Magazine article The Spectator

Celebrating Shostakovich

Magazine article The Spectator

Celebrating Shostakovich

Article excerpt

Although the 100th anniversary of Shostakovich's birth is still six months away, Manchester staged a six-week celebration in January and February encompassing all 15 of the symphonies and string quartets as well as some of the concertos and song cycles. It was a collaboration between the Hallé and BBC Philharmonic Orchestras and the Royal Northern College of Music, and it drew large and enthusiastic audiences to the Bridgewater Hall and the college. The chamber music was concentrated into four days at the college under the title Shostakovich and his Comrades. Very few of these -- Prokofiev, Kabalevsky and Galynin excepted -- came within shouting distance of Shostakovich, whose quartets emerged as the repository of his intimate thoughts in contrast, mostly, to the more public and political utterances of the symphonies.

It was instructive to be reminded how the symphonic Shostakovich came full circle: No. 1, completed when he was barely 20 in 1925, mixes Chaplinesque knockabout humour with dark intimations of mortality just as No. 15, written 46 years later, contrasts the flippancies of Rossini with Brünnhilde's annunciation of death to Siegmund to make a comparable musical pattern.

Yet what a dark journey of the soul he had made between these two works. The First Symphony announced the arrival of a genius, already equipped with a formidable range of expressive satire and a deeper vein of tragedy. He was launched into a Soviet society which still allowed creative artists freedom to develop as they wished and to hear what their foreign contemporaries were doing. This Manchester festival provided a rare opportunity to hear the Second (1928) and Third (1930) Symphonies, both conducted with penetrative insight by Mark Elder. They are really one-movement cantatas, No. 2 celebrating the October Revolution and No. 3 the First of May. Each ends with a choral setting of banal patriotic words praising Lenin and the proletariat. It is said now that Shostakovich set this doggerel unwillingly, but his settings don't sound dutiful, they sound convinced. What is more interesting is the orchestral writing which precedes the choral paeans. This is fiercely avant-garde and experimental.

The orchestral series was subtitled Shostakovich and his Heroes, meaning his influences, chief among them Bach, Beethoven, Mussorgsky, Mahler, Britten and Offenbach. Clever programme-planning emphasised how Shostakovich veered between the circus clown and cinematic police-chase idiom -- borrowed from Offenbach -- and the amalgam of popular song, military and funeral marches and tragic personal intensity (lovers) which follow directly from the Mahlerian symphonic format. …

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