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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

More cracks opening in the Shostakovich code

By Norman Lebrecht / August 18, 2006

The centennial year of Dmitri Shostakovich, who was born in St Petersburg on 25 September 1906 and gets his Proms window this week, has yielded a rush of fresh perspectives – far more than the concurrent avalanche of Mozart 250th events which has merely rewrapped the same old marzipan balls for gullible consumption.

Six new books on Mozart have failed to elicit one unknown fact of any consequence, and the laying out of all 22 operas at Salzburg this month merely confirms the gulf of genius that separates the three Da Ponte scripts – Figaro, Cosi, and Don Giovanni – from the next rung of Idomeneo, Clemenza and the Magic Flute; and beyond them lies a wilderness of dreary plots and musical polyfiller. Any latecomer who mistakes Zaide for Zauberfloete is going to get locked in for an interminable stretch at upwards of 200 Euros a seat.

Shostakovich, in polar contrast, has preserved his mystery and redoubled his appeal. His inner mind has resisted scholarly penetration, along with the secrets of his marital and extra-marital lives. There is no new biography coming up and the heat has gone out of the historians’ row as to whether he was a cowed follower of Soviet doctrine or a subversive dissident.

The last of his three wives, Irina, lives on in Moscow, as does his arch-tormentor Tikhon Khrennikov who, as secretary of the Composers Union, enforced Stalin’s decrees and kept Shostakovich in fear of his life. Khrennikov turned 93 this summer and his Moscow birthday concert drew a packed house of nostalgists clanking with Stalin medals. So long as these leftovers live on, the full truth about Dmitri Shostakovich will remain inaccessible, despite his rising popularity.

A few sheets of unpublished music have been released for the centenary, some songs and suites that the widow Irina gave to Thomas Sanderling, son of one of Shostakovich’s favourite conductors, to record on two Deutsche Grammophon CDs. The songs conform slavishly to the heroic Russian style and the suites are stitch-ups of film scores that lose impetus and theme development the moment a director shouts ‘Cut!’. Not much enlightenment there.

It would, however, be a mistake to dismiss the film music of Shostakovich as lightly as one would the current Hollywood mush, for the composer had an early emotional investment in the genre. He earned his first kopecks as a teenaged cinema pianist and in his 20s saw film as the most important contemporary artform. In a 1929 article he promised to ‘eliminate the bungling and the inartistic’ from Soviet film by composing what he called ‘special music’ and his work on Grigori Kozintsev’s New Babylon that year is strikingly colourful and original.

It took Stalin’s first crackdown in 1936 to crush his idealism, also killing off several of his film partners. His later soundtracks were undertaken either to feed his family when he was under a political cloud or, on Khrennikov’s orders, as propaganda tracks for such epics as The Fall of Berlin. Only near the end of his life, in 1971, did Shostakovich risk dissidence in film with a score for Kozintsev’s King Lear – played by the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos – that sneers at the hapless gerontocrat, an inference that many Russians instantly applied to the doddering Brezhnev regime.

What enabled Shostakovich to function under tyranny was his method of conveying ulterior meaning though a shade of instrumentation, a convoluted chord or the insertion of his own musical initials (D, E-flat, C, B), allowing musicians to play his work as social commentary in ways that audiences grasped and the authorities were powerless to suppress. Mstislav Rostropovich, an intimate friend, describes the 15 symphonies as a covert history of Soviet Russia and the 15 string quartets as a coded account of his own sufferings. Mariss Jansons, whose father Arvid worked with Shostakovich in Leningrad, grew up ‘surrounded by people who explained what was behind the notes. It was … a statement against the regime’.

Jansons has just released a centennial symphonic box on EMI in which he teases out unuttered meaning by means of tiny shifts in tempo and dynamics, avoiding the over-emphasis on rude bassoons and cackling flutes that can make a Shostakovich symphony sound like bad stand-up comedy in the ands of an ill-informed conductor. Jansons’ daring and seminal interpretation delivers the sixth and bleakest of the symphonies as a work of pure beauty, its despair and frustration seeping irresistibly like steam through holes in the surface. It is a completely different way of presenting Shostakovich, overriding some of the composer’s strict tempo and dynamic markings in the score to reveal the inner truth, a truth that weakens in the late symphonies as the Stalinist tyranny recedes.

Valery Gergiev, at the opposite extreme, takes every emphasis in the score as written, drawing out shrieks of pain and ribald mirth in performances of high voltag on a Philips set. Gergiev, who presides next week at the Proms, celebrates Shostakovich as a Soviet hero, albeit one who admits the system’s flaws and iniquities. It is a definition that involves a tortuous ambivalence towards the past, cherishing cultural triumphs while regretting the oppression that produced them, very much the present line of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.

The official line came unstuck for Gergiev this summer when he brought Soviet-style productions of Shostakovich operas and ballets to the Coliseum and received a critical drubbing and public frost. The losses from his season are privately estimated at half a million pounds (to be borne by the Russian taxpayer) but far worse is the damage to Gergiev’s Kirov company which was made to seem antedeluvian. They will have to work twice as hard at the Proms this week to recover their reputation.

Meanwhile, at Covent Garden, the Bolshoi were brilliantly dancing the third and last of Shostakovich’s ballets, withdrawn after threats in Pravda in February 1936 and not revived until 2003. The Bright Stream depicts a harvest festival on a collective farm, enlivened by the visit of an arts ensemble. Much of the story is low farce, the deluding of elderly lotharios by male dancers in drag and shaggy dogs that ride bicycles. What riled Pravda was its lack of folk tunes and a wanton ‘unrealism’, the failure to depict every muddy farmhand as a lion of Soviet labour.

Seen here and now, The Bright Stream is a revelation on several levels. The music fizzes with nervous energy, the choeography is genuinely witty even if the story seems to accept that forced collectivisation was a jolly good thing. Or does it? By early 1936 many Muscovites had heard of the murders, the deportations and the famine that arose from Stalin’s land grab. They knew what went on and they could heard the midnight knocks at the door.The kolkhoz was hardly the stuff of light entertainment. Yet the public response was immediately enthusiastic, suggesting that Muscovites perceived an element of satire in the ballet and welcomed it as a relief from lying propaganda and mounting terror.

Or did they? No-one dared record a private opinion. There is no documented evidence. All that is known is that Shostakovich was declared an enemy of the people early that year and was forced to recant in the fifth symphony – subtitled ‘a Soviet artist’s response to just criticism’. Jansons turns its triumphant finale of that symphony into an ominous danse macabre. The truth is told in the music. All you have to do is listen closely.

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



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