The death of Joseph Stalin on March 5, 1953, was followed by a pronounced relaxation of the harsh restraints that had affected the work of composers, playwrights, poets and other creative artists in the Soviet Union following the denunciation of numerous prominent figures by Stalin’s cultural spokesman Andrei Zhdanov in February 1948. The names of Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev led this list of composers Zhdanov vilified for the sin of "formalism," and although Zhdanov himself died before that year was out, the climate of fear and repression was felt with particular severity until the death of Stalin. The lifting of that pall came too late for Prokofiev, who died on the same day as Stalin, but Shostakovich, who was at that time 47 years old, was able to take out the numerous scores he had "put in the drawer" during the difficult five years and bring them to completion and performance. Among these were the Violin Concerto No. 1 and the Tenth Symphony, which quickly made their way to the West. Within a year or two, a cultural exchange program was put in place in which Soviet and American musicians began visiting each other’s country with steadily increasing frequency. At about the time of the Tenth Symphony’s premiere, in December 1953, Shostakovich was called upon to provide a brief orchestral piece to be performed in the following year’s in observance of the 37th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution. The Festive Overture he provided for that occasion was given its premiere at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater on November 6, 1954, and survived its original function to take its place in the international repertory.
Although the music opens with the grandest of ceremonial fanfares, there are no solemn heroics in the piece, and of course it is not an overture to anything. It is simply a vivacious and thoroughly Russian celebratory gesture, in the bright key of A major. The exultant mood is exhibited in passages alternately grandiose, lyrical and playful, with the pomposity of the opening gesture effectively submerged under waves of high spirits whenever it recurs.
This piece, as Mr. Slatkin points out, was definitely associated with his predecessor on the NSO podium, Mstislav Rostropovich, whose several performances of it with the orchestra began before he became music director here. But the music of Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich and Prokofiev have always been prominent in Mr. Slatkin’s own repertory and his sizable discography. (He too has a family background of Russian musicians: his maternal great-uncle Modest Altschuler was the conductor of the New York-based Russian Symphony Orchestra, which introduced many Russian works in the years just before World War II.) He advises that Howard Mitchell’s recording of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony with the NSO was the very first stereophonic LP he bought, as a boy, and years later he was recording the Shostakovich symphonies in Saint Louis while Rostropovich was recording them here with the NSO.
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