Edmund Wilson claimed that one of his greatest pleasures was telling a friend about an especially good book he’d read, so long it was (1) out of print, (2) rare, and (3) written in a language the friend didn’t speak.
Aside from being a hopeless monoglot, I’m too kind-hearted a soul to play that mildly sadistic game, but I do want to tell you about a recording I heard the other day that you almost certainly haven’t heard, and very possibly will never hear. It’s the first recording of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, made by Yevgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic just four months after they gave the 1937 premiere. So far as I know, this recording has never been issued, much less reissued, in the West. It turned up a few years ago as a bonus CD in an obscure Japanese box set devoted to Mravinsky’s early recordings, and a collector I know burned a copy and presented it to me Saturday afternoon at the Mencken Day celebrations in Baltimore.
If you’re a Mravinsky buff or a Shostakovich scholar, the inherent interest of this performance will be self-evident. If not…well, give this some thought. Shostakovich wrote the Fifth Symphony not long after Stalin’s culture thugs put him in the hot seat by attacking his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in Pravda. All at once, Soviet Russia’s most celebrated composer had a bull’s-eye hung around his neck, and for the rest of his life he would be haunted by the memory of the fear he first knew on that terrible day. Shostakovich was well aware that the KGB could drag him away in the middle of the night, never to be seen again, just like they’d already disposed of tens of thousands of his fellow Russians. He wrote the Fifth Symphony when that fear was still fresh and raw, and though a Communist “critic” (i.e, hack) dubbed it “a Soviet artist’s creative reply to just criticism,” everybody with ears to hear knew that it was a lament for Russia.
Years later, Mravinsky was rehearsing the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony with the Leningrad Philharmonic, an occasion about which one of the violinists told the following story:
Mravinsky turned around to the violin sections and said, “You’re playing this tremolo with the wrong color, you haven’t got the necessary intensity. Have you forgotten what this music is about and when it was born?”
Can you hear any of that in the 1938 recording? I’m not sure. My experience of it is colored too sharply by what I know of the circumstances under which it was made. I have no doubt that beneath the scratch and grind of the old shellac discs, I can hear an orchestra playing with fire and commitment, performing a still-unfamiliar piece on which the ink was still barely dry–and playing it as if they knew it was a masterpiece, which of course it was. But what were they thinking? What was Mravinsky thinking? I cannot imagine my way back to the time and place in which that recording was made, in a country ankle-deep with the blood of innocents, mere weeks after a premiere performance at the end of which the audience cheered for a half-hour.
I dropped my new Alex Katz lithograph off yesterday afternoon at a framing shop in my neighborhood. I do a good bit of business there, and so I struck up a conversation with the fellow who runs the store. He’s a refugee from Afghanistan, and we got to talking about how that country has suffered–first at the hands of the Russians, then at the hands of the Taliban. I mentioned that the Taliban had banned all secular music from Afghanistan. He shook his head in disgust. “You cannot live like that,” he said. “You cannot. You know I still have family over there? They tell me there is much poverty, many poor people who are lucky if they eat twice a day–but they’re happy now, because they don’t have to live like that anymore.”
I don’t know if my framer much cares for Western music, and I know he doesn’t care for Russians, but I think he might possibly appreciate my new recording of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony. Even if he didn’t like the music, I think he’d understand what it must have meant for a man to write a piece like that, and for a hundred other men to play it, in the midst of such horror. I know I can’t appreciate it, not really–and I hope I never do.