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MyShrews Reviews: Carducci Connections III
13 Mar 2023

Andrew Petch reviews 'Carducci Connections III' featuring author and broadcaster Stephen Johnson and the music of Shostakovich performed by the famous Carducci quartet at St Alkmund's Church, Shrewsbury. 

For their third and final concert in the 'Connections' series, the Carducci Quartet were joined by BBC Radio 3 classical music critic Stephen Johnson for a programme about Dmitri Shostakovich. 

Johnson narrated extracts from historical sources and letters relating to the great Russian composer, compiled largely by Emma Denton cellist of the Carducci Quartet. This powerful programme - part of Shropshire Music Trust’s enterprising concert season - was developed at the Barbican in London and has received wide critical acclaim. 

The horrors of life in the USSR in the 1930s were brought vividly to life in a statement by Soviet violinist David Oistrakh - 1937 was the year in which many Soviet citizens quaked at night, wondering if this was to be their last night before hearing the knock that indicated that they were to be dragged away, never to be heard of again. How unbelievable that a man destined to become universally recognised as one of the greatest violin virtuosi of the 20th century should live under such appalling circumstances-yet he was one of millions similarly terrorised.

The programme ranged in words and music from the 1930s until the70s, the time of Shostakovich’s death. The ten extracts from the string quartets were played superbly by the members of the Carducci Quartet who have the music of Shostakovich in their collective DNA; they bring out every nuance from irony, bitter-sweet to almost maniacal energy.

The readings reveal the confusion a creative man must have felt. Pravda dismissed Shostakovich’s music as 'cheap clowning' in a vicious denunciation of several composers of the time. In 1949 Stalin phoned Shostakovich who was amazed when the Great Leader said of course his symphonies must be performed-although they had been banned! History was to repeat itself  when Krushchev invited Shostakovich to become President of the Composer’s union-but on condition he become a member of the communist party. Later, Krushchev made an attack on Soviet composers, calling some of their work trash.

Alongside the readings we heard movements from the quartets ranging from quartet 2 to the final quartet 15, extracts which were often dedicated to friends and musicians. They are works of great musical complexity and often related to the prevailing  political climate or the composer’s emotional state. The 8th quartet, one of the most frequently played, is reckoned to be closest to his personal emotional state.

Although the readings were revealing about official reactions, the composer’s letters to Isaak Glikman must have been an enormous consolation, as were the responses from this cherished friend, especially as Shostakovich was not known for long-term friendships. It was a beautiful friendship which did much to sustain the composer in his darkest hours.

Like Beethoven’s late quartets, the late Shostakovich works have an intense spirituality which defy verbal analysis. This was a programme which had been meticulously researched and elegantly presented by speaker and musicians alike, and clearly left the audience deeply moved.

  • The next Shropshire Music Trust Concert is on Friday, March 31st - with the UK's leading classical guitar quartet, The Mela Guitar Quartet, at Blackburn Theatre, Prestfelde School at 7.30pm. Book tickets via ticketsource.co.uk/smt