Gadfly: Shostakovich’s Ace of Tunes

Many people venturing into classical music often avoid composers who have a reputation for being inaccessible. This is perfectly reasonable, but the adage to “never judge a book by its cover” might just as easily apply to a CD, or LP – if you’ve still got any of either of those. I am certainly guilty of pre-judging music just from the name of the composer alone, probably as a result of just one bad experience; but have, thankfully, had my hasty prejudice frequently overturned when pointed elsewhere. I recently attended a concert given by the Belcea Quartet, in which they performed Shostakovich’s fifteenth, and final, string quartet. Had I so much as overheard it on the radio, there is absolutely no doubt that I would have turned it off in an instant, but to listen to -and, indeed, to watch it- being played in the flesh was an extraordinary experience.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) had a complicated personality, and few composers explored quite as many different styles, old and new, as he. Whilst being obsessed with cleanliness, he was also a heavy smoker, and generally of a nervous disposition. If you are more prone to tuneful harmonies than experimental forays, it is easy to see why the mention of his name might put you off if your first experience was to be exposed to something similar to the piece above, of which there was no shortage.  But composing in a Stalin-led regime was a tricky balancing act: he was expected to provide propaganda in an upbeat manner, which was wholly at odds with his instincts to deliver melancholy. His work is full of despair, but he knew which side his bread was buttered too, so ‘crowd-pleasers’ were required to stay in favour. The short of it, however, is that he spent his entire life wrestling with this conflict – and ultimately veered more on the side of the inconsolable.

Amongst his extensive and varied repertoire is a substantial film score output and his work for ‘The Gadfly‘, later also used in ‘Reilly, Ace of Spies’ must surely include one of the most delightful melodies ever written. So this post is to share the charming, lighter music that he could produce in the  ‘Romance‘ of that suite, which is by no means limited to this – you just have to dig a little! Many famous violinists have recorded it, but most seem to have a slight tendency to take it a fraction too fast. Not so in this recording by Jonathan Carney, using a Stradivarius violin, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: it is a really fine rendition, starting with the melody, then dipping briefly into a passage of orchestral doubt in the minor key, before returning triumphantly, and peacefully, to the original theme.

Shostakovich once said, “In the long run, any words about music are less important than the music“. I think that’s my cue.



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