When you spend years writing a biography of a creative figure and thinking about everything he did, you might expect to be sick of him once the job is over. I thought I might be done with Shostakovich when I finished Music for Silenced Voices. But I was wrong. Whenever I hear his great music again, the love for him that got me to write the book in the first place surges back, and I feel I will never reach the end of him.
This realization struck home twice in this past month: once at the performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Metropolitan Opera, and once at a concert titled “Shostakovich Reflected” that the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center put on in Alice Tully Hall. In each case, I was reminded how much Shostakovich is and always will be my guy: how proud I am of him, how much I sympathize with the conflicts that wracked him, and how little I will ever fully come to grips with the extent of his genius.
I had only seen a filmed performance of Lady Macbeth before, so this live production, though it had its shortcomings, was a revelation. The cast was superb, as actors as well as singers, and the Met orchestra couldn’t have been better. Musically, I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. If Graham Vick’s direction left me cold—not to mention confused, with its achronological intrusions and overdone gestures—that was a minor problem compared to the strength of the opera itself. I could easily have watched the whole thing two or three times, despite the nonsensically Magritte-like sets and the distractingly silly costumes, which were especially harmful to the serious emotions of the second act. Vick appeared to have read the killing Pravda review of the 1936 Moscow performance (which alleged that “love was smeared all over everything in the most vulgar manner possible”) and to have taken this message to heart as a kind of directorial instruction. But despite his best efforts, he couldn’t ruin the opera, for at every moment Shostakovich came to the rescue. There was not a single inert moment in the entire score; the excitingly dissonant, profoundly melodic, utterly surprising music was doing something new and fascinating at every turn. It only made me the sadder that this, Shostakovich’s second opera, was also his last—finished when he was less than thirty, and doomed to remain the final symbol of a powerfully original path not taken.
The Chamber Music Society concert later in the month featured two pieces by Shostakovich: a relative rarity, the “Seven Romances” (a 1967 song cycle that signaled a late return to his writing for the human voice), and the incomparably beautiful Second Piano Trio of 1944. I was happy to hear the “Seven Romances” —this, too, was something I had never heard in a concert hall before—but it was not, I felt, vintage Shostakovich. The piano trio was and is. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is one of my favorite pieces of twentieth-century music: every time I hear it, and especially when I hear it live, it seems even more wonderful to me, with its strange combinations of pathos and humor, brilliance and simplicity, vigor and silence. The three young musicians who played it this time—Soyean Kate Lee on the piano, Yura Lee on the violin, and Jakob Koranyi on the cello—did it as well as I have ever heard it done, and that is saying a great deal. Shostakovich himself was the work’s first pianist, and I own that recording, which I treasure. But a recording can never be more than a frozen object, and so I was exceedingly grateful to the CMS performers for bringing the piece to life yet again.