Adrian Hamilton: The Week in Arts

A unique chance to appreciate a giant's work


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.

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