Adrian Hamilton: The Week in Arts

A unique chance to appreciate a giant's work

Share

The year of performances celebrating the centenary of Shostakovich's birth is finally coming to an end. Just finished are his song cycles at the South Bank and Wigmore Hall, following, of course, the full cycle of symphonies in Birmingham and the quartets in Bristol, as well as both the Kirov and Bolshoi performing his ballets in London. Still to come are performances of the silent film New Babylon, with live accompaniment of his score, and the final burst of Valery Gergiev's cycle of symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican in December, including the great 10th and the almost unbearable 13th.

It is, on any account, a quite extraordinary outpouring of homage to a single composer, greater than the attention paid in this country to Mozart's centenary and more complete and widespread, I think, even than in Russia. That more public attention has not been paid to it is partly the result of the way that the British take their music for granted. But it is partly the way that the critics tend to judgeindividual performances as one-offs. This was particularly true of the response to Gergiev's decision to bring over the Kirov in July to present four Soviet-era ballets, the revised (and toned down) version of his great masterpiece, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Katerina Izmailova) and a full production of his opera after Gogol's The Nose.

You may or may not have liked the actual productions. And you may or may not feel that Gergiev is overstretching himself at the moment, what with being in charge of the Kirov and becoming principal conductor of the LSO. But to dismiss, as the critics did, a season which introduced seven of Shostakovich's limited number of stage works (limited, it should be said, by Stalin's response to Lady Macbeth) that were completely new to most of us in the audience as a failed attempt to compete with the Bolshoi, which came over at the same time with a Shostakovich ballet, was ungrateful to say the least.

Gergiev, as I understood him, was trying to present to a British audience a case for Shostakovich as a "Soviet" as well as "Russian" composer, who wrote music before and after the war, in good faith as well as ironically. It's not an easy case to make when the whole world now wants to treat the composer as a subversive, the coded critic of the Stalinist regime. That he was. It's apparent throughout his music and no-one in his audience within the Soviet Union doubted it at the time. It was only the exiles who accused him of being a fellow traveller.

But it's a mistake to make Shostakovich into a kind of disguised freedom fighter. Listening to his tortured, and sublime, chamber music, I always feel that here was a man who knew all too well his limitations, his own fearfulness - which is what makes him such a profound artist.

That, and his response to his time, not just to cultural oppression at home but to war, violence and anti-Semitism. Throughout his post-war work there is a feeling for Jewishness and a concern to defend it, of which the Babi Yar (13th) symphony is just one example.

Of all the artists of the Second World War, Shostakovich best answered the terrible question: How can there be poetry after Auschwitz? Fractured, ironic, in turn bitter and bombastic, serene and jazzy, his music rasps with the groping struggle of humanity to survive mass slaughter and industrialised oppression. Over the past year, British audiences have had a unique chance to appreciate this giant's work in all its facets. I can't wait for Gergiev's finale.

* Much has been made of the sudden flourish of new musicals coming on to the West End stage, as if it represented some great trend or the victory of the sung form over straight theatre. Well, yes and no. Musicals have long dominated the West End. That is how Cameron Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber have made their names and bought so many establishments. The fact that new work tends to come in waves is nothing new. But it's not an either/or situation with straight theatre.

What is happened is that the West End is now ringed with small, local theatres - the Lyric, Tricycle, Almeida etc - all doing classical, as well as new writing. Nor, pace Brian Blessed, is there any shortage of big actors. Try Eve Best, left, at the Old Vic or Simon Russell Beale at the National. What there is, is a shortage of the West End play, particularly the comedy. Alan Ayckbourn has returnednorth. Stoppard and Frayn have gone historico-political. The drawing-room comedy and the farce are dead - until revived.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A royal serving the nation

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko prior to the start of the European Council Summit in Brussels last month  

David Cameron talks big but is waving a small stick at the Russian bear

Kim Sengupta
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003