Gustavo Dudamel conducts Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 12

19 Sep 2009

Berliner Philharmoniker
Gustavo Dudamel

Glorious Percussion

  • Sofia Gubaidulina
    Glorious Percussion, concerto for percussion ensemble and orchestra (40 min.)

    Glorious Percussion

  • Dmitri Shostakovich
    Symphony No. 12 in D minor, op. 112 “The Year 1917” (47 min.)

  • free

    Sofia Gubaidulina in conversation with Margarete Zander (23 min.)

There have probably never been so many percussion instruments on the stage of the Berlin Phiharmonie as in this concert with Gustavo Dudamel from September 2009. In Sofia Gubaidulinas Glorious Percussion, no less than five percussionists demonstrate the multifaceted sounds and effects their intruments can produce.

Shostakovich’s 12th Symphony – which the Berliner Philharmoniker had astonishingly never played before – is no less energetic. Completed in 1961, this work, unusually enthusiastic for the composer, describes the October Revolution in grand-scale programme music tableaux, reflecting a short phase in Shostakovich’s life when, after the death of Stalin and in the hope of a more humane USSR, he was a wholehearted supporter of communism.

In this concert, Dudamel confirmed his reputation as one of the most dynamic conductors there is. The Berliner Zeitung, for example, wrote: “When last year the Venezuelan Simón Bolívar Orchestra set the Philharmonie alight, we described its conductor Gustavo Dudamel as a pyromaniac. ... When Dudamel conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker on Thursday as part of Musikfest Berlin, the fire was not tamed – but now it also brings bright, clear light.”

Between intoxicating sounds and classical form

Notes on works by Sofia Gubaidulina and Dmitri Shostakovich

Both Sofia Gubaidulina and Dmitri Shostakovich wrote film music out of necessity. Both of them regarded this activity as a way of earning their living while also taking advantage of the situation to focus on the work’s dramaturgical structures and to combine formal rigour with a more playful sense of freedom, thus meeting the demands of a film score.

A feeling for form and content and for interiority and expression are far from mutually exclusive in the music of Sofia Gubaidulina, who was born in the Autonomous Tatar Republic in 1931. Time and again she has compared her music with processes found in nature and in this way defined her relationship with musical tradition: “There are composers who construct their works very consciously, whereas I am the sort of composer who tends rather to ‘cultivate’ her works. That is why the whole of my recorded world is like the roots of a tree, the works themselves growing out of it like its branches and leaves. Although they can be described as new, they are still leaves, and from this point of view they are always traditional and old.”

Sofia Gubaidulina has long been interested in percussion instruments as a composer and as a practising musician. In the 1970s she formed a group in Moscow with a number of like-minded colleagues, all of whom were interested in improvisation. Rhythm understandably played a central role here. In the early nineties she wrote that “When I thought about which of the three basic aspects of any musical fabric might form the roots of my world of sound, I realized that it was rhythm. Harmony and the musical material form the trunk, while the melodic line is found in the leaves.”

Sofia Gubaidulina’s latest work for percussion is called Glorious Percussion and is scored for percussion ensemble and symphony orchestra. It received its first performance in Gothenburg in September 2008. According to the composer, the work’s central theme is “the consonance between the sounding intervals and their difference tones”. The basic materials are the intervals of a second and a third, which are repeatedly linked together in new ways in the course of the piece, thereby determining the musical texture. At the same time, this network of intervals triggers effects involving oscillation and pulsation in the percussion instruments, which are positioned in front of the orchestra. None the less, the soloists and the orchestra are not seen as hostile forces at odds with one another. Quite the opposite, in fact: the percussion instruments are a permanent part of a developing process thanks to their engagement with the orchestra, the instrumental writing for which is extremely subtly differentiated.

According to Sofia Gubaidulina, the formal structure of the piece is as follows: “Three times the piece comes to a standstill. Against this static background, all that remains is the pulsation produced by the intervals of the preceding chord. These episodes occur at particular formal points and thereby subject the form to the rules of the golden section.” But the strict formal language of Glorious Percussion does not imply an overtly constructivist approach. Rather, long sections of the work are notable for the composer’s ability to explore her chosen world of sound to particularly resplendent effect, a display to which the passages of improvisation also contribute: “The five solo percussion players have seven episodes in this work in which they step out in front of the orchestra and improvise without a fixed text. This is, as it were, a reminder of a type of performance practice from an age when only oral culture existed.”

Individual and collective, strict form and improvisation interact in Glorious Percussion, marking out the extreme positions that have always been central to Sofia Gubaidulina’s music. At an early date in her career, she confessed that “my development has been a continuous one. I have the feeling that I am forever exploring my soul. I see no great difference between my earlier works and my later ones; their conceptual basis has remained the same. And so I continue in the same direction in the labyrinth of my soul and am always finding new things there.”

By the late 1930s Dmitri Shostakovich was already planning to write a new symphony about Lenin. His opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District had brought him into conflict with the country’s political leaders, and so he hoped to document his Communist credentials by means of a monumental work for soloists, chorus and orchestra that would take as its subject matter the first of the Soviet Russian leaders. But his attempts to write choral finales to his Second and Third Symphonies had left him feeling dissatisfied, a sense of dissatisfaction that evidently persuaded him to shelve his plans for a new symphony. Not until two decades later did he take up the plan again and begin work on his Twelfth Symphony, which he dedicated to the memory of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The symphony is not based, however, on any programme about Lenin’s life but takes as its starting point the events of the October Revolution of 1917.

The Twelfth Symphony received its first performance in a version for piano duet performed in the rooms of the Russian Composers’ Union on 8 September 1961. The full orchestral version was heard for the first time in Leningrad on 1 October. As early as August, Shostakovich had explained in the course of a radio interview: “I was very keen to complete the Twelfth Symphony in time for the Twenty-Second Party Congress – this historic date in the life of our nation.” In his memoirs, conversely, he wrote: “I must say that it’s difficult work depicting the benefactors of humanity in music, evaluating them through music. I understand that my Twelfth Symphony isn’t a complete success in that sense. I began with one creative goal and ended with a completely different scheme. I wasn’t able to realize my ideas, the material put up resistance.”

From a formal standpoint, the Twelfth Symphony is laid out along relatively traditional lines with its classical four-movement structure. None the less, the movements follow one another without a break. At the same time, the symphony as a whole can be analysed as an example of large-scale sonata form, the opening movement representing the exposition of the first subject-group, the slow movement forming the second subject-group, and the third and fourth movements corresponding to the development section and recapitulation respectively.

The introduction to the opening movement, which is headed “Revolutionary Petrograd”, contains the germ cell of the whole symphony in the form of a striding theme on the cellos and double basses. From it Shostakovich develops the central idea of the following Allegro. The second subject is based on a free inversion of the main theme and brings with it an expansive melody on the lower strings, while the development section features repeated quotations of the well-known workers’ song, Smelo, tovarishchi, v nogu.

The title of the second movement, “Razliv”, refers to Lenin’s hideout in Karelia, where he liked to work and where he also planned the October Revolution. The movement is cast in ternary form and expounds three groups of themes, the third of which is chorale-like in character. The third movement (“Aurora”) takes its title from the name of the armed cruiser that signalled the start of the October Revolution by shelling the Winter Palace. Shostakovich does not shy away from describing this shelling in his music, but in every other respect this brief Scherzo resembles a large-scale crescendo leading directly into the final movement.

The final movement is headed “The Dawn of Humanity” and starts with a rhythmically striking theme in the brass. There are clear parallels between this final movement and the opening one in the form of its majestic horn theme and a dance-like motif in the violins. The opening movement’s second subject is then transformed into a triumphant apotheosis that brings the symphony to a fortississimo ending.

Martin Demmler

Translation: Stewart Spencer

Gustavo Dudamel was only twenty-three when he won the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition organized by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra in 2004. Since then he has become an iconic figure in the world of classical music. He was born in Barquisimeto in Venezuela in 1981 and trained as a conductor, violinist and composer: he studied the violin with José Francisco del Castillo at the Latin American Academy for the Violin and took lessons in conducting with Rodolfo Saglimbeni and José Antonio Abreu. Since 1999 he has been music director of the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. During the 2007/08 season he also became principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and has just taken over the same post with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he had made his United States debut in 2005. He has already appeared with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Israel Philharmonic, the Philharmonia of London and the Vienna Philharmonic. He made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker at its annual Waldbühne Concert on 15 June 2008 and returned in March 2009 to conduct works by Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Between 2000 and 2008 Gustavo Dudamel appeared four times with the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra in the Berlin Philharmonie. In September 2008 he was awarded the Würth Prize by Germany’s Jeunesses Musicales.

The percussion group Glorious Percussion owes its name to the work that brought its members together, when they performed Sofia Gubaidulina’s eponymous piece with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra under Gustavo Dudamel in September 2008. This world premiere was followed by equally successful performances in Germany with the Dresden Philharmonic under John Axelrod and in Switzerland with the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra under Jonathan Nott. The five members of the ensemble hail from three different continents: Anders Haag and Anders Loguin are from Sweden, Eirik Raude is from Norway, Robyn Schulkowsky comes from the United States, and Mika Takehara is from Japan. The name of the group reflects the almost godlike ability of their instruments to transcend cultural boundaries and to appeal to audiences across the ages. All five members are well known as soloists and chamber musicians well beyond the confines of their group. During the next few years, however, they plan to work together and commission a whole series of new works for Glorious Percussion.

Deutsche GrammophonGustavo Dudamel appears in the Digital Concert Hall courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon.

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