Exclusive: Shostakovich sounds a revolution in the thick of the Ukraine violence

Exclusive: Shostakovich sounds a revolution in the thick of the Ukraine violence


norman lebrecht

January 21, 2014

A report for Slipped Disc from David Conway in Kyiv (Kiev): 


The muzikovedi of Kyiv evidence some black humour in their programming. The evening before the last presidential elections, which brought Mr. Yanukovich to power, the opera house put on Boris Godunov, which opens with the palace guards beating up the population to persuade them to support the establishment favourite for Tsar.

Last night, while the Maidan demonstration simmered a couple of hundred yards away, the Philharmonia offered Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 11 , The Year 1905, which commemorates the St. Petersburg demo almost exactly 109 years ago where peaceful protesters, complaining about government corruption, inefficiency and repressive legislation were attacked by armed guards at the instructions of the political elite.

A couple of hundred yards in the other direction, towards the Parliament, fires and chanting were raging half-an-hour before the concert began, and the militants had set up a trebuchet to fling cobbles at the militia…..


trebuchet kiev


The mood in Kyiv has swung definitively towards the unpleasant in the last 48 hours, with titushki (provocateur thugs) being shipped in from all over the country – they were being marshalled this morning in the forecourt of Arsenal metro station, just one stop from the Maidan –and the voluntary security guards in the Maidan itself now equipped with baseball bats ……..

But gratifyingly cultural life continues, even if the location of the Philharmonia’s elegant concert hall (which in the nineteenth century was Kiev’s leading gentleman’s club), stranded between two battle zones, means the audiences are presently a little diminished. Not thus diminished, I am glad to say, is the quality of the music.

We kicked off with a change of programme from the anticipated ‘Magic Flute’ Overture and heard instead the Carpathian Concerto, a lively Kodalyesque orchestral piece of 1972 by the Ukrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk (b. 1938). Perhaps this evocation of Ukraine’s Carpathian West may also be interpreted in the circumstances as a gesture in the direction of Europe? Sirenko extracted virtuoso performances from his band in the many passages of instrumental display and this augured well for the next item, the Mozart A major piano concerto K.488 with Gennadiy Demianchuk as soloist. Here the orchestra proved it could also function effectively in chamber mode, with beautiful interplay in particular between piano and wind, gauged perfectly to the fine acoustics of the Philharmonia’s Colonnade Hall. Demianchuk’s reading, of an exceptional clarity, was particularly impressive in the closing paragraphs of the slow movement.

I have heard Volodymyr Sirenko conducting major works of Russian symphonic repertoire – including some memorable performances of the neglected Myaskvosky – and I have never been disappointed. Shostakovich’s 11th  symphony offers many challenges. It was initially criticised in the West as being “film music”– but this may miss a point, as for many Soviet composers, including Shostakovich, film music proved to be a means of getting away with things that couldn’t be done in the concert hall. The film to which it might provide a track would certainly have to be monochrome. The scoring is frequently bleak, sparse, or even minimalist, especially in the first three movements. And we are rarely free from the threatening beat of the drum, or sinister fanfares, which become overwhelming in the final movement, ‘Tocsin’.

Sirenko’s tense and total commitment was palpable throughout, the orchestra at peak attention, the audience enthralled. His long view of the structure minimalized the trivialities to which the score sometimes threatens to descend, and thrillingly conveyed Shostakovich’s messages of heroism, struggle, (and triumph deferred). This may not be Shostakovich’s finest symphony, but everyone in the hall, only too aware of what is taking place in the city, realised that this was a performance close not only to the physical, but to the spiritual knuckle.


ukrainian conductor



UPDATE: After I e-mailed this review, there were some more violent episodes in the night – although things seem peaceful at the moment, everyone is very touchy. Meanwhile, on a note of optimism, the Philharmonia proposes performing Haydn’s ‘Creation’ on Friday…….


  • john mclaughlin williams says:

    Despite the harrowing circumstances of Ukraine at the moment, it is very good to see Volodomyr and NSOU getting some well deserved international exposure.