Saturday, May 15, 2010


Dmitri Shostakovich 1906-1975

Last night I attended a concert at Saint Andrew's Hall, Norwich. The Moscow State Symphony Orchestra performed the following - Borodin Polovtsian Dances, Philip Glass violin Concerto and Shostakovich Symphony no. 10 in E minor.

The Borodin Polovtsian Dance's were electric and boded well for the rest of the programme. One catches an aural glimpse in its vibrant savagery of another musical work also set in early Rus, namely Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. As for the Concerto well to be honest, although I've been a keen follower of the music of Philip Glass for over 20 years, i don't consider his violin concerto (1988) to be the best or most representative composition of his unique style. The young violinist Chloe Hanslip did her best, but still felt obliged to add a couple of solo encores to prove her undoubted virtuosity. Nor did one feel that the Russian orchestra felt completely at home or responsive to Glass's composition, but this may be just an erroneous perception of mine.

Onto more solid interpretative ground. The second half on the concert consisted of Shostakovitch's symphony no. 10. A vast and mostly gloomy work composed in 1953 soon after Stalin's death. It's only in the last movement that the composer lets his hair down for some jollity. How many times in varied ways does the motif D-S-C-H occur throughout the score? The composer used this musical motif throughout his artistic career to represent himself, the notes being the first letter of his name and first three of his surname in Russian musical notation. The playing throughout the symphony was committed and impassioned, a real tour-de-force. I'm always amazed at the virtuosity of Russian brass and woodwind playing and how united the string section are.

The 10th symphony remains one of the more accessible of Shostakovich's symphonies with a quite distinctive tonality, perhaps because it is in the remote key of E minor. Gloomy as it is a cathartic redemption is arrived at, otherwise such works would never be performed in the Concert-Hall, the audience leaving more depressed than when they arrived!

In some ways Shostakovich's music has finally arrived on the world-stage now that he can be listened to without any political coloration. I've been acquainted with the 10th symphony since I was 14, partly due to a reactionary passion to listen to 'the enemies' music during the 1970's cold war. A music teacher used to discreetly place records such as Shostakovich Symphony no. 5 on the turn-table while the school chess team played. A captive listening audience if ever there was, Chess enjoying something of a Renaissance among school-boys, it was after all during the great tournament between U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. in 1972 between the maverick Bobby Fischer and Spassky! The 5th symphony soon became a firm favourite of mine, but I also remember hearing the World premiere of the 15th symphony albeit on a tinny transistor radio.

Although Shostakovich grew up under the Soviet regime and is easily the most representative composer of the Soviet era, for a hardened atheist there are a remarkable number of mystical or numinous passages to be found in his music. One of the most extraordinary of all his symphonic output is the mysterious percussive scherzo to the 15th Symphony.

Here's a link to read more about Shostakovich

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