More Cracks Opening in the Shostakovich Codeby Norman Lebrecht
/ September 6, 2006
The centennial year of Dmitri
Shostakovich, who was born in St Petersburg on 25 September 1906, 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 last month merely confirms the gulf of genius
that separates the three Da Ponte scripts – Figaro, Così,
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 Zaïde for Zauberflöte 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A few sheets of unpublished music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
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 art form.
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.
In 1936 his idealism was crushed
during Stalin’s first crackdown, which killed 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 through 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 hands of an ill-informed conductor.
Jansons’ daring and seminal interpretation deliver 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, one 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 voltage on a
Philips set. Gergiev 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.
Meanwhile, at Covent Garden, the
Bolshoi was 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 choreography 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 resulted from Stalin’s
land grab. They knew what went on and they could hear 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 the 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. n