Monday, December 4, 2017

Gripping Shostakovitch

Sydney Symphony Orchestra present GRIPPING SHOSTAKOVITCH, in the Concert Hall, at the Sydney Opera House. 15 November, 17 November and 18 November.

I was taken to the GRIPPING SHOSTAKOVITCH concert by a dear friend. It was made up by the Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat major, Op.107 and the mighty, gripping, Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op.65, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, in the Concert Hall, at the Sydney Opera House.

I am a relative 'babe in the woods' in my knowledge of music. However, I have, in my blissful ignorance, come to believe that Shostakovich is the GREAT composer of the last century - well, at least, he is my favourite, and I attend concerts of his music whenever possible.

I had never heard the Cello Concerto before and the soloist was a youthful German musician, Daniel Muller-Schott. Composed in the era of Nikita Krushchev, in July, 1959, this work, inspired by Prokofiev's Symphony to Denisov, was dedicated to the cellist virtuoso of the period, Mstislav Rostropovich, and given its premiere in October of the same year with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, under the directorship of Maestro Mravinsky. In just under a month the work had its first foreign performance in November with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.

The Concerto is in four movements, the final three played without a break. The third movement - an extended Cadenza - is essentially a link between the slow movement and the final and has the feeling of an improvisation for the virtuosic cellist who plays solo, and demands a dazzling array of technique 'in the most rapid runs and double stops punctuated by still pizzicato stops.' Daniel Muller-Schott was breathtakingly daring in the playing. (He has a lot of 'bouncy' hair, that helped illustrate the demand on the artist to produce this work.) He was rapturously received by the audience.

After the break a very large orchestra assembled for the Eighth Symphony. Some regard this work as Shostakovich's finest symphony in traditional terms. It is expansive and full of emotional 'tug'. It was completed in 1943 following the decisive Battle of Stalingrad and, for a time, bore the subtitle 'Stalingrad'. Under the severe leadership of Stalin the symphony was criticised for its lack of jubilant affirmation, called rather, 'bleak', and was effectively banned. For Shostakovich, and indeed for the Russian people, the war would indeed hold no real triumph; the persecution of the population intensified under Stalin during the conclusion of the war and in the post war-era; survival would have to do. The breadth of this musical vision is overwhelming and conductor Ashkenazy was in firm and thrilling control.

I have always been interested in the survival on this artist who elected to stay and work in Russia under such great artistic duress and personal criticism, and the original controversies concerning the 'politics' of the composer have intrigued me, as much as it has many others. Reading Julian Barnes' novel, of last year: THE NOISE OF TIME, which focuses on the pressures endured by Shostakovich under Soviet rule, and the convenient synchronistic timing of my reading the great novel LIFE AND FATE, by Vasily Grossman, set, mostly, during the siege of Stalingrad, while hearing this performance live in the Concert Hall, I could not help but reflect on how lucky it is that I live in such a country as Australia, how safe it is - it feels - I flinched at my images of the present day Middle East,  and maybe a little too out-of-touch with my own country's attitude to the Manus Island refugees - it did, however, bring home to me more vividly the 'miraculous' life and courage of this composer and I could only wonder in awe at the tenacity and genius of his spirit and ability. Living in a Totalitarian State greased by fear, surrounded by paranoia, and then hurled into the heat of a world destroying war would not be conducive to live through/in. Create in! What 'real' problems do I have to do deal with?  Oh, come on, Really?

This was truly a wonder filled night in the theatre of the Concert Hall. Humbling, indeed.

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