Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Shostakovich and Strictly Come Dancing

On An Overgrown Path is a huge fan of Shostakovich, and has devoted many articles to him in recent months. But if I hear another note of his music on BBC Radio 3 in the next few weeks I am likely to kick in the fronts of my extremely expensive speakers.

Wall to wall Shostakovich makes no more sense than wall to wall Bach cantatas, or wall to wall Wagner. Shostakovich is a first-rate composer, but even his most ardent fans must acknowledge that his music lacks the sheer range that distinguishes a true master such as Beethoven. To put it bluntly an awful lot of Shostakovich sounds the same, and some of it is the aural sound equivalent of secondhand chewing gum. Broadcast single composer marathons lacking the frisson of live performance do no more than grab media headlines and boost short term ratings.

The Government White Paper published yesterday on the future of the BBC gave some hope as it directed that the BBC 'should not merely chase ratings or copy successful shows on other channels.' But that hope was quickly extinguished by the next paragraph which praised the TV show Strictly Come Dancing for its creativity.

Sadly the BBC has turned composer anniversaries into a media friendly stick to beat audiences with. But there is one anniversary this year which shouldn't be overlooked. The influence of Shostakovich is not hard to find in the symphonies of Sir Malcolm Arnold, and in fact Arnold met Shostakovich when he visited Russia as the representative of the UK Musician's Union. I am told that Communist party member Dimitri Kabalevsky also had to be present at these meetings to make sure the two bad-boys of 20th century music didn't misbehave.

Sir Malcolm is 85 this year. Here is a tonic to the current Shostakovich saturation in the form of a four minute long hi-res MP3 download (10.5MB) of the first movement of Arnold's Quintet for Brass (1961). It is scored for two trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba, and is played by a brass quintet from Berkeley, whose members are AJ Shankar, Nikhil Kacker, Kate Stewart, Avik Chatterjee, and Matt Pereira -

Audio linked from Umesh Shankar's Recordings Page. Image credit - BBC
. Image owners - if you do not want your picture used in this article please contact me and it will be removed. Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Arnold's 9th - neglected 20th century masterpiece?

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Many, many thanks for this article.

I actually feel that wall to wall performances of any composer's work is a rather dodgy thing to do - although much does depend upon the composer I guess! I just feel that no composer ever really writes a piece with the idea of having it performed alongside everything else he has ever written. There is something rather unfair about the exercise.

Garth Trinkl said...

Pliable, thanks for the Malcolm Arnold mention.

It made me recall that, tonight, the Montpelier Wind Quintet, based at James Madison University, will be performing, at 7:30 PM at the Terrace Theatre of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Malcolm Arnold’s Three Shanties for Wind Quintet, Op. 4. Tickets are $25; or $15.50 if one buys the Cultural Alliance's promoted tickets at Ticketplace before 6 PM.

Unfortunately, the Kennedy Center did not mention the Malcolm Arnold on its site or in its promotional materials; and Charles Downey's otherwise eagle-eyes over at ionarts.org, missed listing this concert in its weekly cultural calendar.

Back to blogging for Belarus...

Henry Holland said...

Shostakovich is a first-rate composer

Oh no, I disagree completely in the strongest, yet politest, terms. What was it Strauss said? "I may not be a first rate composer, but I'm a great second rate composer" or something like that. Shostakovich is a third, nay fourth rate composer in my view.

My friend Patrick and I don't agree much on the merits of various composers but we are united on two things.

Brahms is freaking awful.

and

Shostakovich is only lionized because of his biography, not the quality of his music. Has any major composer written such large chunks of trash as Dmitri?

Pliable said...

Henry, thanks for a lovely comment.
I don't agree with it, but it captures the spirit of An Overgrown Path perfectly - strong, but polite, debate communicated with passion.

For me the Brahms symphonies are wonderful, but I sympathise with those who feel they never quite shake off the shadow of Beethoven. But Brahms' chamber music is peerless. There are few works I would trade for the clarinet sonatas and clarinet quintet.

Anonymous said...

And who of the greats after Beethoven did completely shake off his influence? Mahler alone? Rachmaninoff? Sibelius?

I will posit that Brahms did shake off his anxiety ... and I personally wouldn't trade a Brahms symphony for a Schubert symphony or a Schumann symphony -- or a Mahler, Rachmaninoff, or Sibelius symphony...

Anonymous said...

What's the difference between a
"first-rate" composer and a "true master"?

Pliable said...

What's the difference between a
"first-rate" composer and a "true master"?


Very fair question - what clumsy tools words are.

I was trying, crudely, to imply a hierarchy of genius, with Beethoven somewhere above Shostakovich.

If your house is on fire which CDs do you save first? For me definitely Beethoven before Shostakovich. But then there are the 24 Preludes and Fugues for Piano, Op 87 ...

What clumsy tools words are.

Justin said...

"There are few works I would trade for the clarinet sonatas and clarinet quintet"

Don't forget the clarinet trio.

"Has any major composer written such large chunks of trash as Dmitri?"

I'm curious as to what you think of as trash (in a non-sarcastic way). His movie compositions (probably is trash), is overplayed 8th string quartet, his reorchestration of the Schumann cello concerto?

funkmesh said...

Hi there, a friend pointed me to your blog post which links to an MP3 of my brother's quintet recording. It's now hosted in a more permanent location at http://www.umeshshankar.com/recordings/#brassquintets

You may want to update the link. Cheers, Umesh