Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 56

Shostakovich. XX Century

From 11–26 September 2021, the Russian cities of Samara and Tolyatti hosted the first Shostakovich. XX Century festival, incorporating music and theatre events. The organiser and artistic  irector was Alexey Trifonov, and the artistic council included composer Leonid Desyatnikov with Honorary Co-Chairs Irina Antonovna and Maxim Dmitrievich Shostakovich. The 16-day programme included almost all genres in which Shostakovich worked (from operas to piano preludes), although emphasis was placed on his rare, and often, early works.

In addition, the music of Shostakovich’s contemporaries made up a significant part of the festival repertoire. Of the Russian composers, some were his students: Weinberg, Boris Tchaikovsky, Ustvolskaya, and Tishchenko; while others were elder contemporaries: Rachmaninov, Myaskovsky, Prokofiev, and Mosolov. Finally, composers from the subsequent generation also featured, notably Nikolai Peiko and Margarita Kuss. Western composers were represented by Debussy, Martin, Hindemith, and Honegger, as well as a whole string of Shostakovich’s peers and younger contemporaries: Dallapiccola, Petrassi, Jolivet, Rota, Françaix, Cage, and Ligeti.

Not only was the programming impressive, but the festival attracted outstanding performers such as the Bolshoi Ballet, Yuri Bashmet with his New Russia Orchestra, pianists Nikolai Lugansky and Alexey Goribol, the Borodin Quartet, and Italian violinist Domenico Nordio.

In addition to concert performances, the festival included a two-day historical and cultural conference dedicated to Shostakovich, as well as the first Russian retrospective of film works involving Shostakovich and Kozintsev.

Samara was chosen as the venue of the festival for a reason. It was here that Shostakovich was evacuated during the Second World War. He spent almost two and a half years in the city (when it was known as Kuibyshev), although he never returned. During this time, Shostakovich completed his Seventh Symphony, wrote Six Romances, opus 62, devoted a year to work on The Gamblers (based on Gogol, this was his third opera, though in the end it was unfinished) and began work on the Second Piano Sonata. The culmination of the association was without doubt the first performance of the Seventh Symphony, which took place in Kuibyshev on 5 March 1942.

Shostakovich. XX Century is the world’s largest festival of Shostakovich’s music and will hopefully continue as such in 2022. Nevertheless, the event could not be considered as “truly” dedicated to Shostakovich for two important reasons. The first was the inclusion of a significant number of works by the composer’s contemporaries, fulfilling the festival’s stated goal of placing his music in the context of his time, programming rare names and equally rare compositions. The second reason was the selection of Shostakovich’s works. The impression was of a festival designed for listeners who were already familiar with much of the composer’s creative heritage; hence, the organisers appeared to favour the more obscure and less performed opuses. Of course, the importance of Shostakovich’s early work and of, for example, his film music is clear, but the absence of the more “classic” repertoire did not contribute to what one might call the “democratisation” of his music.

Here is an overview of the programme, with its successes and failures:

Symphonies. The focus of the festival was not Shostakovich’s symphonic work, though the First, Seventh, and Tenth Symphonies were performed. Unfortunately, the Seventh and Tenth Symphonies, which are of course considered as amongst the most important of Shostakovich’s works in the genre, were not taken seriously. The Seventh Symphony was reduced to one movement (the first) as an accompaniment to the ballet Leningrad Symphony, while the Tenth Symphony was placed in the context of completely unrelated music (the first part of the concert featured piano concertos by Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, performed by Nikolai Lugansky). Only the First Symphony, which opened the festival, was given centre stage, allowing the festival audience the opportunity to appreciate Shostakovich’s symphonic young talent in this relatively avant-garde composition. Indeed, the First Symphony perfectly complemented the image of Shostakovich projected by the festival.

Quartets and Trios. The string quartet genre was also almost absent from the festival’s focus. The Borodin Quartet’s performance—two Shostakovich quartets and Myaskovsky’s Thirteenth—turned out to be one of the most poorly attended. Perhaps this was due to the choice of two of Shostakovich’s less popular quartets—the First and the Twelfth. (The best known of the cycle, the Eighth, was also performed, but in conditions that were not at all appropriate, as background music during the intermission between performances.) It is also possible that, like other chamber music concerts at the festival, the Borodin Quartet’s evening concert simply did not attract the attention of the public.

The festival included Shostakovich’s First Piano Trio, the Piano Trio of his younger contemporary Margarita Kuss, and the Trio for Flute, Viola, and Harp by Weinberg. The first two compositions were performed in one concert, forming a rather strange combination. Shostakovich’s better-known trio is the Second PianoTrio, dedicated to the memory of his friend Ivan Ivanovich Sollertinsky who had died prematurely. Margarita Kuss’s mournful trio appeared as some kind of vindication of audience expectations, perhaps disappointed by the immaturity of Shostakovich’s First Trio.

The Weinberg trio was performed at a concert featuring harpist Alexander Boldachev in a programme dedicated to the 20th-century harp. The concert was well-conceived but offered only a loose relationship to Shostakovich, including works by Debussy, Hindemith, Mosolov, Jolivet, Rota, and Cage.

Film Music. Perhaps it was film music that occupied the niche that traditionally belongs to Shostakovich’s symphonies, illustrating the tragic and satirical side of his work in all its magnitude. In addition, the festival very closely linked Shostakovich’s film music to Shakespeare. On the stage of the Samara Opera House both of Shostakovich’s “Shakespearean” film works—Kozintsev’s Hamlet and King Lear—were performed, as well as a new ballet using his music.

The music to King Lear (as well as that of Kozintsev and Trauberg’s New Babylon) was presented in concert, while Hamlet was transformed into a solo performance by actor Evgeny Mironov and the New Russia Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yuri Bashmet. The director’s excellent solution—a dialogue between Shakespeare’s text (Mironov reading, with lines from Hamlet projected on the screen behind the orchestra) and Shostakovich’s music—gave the film score a truly symphonic impression, equal to the text.

On the evening after Hamlet, Samara audiences were treated to another impressive Shostakovich-Shakespeare dialogue. Performed by the Bolshoi Ballet, The Taming of the Shrew was created by French director Jean-Christophe Maillot using selections from Shostakovich’s film music and Moscow, Cheryomushki, with the music adding absurdity and humour to the classic story.

Operas. Shostakovich’s operatic work was represented by two polar compositions: the world renowned Lady Macbeth and the lesser-known unfinished opera The Gamblers. Lady Macbeth, in the wonderful production by Georgiy Isaakian, was no stranger to many of the Samaran audience—its premiere took place here in 2016 (and perhaps this was one reason for a lessthan-full hall).

The Gamblers did arouse considerable public interest. Yuri Alexandrov created his play The Gamblers-42 for his St. Petersburg theatre back in 1996, and this production was transferred to the stage in Samara. This combines a full performance of Shostakovich’s The Gamblers (about 45 minutes of music) and the performance of a documentary dedicated to Shostakovich’s stay in Kuibyshev during the wartime evacuation. Episodes from The Gamblers, directed by Yuri Alexandrov, alternate with readings of Shostakovich’s letters to Isaak Glikman, along with video and audio recordings featuring Shostakovich, whose character interacts with those from his opera. But for all its artistic value and originality, Alexandrov’s The Gamblers is at odds with factual inaccuracy and subjectivity. With the help of selected letters (written by Shostakovich not only during the evacuation and not only to Glikman), the director conveys an array of erroneous conclusions about the reasons for Shostakovich ceasing work on The Gamblers. The idea that Shostakovich was ashamed to write a comic opera during the war and the blockade of his native Leningrad is exclusively Alexandrov’s fiction. Glikman himself wrote that The Gamblers, which Shostakovich wrote after finishing the Seventh Symphony and before starting work on the Eighth Symphony, “would have acquired the character of a comic interlude, like a satirical drama of Greek tragedians.” The true reasons lie elsewhere: 45 minutes of music covered only the beginning of Gogol’s play, so the opera would have turned out to be too long—in addition to his lingering feelings about the Lady Macbeth affair in 1936.

Nevertheless, the Samara premiere of The Gamblers was one of the brightest events of the festival and a great gift to Samara which, after Lady Macbeth, constitutes the Opera House’s second Shostakovich production, a fact that many other Russian theatres might envy.

Vocal and Chamber Music. A limited number of chamber and choral works by Shostakovich were performed at the festival. The musicAeterna Choir under the direction of Vitaly Polonsky performed Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets, warmly received by the public. Surprisingly, this was the only composition by Shostakovich to be performed on his birthday. The rest of the programme of the concert consisted of choral compositions from the repertoire of musicAeterna (Martin, Petrassi, and Ligeti).

A concert by pianist Alexey Goribol and young soloists of the Bolshoi and Mariinsky Theatres was dedicated to Shostakovich’s vocal music. They gave masterful performances of Pushkin songs opus 46 and opus 91, the Four Verses of Captain Lebyadkin and the vocal cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry. One of the festival’s most successful juxtapositions of Shostakovich’s music with that of his contemporaries saw the performance of Weinberg’s collection Jewish Songs after Isaac Leib Peretz, opus 13, created in 1943, five years before Shostakovich’s cycle and undoubtedly a significant influence.

Piano Music. Another successful juxtaposition came at the concert of piano miniatures performed by Andrei Korobeinikov. Alongside Shostakovich’s early works—Aphorisms and the 24 Preludes, opus 34, Ustvolskaya’s Preludes sounded very organic. Only Rachmaninov’s Preludes were out of context.

Eight of Shostakovich’s opus 34 preludes were also presented in Tsyganov’s arrangement for violin and piano. They were performed by the duet of Domenico Nordio and Mikhail Lidsky in a programme that displayed Shostakovich’s early style, within the context of diverse compositions by Dallapiccola, Françaix, Hindemith, Honegger, and Boris Tchaikovsky.

In conclusion: a significant percentage of the festival programme was made up of rare and early music by Shostakovich and his contemporaries. In the major genres of opera, ballet, or symphony, only Shostakovich’s music was played, but in general, the concept of Shostakovich. XX Century was well conceived. Nevertheless, this was not a festival where “familiar” works by Shostakovich were in the majority, not good news for those listeners wanting to become acquainted with his music. And the festival programme, despite its originality and sophistication, remained perplexing—perhaps explaining the modest attendance at many concerts. Chamber music suffered the most, but symphonic concerts with insufficiently well-known performers were also poorly attended.

One other issue: in almost all concerts, Shostakovich’s music was placed in the context of music by other composers. But neither in the programme notes nor in the various pre-concert talks was there any attempt to explain the programming philosophy, to reveal other composers’ influence on Shostakovich’s creative thinking, or indeed to investigate his attitude to their work. In short—disorienting.

All of the above notwithstanding, the sheer scale of the festival, the participation of some outstanding performers, and indeed the number of concerts was truly hypnotic. It seemed that for two weeks Shostakovich. XX Century united a small circle of “accomplices”—namely, lovers of diverse and rare 20th-century music. And even if this circle is as yet not very large, for future editions—hopefully with a clearer elaboration of the festival’s overall concept and educational orientation—Shostakovich. XX Century can become not only a unique, but also an essential world festival.

At the time of writing, the festival programme (in Cyrillic only) is available online at:

Vladislava Shilina