With Shostakovich, there is never an easy ride. So there was a touch of low cunning about pairing his hour-long Eighth Symphony with Glazunov's Violin Concerto, a work which makes agreeable nonsense of the idea that music reflects the conditions under which it is written. Rimsky-Korsakov's most naturally gifted pupil must have been blithely unconcerned at the catastrophic state of Russia in 1904; or maybe he was so saturated with Château Yquem that he simply didn't notice. In any case, this is a charming, bump-free concerto, and Tasmin Little's sparkling performance put everyone in the best mood for the later trials.
Shostakovich's searing, angst-ridden Eighth was apparently his response to the spiritual chaos of post-blockade Leningrad and the prospect of life under the victorious Stalin of 1943. "If you only knew," he once said of the tortuous transition to the finale, "how much blood that C major cost me." But this is music that sheds blood in order not to turn the earth red. Unlike the Seventh, it's a masterpiece of control and technique; every detail, every linkage, is minutely calculated. To have composed such a brilliant work in six weeks in the middle of a destructive war seems barely credible.
Vassily Sinaisky's rendition, superbly played by the BBC Philharmonic, always seemed conscious of the element of constraint in Shostakovich's manner of screaming. This was not one of those Russian concerts where you have to block your ears; rather, the power was in the pacing and the sense of architecture. The Eighth is like a huge boulder pivoted on one end, never tipping or wobbling, and never risking too much.
The start of the concert was a discreet contribution to tyrant studies in the shape of the prelude to Rimsky-Korsakov's opera The Maid of Pskov. Ivan the Terrible, having slaughtered the citizens of Novgorod, marches on Pskov. The prelude, however, knows nothing of the terror this must have inspired, and perhaps in 1870 such things weren't musically knowable. It took two world wars and three revolutions to turn Russian music into an icon of agony.Reuse content