Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 24

Shostakovich Against Stalin: The War Symphonies
Directed by Larry Weinstein.

Valery Gergiev, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, Kirov Orchestra.
Philips 074 3117. DVD Video. Aspect ratio 16:9 anamorphic, NTSC, Region 0. Stereo, DTS 5.1 Surround (audio extracts only). TT 76 min (film) + 70 min (audio extracts).
Subtitles: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese.
Bonus features: Audio extracts from Symphonies Nos. 4 (3rd movement, conclusion), 5 (1st movement), 6 (2nd movement), 7 (1st movement), 8 (3rd movement), 9 (1st movement); Shostakovich Wartime Radio Broadcast; Shostakovich Chronology.

It is almost a decade since this film was first released (see review in DSCH 11), just two years after the publication of Elizabeth Wilson’s treasure-trove of reminiscences, Shostakovich Remembered. While the personal memories of those who knew Shostakovich well may no longer be as revelatory in the documentary as they were in Wilson’s book (for many of those interviewed are the same people), their voices deserve to be heard, and for that reason alone, the re-release of this beautifully-crafted film on DVD is something to be welcomed.

To hear Shostakovich’s contemporaries describing what his music meant for them reminds us once again that their experience of this music is intensely personal, and absolutely irreproducible by those who are fortunate enough not to have experienced starvation, arrest and oppression. So, for example, Dmitri Tolstoy, a blockade survivor and composer, hears the grotesque middle section of the Eighth Symphony’s scherzo as “Stalin’s feast” and the symphony as a whole “about totalitarianism… horrible reality and the pitiable human soul which is looking for a place to hide from it.” One of the most moving accounts comes from another blockade survivor who remembers her excitement at hearing the Leningrad Symphony in 1941: “We had lived for this moment… it [the symphony] was Leningrad’s… it was ours.” Clearly, Shostakovich’s music means (or meant; many of Weinstein’s interviewees have died since the film was made) something to his contemporaries that is uniquely theirs, and theirs alone. Their emotional responses – like all those to any piece of music – will eventually die with them, and so a whole generation of Shostakovich’s most devoted listeners will disappear. To have their vivid descriptions of the composer and his music preserved on film is indubitably precious.

Of Valery Gergiev’s own statements about Shostakovich, some cautionary words are needed. No one would question Gergiev’s immense musical legacy, and the service he has given to Russia’s musical culture, when it stood in dire need of such talented and committed artists, is incalculable. But to hear him assert – or at least strongly imply – that Shostakovich became a greater artist due to Stalin’s domineering presence in Russia is troubling: “His [Stalin’s] presence made Shostakovich become stronger… the pressure that was put on Shostakovich worked, but to the better.” Is Gergiev really saying that Stalin’s interference provoked Shostakovich to levels of greatness that would have eluded him otherwise? For years the West thought the opposite, reacting against the Soviet line that Pravda helped Shostakovich become a better composer. Of course, Gergiev’s argument is not, on the face of it, a recycling of this claim, since he sees Shostakovich’s greatness as lying in his opposition to Stalin, not in capitulation to his requirements (whatever those might have been). But in a perverse sense, Gergiev really is claiming that without Muddle Instead of Music Shostakovich would have been a lesser composer. Or, to put it another way, he thrived under persecution. My guess would be that few of those interviewed in this film would agree.

Among the “war symphonies” of the film’s title – the Fourth, Fifth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth – the Sixth is noticeable by its absence, despite its second movement being included in the list of extracts. It’s easy to see why: its mercurial second and third movements do not seem to invite political interpretations. So, for Weinstein and possibly for Gergiev too, the “war symphonies” are those that depict Shostakovich’s private creative “war” with Stalin. And if Gergiev’s hypothesis is followed through, we are led to suppose that these five symphonies constitute Shostakovich’s creative peak – a view that is by no means universally shared. It is easy to allow respect for a great artist to extend to regarding their pronouncements on art and politics as authoritative; here is stark evidence as to the fallibility even of the most talented.

Gergiev’s conducting, however, is another matter. From the haunting viscerality of the Eighth Symphony scherzo to the genial buffoonery of the Ninth’s first movement, these are all stunning performances, and ones that amply demonstrate that Gergiev is without any doubt one of the front rank interpreters of Shostakovich’s music active today.

Anyone who teaches in schools and universities will prefer the superior trackability of a DVD to the hit-and-miss scrolling through a video in class; and the same goes for anyone likely to use this sort of material in public lectures. So, for sheer ease of use, this DVD is to be preferred over the earlier video. But the bonus features it now includes are cursory in the extreme, and for the most part seem to be aimed at advertising Gergiev’s CD performances of Shostakovich’s symphonies and a range of Philips opera and vocal DVDs. As for the brief chronology, it is difficult to imagine who would use it when far more detailed information can be gleaned from other published sources. The only really new snippet offered on the DVD is Shostakovich reading his wartime speech to besieged Leningrad – a grand total of 54 additional seconds of useful material. Extracts from Gergiev’s performances of Symphonies 4 to 9 are just that – extracts. No more than a single movement from any one work is given, and the Fourth Symphony is represented by the last seven minutes of the finale only. A cynical viewer might be forgiven for thinking that this re-release provides not only a welcome chance to obtain Weinstein’s film in DVD format, but also a wonderful opportunity for publicising Gergiev’s recordings.

Pauline Fairclough