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

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) pictured shaking hands with Libyan leader Colonel Moamer Kadhafi on 25 March 2004.  

There's nothing wrong with Labour’s modernisers except how outdated they look

Mark Steel
 

Any chance the other parties will run their election campaigns without any deceit or nastiness?

Nigel Farage
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee