Friday night, with music director Riccardo Muti on the podium, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra offered the last of Shostakovich’s titled symphonies: the rarely performed Symphony No. 13 (“Babi Yar”). It was the first concert of the CSO’s new Symphony Center season, and the audience’s mood was festive. But Muti channeled that excitement into rapt, almost reverent attention with a searing performance of a dramatic work that is very close to his heart. After the performance, Shostakovich’s 84-year-old widow, Irina Shostakovich, joined Muti onstage for a brief discussion.
Composed in 1962 for bass soloist, male chorus and orchestra, Symphony No. 13 is set to five poems by contemporary Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The opening poem, “Babi Yar,” was prompted by Yevtushenko’s visit in 1961 to a ravine in Kiev, Ukraine, where more than 30,000 Jews had been shot early in World War II. The Soviets hushed up the 1941 massacre, and Yevtushenko’s poem describing the site and denouncing Russian anti-Semitism was roundly condemned. Shostakovich was also criticized for setting it to music, and, after a handful of performances, the symphony was all but banned in the Soviet Union. Receiving a smuggled microfilm of the score in 1970, Muti conducted the symphony’s first performance in the west, in Rome. Shostakovich received a tape of that performance, praised it and kept it until his death.
The CSO’s performance, with bass Alexey Tikhomirov and the men of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, revealed Muti’s continuing devotion to Shostakovich’s often-shattering music. Especially in the first three poems, “Babi Yar,” “Humor” and “In the Store,” Muti and his musicians found the perfect balance of oppressive menace, shrieking outrage and deep melancholy that makes Shostakovich’s music so intensely human. Tikhomirov’s voice doesn’t have the dark, sepulchral color so typical of Russian basses, but its lighter texture brought a conversational quality to his Russian-language, long-lined melodies. In Yevtushenko’s images of a haunted ravine, weary women waiting in an endless food line and the antic figure, humor, Tikhomirov was a spell-binding storyteller.
In remarks before the Shostakovich symphony, Muti called it “a deep warning document for us and future generations. Every form of dictatorship,” he said, “should be banned. It’s about time that we find peace in this tragic world.”
After the concert, Irina Shostakovich sat onstage with Muti. She and the conductor are friends; after Shostakovich’s death she gave Muti the tape of his 1970 “Babi Yar” performance that her husband had cherished.
Speaking through a translator, she answered a question about Yevtushenko’s dubious optimism at the end of his poem, “Fear,” the symphony’s fourth movement. Did Shostakovich really think that fear was dying in Russia in 1962? Speaking through a translator, she responded that fear exists in every country, in every society. Perhaps the symphony, she said, can give listeners “courage to fight the fear.”
Free translation from
Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Sun-Times, September 23rd, 2018