Edinburgh swiftly dropped Valery Gergiev as president of its festival. This weekend it hears a Shostakovich concert under Andrey Boreyko (jumping in for James Conlon). So how did that go?
Hugh Kerr reports for slippedisc.com and Edinbugh Music Review:
A photo came up on my Facebook memories this morning it was of the RSNO playing the Shostakovich 5th Symphony in 2010 just as they did last night at the Usher Hall! Of course it is very different circumstances today compared to 12 years ago, Russia has for many years had close links with Scotland and in particular strong musical links to the Edinburgh Festival.Valerey Gergiev was for a number of years the president of the Edinburgh Festival and visits from Russian companies were a frequent occurrence.
That of course all changed with the invasion of Ukraine, Gergiev was quickly dropped by the Festival as president, and future plans for Russian events were not pursued. However the RSNO did not drop Russian composers from their programme, rightly pointing out that 19th century composers could hardly be blamed for Putin! Tonight’s program was always going to be a Shostakovich spectacular but it seemed to transfer into an anti~Stalinist and by implication an anti~Putin evening.In an introductory note RSNO chief executive Alistair Mackie said
“ Our position remains that we are proud to play music by composers who worked resolutely in the midst of representation, to hear their music now the triumph artistic freedom in the face of tyranny.” The concert was introduced by the RSNO principal flute Katherine Bryan who made it very clear that it was in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and of course Shostakovich had suffered under Stalin.
Appropriately the concert started with a hymn for Kiev which is opening many classical concerts these days, the soulful sounds of the hymn were shattered by the opening chords of the incidental music from Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk! Shostakovich’s great opera was an outstanding success when premiered in Leningrad in 1934 and then Moscow until Stalin attended the opera and denounced it in Pravda the next day as “muddle not music” It was immediately canceled and wasn’t heard again in Russia till long after Stalins death but elsewhere in the world became one of the great operas of the twentieth century.The opera like Peter Grimes (which I recently reviewed in the EMR) is punctuated by a series of orchestral interludes and American conductor James Conlon arranged these into an orchestral suite and this was the basis of the excerpts the orchestra played tonight.It went from savage music from the death of Katerina’s father in law, giving the augmented brass and percussion a lively opportunity to be heard, to more jovial music about the drunken peasant who discovered Katerina’s dead husband and rushed to inform the police as The composer said “ it’s a hymn to all informers”!
The concert continued with Shostakovich’s Second piano concerto played by North Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski who after being launched as a BBC New Generation Artist 20 years ago has become an established star on the international circuit.I was fortunate to be sitting next to Simon’s manager in the Usher Hall and he told me that they were great fans of the Usher Hall and Scotland and he is being recorded by Linn Records in Scotland, he also told me that the Shostakovich concerto was one of his signature works and he really enjoyed playing it.This Became very clear when he gently slid into the concerto after the lovely introduction from the orchestra under the conductor Andrew Boreyko who despite being a very short notice replacement for American conductor James Conlon, sought to have a genuine empathy for the orchestra and the pianist.Of course it helped that he is a Shostakovich specialist having been trained in St Petersburg although today he also stresses his Polish links.Shosta kovich wrote this concerto as a graduation present for his son Maxim in 1957 when he graduated from Central Music School in Moscow, he played it on his 19th birthday in the great hall of the Moscow Conservatoire and was accepted into the Conservatoire on the strength of the performance although one suspects his father might have had some influence by then!
The concerto is a lovely light hearted work which allows the pianist to show off his skills and Simon clearly had great fun playing it.At the interval I asked Katherine Bryan Shostakovich had really included a tune from” What shall we do with a drunken sailor ” in the concerto and she said yes and if you listen to the symphony you will find several musical references to Carmen! Simon was greeted by warm applause from the Usher Hall audience at the end of the concerto and rewarded us with an encore, a movement from a Shostakovich trio aided by a violin and cello from the orchestra it was a consummate performance.
After the interval we were treated to the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, in my notes on my Facebook photo of 2010 I said “ was it a triumphant hymn to socialist realism or an ironic satire on Stalinism? The debate continues but the music is superb”! Well according to the program notes the debate rages on and it points out that a statement attributed to Shostakovich in 1937 said the symphony was “A Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism “ although it’s worth pointing out that after Stalin died he said “ I think it’s clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth the rejoicing is forced, created under a threat…..it’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying “Your business is rejoicing your business is rejoicing” and you rise shakily and go off muttering “ Our business is rejoicing our business is rejoicing
“Ulitimately the listener must decide.Well this listener recognised that it is perhaps a more conventional and melodic work certainly than the music of Lady Macbeth ,and to that extent it is no doubt a compromise ,but it is still a great symphony and deserves to be heard and it was heard with great pleasure by the Usher Hall audience last night and will go on being heard for many years to come.
The issues of censorship and musical and intellectual freedom in Shostakovich’s time are of course being repeated today, some Russian artists have condemned the invasion of Ukraine; others perhaps fearful of repercussions to themselves or their family have been silent. Others like Gergiev are close to Putin and have paid the price of exclusion outside Russia.I think the RSNO position is correct, Russian music is a really important part of European culture and should not be boycotted, last night’s concert showed how it could inform and educate an audience as well as giving them Pleasure from great music well played.One worrying note was that the Usher Hall was only about half full last night, was Shostakovich seen as too difficult by the Edinburgh audience, were they showing disapproval of Russia or were they still reluctant to risk COVID? COVID numbers are still quite high in Scotland and in the week when masks are no longer compulsory in Scotland indoors, only about half the audience were masked.
Clearly there is still a danger around as one of the Edinburgh Music Review’s critics came down with COVID the day after the performance although it was likely contracted before the concert.Music is dangerously politically and maybe personally but it is one of the great pleasures of life And it’s worth the risk to hear it live, it was truly a life affirming evening at the Usher Hall.