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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Music's Missing Faces

By Norman Lebrecht / November 26, 2003

There are two mysterious satellites in the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, the great sputnik of 20th century Russian music. The first, Galina Ustvolskaya, lives reclusively in St Petersburg, slamming her door on would-be inquisitors. She was Shostakovich’s pupil and apparently his lover in the late 1940s, when composers were being terrorised by Stalin into writing propagandist platitudes. Ustvolskaya refused; her teacher, in a furtive salute to her obdurate courage, quoted a theme from her clarinet trio in his fifth string quartet. On the death of his wife, Nina, in 1954 Shostakovich offered to marry Ustvolskaya. She turned him down, fearing for her creative independence. They remained in close contact until he died in 1975.

Ustvolskaya’s music betrays no obvious affinities. Where Shostakovich encoded political protest into major works, Ustvolskaya banished agendas from her music which is abstract to the point of self-absorption. Nevertheless, every note she wrote pulsates with massive, pent-up meaning, demanding explanation. ‘My music is never chamber music even when it is a solo sonata,’ she cryptically observed. Little of it is performed. Shostakovich once predicted that Ustvolskaya would ‘achieve worldwide renown, to be valued by all who perceive truth in music to be of paramount importance.’

His other satellite is even more elusive, so much so that there is no agreed form of his name. It appears on scores as Vainberg or Weinberg (Russians spell it one way, Poles the other). His forename is Miecyslaw, or Moysey, or Moishe; acquaintances say he adopted a Polish Christian name for public purposes in the vain hope of evading institutional Soviet antisemitism.

Vainberg was 19 when he fled Poland in September 1939 during the Nazi invasion; the rest of his family was burned alive. He entered the conservatory in Minsk, fleeing to Tashkent ahead of the next German onslaught. From darkest Uzbekistan in 1943 he sent his first symphony to Shostakovich who, generously, arranged for the young man to receive a travel permit to Moscow. Vainberg took an apartment in the same block as his patron. The two composers flitted in and out of each other’s homes, exchanging their latest scores.

In Tashkent Vainberg had met and married Natalya, daughter of the Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels. The murder of Mikhoels on Stalin’s orders, in a fakaed traffic accident in January 1948, was the starting shot of a five-year purge in which Jewish artists and doctors were accused of plotting Stalin's death. Vainberg was arrested on February 6, 1953. Under torture he confessed to the crimes of plotting to create a Jewish conservatory in the Crimea and a Jewish section in the composers’ union. He also admitted to owning two volumes of synagogue music. Others were executed for less.

Vainberg survived, thanks largely to Shostakovich. Recklessly, his friend and neighbour wrote a letter to the sadistic NKVD chief Lavrenti Beria, maintaining Vainberg’s innocence. Nina got Natalya Vainberg to sign powers of attorney turning over their possessions and seven year-old daughter to the neighbours if (as seemed likely) she, too, was taken away. Shostakovich said: ‘Don’t worry, they won’t do anything to me.’ Vainberg returned homein June, months after Stalin's death. At dinner with their wives, the two composers burned the transfer papers. ‘I am a pupil of Shostakovich,’ Vainberg declared. ‘I never had lessons from him but I count myself as his pupil, his flesh and blood.’

Together, the two composers played the first public hearing of Shostakovich’s tenth symphony, four handed at the piano, before the Composers Union. Vainberg accompanied David Oistrakh in the premiere of Shostakovich's second violin sonata. In 1964 Shostakovich dedicated his tenth string quartet to Vainberg, crowing that he had overtaken his good friend, who had written only nine. Each quoted snatches of the other’s music in various works.

Solomon Volkov, the musician who conveyed Shostakovich’s coruscating memoirs to the west, remembers Vainberg as ‘a small man, terrified for his life – they crushed him in prison.’ When Volkov’s book, Testimony, appeared in 1989, Vainberg timidly signed a Kremlin manifesto denouncing the book as a forgery. Ustvolskaya, her principles unshaken, refused.

Shostakovich specialists have tended to disparage Vainberg’s work. The describe it as feebly imitative, echoing the master in tone, texture and methodology. It is certainly true that one cannot hear music by Vainberg without thinking of Shostakovich. Vainberg's fifth symphony (1962), for instance, newly recorded by a Polish Radio orchestra (conductor Gabriel Chmura), is based on a two-note motif from Shostakovich’s long-suppressed fourth symphony, which Vainberg had just heard at its Moscow premiere. The second and fifth movements of Vainberg’s sixth symphony mirror the parallel sections of Shostakovich’s Babi Yar symphony. Often the two composers sound too close for comfort. Yet no-one who listens to Vainberg with innocentears can mistake the vitality and singularity of his expression. Where he adopts the manner of Shostakovich, it is both in in homage and as commentary - an informed exegesis on the output of a composer whose true intentions continue to confuse historians.

Was Shostakovich, as his friends maintain, a heroic anti-communist? Or was he, as some US pedants pretend, an emasculated Kremlin lackey? Vital clues lie buried in the music of his closest colleagues, Ustvolskaya and Vainberg.

That music is no longer remote. There are several Ustvolskaya discs in the shops and the 27 symphonies of Vainberg are being recorded as a cycle by Chandos, a bold venture by a family-owned, Essex-based label. The first release appears this month; there is also a fine new performance of the violin concerto on Naxos. His chamber music is widely performed among the Russian musical diaspora, for whom it conveys a profound sense of suffering and loss. Oxanna Yablonskaya gave a New York recital recently of his first piano sonata.

These explorations are, however, mere pinpricks in the impervious hide of western culture. What is needed is context - a symphony orchestra or summer festival with the courage to take up the cudgel for these essential satellites. The symphonies of Shostakovich have become a fixture of western concert life but they are performed in sanitised isolation, detached from the harrowing circumstances of their creation. Enhanced by the addition of Vainberg’s strong symphonies and Ustvolskaya’s stubborn sonatas, they would reveal untold depths and musical dimensions - along with, at last, a true portrait of Russia's elusive grand master.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001