Dmitry Shostakovich

Symphony No. 15 in A major, Op. 141

    Description by Robert Cummings

    Shostakovich's Symphony No. 15 differs in several substantial ways from his other late symphonies. The Eleventh (1957), subtitled "The Year 1905," and Twelfth (1960), subtitled "The Year 1917," are both programmatic and relate to the political and historical events associated with the year in the title. The next two symphonies have sung texts, with the Thirteenth (1962), for bass, chorus, and orchestra, carrying the subtitle "Babiy Yar" (texts by Yevtushenko), and the Symphony No. 14 (1969), for soprano and bass soloists and chamber orchestra, not really a symphony but a collection of songs based on texts by Lorca, Apollinaire, Küchelbecker, and Rilke.

    With the Symphony No. 15, Shostakovich's last foray in the genre, the composer at last returned to the purely instrumental and non-programmatic realm, which, one could argue, he had not revisited since the 1939 Symphony No. 6. While it is true that the Symphonies 8, 9, and 10 carry no official program, the first two are clearly associated with the war (the Ninth is a victory celebration), and the Tenth allegedly contains a portrait of Stalin in its second movement. But the Symphony No. 15 inhabits a purely emotional and intellectual plane, quite removed -- as far as we know -- from the world of politics and history. Yet it is generally agreed that the work is autobiographical, not in the sense that it depicts specific events, but rather that it expresses reflections on the past.

    The Fifteenth is also unique in that it is lightly scored throughout, certainly the leanest of the composer's purely instrumental symphonies. Shostakovich had moved in this direction with the Symphony No. 14 and had found increasing difficulty in writing in the late 1960s, owing to a nervous-system disorder -- brittle-bone poliomyelitis -- that gradually crippled his right hand, making simple tasks problematic and rendering the process of scoring complicated orchestral works an extremely grueling task. The Symphony No. 15 was premiered on January 8, 1972, with the composer's son Maxim conducting. A typical performance of the work lasts from 40 to 45 minutes.

    The work is divided into four movements: 1) Allegretto, 2) Adagio - Largo - Adagio, 3) Allegretto, and 4) Adagio - Allegretto. It stands apart from the composer's other symphonies in its quotations and near-quotations from compositions by others and by Shostakovich himself. The symphony is, in fact, chock full of these quotations. The first movement, for example, quotes the famous (Lone Ranger) theme from Rossini's William Tell overture. The Fate motif from Wagner's Ring cycle and themes from Siegfried and Tristan und Isolde appear in the finale. There are near-quotations from Tchaikovsky and Mahler, and Shostakovich alludes to themes in some of his earlier symphonies.

    The first movement, originally subtitled "The Toyshop," has a childlike atmosphere to its playfulness, yet at times sounds under the spell of dark and cynical forces. The second movement is long and enigmatic, having a funereal mood for much of its duration and climaxing in an outburst of what is clearly anger or frustration. The third movement is the shortest in the work (about four minutes) and is bitingly satirical, even nose-thumbing. The finale contains the most cryptic and perhaps most profound music in the work. Because it, too, appears to express the composer's thoughts on death, many have concluded that the autobiographical elements in the work are expressed in a sort of cradle-to-grave story, the first movement representing childhood and the finale the composer's final years and imminent passing.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Allegretto
    2. Adagio - Lento - Adagio
    3. Allegretto
    4. Adagio - Allegretto

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2015 Phil.Harmonie PHIL 06030
    2015 Naxos 8501111
    2014 BIS 1643
    2013 Melodiya 1000775
    2012 Naxos 8572708
    2012 Haenssler HAEN 93284
    2011 RCO Live RCO 11003
    2011 Warner Classics 256464177
    2010 Denon Records
    2010 Denon Records
    2010 Decca
    2010 Decca
    2010 Alto / Musical Concepts 1062
    2009 PentaTone Classics 5186331
    2009 Mariinsky 502
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 Warner Classics
    2008 Cascavelle 3102
    2008 Melodiya 1001065
    2008 MDG 9371210
    2008 MDG 3371210
    2007 Brilliant Classics 8128
    2007 Profil - Edition Günter Hänssler 6065
    2007 Elatus
    2007 Decca 475 8748DC12
    2007 Decca
    2006 Supraphon 38902
    2006 Weitblick 40
    2006 Edel Classics 2342
    2006 Arts Music 47850
    2006 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 0946365300
    2006 Decca 475 7413DC11
    2005 DG Deutsche Grammophon 4775442
    2005 Angelok 9914
    2005 Capriccio Records 71029
    2004 Andante 4090
    2004 Melodiya 770
    2004 Brilliant Classics 6324
    2003 DG Deutsche Grammophon 474469
    2002 Brilliant 6275
    2001 Telarc Distribution 80572
    2001 Naxos 8 501102
    2000 Melodiya 72915
    2000 Decca
    2000 RCA 63587
    1999 Melodiya 7432159057
    1999 Decca 458919
    1999 DG Deutsche Grammophon 427616
    1998 EMI Music Distribution 56591
    1998 ICONE 9408
    1998 Teldec 17046
    1997 DG Deutsche Grammophon 449 966-2GH
    1997 Chandos 9550
    1996 Berlin Classics 0092172
    1995 Denon Records 78948
    1995 Berlin Classics 0090432
    1995 London 444 430-2LC11
    1995 Melodiya 25192
    1995 Melodiya 25189
    1994 Naxos 505017
    1994 Naxos 550624
    1994 London 436838
    1993 Decca 425069
    1992 Praga 250003
    1992 Teldec 74560
    Berliner Philharmoniker
    Arts Music 47706
    Capriccio Records 71039/40
    London 430227
    Brilliant Classics 8635/98
    Erato 45815
    Brilliant 6275-11
    Brilliant 8128/11
    BBC Music Magazine 263
    London 417581
    Collins Records 1206
    Olympia (Classical/Jazz) 224