Major celebration of Shostakovich

ANGI KENNEDY In a major coup for Norfolk, the extraordinary life and works of Shostakovich will be celebrated in March. ANGI KENNEDY reports on the visit of the Borodin Quartet, which has a unique link with the great composer.


At 81, Valentin Berlinsky is a remarkable figure, a world class cellist who plays with the vigour of a teenager.

But when he comes to Norfolk this March as part of an internationally important series of concerts, he also will be providing a living link with one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.

This year is the centenary of the birth of Dmitry Shostakovich, whose powerful works tell both a personal and public story reflecting a time of dramatic changes in the former Soviet Union.

For Berlinsky though, he was also a close friend and it is rumoured that the cellist saved the life of the composer when he was threatened by the KGB under Stalin's rule.

Now Berlinsky and the renowned Borodin Quartet that he helped to form more than six decades ago are coming to Norwich to perform all 15 of Shostakovich's quartets in a European one-off.

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The Norfolk and Norwich Chamber Music and University of East Anglia are the joint promoters of a Shostakovich Quartet Cycle at the John Innes Centre. It will be the only time in Europe during the centenary year that the Borodin Quartet will perform the complete set of these fascinating pieces.

For the Chamber Music's honorary secretary, Roger Rowe, it was a personal triumph to secure the acclaimed quartet for Norfolk.

The success of their previous visit to Norwich, in March 2004 with their Beethoven cycle, led to an invitation for Mr Rowe and friends to Moscow to celebrate the quartet's 60th anniversary and Berlinsky's 80th birthday.

While he was there, he invited the quartet back to East Anglia for this special Shostakovich celebration. And because they had such a rapturous reception for their previous performance, they were pleased to say yes to a return visit.

“When they came and played all the Beethoven Quartets as a cycle two years ago, it enabled the audience to get much closer to the composer and feel the way in which he developed,” said Mr Rowe.

“I am sure that this is what will happen with the Shostakovich Cycle. The great overwhelming effect at the end of the event will be that you feel that you have become part of him.”

Each concert will have seating for an audience of 350 and tickets are selling fast. Already about 200 people have bought series tickets to be at all five concerts.

“There will be a real community feel to this,” he commented. “One hundred years after someone's birth is a good opportunity to stand back and see what they have achieved.

“Shostakovich was one of the most amazing composers. Not only was he probably one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, but he was also a most remarkable Russian composer.

“He lived through such amazing political history. He was born in St Petersburg the year after the infamous massacre when the Tsar's troops opened fire on strikers.

“He lived there in 1917 when there was the revolution, then Lenin took power. And he was in Leningrad during its siege in the 1940s.”

Yet throughout these turbulent times, when his life was sometimes in direct threat and his relationship with Stalin famously difficult, Shostakovich - who died in 1975 - remained in the USSR.

“People often ask why he didn't escape to the West like so many others,” said Mr Rowe. “But he was deeply Russian and wanted to stay there to fight the system.

“He was determined that the music would tell its own story. All his feelings about the state are in his music and we can hear it in the quartets.”

The Borodin Quartet first met Shostakovich in 1947, two years after forming, when they played his Third Quartet from manuscript. From then on they, and especially Berlinsky, formed a close friendship with him, playing all his quartets under his supervision.

They became the principal quartet of the USSR and then, in the 1950s, when the Soviets permitted travel to the West, they soon became recognised as one of the most respected ensembles in the world.

But Shostakovich was having a challenging time. The composer was castigated by Stalin, who stormed out of a production of his second opera, The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The next day the opera was fiercely attacked in Pravda.

“It is extraordinary to think of someone's music having that sort of effect, yet perhaps Stalin was jealous of his popularity,” said Mr Rowe.

“He was summoned by the KGB for an interview, where they suggested he had been implicated in a plot to assassinate Stalin - which was the way in which people seemed to disappear.

“But Berlinksy also knew Stalin quite well and although he has never talked about it, it has always been felt that it was his intervention that saved Shostakovich's life.

“It will be wonderful to have Berlinksy here as a direct link with Shostakovich. He doesn't speak English very well but he is still very alert.

“He plays the cello like an 18-year-old, not an 81-year-old. He is a quite remarkable man.”

With him in the quartet are Andrei Abramenkov (second violin), a member for 25 years; Igor Naidin (viola), a student of the original Borodin violinist Dmitri Shebalin; and the leader, Ruben Aharonian (first violin), who has won many international awards and who joined the quartet in 1996.


The Borodin Quartet will be performing the Shostakovich Quartet Cycle at the John Innes Centre on:

t Friday March 3, 7.30pm (Quartets one, two and three)

t Sunday March 5, 3pm (Quartets four, five and six)

t Wednesday March 8, 7.30pm (Quartets seven, eight and nine)

t Friday March 10, 7.30pm (Quartets 10, 11 and 12)

t Saturday March 11, 7.30pm (Quartets 13, 14 and 15)

Tickets for the series (all five concerts plus the free supporting events and programme booklet) are £80, with individual tickets costing £16 or £4 for students under the age of 25.

The supporting events which are free to ticket holders include:

t Introductory talks by Roger Rowe at the UEA Music Centre on 'A layman's guide to the Shostakovich Quartets' - there are three remaining talks, on February 13, 20 and 27 at 6pm, each lasting about an hour.

t On March 5, at noon at the John Innes Centre, there will be a lecture on the Shostakovich Quartets by Dr Marina Frolova-Walker of Cambridge University.

t On March 11, at 4.30pm, the centre has a seminar on the Shostakovich Cycle, chaired by Christopher Cook, and throughout the series there will be a foyer display in the centre on the life and times of the composer.

t Also at 6.30pm at the centre before the performances on March 3, 8 and 10 there will be pre-concert introductions.

For tickets and more information, contact Prelude Records, 25b St Giles' Street, Norwich on 01603 628319.

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