Shostakovich Chamber Symphony is probably the most emotionally draining piece I have every performed. To reflect this, I like the penultimate note, an A flat in the violins, to be played very flat and for its resolution to be almost imperceptible. It was written in Dresden and portrays the bombing of the city in the Second World War—13th to 15th February 1945.
“We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death, burning people ran to and fro, burnt coaches filled with civilian refugees, dead rescuers and soldiers, many were calling and looking for their children and families, and fire everywhere, everywhere fire, and all the time the hot wind of the firestorm threw people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from.” Lothar Metzger, survivor.
Apparently, after first hearing it performed in his home in Moscow by the Beethoven Quartet, Shostakovich simply sat with his head in his hands and cried inconsolably. You can absolutely hear this in the music in the most powerful way. It demands of the audience not to clap at the end… but eventually they do, and when they do, it is as if they have run a marathon and are exhausted.
Back in 1992 (or there about), BBC radio 3 reviewed about 15 recordings of this piece for their “Record Review” program. Even in competition with The Berlin Philharmonic, our recording was selected as the best . I think one of the reasons for this is because the piece has more impact as a string orchestral rather than a string quartet work (the quartet version is the 8th quartet whereas our identical music is “Shostakovich Chamber Symphony” with added Bass), but also because as an orchestra we worked as a chamber group—mutual and unconditioned respect all round and no formal dictatorial structure. This creates, what I call, a performance that surfs a wave of lived musical experience (listen to another recording we made of Benjamin Britten’s Frank Bridge Variations); everyone adapts to the slightest ripples of difference that come about because of the living experience of performance. Admittedly, recordings are infrequently “real performances” and are highly edited and enhanced… so that undermines that aspect of performing in my opinion. Despite this BBC review—the best recording ever!—we received, over a 15 year period, no financial assistance from the Art’s Council. Consequently, we hardly played in the UK… crazy!