Some notes on the music in NSO's November 2018 concert
In complex and uncertain times, NSO presents music reflecting Russian experience. While the affairs of men appear to be carried out via words - the significance of which can sometimes only be seen later on - music is able to convey, and explore, multiple layers of feelings and thoughts, showing while also hiding.
"Masquerade" is a play about 1830s St Petersburg society, in which a wealthy man is led by what he sees as high principles, to murder his wife. The mores of the glittering polite high society are weighed in the balance and found wanting - so much so that the play was banned for a time in Russia, the posh parties, and the aristocrats who held them, being popular and influential. Khachaturian wrote the music in 1941, brilliantly conveying the glitter and the seductiveness, while tragedy tugs away underneath, never quite seeing the light of day.
Tchaikovsky's first (and best known) piano concerto (1874) broke all records in 1958 when it became the first million-seller among classical recordings; however, its path to popularity was not smooth, the intended first soloist decrying it mercilessly, so that the composer turned to von Bülow and Boston, Massachusetts for the first performance. The music has a surface layer of powerful emotionalism, and so perhaps seemed self-indulgent to its first hearers; underneath, the structure is both novel and logical - and beautiful!
Shostakovitch created his Fifth Symphony during times of heightened stress flowing from Stalin's regime's severe criticism of his recent music (and his resulting loss of income). It was becoming clear artists were under threat and could no longer continue as before, expressing their honest feelings. His Fourth Symphony was suppressed. This was 1937, with threat of world war looming. When the Fifth was premiered, in November, the audience went wild. But what is the music really saying? Rostropovich said it contains a hidden message - perhaps we should call it the "Enigma Symphony"!