The program is short but intense: three concerts of symphonic works by Shostakovich, with chamber music and works for piano and an illustrated lecture. Russian maestro Alexander Lazarev has been invited to conduct, and there’s a rare performance of the Fourth Symphony, a work censored by Stalin and which remained unperformed for 30 years.
There’s also a lecture, an exploration of not only the musicology but the historical context in which Shostakovich composed. Shostakovich witnessed his country enduring a period of tremendous oppression, with colleagues and friends executed around him for political and cultural crimes under Stalin. From teenage success and optimism with the First Symphony, through to musical rebellion and coded defiance, Shost-akovich’s work, perhaps more than that of any other composer, is more acutely appreciated with a keen knowledge of context. Pianist Michael Kieran Harvey agrees.
At one stage after being vilified along with Prokofiev -¦ he said to the authorities, -˜Okay, you’re right, I’ll change my style, I’ll become a good little servant of the state,’ all the while giving musical messages to those who can understand it in the west, says Kieran Harvey.
The pieces that I’ll be playing encompass serial techniques, at the same time as you’re not quite aware that they [do] -¦ because if the authorities, particularly a cunning, if not particularly intelligent, character like Stalin, could tell that he was using so-called formalist techniques or modern techniques in his composition, Shostakovich would have been executed, Kieran Harvey insists. The more that you understand the circumstances that a person like Shostakovich had to operate under, the more you just have to admire him.
Kieran Harvey is clearly a fan, although he admits that the Piano Sonata No. 1, which he will be performing on the first day of the program, is one of the most difficult piano sonatas I’ve ever encountered. (The Symphony was written when Shostakovich was just 19 years old.) He notes, however, that despite the program’s journey from optimism to oppression, there exists a continuum of an aesthetic, a recurring style.
You always know when it is Shosta-kovich, because it’s just this atmosphere more or less of dread, says Kieran Harvey. In the later movements and even when he’s trying to be jocular in the scherzos or the major harmony pieces, there’s always this extraordinary schizophrenic edge to them. Like the doublespeak that the Russians themselves [had to speak], and doublethink, that they had to live under.
Finally, Kieran Harvey insists that the Project is no simple history lesson, but that the message of Shostakovich’s work is more pertinent today than ever before.
If we’re not very careful, we’ll have the same situation. And that’s particularly true in this country, insists Kieran Harvey. So even just to be identified as a musician or an artist these days in the present climate is more or less a protest, because it’s so difficult.
The City Of Sydney Shostakovich Project plays from Friday 5 April to Sunday 7 April at Sydney Town Hall. The New Voice Of Soviet Music starts at 8pm on 5 April, features two pieces for string octet, Piano Sonata No. 1 in D and Symphony No. 1. What About The Music?, an illustrated lecture by Andrew Ford, will be held on 6 April at 5pm. Muddle Or Music? includes Three Preludes, Op. 34, String Quartet No. 1 in C and Symphony No. 4, and is performed on 6 April at 8pm. Finally, Defiance will be performed on 7 April at 2pm, and features Three Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, String Quartet No. 8 and Symphony No. 12, The Year 1917. Tickets are priced from $35 and may be booked on 9334 4600 or at www.symphony.org.au.