The minute I was asked by Southbank Sinfonia to conduct Shostakovich 14 felt like a throwback moment. The name and number (few composers have written that many symphonies, and this particular one is a rare treat in concert programmes) brought me back to a very special week in October 2013 when I was assisting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and their Principal Conductor Kirill Karabits, who were rehearsing that same piece. One rather untypical task I ended up doing that week was to look after the surtitles (the symphony has two solo voices singing in Russian) for what was to be a breathtaking performance. Funnily enough, that particular task, back then, was itself a throwback to the only other time I had ever worked on surtitles before, some ten years earlier, with the great French director Patrice Chéreau who was staging Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground – and just to make matters more coincidental, Patrice Chéreau passed away that very same week. Reading the warm tributes pouring in across the news and social media, I was at once transported to that special occasion when I came to know him personally, and hurled back to the very subject matter of Shostakovich’s fourteenth symphony: death, as seen, portrayed and illustrated by the eleven poems (by four different poets) for which the symphony provides a musical incarnation.
Morbid as it may seem to base an entire symphony on the idea of death, Shostakovich’s eclectic selection makes for an astonishing variety of tone, atmosphere and imagery, as I quickly rediscovered after pulling the score back off the shelf. It wasn’t long before I took out some books too, and read more poems by Apollinaire, Garcia Lorca and Rilke, albeit in their French versions (my Spanish is limited and my German needs brushing up!). Resisting my usual urge to go straight to the music itself, I put the score aside for a while and took in the words alone – their associations and assonances, their rhythms and rhymes, their magic and meaning.
Then on to the music: my score, a messy mix of four different languages, swelled with markings as I looked to understand the shape and structure of each individual movement, as well as the overall ordering and progression of the poems: yes, this really is a symphony, not just a compilation or song cycle. Not only do almost all the movements segue into one another, blurring the lines between one poem (and poet) and the next; the strings and percussion (no wind instruments in this orchestra), a far cry from the more polite orchestral accompaniments, are also true symphonic protagonists, a dramatic counterpart to the solo voices, soprano and bass. In fact, the fairy-tale narrative of Apollinaire’s “Loreley”, arguably the centrepiece of the symphony, even feels like a miniature opera, complete with recitatives, interludes, and its own climax. From Loreley’s locks to the fierce and fiery duende of Garcia Lorca’s “Malagueña”, from the lulling lament sung to “Delvig, Delvig” to the suicidal soundings of a locked-up Apollinaire , the grim reaper glides along Shostakovich’s symphony taking on many a surprising guise, before storming out and leaving us in shock silence at the end of Rilke’s “Schlussstück”.
A memorable ride, not for the faint-hearted… I’m just about ready for another throwback moment, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I know I will!
Maxime makes his Southbank Sinfonia debut conducting Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony alongside Boulez’s Mémoriale in our Free Rush Hour Concert, 6.00pm, Thursday 29 September at St John’s Waterloo. The concert will be recorded by BBC Radio 3, to be broadcast at a later date. For more information, click here.
Find out more about Maxime Tortelier here.