Maxim Shostakovich: 'It's in my blood'

When Maxim Shostakovich conducts his father's 'Leningrad' here next week, with accompanying film of the siege, emotions will be high, he tells Sarah Shannon
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The Independent Culture

In the late summer of 1942, a group of starving Leningrad musicians gave a performance that became a legend. Nazi forces encircled the city, slowly starving its citizens to death in a siege that would cost almost a million Soviet lives. Some musicians were so weakened by hunger that they could barely lift their instruments. But they roused themselves to perform a new symphony by their compatriot Dmitri Shostakovich.

In the late summer of 1942, a group of starving Leningrad musicians gave a performance that became a legend. Nazi forces encircled the city, slowly starving its citizens to death in a siege that would cost almost a million Soviet lives. Some musicians were so weakened by hunger that they could barely lift their instruments. But they roused themselves to perform a new symphony by their compatriot Dmitri Shostakovich.

The score for Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, Leningrad, had been smuggled into the city past the Nazis. It was a rallying cry to Shostakovich's countrymen, telling the story of the siege and dwelling on patriotic themes before vividly imagining the German armies being routed from Russia. The Leningrad orchestra performed it on 9 August, the day Hitler had predicted their city would fall to his troops. Loudspeakers outside the hall relayed the music to those without tickets, and it blared from more speakers at the edge of the city - a musical two fingers to the Nazis entrenched there.

Next Monday, the symphony will be performed to mark the VE Day anniversary at the Royal Albert Hall. The concert is being presented by the Russian news agency Novosti, and will be performed by the St Petersburg Academic Symphonic Orchestra. The conductor will be Shostakovich's son Maxim. The event will also be the international premiere of the symphony's new incarnation, Cinemaphonia. Using rare and sometimes shocking newsreel from German and Soviet archives, the director Georgy Paradzhanov has created a powerful film that will be shown on a giant screen behind the orchestra. Its narrative of the siege, of bloodshed and starvation in a frozen city, and the eventual triumph of the Soviet forces, is intended to help the audience to understand the horrors that drove Shostakovich's composition. It doesn't shy from Stalinism's darker side, either, with stark images of the Ukrainian famine. There's footage of exquisite icons being taken down from church walls before men throw them on to fires and bomb the churches into oblivion.

Maxim Shostakovich gave the Russian premiere of Cinemaphonia earlier this year in St Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), where he now lives with his family. At the end of a dramatic performance, watched by veterans of the siege, Maxim lifted the score and kissed it before holding it out to the audience. He expects to feel similar emotions at its London performance. "For me, this music is something in my blood," he explains in an accent still weighted with Russian inflection despite years spent in the States. "This comes directly from my father, so I feel it very close to my soul. Through his music I can recognise all his anger and all his tenderness. It's like hearing his different phrases as he spoke; through his music I can hear his voice. He never dies for me, because of this."

Maxim was a boy when war broke out. His father tried to enlist in the army but, as an already revered composer, he was evacuated from the threatened city, eventually settling in Kuibyshev (now Samara), on the Volga. He wrote his Seventh Symphony remarkably quickly. "I completed the first movement of this piece on 3 September, the second one on 17 September, and the third on the 29th. Now I'm nearly through with the fourth and final movement. I have never composed as fast before," he said.

Maxim, 66, can just recall the symphony's premiere in Kuibyshev. "I remember the standing ovation, my father and mother and sister being there. And this theme in the symphony with a small drum that gave me a feeling, even as a small boy, that something evil was approaching."

A handful of the musicians who played in Leningrad during the siege took part in the first Cinemaphonia. "It was truly touching," says Maxim. "The original performance was a great event. People were living under constant bombardment, but they still came to hear the music."

Maxim grew up to be a talented pianist and conductor, but, inevitably, he often has the "son of" tag. Has his father's genius eclipsed his own career? "I feel that people expect a lot of me because of my father, but I just do my best." He evidently adored his father: "If I did something bad [musically] he would explain it to me; if I did something good, he was pleased for me. He helped me a lot as a musician and gave me priceless advice when I prepared to conduct each symphony. He was a good father and a great teacher."

It is refreshing to hear the composer spoken of in such simple and glowing terms. Shostakovich was a controversial figure during his lifetime. Some accused him of being pro-Stalinist, others of anti-Communist tendencies. In the West, he was reviled by some for pandering to Stalin's regime. It is a subject that Maxim feels passionately about: "He hated the Communist philosophy but was forced by the rules of the game." Those rules meant that Shostakovich had to make compromises, such as accepting government commissions. "This was normal," Maxim declares. "Not collaboration. It's hard to understand now, but for the safety of his wife and children he had to do some things. Others who were not so careful were shot."

Hitler for one would have liked to see Shostakovich permanently silenced. According to Maxim, Hitler declared that the composer would be among the first to be executed when the Germans reached Moscow.

Once word of the Leningrad symphony reached the outside world in 1942, arrangements were made to smuggle the score out of the country on microfilm. The London Proms put on a performance, and in the US, rival conductors battled to give the symphony its American debut (Toscanini won). Shostakovich was even featured on the front of Time magazine. Maxim believes the symphony has stood the test of time. "It's not just about the Second World War but about the endless battle between good and evil. It is certainly one of the greatest symphonies."

'Cinemaphonia', Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020-7589 8212; www.royalalberthall.com) 9 May

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