This week the new Chamber Music Series at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) got under way with the first of three visits from the Telegraph Quartet (violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw). Last night in the Recital Hall the group led a master class, and their recital will take place tomorrow (Thursday, October 30) evening in the Concert Hall. I was particularly struck by how well Chin and Maile worked together in coaching the students performing the third-movement scherzo from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 57 piano quintet in G minor, each with his own strategy for encouraging the students to shape their thoughts on how this music should be performed.
On the surface this scherzo seems to present Shostakovich at his most comical. It was composed in 1940, after the composer had managed to restore his reputation with the Soviet authorities, recovering from the denunciation of 1936 by composing his fifth symphony (Opus 47 in D minor) in 1937. The premiere of the quintet, at which Shostakovich himself played the piano part, was a great success; and the work received the Stalin Prize in 1941.
Nevertheless, that period of denunciation taught Shostakovich how to play his cards close to his chest, keeping many enthusiasts (myself included) busy seeking out encrypted messages in his music. Thus, as far as this scherzo is concerned, the surface structure could easily have appealed to Joseph Stalin’s sense of humor (if that phrase is not entirely an oxymoron); but Shostakovich was taking a risky bet (which, on this particular occasion, he seems to have won) that neither Stalin nor any of his flunkies would be aware of a deeper structure. Last night’s coaching also kept to the surface: cultivating the vision of some big clumsy oaf making a fool of himself through inept dancing.
Both Chin and Maile coached the students in the different devices that support this vision, as much through patterns for accompaniment as for the simple-minded melodic line. Similarly, they both discussed bowing techniques to realize the awkward phrasings resulting from this imagined dancer who never quite gets the beat. Both violinists were consistently encouraging in their support, and this was one of those occasions when those of us on audience side could appreciate the progress they were making.
If any deeper structure was overlooked, that may just have been a matter of a history that is now too distant for the performers. Nevertheless, it is worth considering that, for this particular movement, that risky bet that Shostakovich took was that no one would consider the possibility that his “big clumsy oaf” was none other than Stalin himself. The risk Shostakovich was taking was that no one would dare think (or at least admit to thinking) of Stalin as this oversized embodiment of brutality who seemed to romp merrily from one atrocity to another (closer in spirit to Caligula than to anyone in the Nazi Party). Indeed, not only would no one entertain such thoughts but also no one would imagine that a composer, particularly one who had recently redeemed himself from Party denunciation, would have those thoughts.
So, indeed, the scherzo for Opus 57 does show us Shostakovich at his most comical. However, it is comedy at its riskiest. Had the wrong person in authority gotten the joke, the world could easily have missed out on fourteen of the fifteen string quartets and nine of the fifteen symphonies.