Feature Review: Shostakovich 100

Written by: Richard Whitehouse

Dmitri Shostakovich was born on 25 September 1906. The South Bank Centre celebrated the composer’s anniversary with a two-day festival of his chamber music.

Sunday 24 & Monday 25 September 2006

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London


In a year when the exposure of Dmitri Shostakovich’s music has often verged on overkill, this two-day event – directed by the redoubtable Alexander Ivashkin, under the auspices of the Centre for Russian Music at Goldsmiths College – brought together a worthwhile mix of concerts, films and discussions (in anticipation of an international symposium organised by Goldsmiths on 26 and 27 September).

Especially valuable among the latter was a still-rare outing for Alexander Sokurov’s once-banned (and nearly destroyed) 1982 documentary “Sonata for Viola”, and a preview of Peter Robertson’s new film “The Unknown Shostakovich”, while Elizabeth Wilson’s keynote address “Understanding Shostakovich Today” provided a most suitable launch for the revised edition of her book “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered”, which, twelve years on, remains the most balanced and reliable source of information (in English) on a composer whose music has been repeatedly and laboriously scrutinised for its every possible meaning over these past two decades.

The concerts fell into two categories. Sunday saw the performance of the complete chamber music excluding the string quartets, while Monday featured a piano music ‘marathon’ with a not-quite-complete rendition of the Preludes and Fugues (one of the pianists didn’t show!).

Shostakovich’s non-quartet chamber music is well suited to presentation of this kind – the works themselves, though not numerous, ranging across the extent of his output such that a surprisingly accurate picture of his musical development emerges.

Dmitri Sitkovetsky, Alexander Ivashkin and Dmitri Alexeev gave a committed account of the First Piano Trio (1923), whose oddly Brahmsian expression is offset by a formal ingenuity that sees a cumulative structure emerging through little more than the varied restatement of its main themes. Ivashkin was then joined by a group of young musicians in the Two Pieces for string octet (1925) written either side of the finale of the First Symphony, the fervent emotion of the ‘Prelude’ followed by the acerbic if good-humoured ‘Scherzo’ – its acrid dissonance savoured to the full.

The Moderato for cello and piano (1933) is an attractive ‘song without words’ that was clearly too insubstantial for inclusion in the Cello Sonata (1934) – among the most classically proportioned of all Shostakovich’s works, and whose ruminative opening movement and stoically restrained Largo were the highlights of a searching performance from Ivashkin and Alexeev; a touch scrambled in the antics of the scherzo, maybe, but with its closing Allegro given a forthright decisiveness that the movement so often lacks.

After the interval, these two musicians were joined by violinists Hagai Shaham and Natalia Lomeiko, and Shlomo Mintz on the viola, for the Piano Quintet (1940): one of only a few Shostakovich works to find equal favour at home and in the West during his lifetime, and distinguished here by a ‘teamwork’ that brought out the noble pathos of the ‘Fugue’ and coruscating energy of the ‘Scherzo’ in full measure. Nor did they underplay the stark quality of the ‘Prelude’ or the soulful ‘Intermezzo’, while the ‘Finale’ was both unerringly paced and had exactly the right degree of expressive equivocation.

Sunday evening’s concert featured several ‘novelty’ items – including seven of the War Songs (1941) that Shostakovich arranged (from a variety of classical and popular sources) for performance on the front line, and in which Sitkovetsky and Ivashkin provided the spare but supple underpinning for the mellifluous soprano of Marina Poplavskaya (who recent Barbican appearances in Halévy’s “La Juive” gave notice of a star in the making). These were receiving their UK premiere – as was the enchanting arrangement of Gaetano Braga’s Serenade (1972) made for an operatic treatment of Chekhov’s “The Black Monk” that never materialised, and in which Poplavskaya was joined by mezzo Liora Grodnikaite (subtly accompanied by Sitkovetsky, Ivashkin and Alexeev) to spellbinding effect.

More significant, though, was the realisation of an Allegretto intended as the first movement of a ‘Ninth Quartet’ the composer abandoned in late 1961 or early 1962. Its austere harmonies and trenchant motion are very different from the work that emerged two years later, but the fragment – at least when played with the commitment of the Shaham/Lomeiko/Mintz/Ivashkin ensemble – well merits its exhumation.

The programme otherwise consisted of Shostakovich’s three other chamber masterpieces. A shade temperate in the first movement of the Second Piano Trio (1944), Sitkovetsky, Ivashkin and Alexeev found the right dancing gait in the scherzo, and then traversed the numbed variations of the Largo with exceptional poise. Others may have brought greater emotional charge to the finale, but few can have realised its climactic fragmentation with such wrenching emotion, or maintained so palpable a focus through its retreat into silence.

After the interval, Shlomo Mintz returned with Alexeev to tackle the late sonatas with piano. He was less convincing in the Violin Sonata (1968) – among the least played of Shostakovich’s mature works, whose absorption of serial technique can seem arid; especially when, as here, the opening Andante’s speculative gestures evince so detached an emotion. Aggressive, even scabrous, the central Allegro was more persuasive, while the closing Largo rose to a powerful climax confirming the music’s compositional mastery – even if its deeper undercurrents were left untapped.

Mintz seemed appreciably more ‘inside’ the idiom of Shostakovich’s last work, the Viola Sonata (1975)
– drawing a suitably rarefied atmosphere from its opening Moderato and a surprisingly robust humour from its central Allegretto, then delivering the Adagio finale with a (truly Beethovenian) combination of intensity and repose to make it the transcendent leave-taking its composer had surely intended.

Monday lunchtime launched an ambitious project to perform all 24 Preludes and Fugues (1951) for piano, with the first 21 given, three each, by students from London universities and conservatoires. Unfortunately, the non-appearance of Pavel Timofeyevsky meant that numbers 19-21 went unheard – diminishing the impact of the overall enterprise, and (with no announcement to this effect) leaving the Queen Elizabeth Ha;; audience in an audible state of confusion. From the six students who did perform, two stood out: the Vietnamese Tra Nguyen (from Thames Valley University, the only institution other than the Royal Academy of Music to be represented), for a B minor Prelude and Fugue (No.6) that conveyed sombre grandeur at a daringly slow tempo; and the Russian Elena Vorotko, for a D flat Prelude and Fugue (No. 15) of stinging irony and pianistic verve. Both musicians will hopefully tackle the whole cycle before too long. Colin Stone concluded proceedings with a measured but cumulatively powerful reading of numbers 22-24 that augers well for his complete rendition at Cadogan Hall on 12 November.

Monday afternoon brought together Vicky Yannoula and Jakob Fichert in a enterprising programme of Shostakovich’s music for two pianos and piano duet. Composed in the shadow of his father’s death, the Suite for two pianos (1922) owes a great deal to Rachmaninov in the textural richness of its writing and also the evocation of bells that pervades its ‘Prelude’ and poignant if overlong ‘Nocturne’. More individual are the capricious ‘Fantastic Dance’ and a ‘Finale’ in which humour and profundity are improbably but convincingly combined. Yannoula and Fichert did justice to this rarely-heard piece, then brought all the requisite sparkle to the Concertino for two pianos (1954) that Shostakovich wrote for a concert in which his 15-year-old son Maxim took part – a lightweight but ingeniously-designed piece that would doubtless enjoy regular airings were two-piano recitals themselves more frequent.

The second half began with a sequence of arrangements – the likeable Merry March (1949), a lively ‘Tarantella’ from the film “The Gadfly” (1954), a suave ‘Waltz’ from the Ballet Suite No.2 (1951) and the engaging number ‘The Chase’ from the film “Korzinkina’s Adventures” (1941) – each one of which would make an appealing encore. The concert then concluded with a rare hearing for the piano duet transcription of the Ninth Symphony (1945) – in which form the composer and Sviatoslav Richter presented the work to largely bemused officials who had been anticipating a ‘victory symphony’ to celebrate the end of the Second World War. Interestingly, certain qualities that make the symphony the subversive masterpiece it is are even more pronounced in this arrangement – notably the pathos of the Moderato and noble intensity of the Largo preceding a finale whose remorseless energy is both exhilarating and unnerving. Shostakovich re-workings are over-numerous these days, but this original transcription throws a provocative light onto its parent work and ought to be heard more often.

A further arrangement, by Dmitri Alexeev of the diverting Jazz Suite No.1 (1934), concluded Monday evening’s concert. Scintillatingly played by Alexeev and Nikolai Demidenko, it made a not inappropriate ending to a programme whose second half otherwise consisted of the 24 Preludes (1933) – a tellingly diverse and expressively wide-ranging series, in which Alexeev’s restrained but finely-attuned playing went some way in establishing the continuity of mood to reinforce that implied by the key sequence.

Even so, it might have been better had the halves of this final concert been reversed so that the retrospective ended with the “Suite on Verses by Michelangelo” (1974) – Shostakovich’s last public statement, and as perceptive an examination of the roles of art and the artist in society as has been attempted in the modern era. Although he has not quite the depth of tone these settings require, Alexei Mochalov left no doubt as to his identity with them: whether in the surging impact of ‘Anger’ or the monumental power of ‘Creativity’, the bittersweet tenderness of ‘Love’ or the chill expectancy of ‘Death’; with ‘Immortality’ a finale as whimsical in mood as it is profound in implication. Alexeev partnered him superbly – once again reminding of his prowess in this music, and setting the seal on an excellent two days of music-making.

Over-exposed his music may have been this centenary year, but Shostakovich’s 100th-birthday could not have been marked in a more appropriate manner.

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