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Shostakovich symphonies

Shostakovich symphonies

Gergiev, the Kirov, and the 20th century

by James Leonard

From the March, 2006 issue

The symphonies of Dmitry Shostakovich, the former Soviet Union's most celebrated composer, are the best of the twentieth century. From his First Symphony in 1925 through the Fifteenth and final symphony of 1971, Shostakovich kept on boring deeper into the bedrock of existential dread. He became internationally famous the night of his First Symphony's premiere, and while his later years had their ups and downs - a hero of the people one day and a nonperson facing possible liquidation the next - the end of his life was a total downer: an atheist crippled by disease, he was confronting his mortality in a totalitarian state that had the power and potentially the inclination to annihilate his posthumous memory. From before he wrote the incidental music for Hamlet in 1932 until after he wrote a film score for King Lear in 1970, Shostakovich presented himself in his music as a combination ironic hero and mad king's fool, a two-faced mask meant to hide his own acute case of bad nerves.

When Shostakovich died in 1975, the USSR still had another sixteen years to go, but its soul was already dead, and Shostakovich's symphonies are in effect its musical epitaph. The First Symphony is an ironic tragedy, the Second and Third are Bolshevik triumphs set to music, and the Fourth and Fifth are Communist tragedies. The Sixth through Ninth are the chapters of a musical Soviet Realist War and Peace, while the Tenth is King Lear set in the Kremlin, with Stalin as the mad king and the composer as his fool. The Eleventh and Twelfth are political dissidence disguised as state propaganda, the Thirteenth offers symphonic protest songs of bitterness and brutality, and the Fourteenth sends orchestral suicide notes of nihilism and despair. Finally, the Fifteenth is the sound of the ghosts of great symphonists howling in the face of the void.

Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra will perform five of Shostakovich's symphonies in two concerts

...continued below...

at Hill Auditorium in March: the First, Second, and Tenth on Friday, March 17, and the Ninth and Seventh on Sunday, March 19. These are the first two of five Gergiev-Kirov concerts the University Musical Society is presenting over six months, with the remaining ten symphonies scheduled for three concerts that open the 2006-2007 season. Unrelentingly passionate and unerringly dramatic, Valery Gergiev is without doubt Russia's leading conductor. Incredibly virtuosic and unbelievably dedicated, the Kirov Orchestra is Russia's finest orchestra. This is the most impressive and significant series the UMS has presented since the Borodin Quartet performed Shostakovich's complete string quartets here a decade ago.

[Review published March 2006]     (end of article)


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