Saturday, 15 December 2012

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich did not have an easy life. During the 1930s and 40s in the Soviet Union he ducked and weaved during the purges in order to survive. His music was banned, then re-instated. He wrote private music, and public music. Outside the Soviet Union, his reputation did not have an easier passage. He was denounced by the Western musical avant-garde for by-passing serialism and atonality and for writing music in A minor, and C major. When he stayed in New York there was an organised demonstration outside his hotel demanding that the “Commie Musician” return home forthwith.

Between all the ducking and weaving, demonstrations and denunciations, he was – in my view – the greatest composer of the twentieth century. I spent this evening listening to his first violin concerto (composed in 1947, but not published until after Stalin's death) and to his tenth symphony. Searing music that goes straight to the heart. The violinist in the concerto was Lisa Batiashvili in a quite incredible performance; the conductor of the tenth symphony was Vasily Petrenko. Plain to see that the heirs of the old USSR have taken Shostakovich's music to their hearts – as have I. Lined up for later listening are Shostakovich's fifthteen string quartets, music I just have to get to know. I recall being somewhat outraged in the mid- 1950s listening to the British premiere of the first violin concerto (played by David Oistrakh) when the BBC announcer half-apologised for the fact that this was not really “modern” music, but was the kind of thing Soviet composers had to write. I listened to the concerto for the first time and found it superb, despite the denunciations of the BBC, the musical cognoscenti and the Cold War warriors. In my view, now, the first violin concerto (in A minor, no less) of Shostakovich is the greatest of all violin concertos.

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