Opera + Classical Music Features

Spotlight: Shostakovich at 100



25 September 2006 marks the exact centenary of the birth of Dmitri Shostakovich, who has latterly become one of the most influential and most performed composers of his generation – second only, perhaps, to Stravinsky. Anniversaries make life easy for concert promoters and record labels, their itineraries handed to them on a plate. Inevitably this year the focus has tended to fall on two of the great bodies of work of the twentieth century – Shostakovich’s symphonies and string quartets, 15 of each.

Shostakovich, of course, lived through very difficult times. Whilst an appreciation of this is not mandatory to form a connection with his music it can enhance the experience greatly. A book such as Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered provides the ultimate literary companion here, giving not only substantial anecdotes from friends and performers but offering a valuable historical context to each work. Since a lot of Shostakovich’s reputation exists on hype around his oppression by the Soviet regime, a sobering account such as this is most welcome.

The symphonies first, ranging from the bombast of the strange early choral works nos. 2 and 3 to the larger scale wartime pieces such as the Leningrad, then through to later song-based works and finally the luminous Fifteenth. While the frontrunners in the concert hall tend to be the Fifth and Tenth, it’s heartening to see important works such as the Fourth grow in stature – a complete turnaround for this work after Shostakovich hurriedly withdrew it in 1936, thus protecting it from Soviet censorship. It finally saw the light of day in 1960.

The Fourth was one of eight symphonies performed at the Proms this year, with a hyper-intense Vladimir Ashkenazy directing the European Union Youth Orchestra. Earlier in the season Vassily Sinaisky impressed with an extremely well-drilled Eighth, another symphony that has established itself in the core repertoire despite its length. Heard in the right performance both symphonies are a shattering experience, and strike a chord with their inner resolve in the face of terror.

Elsewhere complete cycles of the symphonies have inevitably been headed by the tireless Valery Gergiev, whose Barbican series began a year ago. This year has seen a searing Fourteenth symphony and an uncompromising Proms account of the Thirteenth (Babi-Yar) the late stand-in bass Mikhail Petrenko making quite an impression. Babi-Yar will reappear at the Barbican with the Kirov Orchestra, paired with the unusually balanced Sixth, while a night later on December 6 the underrated Twelfth symphony will be complemented by the Tenth. The coldly cinematic Eleventh will follow in the same week, a work whose portrayal of Palace Square in the winter and the subsequent horrors of the 1905 uprising is profoundly moving.

While the symphonies are an obvious way in, the string quartets have if anything even more to offer. Occupying a later period in his life, they are more representative of the composer’s mature style – the second quartet only just predates the ninth symphony – and are keenly structured and more consistently argued. The Emerson String Quartet has given several complete recitals of the fifteen on these shores, and their South Bank concerts earlier this year were generally well received. Less prominence was given to a wider-ranging cycle at the Wigmore Hall, where the up and coming Aviv and Jerusalem string quartets gave sympathetic performances.

A good way in to the quartets is to start with the concise Seventh, a highly atmospheric three movement work, or with the sunny disposition of the First. The late works will reward repeated listening, and if you can find a performance of the Fifteenth then this is definitely not a work to miss, long-performed by the Borodin String Quartet in candlelight.

Of course Shostakovich is much more than the sum of those thirty works, though they do form the backbone of his output. For the stage and the big screen he also excelled, if proving a little less consistent in delivery. Gergiev again rose to the challenge on this front, though it was sad to report uneven reviews and relatively sparse attendances for the Kirov’s Shostakovich on Stage season, a possible victim of heat, holidays, Proms and prices.

Anyone missing The Nose did so at their own loss, however, its slap in the face production thrilling to watch under Gergiev’s manic direction. By no means overshadowed was The Opera Group in the same opera. Meanwhile Moscow Cheryomushki showcased Shostakovich’s ability to make the listener laugh out loud – a facet sadly overlooked by Evgeny Kissin in his Prom performance of the outrageous first piano concerto.

The ballet, too, was a beneficiary – an interesting staging of The Golden Age from the Kirov bettered still two weeks later by the Bolshoi company reviving The Bright Stream.

The Proms were almost saturated with Shostakovich this year – a couple of symphonies too many perhaps, and a shame that two fine concertos – the second for both cello and violin – were comparatively overlooked by programmers. One laudable inclusion was that of the Suite on verses of Michelangelo, a formidable late song cycle. Ildar Abdrazakov‘s performance, and earlier recording for Chandos, did much to remind us of Shostakovich’s prowess as a vocal composer. In October the Wigmore Hall will go one step further, presenting the Mariinsky Theatre Academy for Young Artists accompanied by Valery Gergiev’s sister Larissa Gergieva in the complete songs, over a long weekend from 21 October.

In the recorded respect Decca have honoured several of the composer’s vocal works, presenting them as part of a box set that includes Myung Wha Chung‘s recording of Lady Macbeth. In fact Decca have released five such sets, including Bernard Haitink‘s assured symphony cycle with the London Philharmonic and a set of orchestral works notable for three discs of ebullient stage and film works from Riccardo Chailly.

A full price set of the symphonies will set you back somewhat, so it’s good to consider budget offerings from the likes of Rudolf Barshai (Brilliant Classics) and particularly Mariss Jansons‘ recent collection for EMI. Assembled over some eighteen years, it is something of a world tour, taking in a slightly docile Philadelphia Eleventh, a rich Vienna Philharmonic Fifth and a spectacular Berlin Philharmonic First for starters. His powerful versions of the Tenth (also Philadelphia) and the song settings of the Fourteenth (with notable contributions from soloists Larissa Gogolevskaya and Sergei Aleksashkin) are truly memorable, while the early Ninth (Oslo) skates along at quite a pace.

With the symphonies however an authentically Russian recording is well nigh essential. So while Rostropovich and the LSO have many fine things to say in their (expensive!) set for Warners, it proves impossible to displace three conductors with whom Shostakovich worked closely – Evgeni MravinskyKirill Kondrashin and Gennadi Rozhdestvensky. All bring consistently profound and searching insights to the music – Rozhdestvensky characterful and humourous when required, Kondrashin securing stunning intensity from the Moscow Philharmonic for the Fourteenth in particular, and the peerless Mravinsky going even further in his identification with the composer’s thoughts. Sadly recordings by these are difficult to locate but the rewards are handsome.

A new Russian cycle of great promise from Pentatone features the Russian National Orchestra with guest conductors. Vladimir Jurowski contributes wonderful versions of the First and Sixth, adding to a brooding Eleventh from Mikhail Pletnev and a solid Eighth from Paavo Berglund.

The string quartets were championed on record by the Borodin String Quartet, though again their recordings are difficult to locate. With seemingly no likelihood of a reissue from BMG, the first fourteen quartets can be found on Chandos, while digital alternatives are offered by St Petersburg (Hyperion) and the Sorrel string quartet, again on Chandos.

If you wish to venture off the beaten track a little, Chandos also boast serviceable recordings of the film scores and ballets, of which Rozhdestvensky’s Golden Age is notable, while one of Decca’s sets presents Vladimir Ashkenazy in the piano works. These include the 24 Preludes and Fugues, an intimate collection that spans each major and minor key, taking the listener on a real journey.

There is plenty to cheer, then, both for concertgoer and home listener. If you can look past the many presentations of the great symphonies the rewards are plentiful. And in the unlikely event you’re completely new to the composer, try starting with the Fifth symphony and some ballet music (The Gadfly, perhaps). I guarantee you won’t stop there.

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