shostakovich’s viola sonata, redux

Zach Carstensen (who writes for the excellent NW music blog collective The Gathering Note) posted the following comment to my first post on Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata:

I suppose it is well known that Shostakovich’s failing health made the sonata one of the composers sparsest works of music. Yet, I have always thought the piece reminds me of some of Webern’s chamber compositions…I posed the following question to a violist up here in Seattle:

“The sonata seems almost like its crosswise with itself. On the one hand Shostakovich describes it as “clear” and “brilliant,” yet on the other it does have a mournful air around it. The piece’s resignation is almost to be expected since it was his last work. Similarly, the sonata is incredibly sparse, with what seem like allusions to Berg and Webern, but also incredibly complicated and dense in parts. Is it possible to reconcile all of these differences?”

I was talking to my pianist this evening after we’d rehearsed the sonata, and I expressed the wish that Shostakovich was still alive – and that I’d have some serious questions to ask him about many aspects of his life and music. But Cary responded that a straightforward answer might not be possible to get, considering the life that Shostakovich lived, where speaking one’s mind clearly and directly was very possibly fatal.

I read recently that Shostakovich died of Lou Gherigh’s Disease (ALS), which would make sense, as it literally would have been painful to write a dense manuscript. My quartet played his 15th quartet a few years ago, and it was similarly sparse, full of contradictions, and funereal in character. While he said it should be played “clear” and “brilliant”, I’m sure that’s not what he really meant – I don’t think he’d ever have brought himself to say it to anyone, or even admit it to himself, what the piece really was, a “leave-taking” akin to Mahler’s Ninth, but distilled to its essence, as you say, á la Webern.

Then, the last question you pose is the question which dogs any musician worth their salt, which is how you make a credible interpretation of a piece which defies it at almost every turn. And the best pieces, those indisputable masterpieces, make that struggle worth coming back to again and again, through a lifetime of making music. The Viola Sonata is a prime example of such a work, to my mind, and belongs in the pantheon with works of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and other masters throughout the ages whose music constantly stimulates and challenges us.

As for interpretation, it’s easy to go overboard with this piece, and to ignore the tempo markings which are presumably Shostakovich’s (though I’m going to do some checking on that), and to create lots of internal tempo fluctuations. Ultimately, if you are faithful to what Shostakovich writes in his score (correcting a few misprints along the way) and keep to a middle path, neither playing it cold nor giving in to the heat except at the very peaks of the climaxes, it’s possible to make a great performance of this piece (but hardly easy).

I heard, through my last teacher, Roberto Dìaz, of a maxim that one of his teachers, Burton Fine, used to say about the Viola Sonata: “There are two ways to play the Shostakovich Viola Sonata: one leaves the audience without a dry eye in the house. The other leaves not an OPEN eye in the house”. Typical dry, wry wit of the then long-time principal violist of the Boston Symphony.

We’ll see how it goes on Sunday…

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