A video masterclass in icebox conducting

A video masterclass in icebox conducting


norman lebrecht

September 27, 2011

Here’s a video on youtube of Evgeny Mravinsky conducting the third movement of Shostakovich’s eighth symphony.

I have watched it five or six times over two days, never having witnessed so lucid a demonstration of what a great conductor of the old school can do with the soundtrack of his own lifetime. I have even watched it with the sound off.

The film is rare in many ways – that it exists at all; in good sound and colour; and that it is shot by a film director who understands conducting. In short, a miracle.

The orchestra is the Leningrad Philharmonic, concertmaster Viktor Liberman.

I expect to watch it many times more.


  • Due to the way cold war propaganda shaped our understanding of WWII, most Westerners don’t fully understand that the Slavic people faced a war of extermination. The Nazis were not out to just defeat the Slavs, but to exterminate them and occupy their lands in a program called Lebensraum. (The horrific details are outlined in Hitler’s _Zweites Buch, which was only translated into English about 10 years ago, and is still almost unknown.) That is why, for example, the Nazis murdered 3 million Soviet POWs through starvation and slave labor. There was no reason to keep them alive, since the ultimate purpose of the war was extermination.

    The evil of Stalin aside, the sacrifices the Soviets made to defeat the Nazis are quite simply beyond comprehension. The world will be forever in their debt, especially in regard to the Battle of Stalingrad and what the Soviets endured to break the sieges of Moscow and Leningrad. History illustrates how deeply these events affected Shostakovich and his music. What a candy-assed world the London Phil lives in, if it has forgotten how politics and the horrific events of life can sometimes enter music. Perhaps they need to revisit Brittan’s War Requiem.

    My wife was on the jury for a competition in Russia a few years ago. She noticed the extraordinary patriotism of some of the older musicians who had lived during WWII. It wasn’t for communism, but a devotion to Russia and its people. The traumas of those dark days of WWII still seemed to shape every cell in their bodies. I contend that one can hear this when Russian orchestras like the Leningrad Phil played Shostakovich under Mravinsky. I don’t want to exaggerate, but this is not just icebox conducting. Underneath there somewhere, it’s a shriek coming out of hell.

  • Nurhan Arman says:

    I had seen this video before but somehow it was even more touching after being in this hall and visiting the war memorial museum in St. Petersburg earlier this month. Thanks for posting it. It is a miracle indeed created by Shostakovich, Leningrad Philharmonic and Mravinsky.

  • Tony says:

    I imagine the rehearsals were quite tough going. It is wonderful to hear real tension and precision without anyone playing to the cameras. It is just all focussed on performance. Also there is no evidence of dirty tricks in editing, there are not microphones in every player’s face and we hear the natural sound of the hall. I was recording there two weeks ago and it is a fabulous hall with so much atmosphere. If only we had a hall like this in London.

  • A great performance by a nearly exact contemporary of Shostakovich. What is it about this music that gives it such moral authority, such seriousness? Thanks so much for posting this–I didn’t know it existed. This kind of conducting can be more effective than the exaggerated melodrama of many conductors. I did a brief introduction to Shostakovich’s symphonies on my blog here:


    I posted this very movement, one of my favorites, but with Haitink conducting.

  • Pete Parker says:

    Great clip… barely working up a sweat but getting such results… reminds me of a story my father told me about Fritz Reiner who also had a “minimalist” beat… some wag in the cellos or double basses brought in a telescope and set it up at rehearsal so as to better see Dr.Reiner’s beat. Only when he looked through it the good Doctor has stuck a sign up saying “you’re fired”!!!