Monday, September 25, 2006


Dmitri Shostakovich

Composer Dmitri Shostakovich was born 100 years ago today, and it's an anniversary, a centennial, worth celebrating. Shostakovich's oeuvre spanned a great many years and a great many compositional styles, and he was arguably the most important classical composer of the 20th century. He wrote fifteen symphonies, fifteen string quartets, a half dozen each of operas and concertos, and an assortment of suites, movie scores, choral music, and other compositions. Some favourites:

Symphony #1

Shostakovich's symphony is a cheerful, rollicking piece, written as a graduation project when the composer was 19. It's short and delightful, and there's a wonderful recording of it, coupled with the equally delightful 9th symphony, by the London Philharmonic conducted by Bernard Haitink.

Symphony #5

This is the composer's most well-known work. It's a powerful piece, and one that got him back into favour with the authorities after the criticism of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (see below) and of his fourth symphony. My recording of this has Rostropovich conducting the National Symphony Orchestra.

Symphony #7

The seventh symphony, subtitled "Leningrad", is my favourite Shostakovich symphony. It was written during World War II, during the siege of Leningrad (now St Petersburg), and it contains a haunting and powerful "invasion" theme that evokes an army marching on the city. I have three recordings of it: Rostropovich and the National Symphony Orchestra, Haitink and the London Philharmonic, and an old recording with Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

Symphony #15

Shostakovich's last symphony uses a large orchestra with an extensive persussion section, yet is surprisingly free of excess heaviness. The music itself is a blend of twelve-tone elements and references to themes from his earlier works. It's a fascinating piece. I have it by the composer's son, Maxim Shostakovich, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

Concerto for piano, trumpet, and strings

Written in the early 1930s, this is a fairly early work. The piano and trumpet are a wonderful combination, used artfully by the composer, and limiting the accompanying orchestra to strings provides an appealing contrast. On my recording, the composer's son, Maxim conducts, and his granson, Dmitri, is the piano soloist.

Cello concerto #1

Written for the composer's good friend, cellist (and conductor) Mstislav Rostropovich, the first cello concerto is one of a number of Shostakovich's pieces to use his "signature" sequence, "DSCH" — D / E-flat / C / B (using the German notation). I have recordings of the two cello concertos played by Rostropovich.

"The Age of Gold" ballet

Orchestras commonly play a suite from this ballet, and recordings of it are readily available. I had the good fortune to see the Bolshoi Ballet perform the ballet itself, in the 1980s.

"Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" opera

This is Shostakovich's most important opera because of the severe official criticism it drew from the Soviet government and the effect that had on the composer's career and subsequent work. The story paints a dark picture of life; its plot of sexual affairs and murder was almost pornographic by the mores of its time (the mid 1930s). There's an excellent modern recording of it, starring Galina Vishnevskaya (Rostropovich's wife) as Katerina.

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