Traversing the Via Dolorosa with Shostakovich, Vasks, and Schnittke

Different people grieve differently. Some busy themselves with busyness. More productively, some write. Some write music. Some listen to music that some have written as catharsis for their pain.

And some enjoy listening to such heart-rending music—even when not necessarily in distress. That would describe me. When grieving, I concurrently feel the composers’ agony. When I’m not, it’s as if I’m empathically sharing in their burdens (Galatians 6:2).

One of my favorite ECM New Series releases, Dolorosa features—as the title suggests—themes of death, sorrow, and lamentation. It includes one work each by Dmitri Shostakovich, Pēteris Vasks, and Alfred Schnittke—all from the former Soviet Union. The title of the release appears to be truncated from Vasks’ own “Musica Dolorosa”, with perhaps a nod to the Via Dolorosa (Latin for “sorrowful way”), Jesus’ route to crucifixion. I make these speculations since it is convention to use doloroso (“o” instead of “a” at the end) in musical direction.

Dolorosa

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dolorosa – Shostakovich / Vasks / Schnittke
Dennis Russell Davies, cond.; Stuttgart Chamber Orch.

 

These three works for string orchestra are appropriately somber, though at times dramatic, adequately expressing the subjects’ range of emotions.

The disc begins with Rudolf Barshai’s (1967) adaptation of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet. The composer himself approved of Barshai’s arrangement, agreeing to rename it Chamber Orchestra op. 110bis. I much prefer the orchestral version to the quartet, as it adds weightiness to the original, better conveying its inherent bleakness. Shostakovich dedicated the composition “[t]o the memory of the victims of fascism and war”. At the time the original quartet was written (summer 1960), the composer had succumbed to persistent pressures to join the communist party, causing great inner turmoil, according to musicologist Isaak Glikman, as per the accopanying liner notes. Apparently the composer’s dedication included himself as a victim.

At just under 25 minutes, this rendition is one of the longest. DRD conducts the second movement, Allegro molto, slower than all other versions I’ve heard (3:38 long), which I find more appropriate, given the inscription and the overall tenor of this arrangement.

The impetus for Vasks’ “Musica dolorosa” was the death of the composer’s sister Marta. Vasks’ grief evidences itself in the climactic section beginning at around 5:50 of the single movement piece. The pain conveyed becomes almost unbearable until about 8:00 when the discordance begins to subside, seguing into a dark melancholy. This subsequently gives rise to what seems to be a reluctant acceptance of this tragedy. As much as I like the Shostakovich, this is my favorite piece on the disc.

Closing the set is Yuri Bashmet’s orchestral arrangement of Schnittke’s String Trio (1985), rebranded Trio Sonata (1987). This work is the least somber of the three, for the Alban Berg Foundation commissioned the original string trio for the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Berg’s birth. However, within a few weeks of the string trio’s premiere, the composer would suffer his first of many strokes, thus curtailing his activity for the remainder of his days. Of the piece, Gerard McBurney opines in the liner notes: “It is music which strongly suggests an elegiac farewell to the past, as though the composer knew he were facing impending and radical change…” Schnittke would die one year after this disc was released.

Listening to this recording can be cathartic, as it is for me many times. I suppose, though, that the listener’s experience would pale in comparison to the emotions felt by the composers at the time of writing—or shortly thereafter in the case of Schnittke’s revision by Bashmet.

One Response to Traversing the Via Dolorosa with Shostakovich, Vasks, and Schnittke

  1. Craig says:

    Here’s a snippet from the very last hyperlink, for “Musica Dolorosa”:

    Trained as a contrabassist at Emīls Dārziņš Music School, he was prevented from studying composition because of the repressive Soviet policies against Baptists (Vasks was born and raised in a Baptist family), but managed to study in Vilnius. In 1970, he gratuated from the Lithuanian State Conservatory in Vytautas Sereika’s contrabass class, but later, in 1978, the Latvian State Conservatory in Valentīns Utkins’ composition class (bold added).

    Like

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