The Ecstasy and the Agony

Lindsay Perigo's picture
Submitted by Lindsay Perigo on Tue, 2018-07-17 03:10

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jaime Martin with Simon Trpčeski (piano).
Music by Shostakovich and Grieg.
Michael Fowler Centre, July 13.

The day after this concert I spoke at a pro-freedom of speech rally at Parliament. For me there was a synergy between these events. Freedom of artistic expression was unknown to Dmitri Shostakovich for most of his career. Twice in the space of a dozen years his music was denounced by Stalin. After the first denunciation he took to sleeping in the stairwell outside his apartment so that when the government came to arrest him his wife would not be disturbed. After the second, he, along with Prokofiev and several other prominent composers, was made to deliver a humiliating mea culpa in which he said, "I am deeply grateful for all the criticism contained in the Resolution [of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party]. I shall with still more determination work on the musical depiction of the images of the heroic Soviet people." All the composers wrote a joint letter to "dear Comrade Stalin" thanking him for his "severe but profoundly just criticism of the present state of Soviet music."

After Stalin's death, Shostakovitch acknowledged that "without party guidance I would have displayed more brilliance, used more sarcasm. I could have revealed my ideas openly instead of having to resort to camouflage."

Personally I find much of his music unendurable, including this symphony, written when Stalin's shadow no longer hovered over him. I find myself in the position of saying, "My dear Dmitri, I detest what you write but defend to the death your right to write it."

I feel impelled to note here that a concert companion of unimpeachable musical wisdom said to me privately, "Whatever one feels about the 10th Symphony it is one of the greatest of the 20th Century." He added, "Whether it needs to be as gloomy as what was heard on Friday is open to your view and maybe how one feels at the time."

Against that, the Dominion Post's John Button has just hailed this performance as follows:

Over the years we have heard some astonishingly fine Shostakovich from the NZSO. Who will forget the intensity of Alexander Lazarev with the Eighth Symphony at an early Festival of the Arts, or the sheer authority of both Kurt Sanderling and Maxim Shostakovich with the Fifth Symphony in the now distant past? But did any of these performances equal the sheer intensity, married to both stunning precision and awe-inspiring breadth, of this performance?

Conductor Martin's superbly knowing vision drew playing that swept all before it. Who will forget the wonderful build-up to the shattering climax of the first movement, or the vehement bit and intensity of the so-called 'Stalin' allegro? And the last two movements had a spectacular vision that led to a conclusion that left us in no doubt that this is, surely, Shostakovich's finest symphony.

Amid all this scorching playing it would be easy to forget the contribution of a number of principals within the orchestra - the wonderful playing of guest principal Horn David Evans, or that of principal bassoon Robert Weeks and cor anglais Michael Austin.

This concert plays in Palmerston North tomorrow night, Wed July 18, Napier Thurs July 19, Tauranga Fri July 20 and Auckland Sat July 20. If Shostakovich is agony for you as for me, go for the ecstasy of the Grieg in the first half—a rapturous performance by Simon Trpčeski of the beloved Concerto in A minor. And be thankful that however ominously our own Stalinist Thought Police are currently growing in toxicity, we don't yet have to repair to stairwells.

It wasn't Stalin ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

... who stopped him writing beautiful music. Shostakovich didn't want to. He wanted to write ugly garbage in the manner of his contemporaries in Europe and America. His "music" would have been even more hideous if left to his own devices.

When listening to his Romance....

Olivia's picture

and then these words:

After Stalin's death, Shostakovitch acknowledged that "without party guidance I would have displayed more brilliance, used more sarcasm. I could have revealed my ideas openly instead of having to resort to camouflage."

I actually find myself in tears! That truly is Ecstasy & Agony in human form. So effing tragic!

How sad...

Olivia's picture

it is then, when someone can compose romantic music, but can't or won't due to a political system which squashes that great form and so ruins the soul of that artist.

Someone on the Youtube clip of his Romance (of the Gadfly) accurately wrote this:

3 years ago
This has got to be the least-Shostakovich piece that Shostakovich ever wrote.


Olivia's picture

could write well romantically - but chose not to. I'm thinking of the Romance (from the Gadfly) and something else which I heard recently that was very beautiful, I couldn't believe it was Shostakovich! But most of his work is unlistenable, in keeping with a 'Marxist aesthetic' - in other words: no melody, which is an absolute crime when you come on the heels of, and from the same country as, Rachmaninov.

Thank god for the Grieg then, with its exquisite Second Movement! I love the whole thing, but that SM is heart-stopping beauty.

I adore Khatia - so emotionally expressive!

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