September 21, 2012 8:11 pm

Pieces in times of war

Rhythmic applause isn’t really applause at all; it negates the essential spontaneity, the organic feeling of ebb and flow

Witnessing the perfectly rhythmic applause that followed a performance of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony by the Russian National Orchestra in Moscow, I remembered another performance from my school days. At the non-religious “alternative assembly” that older boys could attend instead of chapel, a friend read a vignette from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. The scene was a district party conference in Moscow Province in the time of Stalin. At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was proposed. Everyone instantly rose to their feet and “stormy applause, rising to an ovation”, broke out.

It went on, and on, and on. A sense of desperation became apparent, as everyone knew the first person to stop applauding would be noticed by the NKVD men at the back of the hall. Eventually the director of the local paper factory took the decision to sit down. Instantly the applause ceased. Later that night, the director was arrested; he was sentenced to 10 years in the Gulag. “Remember,” said his interrogator, “don’t ever be the first to stop applauding.”

The masterstroke of my friend’s reading was that he knew the headmaster, an authoritarian and not especially popular figure, would be attending that particular assembly, and guessed that the reading would be followed by applause that went on, and on, and on – until the headmaster, realising the joke was on him, swept off with his long gown trailing behind him.

I’m sure the rhythmic applause in the Tchaikovsky Hall was not meant to be like that at all, but in its quasi-military co-ordination it carried disturbing echoes. Rhythmic applause isn’t really applause at all; it negates the essential spontaneity, the organic feeling of ebb and flow, the way tiny streams swell into a great flood. Applause has natural crescendos and diminuendos, as players leave the stage then return, as particular sections of the orchestra are picked out by the conductor.

I may well be misreading something here – but then Moscow seems to me a place where you can easily misread things. Shostakovich himself is also notoriously difficult to read. The initially jovial then increasingly nightmarish theme that comes to dominate the Leningrad’s first movement has usually been thought to represent Nazi militarism. This interpretation was popular among the Allies, who quickly (after the score had been flown out via Tehran) co-opted the Leningrad as part of their propaganda effort.

But Shostakovich had in fact started working on the symphony before the Nazis attacked Russia in June 1941. His friend Lev Lebedinsky wrote that Shostakovich initially referred to the famous tune as the Stalin theme. In Testimony, the 1979 book generally accepted to be Shostakovich’s memoirs, the composer implies that the first movement was about more than the Wehrmacht: “I had to describe the horrible extermination machine and express protest against it.” And when I spoke to the orchestra’s principal percussionist Ilya Melikhov – who brought off the famous snare-drum accompaniment with ferocious brilliance – he commented that he didn’t find the “invasion theme” especially sinister; more playful and jaunty.

The ending of the Leningrad blazed with glory as delivered by the RNO (Russia’s leading post-communist ensemble, founded by Mikhail Pletnev in 1990) under Vladimir Jurowski – but what kind of glory is it? Some say the C major peroration is ironic but I am not so sure; I think it could represent Shostakovich’s vision of the heroic Russian proletariat and its rebirth in a post-Stalinist era, which never happened.

The Moscow audience seemed to love it, no doubt conscious that this is the work’s 70th anniversary, and remembering the epic performance given in Leningrad, now St Petersburg, in August 1942 by half-starved musicians. In some ways the extra-musical associations still dominate the music itself, which I have never found entirely convincing – too long, too bombastic.

You could not say that about the other work the RNO played in Moscow, and will play again as part of the joint RNO/LPO War and Peace season at London’s Southbank Centre in early October, Vaughan Williams’s despairing Sixth Symphony. The pairing is clever: not only are both symphonies deeply informed by the horrors of war, but the obsessive tat-a-tat ostinato that breaks into the second movement of the Sixth clearly echoes Shostakovich’s snare-drum.

Neither composer wished to be pinned down too precisely on the “meaning” of their respective symphonies. Indeed, when asked about the meaning of the Sixth Vaughan Williams is said to have responded, “ ... it never seems to occur to people that a man might just want to write a piece of music.” What a piece it is, though, especially the bleached last movement in which wraiths drift through a ruined landscape. Jurowski and his superbly disciplined string players made it sound like the accompaniment to a film by Tarkovsky. The applause that followed was somewhat muted, and not rhythmic – which may have been no bad thing.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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