I knew today had to be Shostakovich. I’m surprised the Russian composer had popped up sooner. But still, not having planned the night before what to listen to today I still experienced a mild panic as I tried to work out what it was I should select. The rules continue to develop: today’s seems to be that it has to be a different composer each day and that ideally it needs to be a different musical form and certainly a different instrument. Variety and contrast seems to be the key here, if you’ll forgive the pun.*
So if I pick Shostakovich this morning, I think as I try in vain to untangle my earphones and pedal slowly on the cross-trainer, I can happily attend my first live concert tomorrow night knowing that the programme will itself – Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky – be a harmonic contrast even if it’s not a geographical one.
Spotify’s algorithms seem a bit unhelpful when I search for ‘Shostakovich’ and ‘symphony’. All I get seems to be Shostakovich 10. In my head, that’s the really long symphony – the really impenetrable one. I like Shostakovich, but I don’t like him that much. Not at 6.45am. In the gym. I consider Shostakovich 5 and think that’s too familiar (too familiar means the recording has to be really top notch so I don’t get to the end of the performance and feel disappointed).
Stefan the gym instructor waves a silent hello in my direction. I look at the timer and realise I’ve already spent 5 minutes on what at best could be described as gentle exercise and not broken a sweat. Make it Shostakovich 10. Dive in. This selection process is taking way too long.
It begins with at sounds like the longest left to right pan I’ve ever imagined. There is a line which remains suspended, keep our attention for what seems like an eternity. Something has happened and it’s quite bad, or something really quite awful is about to. I can’t work out which.
That’s the thing about Shostakovich for me, his musical language paints a cinematic picture which I reckon is probably far more compelling than any director could actually conjur up himself. I adore the broody opening, the threat of something horrific and the militaristic, largely because I know the consequence of that militarism isn’t far away. Listen to the bleak and unforgiving slow section at the beginning of the fourth movement.
The second movement took me by surprise. It is Shostakovich at his best. Tightly coiled and venomous. In this breathlessly efficient movement the strings thunder and the wind whistle with fury. The brass and percussion punctuate proceedings driving the relentless but tightly choreographed drama onwards to its eventual end. This to me is good anger: the musical equivalent of the outward expression and emotion most us fail to deploy successfully or healthily.
In the recording I listened to, conductor Vasily Petrenko pushes the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra to the very limit of Shostakovich’s writing. To go any faster would over-egg things. We stand on the perilous edge of oblivion and it’s brilliant.
* Musical pun, obviously.
I was listening to Shostakovich’s Symphony No.10 played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko Spotify.
If you’ve got a suggestion for a work for me to listen to, leave a comment below or tweet me@thoroughlygood