It makes me feel as though something bad is going to happen
We have now performed quite a bit of Shostakovich with our principal conductor, Thomas Søndergård, and it has been great to learn this symphony with him over this week.
Whilst demanding technical excellence, Thomas encourages us to explore and understand the relationship of our part within the orchestral texture. The resulting clarity he brings to the score enables the intensity of the music to leap from the page. And rather intense is what the Eighth Symphony is.
The Eighth is not bombastic in the same manner as some of the earlier symphonies. This is a nasty symphony. It drips with sarcasm and shares none of the Fifth or Seventh's triumphant conclusions. The Eight leaves me unsettled, and with the feeling that I've just listened to a really horrible story.
Written in 1943, at a time when Soviet optimism was on the rise, the government had expected a hymn of triumph from Shostakovich. Soviet forces had the German army on the run; Stalin had defeated the fascist. However, it would appear that Shostakovich did not share the government's sentiments.
Perhaps after the events of Leningrad, and the Battle of Stalingrad, the composer simply believed the human cost of war too great to warrant celebration. Perhaps, already deeply distrustful of the Stalinist government, he feared the future; the Nazis were bad, but Stalin was no better, and already had seemingly limitless power.
The Eighth was heralded as counter-revolutionary and anti-Soviet with future performances banned until 1956 during Khrushchev's de-Stalinisation of the state. Indeed, only three years after the symphony's premiere, Shostakovich was denounced in the Zhdanov decree and left all but abandoned by the majority of his artistic friends.
Parody and sarcasm are words often associated with Shostakovich's music and this can be seen very clearly in the two scherzo movements. Superficially jolly, (well the second movement scherzo is anyway, the third is more of a 'release the rottweilers/violas' moment), these scherzos do not make me want to dance. Rather, I get a sense that I'm about to witness something horrible. These movements seem to gambol along towards unavoidable doom at breakneck speed.
In my opinion, the predominant feature of this work is its incredible sense of emptiness, perhaps best seen in the fourth movement. A passacaglia movement, the unending bass refuses to resolve, forcing the solo voices back to the beginning of their plaintive lines again and again. It is as though there is no escape; the individual is repeatedly and continuously subjugated by the unbending monotony of the group. Eventually, the music moves to C major, but there is no Beethoven Five last movement 'yipee!' to be found.
One of my favourite moments of the symphony can be found in the closing passage. There is such transparency in the texture, such a feeling of weightlessness, but it is not peaceful. As the pizzicato lower strings are punctuated by low flute notes, listen out for the descending bass line. This is an ending of incredible subtlety - to me it is a very ambiguous ending, more a question mark, than a full stop.
If you'd like to know more about the symphony, Principal Trombone Donal 'The Professor' Bannister is giving a preconcert talk on Friday night. The event is free, and starts at 6.30pm at St David's Hall.
The BBC National Orchestra of Wales performs Shostakovich's Symphony No 8 tonight (Friday 4 October) at St David's Hall, Cardiff. For tickets call 02920 878444.