Other Minds Festival, San Francisco

Piano four hands Shostakovich transcriptions of Stravinsky " Symphony of Psalms " and Shostakovich "Symphony No. 4 "

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Michael McDonagh
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Piano reductions of symphonies were a hard sell in the twentieth century and still are in our twenty-first century but that wasn’t the case in the nineteenth century when reductions of symphonies and operas were sometimes the only game in town because who living in the sticks in central Europe or our American West would ever have the chance to hear a big “important’ piece played live by an expert symphony orchestra? But just about everything bows first on www.youtube.com as our super busy living composers stress to have their pieces done on the program Sibelius, made into a PDF, and e-mailed to the musicians who will play it live within forty-eight  hours ?

And now we have conductor-pianist Dennis Russell Davies and his Japanese pianist wife Maki Namekawa who have made numerous tours as a duo piano team with works ranging from Mozart to Philip Glass in a program of Stravinsky and Shostakovich with both arranged by him.

But their pairing of his arrangements of the 1930 original version of Symphony of Psalms by Igor Stravinsky ( 1882-1971 ) which he revised in 1948, and the two piano arrangement by Shostakovich ( 1906-1975 ) of his Symphony # 4  in c, Op 43 ( 1935-36 ), which wasn’t performed till 1961 under Kirill Kondrashin, helped but didn’t bring these two great Russian / Soviet composers together in any meaningful way despite Davies and Namekawa’s assiduous attention to matters at hand, with technique, pace, and color astutely married.

But maybe bringing Stravinsky and Shostakovich together wasn’t the point. Still the contrasts between the two were legion. Stravinsky was notoriously unsentimental and almost everything he wrote was utterly clear and succinct, while Shostakovich, though just  as well schooled, could lack focus and point. What are the huge cataclysmic eruptions in his music doing but reminding us that life is tragic 24/7 but didn’t we already know that ? And didn’t his “checkered” relationship with Stalin prove his eternal undoing? But these are extra-musical matters which can be abandoned like gossip because it’s all who said what about whom and why and the widely conflicting “testimonies” of those pro or anti Shostakovich are up for grabs too.

So where does that leave us? With the music, obviously, because everything else is added on or outright fiction, and judged on the merits of this case Stravinsky won hands down. None of his points overstayed their welcome but were argued clearly while Shostakovich’s were sometimes confused or grasping for straws, and I was reminded of that famous conversation between Sibelius and Mahler where Sibelius said that music should include part of the world but Mahler said it should include all.
Stravinsky’s decisions were concise while Shostakovich seemed to throw everything against the wall in his piano four hands version, which shorn of its orchestral dress, was both annoying and endlessly repetitive, though he apparently hoped something — anything — would stick.

Stravinsky lived here and now while Shostakovich wanted to live to his — apotheosis ? — where all rights — he contemplated suicide lots — would be wronged?
But the world never works this way and Davies and Namekawa, on their facing Steinway concert grands, Namekawa’s with the top up, and Davies with no top, played with passion and point.

Shostakovich is a more than worthy candidate for the persecuted nineteenth century artist and this fiction seems to have lots of buyers today.

Indeed the louder and more politically correct Shostakovich followers seem to have the upper hand because he’s an all purpose candidate for advertised failure, or as my late composer-critic friend Virgil Thomson ( 1896-1989) put it in an interview with John Rockwell. “But the way to look like a success in the modern world is to complain about everything and make yourself a martyr. Nobody wants too many successful characters around.”
So does that mean #METOODIMITRI? while Prokofiev had a big piano concert tour of Russia in 1927 with his elegant wife in a fur coat, and Stravinsky passed on in Brentwood, California, where his neighbors were Arnold Schoenberg and Marilyn Monroe? Davies and Namekawa piano four hands with Stravinsky, and Prokofiev, maybe?

They’re even entertaining which sourpuss Shostakovich certainly was never. No never not.
10.ii- 3.iii.19


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