St Petersburg Academic Symphonic Orchestra: Cinemaphonia, Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Shostakovich's inscrutability will always tease historians. Just as they can never agree on whether his music is full of coded opposition to the Soviets, so they will never establish his intentions with his Leningrad Symphony. Three weeks before its premiere, he wrote in Pravda that it was dedicated to "our struggle with Fascism and our coming victory"; later he said its focus was much wider than the Nazi menace.

Shostakovich's inscrutability will always tease historians. Just as they can never agree on whether his music is full of coded opposition to the Soviets, so they will never establish his intentions with his Leningrad Symphony. Three weeks before its premiere, he wrote in Pravda that it was dedicated to "our struggle with Fascism and our coming victory"; later he said its focus was much wider than the Nazi menace.

Before composing it, he'd written about what its first movement portended. After an exposition reflecting pre-war contentment, it would convey the impact of war, the legions of the dead, "simple people honouring the memory of their heroes", "a mother's tears", and "distant thunder reminding us that the war continues". And his music is full of the stock images of war. But he also stressed he was not aiming for the naturalistic depiction of war - "the clatter of arms, the explosion of shells" - but rather "the image of war emotionally".

Perhaps director Georgi Paradzhanov did not notice that proviso: at all events, his film flies brazenly in the face of it. Moreover, it's not quite "his" film: there were, we're told, no fewer than five parallel "scripts", with something called "the objective script" being the net result, which he pretentiously dubs "cinemaphonia". While an orchestra played, his collage of contemporary newsreel footage would unroll above them.

And yes, we got the most literal visual representation of the clatter of arms and the explosion of shells (in the percussion passages), and falling buildings coinciding with massed tubas. The repetitive Bolero-style build-up was rendered by columns of helmeted Nazis. Lyrical violin solos became flocks of wheeling birds. But Paradzhanov's massed scriptwriters evidently couldn't agree on anything so banal as a coherent visual narrative.

The 1,125-day siege of Leningrad was a time of epic suffering: this film, for all its horrors, fails to reflect that. But what it does do is reduce this great symphony to the status of "film music".

Shostakovich's son Maxim was on the podium, and the band acquitted themselves well - as far as I could discern. Because the images were, despite their chaotic organisation, both riveting and profoundly shocking, they were what we were forced to focus on.

To see how this kind of job should be done, consider Carl Davis's orchestral accompaniment to Abel Gance's Napoléon.



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