Vladimir Ashkenazy talks about the composer
Vladimir Ashkenazy was interviewed by John Stratford and John Riley in October 1991 while travelling by car to his hotel from Walthamstow Town Hall, where he had spent the day rehearsing the Eighth Symphony with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This interview, conducted shortly before the attempted Communist coup which, backfiring, brought Boris Yeltsin to power, originally appeared in DSCH.

You left the Soviet Union in 1963. Did you ever meet Shostakovich?

I met him two or three times. Once I played his Trio for him with some friends of mine. He was very sweet. But he didn't make any comment. Later I found out that this wasn't very good. It probably meant he didn't like our interpretation too much! Fair enough, we were only students. But I thought we played quite well! Another time I met him at a concert, and he congratulated me; and another time I went to the first performance of his Cello Concerto, given by Rostropovich with piano accompaniment, in the Union of Soviet Composers. I shook his hand, I think. But I never met him properly.

You mentioned playing the Trio. Have you played much of the piano music?

Well, there isn't much, as you know. I've played a few Preludes and Fugues, that's all.

Are you planning to record any of these?

No, I don't think so, although I like them very much. I think it's a bit too late now for me to learn them. I have other priorities. The concertos I never was very fond of, for different reasons. The First is just too early for me, a little bit like the Second and Third Symphonies. Not much to do, not very deep.

And the Second even more so?

The Second is written for his son, when he was a student. Very light. It's very sweet. He's a master - whatever he wrote is masterful. But the Preludes and Fugues... this is serious. An incredible journey! Fantastic cycle. But it's so difficult to learn. You have to devote so much time and energy and concentration.

Yes, in your autobiography Beyond Frontiers you mentioned visiting Richter when he was struggling with the G sharp minor.

(Laughing) Ah, yes. But Richter is a great interpreter of these pieces, and Nikolaeva too.

Perhaps we could turn to some recent recordings of yours. You have already recorded the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. Do you see a big break between the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies? Is there a signal in the Fourth as to how Shostakovich may have developed in different circumstances?

(Very thoughtful) Difficult to say. I think there is a distinct border, a watershed, between the Fourth and Fifth. My guess is that... there was a spectacularly talented young composer in the Fourth Symphony. And I think in the Fifth Symphony there is already a man who has suffered a lot, who developed a way of expressing himself. In the Fourth it is not yet self-expression. It's just the reaction of a very interested individual to the world around him. Then, as you know, he was vilified by Stalin for the opera Lady Macbeth and, while rehearsing the Fourth Symphony in Leningrad, decided to scrap it. I think he suffered very much. He must have felt he was a very talented man. He already had success and a certain recognition. He wasn't an idiot - he knew it was unfair to make him a public culprit and there was a lot of suffering in his soul and mind. You can hear it in the Fifth Symphony. Here is an individual who is suffering from the injustice of the world. It's not just a reaction to the world that is happening around him. It's already an inner problem which became one of his hallmarks.

But what is interesting to me is that it doesn't sound like self-pity, which you can find in Chekhov and Mahler for example. I don't find self-pity in Shostakovich. Although it is his torture, it becomes sublimated, totally transcended. It becomes the tragedy of an individual, not of Shostakovich but of an individual, a victim of the Soviet system. You can feel it in the Fifth to some degree already. You certainly feel it in the Sixth, in the first movement, and in the Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth, and in the Violin Concerto. Along with his grotesque satire and disdain for the trivia around him, this is the strongest point of his greatest output. It is the tragedy and the darkness of the life of an individual within totalitarian oppression.

Does it contribute to the widely accepted greatness of the Fifth Symphony that, through it, he found not only a means of self-expression but was forced to express things which were internal?

The Soviet authorities you mean? In my humble opinion I think they hailed the Fifth Symphony only because of the D major at the end.

Even in the West, the Fifth is his most popular symphony. Do you feel this popularity is justified?

Well, it's accessible enough, very clear, very tonal. You don't need to make a great effort listening to it, or studying it. This contributes to many pieces being very popular, not just Shostakovich! Other pieces are more complex. You need a greater effort, but you get greater rewards too. That's human nature. What's easier to listen to very often becomes more popular, and this is very unfair to many pieces. But there is nothing wrong with an accessible piece like the Fifth Symphony being popular. It has substance at the same time.

To many people, in his attitude to the Soviet state, Dmitri Shostakovich is still something of an enigma. Do you agree?

No, not at all. In fact to call him an enigma, if I may say so, is if anything to simplify the issue. I think that too much is made out of the fact that he wrote a lot of very important music, with a lot of self-expression and a lot of substance, and that there are also pieces that seem to be, so to speak, a lot of hot air, written as a sort of due, or official pay-off, to the Communist Party. Therefore there is a school of thought that he is an enigmatic man, that we can't quite figure him out. Was he really somebody who approved of the Soviet system, or somebody really not approving, but hiding this inside himself?

You see, with the constant brainwashing of the propaganda in the Soviet Union it would have been difficult to remain sane for the sanest of people. It is very hard for you to conceive how it was, to be living in the former Soviet Union. A nightmare, really. You can become a schizophrenic, not in the fullest psychological sense perhaps, but in the sense that you try to retain your 'inner world' somehow and yet in public, in your daily work and relationships with other people, you have to be someone else. You can't really be yourself, you can't speak your mind. An idea... it has an imprint on almost everybody, and anybody. There must be some exceptions, I suppose, but not so many. I believe Solzhenitsyn is one of those who managed to fight and win, in a way, retaining his sanity. But people are different. Some very intelligent people, people of great integrity even, sometimes did succumb to the Soviet propaganda. Sometimes they became only fellow-travellers, sometimes even adherents of the Soviet system, believing sincerely that this system might have some future, in spite of the terror, the murders and the killings and so on.

So therefore just to put a stamp on Shostakovich as an enigma is simplifying the thing. It is a case of a person with a great degree of awareness of life, with great gifts in his profession, great integrity as an individual - there is no question about that. He might have been influenced by the constant propaganda - not to the degree that he would approve, but to a degree where he could see enough hope that the system could somehow transform itself; that maybe all the sufferings would not be in vain. Seeing millions being killed in the camps, sometimes you might think 'Well, it's a terrible sacrifice, but maybe something will come out of it'. Imagine the psyche of a person like this. So let's give him the benefit of the doubt.

Maybe some of the expression in Song of the Forests, or some other pieces of 'glory' to Stalin, maybe they had one per cent of hope. Maybe it's not all in vain. So that is where the truth might lie. But at the same time he also knew, I'm sure, that if he wrote these pieces he'd be able do his own job, so to speak - his planned path as a great composer and a great individual - if he writes his Eleventh Symphony, Twelfth Symphony, the Song of the Forests and so on. 'Why don't I write it? I'll pay them off! Then I can write the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth.' But it's not an enigma!

Has your personal and musical appreciation of Shostakovich changed radically since you came to the West, or since Testimony came out?

I think it would be wrong to suggest that my view of Shostakovich changed, because of, or with, my coming to the West. I came to the West when I was 26. I was still really an immature young boy. My character was formed in the West. Had I stayed in Russia I would be a different person. But my perception of music, of life, of everything really only started when I came to the West. That's when I began really to think for myself, and form my view of Shostakovich's music. I didn't have much of a view before. It was part of our life. Shostakovich, the great man, was always there!

You've recently recorded the Michelangelo suite and the Lebyadkin cycle.

Yes, the Michelangelo with Fischer-Dieskau and the orchestra. We did it last week.

You seem to have an affinity with some of the slightly more unusual works. For instance, your recording of the Fifth Symphony is coupled with the Five Fragments.

Well, why not? It's not that I'm particularly fond of these pieces, but you have to fill up recordings with something. The company comes up with different ideas. And I'm interested in exploring things. Lebyadkin, actually, is not bad at all. It's a terrific piece. I'm glad that they suggested it. When I learnt it, I said 'it's good, it's interesting'. Otherwise I would maybe never come across it. It's such a rare piece. I think it's only been recorded once before.

The Eighth Symphony, which you're recording tomorrow - how do you feel it fits into the development of Shostakovich? I'm thinking of the 'political' aspects of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. Do you think they were wholly 'patriotic' works?

(Thoughtfully) Patriotic works... Well, the Seventh is in a way patriotic, of course. I don't know the Seventh that well - I haven't learnt it yet. I don't think it is one of his strongest pieces. The man was identifying himself very much with his country and his people. During the war how could you help but be patriotic? The country was invaded by a hostile enemy, and a very strong enemy, who was marching through the west of the country and burning everything around him, torturing and killing people for no reason. Naturally, Shostakovich, as a son of his motherland, couldn't help but express it. There's nothing political about it. Just being a part of your country. In a way, you would feel the same about England if an invasion of this kind happened to you. Whether it is Communism or not, you just feel for your country.

The Eighth is a different cup of tea, although it's still a war symphony - you hear the armies are still marching. But I think he knew the war was going well. His mind turned back to the stark reality of the country, as it would be again after the war. The oppressiveness of the system, and the suffering of the individual, both in the first movement and in the slow movement - you can hear them very strongly. The Eighth was written at exactly the same time as the great tank battle of Kursk, which followed the battle of Stalingrad, in July and August 1943. I'm sure the optimism was there. They knew they were winning the war. There was nothing to hold the Soviet army. That's why I think his mind was already turning to the future. And the future probably didn't sound terribly optimistic to him. There is a glimmer of hope in the symphony, at the very end, there is a kind of... not optimism, but a feeling that at least some of the suffering is over with the eventual end of the war. At least something has been achieved. But that's not all. It's only a glimmer of hope. Interestingly enough, in the Thirteenth Symphony, which was composed and performed in 1962, again at the very end, there is also - very reminiscent of the Eighth Symphony - this glimmer of hope at the end of the quartet of the strings. Maybe it's not the end of the world. Something will happen. Maybe something will happen. Maybe we'll find peace with ourselves, in our soul or... somewhere! (Chuckles.)

What about symphonies like the Eleventh and Twelfth? There are the diverging theories: the Party line, Soviet theory that these are 'patriotic' works. The other theory being that the Eleventh is in fact more about events in Hungary in 1956 than in Russia, 1905. Do you think that this is particularly relevant to the symphony?

(After a long pause) Difficult to say. I think to relate it to the Hungarian revolution is too dangerous. After all, the Russian revolutionary songs have a certain atmosphere that can be related only to what happened in Russia in 1905. Let's not forget that 1905 was a very important year in Russian history. 1905 was the year when the monarch, the Tsar, decided to give up some of his powers to the people. Of course, this was limited, but it was still a step forward. People have parliaments and they decide what to do. So, Party line or not, it was still an important year.

More so than 1917?

Well, in retrospect, yes. Of course, 1917 was an extremely important year, but from another point of view - from the cataclysmic point of view. A tragedy for the country. I think the Eleventh was a combination of 'paying off' the Party and composing a piece that's very effective in any case. It's a great master who is putting together not a bad piece. Maybe the Eleventh is not a great piece of self-analysis or self-expression, or perception of the world, but it's programme music that's very well put together and that meant a lot for the Russian people historically, temperamentally.

And then came The Execution of Stepan Razin soon after the Eleventh.

This wasn't so welcomed by the Party, because although on the face of it, Razin was considered as the leader of the peasantry - revolting against the Tsar and against the autocracy for the freedom of the peasants. Transferred to the present-day Soviet situation, it was double-faced. You couldn't say that it wasn't a genuine tribute to Razin. At the same time it was in Aesopian language. It could be the execution of any potential fighter for freedom in the Soviet Union! The piece certainly wasn't very popular with the Party! Neither were the Michelangelo poems terribly popular, because the references to Solzhenitsyn were so clear there. The lines which refer to Michelangelo as an exile, it is Solzhenitsyn, no question about it.

What are your views about the Twelfth Symphony?

The Twelfth Symphony is not a very strong work.

Not even the first movement?

I don't think so. I think it's really a pastiche. Maybe he tried genuinely to find something attractive in Lenin. But I don't know if he could really find it.

You mentioned the Eleventh Symphony is not a great expression of personal feeling, but a frankly political work. How do you think those two halves of Shostakovich relate? Were all the political works simply paying his dues?

Not necessarily political ... Look at Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. Would you really consider this a political work? Though it wasn't very welcome in Tsarist Russia, because he depicted the tragedy of the Tsar, he also depicted the participation of simple people in shaping the fate of Russia. Is it political? Or is it simply caring about your country's history, its future, the national mentality and the national fate? Isn't it legitimate to suggest that Shostakovich also cared about his country's fate and therefore The Year 1905 is in a way a product of that? - Not necessarily political, but just a historical view? The fact that the Communists singled out 1905 for their own ends doesn't mean 1905 wasn't important for the country. The Communists never came to power then. But Lenin is a difficult, different situation. Lenin was the Communist leader who made the country what it became - who started the tragedy.

Do you think that the same sort of feelings as in the Twelfth were behind the Second Symphony, which is probably another weak work which deals with the same period, and the same sort of events?

No. He was a young man, young, probably quite immature, who couldn't quite figure out just what was happening. Nobody could. It was an exciting time. There was a lot of hope. On the face of it, the Communists said power went to the people now. Nobody knew it wasn't actually true. People believed it was true. Half of the West believed it. Some cretins, excuse me, from the West travelled to Russia and said 'we have seen the future, and the future works' - H. G. Wells and lots of other people. People were blinded. And Shostakovich could have been too - I don't know enough. I will never know, probably. But a young man could have been easily led, not knowing quite where things were going. He could have been fairly enthusiastic, even if just on the surface, just superficially enthusiastic. 'Let's see what happens. Let's just contribute to it.' The Second and Third Symphonies are shallow pieces. There's nothing in them. Just slogans and chaos. It was chaos around him and he reflected it. In the Fourth, which unlike these two is powerful, maybe something in him was already starting to awaken, maybe his eyes were opening. Maybe he felt unconsciously there is a great tragedy coming - it's very possible. But not the Second or Third - just exciting. Chaotic, exciting.

Your comments about the idiotic Westerners totally misunderstanding the situation in Russia seem very reminiscent of various comments in Volkov's book Testimony. What are your views about Testimony?

Funnily enough, I've recently started reading Ian MacDonald's new biography. I am very impressed. I have nothing to add to his thorough research and honest description of how people took to Testimony. For me it was good reading. What he says is totally true. So I have nothing to add. My views are identical with MacDonald's views! He really understands what happened, and in the end he says what I said and what Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya said, and what Maxim said in the end. That's where the truth lies. Of course, Shostakovich could not have been a Party person. He was just a true son of his country (Ashkenazy taps his palm emphatically here) who was influenced by what was happening in his country.

Who could not fail to see that the system didn't work? Yes, he wanted to pay his 'due' to the Party, for this they might leave him alone. It's like Newspeak, Orwell, 1984, and all that. You're one person with yourself, or with your closest friend, and you're not quite the same with other people, because you're afraid to be. Look at Gorbachev, for instance. He obviously wanted to change the country, no question about it. He knew the only way was to join the Party, to get to the top, if he's lucky, and then change things. Lots of people joined the Party in the last couple of decades for that same reason, because although they knew the country was going downhill, without going through the Party apparatus, nothing could ever be changed.

Because the Party was the only instrument that could do anything. It had total authority. Finally, I'm happy to say, it happened. Gorbachev and these people... (Searches for the right words) ...shifted the balance within the Party. Look at him. Up to the events of August, Gorbachev still thought the Party would do what he wanted it to do. He couldn't escape his background and upbringing. Although his mind was going ahead, his background held him back. Naturally, Shostakovich is a much 'greater' individual than Gorbachev in the sense of awareness of life. But something must have had an effect on him, from what was around him. Maybe a part of him thought that something could be changed within the system. That's why I think some of the Party pieces are not just paying off the Party, but express some hope too, if only a tiny percentage.

To take another lesser known side of his musical output, do you have any views on his film music?

I can't say I know it terribly much. He had to write it, to earn his living. I listened to Hamlet and 1919, I think. It's not his strongest output, although it is very fine and masterly. It's not like Prokofiev's film music for Nevsky and Ivan The Terrible - that's really something. The film music is a very important part of Shostakovich's image, but not for me.

Shostakovich's standing in the Soviet Union seems to be going down at present. For example, fewer of his recordings are available.

Oh, I don't agree with you. If Shostakovich is not popular, then who is? I think at this moment of great change in the Soviet Union there just isn't much attention paid to music in general. There is no money for music. Conservatories are neglected, music schools are not looked after, concert life is fragmented, few people are going to concerts. So I don't think you should draw any conclusions. I don't know what the criteria are now, for 'popular' or whatever. Don't draw any conclusions about Shostakovich until Russia becomes more... normal.

Are there any plans to publish Testimony in the Soviet Union?

Passages have already been published in Soviet Music, I read them myself - or in Music Life. I think Volkov told me they are going to publish the whole book.

What do you think the response will be? Will people be surprised?

No. Not at all. A confirmation of what they already knew. If there are any inaccuracies in Testimony, and I'm not sure that there are, I am sure that they arise out of the normal problems of recording interviews and conversations - just misunderstandings and misinterpretations. As far as the character and image of Shostakovich are concerned, I'm sure it is true to life. I was always sure Shostakovich hated the Soviet system, because we all hated it. But I still think there is this glimmer of hope in all his music.

The Fourteenth Symphony doesn't seem to have any hope in it at all.

Well, that's personal. I find it difficult to comment. Each one of us has a different concept of death or dying. That's nothing to do with politics. That's what he was. I can't pretend to enter his 'inner world' here.

With its politically unpopular texts, and death not being an allowable subject in the USSR, it must have taken incredible courage to write and present that work.

Yes, but it's apolitical in a sense. It's political only in that the Party declared we always talk about optimistic things. Not about death - it's too negative! But it's not a critique of the Soviet system. They performed the piece a few times, but they didn't encourage it. At least he wasn't vilified for the piece. Perhaps because he had written the Eleventh and Twelfth Symphonies.

Very different to the Thirteenth Symphony, which is a direct, head-on attack.

Oh yes. An implicit and explicit attack on the system. And it was nearly cancelled, as you know. But don't forget that even under an inflexible, totalitarian system, it was still a living country, with people who were living a full life. There were tensions even within the Party, the Central Committee, even within those who were totally Communist oriented. So, it was possible to perform the Thirteenth Symphony even though it was critical of the system. And it was possible to overthrow the system twenty or more years later. This means that things were brewing, it wasn't just black and white. People were even able to influence the hacks on the Central Committee.

Kondrashin saw it as his patriotic duty to perform the work.

Exactly. Well, he was only a 'Communist with a Party card'. Inside, he wasn't a Communist, no question. He hated them. He had to join the Party to do things for his orchestra, to travel abroad, to be trusted.

Mr. Ashkenazy, many thanks for giving us so much of your time at this late hour.

It's been a pleasure.

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