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October 18, 2006

On a Human Scale: Shostakovich and his circle - Concerts in St. Petersburg

Posted by David Conway

Dmitri Shostakovich: Choral music
Capella Choir, St. Petersburg Capella
conducted Vladislav Chernushenko
8th October 2006

Shostakovich and his Pupils (German Okunev and Dmitri Shostakovich)
Capella Orchestra and Choir, St. Petersburg Capella
conducted Vladislav Chernushenko
10th October 2006

The School of Shostakovich (Georgi Sviridov, Galina Ustvolskaya, Orest Evlakhov and Venyamin Basner)
Pupils of the St. Petersburg Conservatoire
11th October 2006

Chamber music concert (Dmitri Shostakovich, Moisei Vainberg, Andrei Volkonsky and Galina Ustvolskaya)
Nikolai Girunyan (cello) and Stanislav Gres (piano)
Sheremetov Palace, St. Petersburg
13th October 2006

All over Europe 2006 has been the excuse for concerts celebrating the births of Mozart (1756) and Shostakovich (2006) - the death of Schumann (1856) has alas been almost completely overshadowed in the face of such stiff competition.

We all (of course) love Mozart - we are scarcely allowed not to - but Shostakovich remains a highly debatable, and debated, case. One of my musical critic colleagues lamented, earlier this year, the prospect of continuing surveys of the "cardboard cities" of Shostakovich's symphonies. In Britain he was regarded for many years, following Constant Lambert's lead in the 1930s, as a complete fraud, picking up some following perhaps when he and Britten discovered each other in the sixties.

What has really sparked Western interest in Shostakovich since his death in 1975 has been the controversy as to whether he was an orthodox, obedient Soviet Communist or a secret subversive. This argument, sparked largely by Solomon Volkov's "edition" of Shostakovich's "autobiography", which was the first real "revisionist" view of the artist, has fuelled numerous American academic careers.

As the clamour has grown, so has interest in the music - I will not say "post hoc ergo propter hoc" but there seems to be something of that in the process. Consistently we are now presented with this music as being a body of heroic protest; when I was a lad, programme notes told us confidently that the 5th Symphony was "a Soviet artist's reply to just criticism" - now they tell us just as confidently that the triumphal ending is deeply ironic, undermining the preceding glib quasi-proletarian patriotism.

For what it is worth, I am on the "revisionist" side, with qualifications. I accept, for example, Volkov's book as being true, but bearing in mind Oscar Wilde's comment that truth may be quite independent of facts. The Western discussion about Shostakovich's loyalties seems, to Russians, utterly irrelevant.

Shostakovich's "schizophrenia" was an absolute commonplace amongst all Russian intellectuals, where this type of internal exile was the only alternative to exile to the gulag or abroad. It was perfectly possible therefore for Shostakovich to be both a loyal Communist (indeed, to be a respected Party member and elected as a deputy for Leningrad) and at the same time to despise, in the privacy of his own mind, everything that the Party stood for. As all his acquaintances felt more or less the same, it was unnecessary (and dangerous) even to discuss this.

It would not be surprising in this situation if he occasionally let himself go by "coded" references in his music - but that is not, I think, the principal interest of his music. In Russia moreover Shostakovich's legacy is not limited to the canon of what the West believes is "political" music - that is, the most frequently programmed symphonies, the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and the intimate and often stark music of the last years, recordings and performances of all of which are now profuse.

It is not even limited to Shostakovich himself; for although conventional wisdom amongst musicologists in the West is that the composer had limited influence on other musicians, in fact he taught two generations of modern Russian composers and is seen, with them and others of his associates, as part of a "Leningrad school" of composition. Concerts in St. Petersburg dedicated to his relations with this circle have therefore given me an opportunity to listen to Shostakovich's music in an aesthetic context rather different to that of London.

They also gave me, due to the closure of the Philharmonia concert halls for restoration, the chance to visit some of St. Petersburg's less frequented venues.

The first of these concerts, of Shostakovich's music for unaccompanied choir and for choir and piano threatened, from its programme, to undermine the revisionist approach entirely. The items - Ten Poems of Revolutionary Writers of the late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries and two sets of folk-song settings - all dating from the period 1951-57, could have been, from their titles, from the oeuvre of any hack from the Composerís Union during the last years of Stalinism. The settings of the revolutionary texts immediately belied any thoughts of hackwork however. These were beautifully crafted and, apart from the hortatory first piece (Forward, Friends), and the penultimate proletarian celebration of May Song, rooted in the traditions of Russian church, folk and opera choral style.

Typically for the composer, the crass (but politically necessary) May Song does not complete the sequence but is followed by a more reflective piece invoking the heroism of the fallen. This cycle is therefore all about the spirit of 1905, rather than that of 1917; and is summed up by the sixth poem, The Ninth of January, where the music is an almost Mussorgskian invocation of the Bloody Sunday of that date. This piece showed the excellent thirty-strong choir at its best, especially its ability in achieving all gradations of tone and colour; the acoustics of the Capella hall, the oldest purpose-built concert venue of the city, nesting in a warren of courtyards behind the Winter Palace, and dating back to the 18th century, are relatively intimate and warm-toned, showing the music off to perfection, as they did for the less-interesting folk songs, mainly strophic settings for the masses.

The choir also participated in the second concert I visited at the Capella, where Shostakovich's cantata The Execution of Stenka Razin was preceded by the Second Symphony of his pupil German Okunev.

Okunev, who died in a motor accident on his 42nd birthday in 1973, was not previously even a name to me, but his symphony is of real stature, compact (about half-an-hour), individual and characterful. Okunev taught in Kirghizia for five years at the end of the fifties before becoming a graduate student of Shostakovich, and non-European musical lines and rhythmic patterns can certainly be sensed (although there is nothing like any quotation or transcription) underlying the symphony's argument. Okunev, whose music of the 1960s and later refused to conform, was not in favour with the powers that be, despite the support of his teacher, and the symphony, written in 1972, had only one performance during his lifetime, and only one afterwards until the regime fell. Growing from a baleful fanfare at its opening, the piece was to me completely gripping throughout, and at its conclusion I wanted to hear it again, and other music of this composer who was clearly so full of promise.

Stenka Razin is I am afraid a pot-boiler, which the performers were unable quite to redeem. The music seems cobbled together with left-overs from Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony, and though orchestra, choir and bass soloist (Pyotr Migunov in the title-role) all swaggered suitably they could not quite bring it to life. This is certainly a piece whose political significance is greater than its musical quality; written in the wake of the threat to Shostakovich's status following the 13th Symphony (Babi Yar), and using words of the same writer, Evgeny Yevtushenko, it is the last of his "Party" works written with any overt political signification - but even so, it is equivocal; after the revolutionary Razin is executed, his head rolls in front of the Tsar and "laughs aloud, with open scorn".

At the Conservatoire, pupils gave performances of chamber works of a number of Shostakovich's other pupils. The self-indulgent, technically skilled, but essentially vapid works of Sviridov (1915-1998) and Basner (1925-1996), both of whom became enormously popular in Soviet Russia through their music for the stage, film and choir, have little to say to a modern Western listener, although they may perhaps conjure up memories for a Russian. The Sviridov Piano Trio moreover ends with a blatant steal from Tchaikovsky's second trio. Basner's Second String Quartet sounds like exactly what it is, namely an entry for a Warsaw competition of 1955. Most of this faded piece could have been written at any time since 1880.

The two movement Violin Sonata of Orest Evlakhov (1912-1973), and in particular its attractive lyrical first section, is more sincere. But far and away the most extraordinary music of the evening was the 5th Piano Sonata of Galina Ustvolskaya, born 1919, and played by the stick-thin and apparently not more than fifteen-year old Dinara Mazitova. This music of terrifying violence and sonority by turns, built of cells in which tropes and rhythms curl in on themselves, transfixed its audience. Ms Mazitova's commitment and command of the music (playing from memory) undoubtedly contributed to this. Ustvolskaya's sound world, of hammering rhythms, sound clusters and the ghosts of melody, is perhaps not far removed from that of Henry Cowell, whose music, however, she cannot have known. By any standards this was a great musical performance.

Ustvolskaya's music also turned out to be the star of the concert in the beautiful concert-room of the Sheremetev Palace, which also houses St. Petersburg's musical museum. Here, in an evening of music for cello and piano, we began with the broad and well-known Sonata for Cello and Piano (1940) of Shostakovich himself. This was followed by the Sonata for cello alone of Moisei Vainberg (1919-1996), for whom Shostakovich often expressed his affection, a charming work whose wistful first section was followed by a serenade-like movement, interspersed with pizzicato passages.

The Musica Stricta of Andrei Volkonsky (b. 1933) is a curiosity. Volkonsky, who was a pioneer in the 1950s of mediaeval and baroque music in Russia, also decided at the late date of 1956 to take up dodecaphony, and this set of piano pieces was an early result. I am afraid from the point of view of a really strict twelve-toner, this music would show in places alarming retrogressive lurches towards tonality, but they were engaging enough and did not outstay their welcome.

The climax of the concert was Ustvolskaya's Grand Duet of 1959 for cello and piano, a mind-blowing parallel of the virtuoso sonatas of the 19th century, but completely replacing their musical technique with the composer's own. Can one envisage a human body with the skeleton removed and something completely strange and different inserted? There are four clear sections - the first, in the combative style of the piano sonata I had heard, the second with characteristics of a passacaglia, the third which could be thought of in terms of a scherzo, and the fourth the shadow of a nocturne, all energy drained away, ending in a long soliloquy by the cello, which the piano attempts in vain to taunt by provocative bursts of the main motif of the first section. This was truly great music, demanding intense partnership, given a performance that it deserved by Nikolai Girunyan and Stanislav Gres.

Shostakovich is on record as saying:

I believe that the work of Ustvolskaya will gain the universal recognition of those who value the development of modern music.
He also deliberately used themes from her music in his own works, including the 5th string quartet. This was clearly doubly generous given that her musical world was distant from his - and trebly so given that her music, treated as "elitist", was studiously ignored and suppressed by the regime. To me, this support of Ustvolskaya and other musicians, both radical and conservative, speaks to something very attractive in Shostakovich's own character - that he was interested in music for its own sake, not simply to propagate his own vision.

It also points to something notably absent in most Western schools of composition of the same period - and something which I trace in Shostakovich's music itself - namely, humanity. By this I mean not only the accessibility of the music to audiences, which of course is an important element; for unlike much other music of the second half of the 20th century, this music is in general also accessibly performable by quite modest musicians. Even I can make a decent attempt of much of the piano music of Shostakovich himself and Leningrad composers such as Sergei Slonimsky and Boris Tishchenko, and I daresay given my tendency to thump I might not even find Ustvolskaya completely beyond me. Moreover the sheet music of many of these composers and their generation is available in the shops of St. Petersburg at very modest prices.

This music therefore has a currency - or at least a potential currency - amongst music-lovers of the same order of Mozart, Schumann and other acknowledged "greats". In England I would have to pay the earth for scores of, say, Michael Finnisey, Iannis Xennakis or Brian Fernyhough; but even possessing them, I would lack the superhuman finger-virtuosity and computer-processor mind to produce anything like the sounds embodied in the printed notes. And even if I had these qualities, the number of people able, or willing, to make the effort to enjoy listening to them would remain alarmingly small; why after all should they make the effort to engage with visions which are in themselves determinedly hermetic?

I am afraid that criticisms of Shostakovich of the "cardboard city" type smack alarmingly of cultural snobbism. Certainly Shostakovich has his share of misses, and the hack work of some of his circle may now seem embarrassingly cheap. But all of them worked on the human scale, inviting our response as person to person; as do in Britain, for example, Judith Weir and John White, about whom I have written in the past for this review (see my review of Judith Weir's A Night at the Chinese Opera and of John White's Seventieth Birthday Concert). I feel instinctively onside with such musicians, who wish to communicate with me rather than instruct me. on the rarefied heights where it is accessible only to those with special apparatus. Through these concerts I have made new musical acquaintances, some at least of which I am keen to encounter again - I will willingly risk the occasional slab of cardboard for the clear prospects they are also able to offer of the crystal heights.

David Conway's previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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