Shostakovich. The great Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich was born on September 25, 1906. Many books have been written about his life, his ambivalent and often tragic position in the Soviet society, and of course his music. One thing that has remained a bit of a puzzle is influence that Mahler had on the music of Shostakovich. That this influence was very strong, especially starting with his Symphony no. 4, goes without saying. Later in his career, responding to a journalist’ routine question about what he would take with him to a desert island, Shostakovich responded: “A Mahler score.” But how did it happen, since Mahler was practically unknown in the Soviet Union?
In the pre-Revolutionary Russia Mahler was famous as a conductor and derided as a composer. The first Soviet conductor to perform Mahler on a more or less regular basis was Kirill Kondrashin, and that didn’t happened till the late 1960s. On the other hand we know that one of the closest friends Shostakovich ever had was the prominent Soviet music and arts critic Ivan Sollertinsky (Shostakovich dedicated his Second Piano trio, op. 67, to him). Sollertinsky, who died in 1944 at the age of 42, was one of the very few enthusiasts of Mahler’s music in the Soviet Union. Nowadays his writings are almost impossible to read, dated and full of the communist jargon, (he calls Mahler, whom he obviously loved, a “petit bourgeois composer”), but they provide some very valuable information. In a footnote to his article on Gustav Mahler, Sollertinsky writes: “Of all the concert halls of the Soviet Union, only at the Leningrad Philharmonic is Mahler performed relatively often, and as a result, Mahler is quite popular in Leningrad. In the first 10 years of the Philharmonic’s existence, Mahler’s 1st Symphony was performed 4 times, his 2nd – 5 times, the3rd – twice, the 4th – twice, the 5th – 4 times, the 6th – not a single time, the 7th – once, the 8th – not a single time, the 9th – once, “Das Lied von der Erde” – three times. This success is due to conductors of the “Mahler School” – Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Alexander Zemlinsky, and Fritz Stiedry.” (The St-Petersburg Philharmonic Society was reopened as Petrograd and later Leningrad Philharmonic in 1921. Sollertinsky was writing in 1932). So Shostakovich, who lived in St-Petersburg (Leningrad) most of his life, happened to develop as a musician in the only place in the Soviet Union where Mahler’s music could be heard (and authentically performed by great conductors) and be influenced by of one of the very few Soviet Mahlerites!
To celebrate Shostakovich’s birthday we’ve put together a brief playlist. First you’ll hear his Piano Quintet in g minor, opus 57, performed by the pianist James Dick and Eusia String Quartet. Then the pianist Roberto Russo plays Prelude no. 2, from Five preludes without opus number. And finally the recent winner of the Tchaikovsky competition Narek Hakhnazaryan, cello, plays Sonata for Cello and Piano in d minor, Op. 40. He’s accompanied by Roman Rabinovich. To listen, click here.
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