Dmitry Shostakovich

Born in 1906, it is the centenary of this the foremost Russian composer of the twentieth century. Everywhere he has been performed, as we have indicated in other postings on this series. A friend of mine was present at a concert recently when his 7th Symphony was played. Apparently at its end the normally staid Liverpool audience rose to its feet. ‘I didn’t like it at all’ said my friend, remaining in his seat. Good for him. It’s a visceral almost feral work, and you would have to be a very unusual person to ‘like’ it, though I can imagine people being bowled over by the sheer force of it.

Recently in a fit of enthusiasm I bought CD’s of all fifteen symphonies (conducted by Mariss Jansons) and have been spending time trying to learn them (sometimes, I confess, trying to love or at least understand them). I am now listening to the seventh for the second time in succession, which may not be wise. After its early popularity, with its theme of the battle of Stalingrad and the heroism of the citizens, it has had a more critical reception.

It is a brutal and strange work, the first and last movements in danger of outstaying their welcome.

Like all his works, the composer was battling with trying to be faithful to the musical revolution he was living through and the soviet revolution that he was subject to. He was also a complicated man, often suffering from mental and emotional stress which was not altogether caused by the artistic restrictions imposed by the government. I always find it difficult not to make a connection between the known character and personal circumstances of a composer and his or her music. In the case of Shostakovich it is impossible to do otherwise. He is essentially of his time and place, but the Russian soul of the man was in the end triumphant over the appalling Soviet regime.

I heard the fifth symphony performed at Bristol recently.

The excellent Bournemouth Symphony was conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier in a well studied but free performance of this particularly approachable of Shostakovich’s symphonies. I played one of my recordings of the work the next day, and it was good but it wasn’t the same. The plaintive slow movement, an adagio reminiscent of Mahler in the same mood, had little of the sense of occasion that the concert had created. Even the very best recording listened to by an audience of one, can never be a substitute to a live event. It’s a fine alternative if there are no concert halls for people to get to, of course and many of us have to be content with that. But to be present when music is actually being made is a privilege I am so grateful to have.

Meanwhile I have another eight symphonies to attend to!