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Philharmonic Hall, Leningrad
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra / Yevgeni Mravinsky
After the triumph of his Fifth Symphony, op.47, Shostakovich was under intense political and musical scrutiny as to what he would do next. The Sixth showed him triumphantly building on his previous success but also striking out in new directions. This newness caused the more official and literal-minded commentators in the Soviet press to warn that they were not entirely happy with what he was up to.
The symphony has a fascinating form, unlike that of any other major work in the repertory: a long slow movement answered by two scherzos. The opening slow movement is Mahlerian in scale but with intimations of many other composers too. The very first bars, for example, have a feeling of Bach about them, as though the composer were deliberately returning us to musical first base before setting out on such a journey. Step by step, this mighty and deeply expressive largo begins to accelerate, eventually tipping over into faster more anxiety-ridden music in the middle before ending, as though after the death of the hero, with a coda in the shape of a funeral march. This funeral march evidently meant a great deal to Shostakovich, for he returned to it at the end of his life in his Fifteenth Symphony, op.141 and in his Fifteenth String Quartet, op.144.
When Shostakovich first played through this symphony on the piano to friends in his Leningrad apartment, one of them commented that the last two movements sounded as though Rossini had returned in 20th century guise. The first of this strange pair of scherzos is a whirling high-speed waltz, graceful but frightening, as though the dancers were skating top-speed over dangerously thin ice. The second is also whirling music, but his time it is the shades of Offenbach, of circus-music, operetta and cheap band-music that hurtle past our ears. The symphony ends in a blaze of mocking and hollow laughter.
Note by Gerard McBurney
St Petersburg Philharmonic, cond. Yuri Temirkanov.
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