Last week Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra added another illustrious chapter to their long and successful history of performing the works of Dmitri Shostakovich. On this cleverly curated occasion, the giant of Soviet composing was combined with Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin, the father of Russian poetry and the keeper of the Slavic soul.
The first half of the evening began with Shostakovich’s orchestration of Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin (1936-37). Sir Mark has long had a fascination for Shostakovich and his knowledge of both the man and his music is impressive to say the least. So, when he gave the first of two short talks examining the evenings programme the audience paid attention, especially when he told us there was a secret contained in in one of the songs we were about to hear.
Those songs were delivered in an accomplished and stirring performance from soloist James Platt, schooled in Manchester’s own Chetham’s School of Music. His powerful voice resonated with the melancholy of the Russian soul as he breathed life into this most apposite of partnerships.
Twice in Shostakovich’s life, Soviet power came very close to destroying him. At that time being a respected figure in the arts was absolutely no protection from the arbitrary terror imposed by the pigs in the Kremlin, a fact which Shostakovich was brutally made aware of in January 1936 when, out of the blue, a damming review of his work, rumoured to have been written by Stalin himself was published in Pravda.
In it Shostakovich was denounced and accursed of all manner of heretical practices, accusations which at any point in his adult life could have led to his being sent to the Gulag. But this was 1936 and the Great Purge was about to begin, during which such accusations led to the deaths of more than 600,000 Soviet citizens. The review itself was merely the starting gun on more than a year of ostracism and constant condemnation.
The Four Romances, encompassing the themes of jealously, destruction, foreboding and rebirth, were the first serious music Shostakovich worked on after his fall from grace and the themes reflect those of the dark world into which his life had descended. The first is of note in that Pushkin’s words describe a barbarian defacing a work of art with his own dull, meaningless scrawling. But time wears away these wretched daubing’s and reveals anew the masterpiece hidden beneath.
In his short talk Sir Mark revealed that Shostakovich replicated an arrangement from this first song in his Fifth Symphony, the work he began soon after finishing the Four Romances, which themselves were never meant to be played in his lifetime lest his association with the themes should prove lethal.
This, Sir Mark suggested, was Shostakovich not only paying tribute to the eternal truth of Pushkin’s words but was served to hide in plain sight his own defiance of the soul crushing malevolence of Soviet power; hidden in the knowledge that they day would dawn when the truth of his own art would have revealed.
Up next was the Cello Concerto no1 (1959). There was an undoubted dissonance to this piece, a repeated violation of normal rules that in some ways is characteristic of Shostakovich, yet as ever though he often challenges and wrong foots his audience he never seems to lose them altogether.
This is a demanding piece, filled with signs and portents for the audience and pain and pitfalls for the musicians. It requires great energy and technical fluidity, particularly from the cello soloist , in this case Alisa Weilerstein who in a virtuoso performance was more than equal to the task.
Weilerstein played like a woman possessed as she coaxed, demanded and seduced notes from her instrument; notes of astonishing power and pathos; notes that alternately rang with mesmerising energy or drifted beguilingly across the hall. Personally, I’ve never seen a cello performance quite like it, nor have I seen a better one. As an encore the Mistress of bow and string treated the audience to a truly exquisite performance of the Sarabande from Bach’s Fourth Cello Suite. This is the sound an angel makes when it sings to God.
After the interval there came Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony (1937), the piece with which he successfully rehabilitated himself back into Soviet Society. Debate still rages to this day as to the true meaning of the Fifth Symphony, though meanings might be a more operative word. In any event what was required of Shostakovich by the authorities was to show contrition for his earlier artistic ‘sins’ by producing a true work of socialist realism, which he certainly did.
However, given that the only real talents of those judging the artistic merit of his work lay in the manufacture of murder and mendacity Shostakovich was able to repeatedly subvert their requirements. Thus, the Soviet nomenklatura applauded like seals clapping for fish without ever understanding the subtle ironies with which Shostakovich had equipped his symphony, subtleties which thankfully were clearly not lost on Sir Mark and Hallé.
This was a spellbinding performance from the orchestra in which they drew on every available reserve of experience and talent. The power and the glory that was Shostakovich was adeptly displayed for all the world to hear and then as promised, in the last movement, as the angry, strident thunder of the massed orchestra dissipated, we heard the unmistakable refrain from Pushkin’s Rebirth.
Thus, with the passing of years, the alien colours fell away like threadbare scales, and the genius emerged. And the secret dream was fulfilled.