhaps has it right when she says that "Shostakovich has become a receptacle for people's polarized political viewpoints." This symphony is a summary statement, "complex" and "conflicted"; it offers "an opening for hopefulness, for a certain nobility in survival."