Book Reviews 21
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Shostakovich and Stalin
London, Little Brown ISBN: 0-316-86141-3 P/B, 370 pages
“We live in a world without mercy,” observed Solomon Volkov, famously, in his ever-controversial Introduction to Testimony. After limping along for a further twenty-five years, the world seems in no better shape to mount any sort of serious challenge to Volkov’s contention than it did at the end of the ‘Me-Decade’. The publication in 1979 of the still-disputed memoirs of Shostakovich helped cure a variety of musicological and cultural navel-gazing habits in the West, just as it launched at the same time the pro- and anti-Volkov industries. Yet the fight for custody of Shostakovich continues, and there seems no end in view for the composer’s troubled soul, as it undergoes what D. H. Lawrence called the “long journey after death/To the sweet home of pure oblivion.”
Malcolm Hamrick Brown’s Shostakovich Casebook is, according to its dust-jacket “The definitive statement on the Shostakovich controversy.” By and large, it attempts to consign Solomon Volkov to pure oblivion, while still alive. The more-or-less merciless questioning of his honesty as a presenter of the Shostakovich memoirs began in 1980, with Laurel Fay’s Russian Review essay, ‘Shostakovich versus Volkov: Whose Testimony?’ That piece is reprinted here, helpfully, as the opening shot in Casebook. Its oft-rehearsed but seldom read points about the source of the “signed” pages of Testimony are amplified in Fay’s succeeding ‘Volkov’s Testimony Reconsidered’ written in 2002, and in the next chapter of Casebook, which lays out the “source” materials for the Testimony chapter-openings, in parallel with their Testimony equivalents. Various Soviet and post-Soviet commentaries follow, some in welcome first translations, and the book’s second half is a more wide-ranging collection of essays and reviews. There is relatively little about Shostakovich’ s music here, for a book bearing the composer’s name. Any music-loving virgin wandering into this territory for the first time and picking up the Casebook, would surely gain the impression that for some strands of American musicology, a man named Volkov is of far greater significance than the great composer whose work they admire. So much for oblivion.
D. H. Lawrence also exhorted us to “Be kind, oh be kind to your dead/And give them a little encouragement,” and here, sadly, the Casebook slams shut. The Editor has chosen to reprint his negative review – first published in Notes in 1993 – of Ian MacDonald’s The New Shostakovich. It opens the fourth and final section of the Casebook, whose contributors are all native English-speakers and writers. Brown follows this review with his contrasting, positive assessment of Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich – a Life Remembered. The Editor’s introduction speaks of the “vehemence with which MacDonald nowadays defends Volkov” while the footnotes to the New Shostakovich review remind us that Brown won an Eva Judd O’Meara award for this piece of work. At no point in the Casebook‘s 408 pages, though, are we reminded of the fact that Ian MacDonald died, tragically, the year before this volume’s publication date. Neither footnotes nor MacDonald’s index entry make any reference to the British writer as “late,” nor are his dates given. Several authors attack him here: the denial of The New Shostakovich‘s value seems almost as important to some contributors as the debunking of Volkov’s claims for Testimony. Yet I cannot think of another instance of so many academics entering the ring without so much as a passing acknowledgement of the fact that the opponent is no longer of this earth, and hence unlikely to answer the charges made against him, this side of oblivion for us all. Brown, and his publishers Indiana Press, should be hanging their scholarly heads in shame, not crowing about Eva Judd O’Meara awards.
Whatever the level of veracity of Volkov’s account of Testimony‘s genesis, I can pretty much vouch for the authenticity of MacDonald’s death, as I attended his funeral, a quiet, dignified affair last summer. He was no friend of mine, but the waste seemed dreadful, and he was most definitely a friend to Shostakovich. At the small reception after the ceremony, world-famous music journalist Charles Shaar Murray mistook me for the wine-waiter, beetle-browing and blaming me for the fact we’d run out of vino. I mention this point, a career-high for me, for two reasons. First, because in context this seemed a fine example of the sort of existential irony that Esti Sheinberg talks about in connection with Shostakovich. Richard Taruskin discusses her book on irony and parody in the Casebook‘s closing essay, and his compliments end up sounding backhanded. “It will be surpassed, and soon.” he predicts, towards the end of a familiar mélange of personal reminiscence, opinion, and multiple book reviews (rather like this). The Professor is far from being at his best here. I’m sure he has a world-beating book on Shostakovich in him, but I’ve yet to read or hear the evidence that the bulk of Shostakovich’s music engages Taruskin enough to make him write it. I hope I’m proved wrong: no-one in musicology matches his knowledge of this field, or his ability to make fresh connections.
Nostalgic memories of student days in Soviet Russia also permeate the preceding essay, Brown’s ‘Shostakovich: A brief Encounter and a Present Perspective. ‘ Here the author delineates the peculiarities of the American academic response to Shostakovich over the years, and presents his own ideas on how to respond to the music itself. While discussing the best-known of the Shostakovich quartets with Rostislav Dubinsky of the Borodin Quartet, the Casebook‘s Editor has this to say: “For my part, aware of the history of the Eighth Quartet as I replayed it in my mind while listening to Dubinsky’s story, responding emotionally to its familiar topics and affective codes, I imagined myself sharing the composer’s gruelling emotional journey.” This seems rather self-conscious, and I do hope we see a more developed response to Shostakovich from America in the near future. Current American music is incomparably rich, varied, and rewarding: no other country has anything like the same range. If Casebook is a barometer, then the American musicologists still have a way to go to catch up with the breadth of sympathies their creative colleagues display. Taruskin quite rightly points to the “polysemy” and universality of a piece like the Eleventh Symphony, but Robert Simpson was saying the same thing in England in the 1950s. This is hardly news, and we need to jump on a long way in our appreciation of Shostakovich’s work. For long stretches of Casebook, one could easily forget the subject was a composer.
Better news is the fact that three pieces in Casebook are its saving grace. Levon Hakobian’s 1998 essay “A Perspective on Soviet Musical Culture during the Lifetime of Shostakovich” offers a nuanced, Russian view, reminding us in memorable fashion that “virtually any more or less valuable work of art created on the territory of the former USSR belongs to the pen, brush, or chisel of a potential or real victim of stukaches (informers), surrounded by hostile zhlobs (louts, or ‘inflated nonentities’), while resisting the humiliating status of vintnik (a cog in the machine).” This is a mouth-watering appetizer for Hakobian’s own, forthcoming book on Shostakovich. David Fanning is represented by a conference response to Allan Ho and Dmitri Feofanov, but his questions are pertinent enough to dismiss any charges of British pragmatism, or fence-sitting. Finally Gerard McBurney offers a worthwhile overview of Shostakovich’s intellectual heritage, from the 1920s. A whole series of subplots also take place in the extensive footnotes and Lev Lebedinsky, for one, does not come out too well as a reliable witness. For these, and for the ever-compelling, if at times repugnant continuation of the Testimony soap-opera, extending to much astoundingly straight-faced consideration of loaded Soviet responses to the Memoirs, Casebook is required reading for anyone still fascinated by the various musicological personalities involved, or by the “debate.” Caryl Emerson, author of a magnificent, definitive scholarly study of the reception of Bakhtin’s work, says in her blurb for the Casebook that it is about “music old and new in the twentieth century, about the cultural legacy of one of that century’s most extravagant social experiments.” I beg to differ here with Professor Emerson. My second point about CSM’s taking me for a barman – I was simply wearing a shirt and tie at the time, and standing next to an empty bottle – is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. The Shostakovich Casebook is a novel about American academic attitudes, not a study of Shostakovich. I find it genuinely saddening that a group of intelligent, mature musicologists should find it worthwhile to assemble such a collection of attacks on rivals, dead or alive, and fulsome praise for each other. Those interested in Dmitri Shostakovich or his music would do better to study, for example, the Chandos DVD-ROM on the composer and his world (reviewed in DSCH 15).
Meanwhile the only man who knows the whole truth about Testimony has produced a book about the composer and the Great Dictator. Volkov’s conceit here is to draw a parallel between two uneasy pairings: Tsar Nicolas the First and Pushkin; and Stalin and Shostakovich. The author develops his yurodivy thesis on Shostakovich, familiar from the old Testimony Introduction, and claims his is “..a book of cultural history.” Volkov goes on to explain: “Therefore, I do not engage in analysis of Shostakovich’s music.” He does, however, give the music a good deal more attention than did the Casebook, pointing to a “Christ complex” in the Fifth Symphony, and describing the Piano Quintet as the outcome of “immersion in Mussorgsky and Pushkin.” None of the musical discussion is fully developed, though, and this is a shame, as Volkov’s ideas can be fascinating. They are translated by Antonina W. Bouis, who also did Testimony and the nagging doubts about the translated accuracy return. The E-minor Piano Trio is described here as “one of Shostakovich’s most hopeless compositions” and there are other jarring instances. Also present are a few small swipes at Taruskin and Fay, and a fair a bit of quiet defence of Testimony‘s factual basis behind the arras, though as Volkov says in his Introduction, he has found it best to avoid much in the way of direct reference. Nonetheless, he asserts unashamedly that: “Beginning with the Fourth Symphony, the great majority of his major opuses are more or less ‘autobiographical.'”
There is a wealth of detail on the Stalin era in this book. Much will be familiar to dedicated students of the composer, though the range of varied diary and letter references which Volkov presents is impressive, even if the academic attributions could be tighter. Volkov is equally unashamed of presenting this whole period of historical disinformation as quintessentially anecdotal. If you know little of Mandelstam, Mayakovsky, Bukharin, Shklovsky, Zoshchenko and the gang, then you will definitely learn something here, on most pages of Shostakovich and Stalin. The Dictator comes out of it as a more “cultured” man than we might have thought, for example. And Shostakovich emerges as a rounded, credible human being for a change. If you know a lot about him already, however, then the factual inaccuracies – Apostolov dying “romantically” in the foyer at the Fourteenth Symphony dress rehearsal, for example – will seem either irritating or misleading. Shostakovich and Stalin is not a bad read for the enthusiast, but it is not the book we’d hoped for from this source. The twenty-five years of criticism would seem to have given the author a slightly defensive and hurried tone on this territory, which is hardly surprising. I hope he gathers up his courage to give us someday a more rigorous, more extended, and more musical study of Shostakovich, and this time in his own English. Like the very different Hakobian, Volkov knows something of the depths and quiet horrors of Soviet life, from first-hand experience; something Western musicologists, mercifully, need only imagine in an oblivion of comfort.
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Michael Ardov regales his readers with a compilation of interviews with Dmitri Shostakovich’s children, Maxim and Galina, in order to present a fuller, and arguably more human, portrait of “a miraculous figure” who “had no equal among contemporary composers.” Where Memories of Shostakovich may suffer from a lack of general historical context and background information, it makes up in its anecdotal and highly personal style. This book is of particular interest to a reader already familiar with the basics surrounding Shostakovich’s life and music; the recollections provide a touching portrait of “the man behind the myth” and introduce us to the composer from an intimate, rather than academic, vantage point.
Memories of Shostakovich is a collection of fifty-four vignette-like chapters that roughly follow the chronology of Shostakovich’s life. Though reminiscences by the composer’s children, Maxim and Galina, comprise the bulk of the chapters, there are also a fair number of quotations from memoirs of Shostakovich (those quoted in the book are from Alexander Gauk, Boris Khaikin, Grigory Sneerson, Sofia Khentova and L.I. Sofiysky), as well as correspondences with his contemporaries, and in particular with Isaak Glikman. If the book were designed for a common reader, and not a Shostakovich enthusiast, one would expect better arrangement, organization and packaging of the recollections. Frequently these appear haphazard, and a few editorial comments or notes elucidating the importance or the decision behind the inclusion of certain anecdotes would have helped the book read as a structured whole rather than a series of randomly strung-together
vignettes. The book also includes photographs from the Shostakovich family archive; unfortunately their poor quality and under-written captions prevent the reader’s full enjoyment and appreciation. The concluding glossary, though helpful, could have benefited from more detailed entries.
A friend of the Shostakovich children since the late 1950s, Michael Ardov informs his readers that his particular portrait of Dmitri Shostakovich will be nothing short of a hagiographic one. The reader needs to accept this premise from the outset, and should not expect to come away with a critical or analytic reading of the composer’s life. Indeed, such an approach offers one notable advantage: the reader puts down the book feeling a greater sense of intimacy and awareness of the composer as a human – an avid football fan, a volleyball referee, a devoted friend, a masterful correspondent, an exceptional teacher and fervent supporter of young composers; and above all, a man who resisted ideological submission in every facet of his life.
The visual dimension of Memories of Shostakovich remains its most thrilling aspect: the
reader witnesses Shostakovich in the act of composing at his desk at the dacha in Komarovo, while his children abscond with his pencils and ruler. Half a century later, commenting with awe on Shostakovich’s compassionate support of his son’s juvenile attempts at composition, Maxim says: “He would sit and write. I would take a piece of special paper and, imitating him, begin drawing dots with tails. Then I would go up to him and ask him to play the notes I had written. Father would sit down obediently at the piano and try to play the musical abracadabra which had come from my childish hand.”
A rabid sports fan, Galina informs us that Shostakovich had a particular soft spot for football: “he not only knew every footballer’s name by heart but he also kept records to compare the match results.” Meticulous in every aspect, Shostakovich’s attention to detail translated into everyday life. Maxim laments the loss of his father’s daybooks and calendars which displayed perhaps the finest example of his intermingling of life and work: “not only were there notes on his friends’ birthdays and routine details, but also references to his creative work. For example to improve this or that passage in such and such an opus… check the alto part, and so on.”
Through Galina’s recollections of their life in 1948 when Shostakovich’s music was declared “formalist,” and virtually became unplayable by the Central Committee’s Decree, the reader witnesses a terrifyingly ironic scene: while Shostakovich lives out the horrific drama of the decree, Maxim is forced to study and commit its details to memory at school.
Since the Committee’s decree left Shostakovich jobless and unable to teach at the Conservatory, he began to support himself and his family by writing film music. This leads Ardov to relate a wonderful anecdote where Shostakovich informs an incredulous Indian film composer that he composes melodies without the help of an assistant. Awestruck, the Indian composer replies “Do you indeed? You must even know the notes!”
Recalling his father’s terrible illness, Maxim stresses Shostakovich’s creative drive, even during his last days. Ardov leaves us with a portrait of Shostakovich as a valiant and courageous fighter – one who thrived in the face of adversity: prior to his illness, during the 1960s, when he was publicly ostracized and humiliated, Shostakovich said “Even if they cut off both my hands, I shall hold the pen between my teeth and go on writing music just the same.”
The most powerful elements of the book remain the focused memories themselves. In conducting interviews with Maxim and Galina, Ardov strove to clarify and add texture to aspects of Shostakovich’s correspondence with Isaak Glikman. Ideally, for an even more complete portrait of the composer, Memories of Shostakovich and Story of a Friendship: The letters of Dmitry Shostakovich to Isaak Glikman (2001) should be read in tandem.
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I’ve already complained to our esteemed Editor – why didn’t this tome appear in the bankrupt-rendering list (DSCH 20) of new books on Shostakovich poised to emerge in 2004? Prepare your credit facilities in any event – this is a recommended purchase whether you’re looking for new information on Shostakovich, freshly and accessibly written, or simply aspiring to the furthering of your appreciation of the Master’s life and works.
Shostakovich and His World is edited by the ever-present Laurel Fay and is published in conjunction with the US-based Bard Music Festival (see elsewhere in this Journal). The book comprises a collection of articles and of essays on all manner of themes, stitching together a wide range of threaded connections – from his early letters to his mother to twelve-tone techniques and the Fourteenth Symphony. Thus:
- Dmitrii Shostakovich: Letters to his Mother, 1923-1927 (Rosa Sadykhova)
- Responses of Shostakovich to a “Questionnaire on the Psychology of the Creative Process” (Roman Ilich Gruber with additional notes by Malcolm Hamrick Brown)
- Stalin and Shostakovich: Letters to a “Friend” (Leonid Maximenkov)
- “The Phenomenon of the Seventh”: a Documentary Essay on Shostakovich’s “War” Symphony (Christopher Gibbs)
- Shostakovich as Industrial Saboteur: Observations on The Bolt (Simon Morrison)
- The Nose and the Fourteenth Symphony: An Affinity of Opposites (Levon Hakobian)
- Shostakovich and the Russian Literary Tradition (Caryl Emerson)
- Fried Chicken in the Bird-Cherry Trees: (Gerard McBurney)
- Shostakovich and his Pupils (David Fanning)
- Shostakovich’s “Twelve-tone” Compositions and the Politics and Practice of Soviet Serialism (Peter Schmelz)
- Listening to Shostakovich (Leon Botstein)
I don’t intend to dwell excessively, chapter by chapter, on this World – you will already have gleaned my overall opinion on the merits of this book. What I will stress is the absolute uniqueness of the first three chapters in which we are offered a first-hand view of life in the early and relatively buoyant days of the ‘great Soviet experiment’. The letters from Mitya to Mama were conserved by Sofia Vasilievna until her death in 1955 after which Shostakovich’s elder sister Maria took care of them, her own son now being their owner and protector. Follow Shostakovich’s ups and downs in health, wealth and happiness, both from a professional and personal point of view. Be surprised (as I certainly was) to learn of the young composer’s desperate plans, in the mid-1920s, to flee his beloved Leningrad in favour of the more liberal educational musical spirits of Moscow (his plans were of course thwarted at the very last hour). My only criticism here – that there aren’t more examples of this fascinating correspondence in Fay’s collection. We’re certainly led to believe that considerably more of the same awaits translation / publication.
Shostakovich’s responses to a pretty extraordinary psychoanalytical questionnaire prepared in 1927-8 by one Roman Ilich Gruber make for rather uncomfortable, albeit fascinating reading. Imagine the 21 year-old striving to reply to: “The impulse to create – does it originate outside yourself or inside, is it fortuitous or the result of preliminary mental effort” etc. etc. Read on
In the third chapter letters from Shostakovich to Stalin (yes, Stalin) are complemented by excellently researched documentary material, contextualised with fine precision by editor Maximenkov. Much eye-opening material here, confirming, if this be needed, Shostakovich’s determination to help friends and colleagues in need of official ‘favours’ of, often, the most basic, yet vital kind.
The remainder of the book’s offerings:
Gibbs’ 54-page essay on the early life of the Seventh Symphony in the USA plots the subterfuge and euphoria that surrounded the arrival of the score on the American continent after which the consequent diary entries plot the rise and inevitable fall of the work. Fascinating and illuminating.
Morrison’s substantial paper on the chequered world of the ballet The Bolt is quite sure to add a layer or twenty to your knowledge of this oft-quoted but ill-comprehended and controversial work. Through his minute research, peppered with a little spicy conjecture, Morrison looks at Shostakovich’s own (hypothetical) role in The Bolt‘s ultimate downfall.
Even the sight of musical illustrations in Hakobian’s densely argued essay on Shostakovich-Gogol alchemy and its continuation into the composer’s late oeuvre shouldn’t faze the reader – my strong beverage (tea, tea!) went unconsumed, entirely neglected in the wake of his fascinating study in musical aesthetics and traditions.
Gogol also figures (predictably enough) in Caryl Emerson’s essay on the Russian literary tradition and Shostakovich, as do Dostoyevsky, Leskov, Zamyatin, Tsvetayeva and a host of other characters whose psyches are inextricably bound up with the necessarily broad definitions of the Russian artistic spirit. Prepare to feel inadequate in your reading habits
Passing any brand of judgement on a Gerard McBurney-Shostakovich offering is rather like asking a Frenchman to skip lunch – pointless! If you like Moscow, Cheryomushki, you’ll appreciate here a veritable horde of new viewpoints in and around this unique travail; and even if you don’t find yourself foot-tapping to the score’s highly accessible melodies, the piece is so very much a child of its times that even you will learn more than you thought you needed to know!
David Fanning’s study of Shostakovich and his pupils (a topic to my meagre knowledge never previously explored in any depth) holds a mirror to the inspirational processes conventionally traded in the master-to-student orientation. You’ll hear a word from DJF on the subject elsewhere in this issue. Thought provoking and extremely minutely researched.
OK – confession – I exaggerated (lied?). Peter J. Schmelz’s study on Shostakovich’s “twelve-tone” (his quotes) compositions within what he terms ‘Soviet Serialism’ is light years away from being casual reading material and I’d advise a clear head, a large sheet of blank paper and a great deal of patience to work your way through the last full stop. Indeed, just how relevant is this aspect of his work to the overall view of the composer’s modus operandum?
Finally, and although Leon Botstein argues, “Our subject is music and not philosophy” you’ll find yourself pondering over a significant number of his musico-behavioural precepts. Much to glean, much to come back to – the overall message with which this book leaves me – one of rousing inexhaustibility.
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I quote: ‘Dmitri Shostakovich was not only a great composer of the twentieth century but also an outstanding Russian pianist, one of the best of his generation. His universal fame as a composer has tended to overshadow his significance as a brilliant performer of his own works. Although many scholars have analysed Shostakovich’s music, his career as a pianist has been largely overlooked by biographers. This book represents the first careful examination of this important aspect of his life.
‘By his early twenties Shostakovich was already a well-known pianist in Russia, but unlike Rachmaninov or Prokofiev he never toured extensively overseas. His participation in the First International Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1927, a tour to Turkey in 1935, a short visit to Czechoslovakia in 1947, and trips to Bulgaria and France in 1958 were insufficient to establish a reputation as a world renowned pianist. Furthermore, Shostakovich’s recordings of his own works appeared sporadically in the West and began to gain an appreciative audience only after his death.
‘Nevertheless, Shostakovich’s piano performances profoundly influenced his life, both on and off the concert platform. Until 1930, he concertized intensely and played a varied repertoire, but from 1933 onward, he limited his programs to his own compositions. Shostakovich appeared publicly as a soloist until 1958 and as an ensemble player until 1966, when disease permanently incapacitated his hands.
‘My fascination with Shostakovich’s performances of his own music began in the early 1970s when I was studying at the Gnesin Institute in Moscow. Although I had always admired his music, I took for granted the commonly held notions that as a pianist Shostakovich was inferior to the great Soviet concert pianists and that his interpretations of his own works were of lesser value than those of other pianists. However, while researching a project on Shostakovich’s Prelude and Fugue in E minor, (from the twenty-four Preludes and Fugues, opus 87), and thus comparing his recording of the piece with those of Svyatoslav Richter and Tatiana Nikolayeva, I found Shostakovich’s interpretation to be absolutely captivating. Despite many faults of execution, his performance contained a special something that seemed to elude the others. His playing so impressed me that I began to collect recordings of Shostakovich performances wherever and whenever I was able to locate them.
‘Fortunately, Shostakovich recorded many of his compositions. These recordings include both piano concertos, the Concertino for Two Pianos, opus 94, seventeen preludes and fugues from opus 87, the sonatas for cello, opus 40, and for violin, opus 134, the Piano Quintet, opus 57, the second piano trio, opus 67, the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry and the piano arrangement of Symphony No. 10. Moreover, he recorded many of these compositions more than once. For detailed information on these recordings, please refer to the “Discography of Shostakovich’s Recorded Performances” (pp. 205-14).
‘By the 1970s, however, Shostakovich’s recordings had already become rarities; it took me over ten years to obtain most of his officially published LP records from stores specializing in rare disks, private collections, and libraries in the USSR, Israel, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Although more often than not these LPs were of poor quality, they still allowed me to hear his tempos and to sense the nuances of his agogics and touch and his unique way of “sculpting” a piece. In some performances, I also recognized textual variants that were played by Shostakovich but never mentioned in his editions. After the firm Revelation issued a series of high quality, digitally remastered Shostakovich recordings in 1998-99, I was able to verify my findings even more precisely.
‘Although a number of valuable English- language publications have recently appeared, to my surprise, none, including Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (1994) and Laurel Fay’s Shostakovich: A Life (2000) provides comprehensive information on Shostakovich’s concert life or his career as a pianist. They even neglect to mention his rich legacy of recorded performances. My chronological study fills this gap, tracing Shostakovich’s pianistic roots as well as his education, repertoire, and concert life. In so doing, I explore in detail the vital role of the piano in his life, composition, and teaching.
‘We are fortunate in that almost all of the significant events of Shostakovich’s career as a pianist have been well documented. The main source of biographical material is the composer’s published correspondence with his mother and his friends, including Boleslav Yavorsky, Lev Oborin, Ivan Sollertinsky, Vissarion Shebalin, Viktor Kubatsky, Levon Atovm’yan, Yelena Konstantinovskaya, Isaak Glikman, Marietta Shagynian, and many others. In addition, during the last few years, numerous books, articles, and memoirs, all of which contain a wealth of new information, have been released in Russia. For example, the volume entitled Dmitri Shostakovich v pis’makh i dokumentakh, compiled by Irina Bobikina and issued in 2000 by the Glinka Museum of Musical Culture in Moscow, includes a virtual treasure of authentic documents. Unless otherwise indicated, I have translated the documents myself from their original sources.
‘Although this book is aimed at all Shostakovich admirers, I also incorporate as much practical information as possible for performers, teachers, and students. In addition to general discussions of Shostakovich’s piano and ensemble works, my analysis of each piece also includes tables of his performing tempos and other concrete details for convenience and quick reference. I compare various aspects of Shostakovich’s interpretations with his scores, by using various editions, all of which are acknowledged in the endnotes.’
And there you have it – tidily summarised by the author of this new, relatively unheralded book on Shostakovich which, as she quite rightly implies, goes a long way to plugging a rudely gaping hole in the composer’s biography.
Moshevich’s approach is unashamedly methodical; her overall language (be it descriptive, factual or musical) is clear and direct. As for the attention to detail, the good news is that this constantly borders on the obsessive!
The book is organised chronologically, as can be gleaned from the list of contents:
- Roots, 1906-1923
- At the Crossroads, 1923-1933
- Composer-Performer, 1933-1945
- Return of Fear, 1945-1953
- Recognition, 1953-1975
Although Moshevich seeks pianistic links wherever possible as she plots the composer’s life and career history, she includes a host of non-keyboard instances, such as work on the symphonies and quartets, his operatic and film music and so on, guiding the reader through 69 years of musical discovery and inventiveness, of successes and failures, of ease and of pain.
Not only is Moshevich concerned with Shostakovich’s keyboard oeuvres and the phenomenon of the composer as a concert-hall soloist; she explores with equally painstaking detail Shostakovich’s recordings – comparing them with his original manuscript and, where the opportunity arises, with other recorded versions (for example his different pressings of the piano concertos, the Second Piano Trio and the Cello Sonata). Opus 87 forms a logical and expansive study base through which the author analyses Shostakovich’s somewhat disparate recordings (he committed only 18 of the 24 Preludes and Fugues to disc) and performances.
I’m particularly impressed by Sofia Moshevich’s inclusion of the song cycles in her study, including fine interpretative detail – pedalling, phrasing, tempo and so on, from the early Pushkin cycle with its pre-echoes of the Fifth Symphony to the late Lebyadkin’s keyboard “stupidity” (sic!) with its own Godunov heritage.
There are plenty of musical illustrations, often of a comparative nature, as well as a Shostakovich discography, a huge bibliography and a set of notes.
Need I say more? A really valuable addition to any bookshelf – although I expect my own copy to be often open on my desk as an invaluable reference source.
The last word goes to Moisei Weinberg, who recorded a four-hand version of the Tenth Symphony with Shostakovich in 1954:
‘In this recording, I play the “violin” part, while Shostakovich plays the bass. This was suggested by Shostakovich, and we always played in this way. Later he began complaining about his hands; it was hard for him to perform, and at times I had to play instead of him, premiering some of his compositions such as his Seven Romances on Poems by Blok and his Violin Sonata (with D. Oistrakh). Shostakovich’s interpretations can be considered exemplary in regard to tempo, character, and grasp of the structure. They bear the images and feeling of the composition as conceived in his mind.’