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Inside The Music: A Genius Revealed

Discover more about classical music ahead of Dresden Philharmonic’s A Genius Revealed concert with our new video series and interactive programme notes.

Russian heavyweights and Germanic opera

Two Russian masterpieces dominate tonight’s programme – Tchaikovsky’s sole Violin Concerto, once considered ‘unplayable’, will surely be launched to new heights by the mightily talented Jennifer Pike, a former winner of BBC Young Musician. And Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 tows the Communist line with thrilling tunes and abundant energy. And it’s only natural that the Dresden Philharmonic should bring some Weber with them – after all, the German composer was the city’s director of opera, and is buried there.

VIDEO: Weber’s Euryanthe operatic overture

VIDEO: Violin Concertos – A battle with the orchestra

Moments to listen out for

Shostakovich – Symphony No.5
The first five or so minutes of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 are disturbed and angry, and yet instantly the mood changes to one of peace and warmth. It’s done suddenly but seamlessly – the mark of a master composer.

Shostakovich – Symphony No.5
The manic second movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth contains a magical oasis where a solo violin duets with the harp, before the flute takes over and, almost instantly, the sinister mood returns once again.

Shostakovich – Symphony No.5
Two minutes before the end of the Fifth Symphony, the mood suddenly changes from dark to light – almost as if Shostakovich flicks a switch. A sudden victory!

Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto
The main theme of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is one of the composer’s finest – and it comes just over a minute into the music, before returning again in a dazzling but stunningly beautiful display of double-stopping.

Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto
The final movement teases the audience before it properly gets going, taking almost a minute for its engine to spark. But when it does, it’s unstoppable in its exuberance. Plenty of Russian dance and, presumably, vodka!

The state ordered ‘singable’ tunes of Shostakovich in his fifth symphony

When Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was premiered in 1934, it was initially met with acclaim, praised for its power and originality. But that was before Stalin went to see it – and a very different review appeared in Russia’s state newspaper, Pravda. ‘Fidgety, screaming, neurotic’ was how the music was described, and Shostakovich was duly chastised. It probably didn’t help that the plot revolves around an adulteress who murders her husband, is sent to Siberia and duly commits suicide. So, probably wisely, Shostakovich halted work on his Symphony No. 4, a terrifying, frenzied work attacking the Soviet system (it was eventually premiered in 1961, way after Stalin’s death).

The Symphony that eventually emerged in its place in 1937 was No. 5, a work deemed acceptable by the authorities in accordance with the rules that ‘all aspects of music should be subordinated to melody and such melody should be clear and singable’. It was a triumph at its premiere – so much so, that the authorities assumed the composer had planted hundreds of admirers in among the audience! But there’s no doubt that Shostakovich’s symphony is a great work. There are plenty of sweeping tunes to sing here, and the symphony takes on the traditional sonata form used by Mozart and Beethoven. The ‘narrative’ of the piece is even in keeping with Beethoven’s great Fifth Symphony – a journey from darkness to light. But it’s also starkly modern, a distillation perhaps of everything Shostakovich had written up until then.

The opening movement’s angular, ferocious opening gives way to calmer, albeit dark, waters (there’s a strong film music flavour here) before resuming its agitated mood. The second movement has a Mahlerian playfulness, the woodwind and strings playing off each other. The plaintive third movement is one of Shostakovich’s most sublime – although even this movement isn’t without its challenges, its central section unnerving and troubled before peace is once again restored.

But it’s for the final movement that this Symphony is really famous, with its irrepressible, defiant optimism. Shostakovich pits percussion against fiery brass fanfares and biting strings in a show of orchestral strength – pure adrenaline that will leave you on the edge of your seat.

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is another energy rush – a technical tour de force that nevertheless brings with it a warm, sentimental heart, its solo violin part generously melodic and song-like, the orchestra full of boisterous, optimistic life and vigour. Its grand opening movement is a sparkling 20-minute dialogue between the two, with an explosive (and, at times, tender) cadenza of eye-watering complexity. The second movement is pure Russian folk song, Tchaikovsky reverting to his inward character. But the final movement is one of the composer’s most cheerful and brilliant – the perfect combination of technical challenge and effortless fun.

To kick off the programme, the Dresden Philharmonic invites one of its fellow citiziens, Carl Maria von Weber, to the party. The overture is the only part of Weber’s medieval-themed opera Euryanthe that is regularly performed today despite the rest of the work containing some of the composer’s best music. The overture gives a flavour of what we’re all missing: beautiful orchestration – almost Wagnerian in its flavour – and plenty of drama packed into nine short minutes.

10 things you didn’t know about… Shostakovich

  • Shostakovich was something of an obsessive, regularly synchronizing the clocks around his home and sending himself letters to test the efficiency of the postal service.
  • He loved football, supported Zenit Leningrad and was even a qualified referee. He wrote a ballet called ‘The Golden Age’ about a team that falls foul of a match rigging scandal.
  • The Russian composer wrote more than 35 film scores including those for The Gadfly and the science-fiction silent film Aelita: Queen of Mars for which Shostakovich also played the piano.
  • Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 ‘Leningrad’ was written in response to the terrible events of the city’s siege by the Nazis and their allies from 1941 until 1944.
  • But the symphony was actually premiered in Kuibyshev in 1942 and then in London, the score having been smuggled out of Russian on microfilm.
  • The same year, Shostakovich appeared dressed as a fireman on the cover of Time magazine – the composer had helped fight the flames on the roof of the Leningrad Conservatoire that had been lit by German incendiary bombs.
  • In the 1960s, Shostakovich became good friends with Benjamin Britten, who conducted his Symphony No. 14 in Aldeburgh.
  • In 1928, he wrote an opera called The Nose, about a St Petersburg official whose nose, having become detached from his face, starts leading a life of its own.
  • Stalin came to see Shostakovich’s 1930 opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, but left halfway through. The following day, an article in the Soviet newspaper Pravda accused the composer of writing ‘chaos instead of music’.
  • The composer’s 1926 Symphony No. 1 is actually his graduation piece, written at the age of just 19.

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