Unpublished letter to Gramophone

Posted 14th March 2000

For the record, here is a Shostakovich review in Gramophone (March 2000, p. 76) about which I wrote the letter below, refused publication.

For those unfamiliar with Gramophone's writers, David Gutman took over as the magazine's main Shostakovich reviewer from David Fanning around five years ago. An implacable anti-revisionist, he often expresses such opinions in his reviews and is not above misrepresenting those who take a different view. (In one such instance, Gramophone published a letter of complaint from me [December 1997].) Unfortunately, Mr Gutman knows too little about the Soviet background to support his bullish opinions, as the aforementioned review illustrates:

The St Petersburg Quartet confirms its sinewy and extrovert approach in this second instalment of its Shostakovich cycle. The short opening movement of the Fourth Quartet is characteristically nervy, intense in a way that threatens intonation, but betokens real commitment to the cause. While the outer sections of its finale are deliberately paced, the central climax presses home excitedly, parting company with most recent accounts. Robert Matthew-Walker's serious-minded booklet notes commend the music's lucidity and subtlety, aspects which the St Petersburg might be thought to underplay in its quest for folkish immediacy. Some of the Borodin's fabled nobility and focus is lost, but you won't be bored. The Sixth is arguably more successful, its wistful, would-be serenity admirably caught.

The Eighth Quartet completes the programme. By far the most familiar of the 15, it remains to some degree a work apart. Revisionist orthodoxy presents it as not so much a memorial to the victims of totalitarianism and war, as an anti-Communist tract-cum-suicide note. Without, perhaps, plumbing the depths of despair, the St Petersburg turns in a performance of winning directness, full of colour and contrast in a score more often painted in shades of grey. The second movement, a real Allegro molto here, explodes with all the ferocity you could hope for, and it has succeeded by being a memorably inflected waltz [sic]. The reluctance to linger in the framing Largos is typical of this Quartet.

Hyperion's Russian-made recordings are technically impressive, though not as perfectly judged as BIS's for the Yggdrasil. The Scandinavians' equally tight (if less strongly characterised) playing in No 8 makes a rather different appeal. There's red meat on offer in St Petersburg, but look elsewhere for coolheaded exegesis.

David Gutman

My rejected letter runs as follows:

In his review of the St Petersburg Quartet's recording of Shostakovich's Fourth, Sixth, and Eighth quartets (March, p. 76), David Gutman refers, as if scornfully, to "revisionist orthodoxy" concerning the Eighth Quartet, i.e., that it is "not so much a memorial to the victims of totalitarianism (sic) and war, as an anti-Communist tract-cum-suicide note". Readers should be aware that this prejudicially presented "orthodoxy" stems from statements made by Shostakovich himself, by his son Maxim, and by his colleagues Isaak Glikman, Lev Lebedinsky, and Rostislav Dubinsky (see Allan Ho and Dmitry Feofanov, Shostakovich Reconsidered, pp. 160-4). As such, this view is shared by the curator of the Shostakovich Archive in Russia, Manashir Yakubov (concert notes to the LSO's 1998 Shostakovich seasons, pp. 60-62), by Elizabeth Wilson (Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, pp. 336-41), and even by arch anti-revisionist Richard Taruskin (Defining Russia Musically, pp. 493-5). If David Gutman has an argument against all this, perhaps he would care to let us in on it?

As for his general posture of superior knowledge about Shostakovich and the ethos he worked in, Mr Gutman might also care to explain why, in approving Robert Matthew-Walker's "serious-minded booklet", he failed to notice the wild historical howlers these sleevenotes contain. Matthew-Walker writes: "Soon after the end of World War II, Stalin chose Marshal Zhdanov, a famous war-time soldier, to outline the Party demands... In September 1946, Marshal Zhdanov censured two of the best living Russian writers -- Zoshchenko and Anna Akhmatova. He then attacked modern Russian film and drama and some months later criticised G. F. Alexandrov, whose History of Western Philosophy was much admired..." The figure of "Marshal Zhdanov" is imaginary. Matthew-Walker is confusing Marshal Georgiy Zhukov with Andrei Zhdanov -- rather like mixing up General MacArthur and Senator McCarthy. As for the "philosopher" G. F. Alexandrov, he was a notorious quasi-Nazi apparatchik who vied for power with Zhdanov during the 1940s; hence the attack on his book, which was much admired by no one but his own sordid clique of fellow anti-Semites.

Alexandrov is the sort of shady character familiar only to those who take an interest in the Soviet background. Andrei Zhdanov, on the other hand, is a central figure in the Shostakovich story. If David Gutman, like Robert Matthew-Walker, imagines that this political hatchet-man was "a famous war-time soldier", he should perhaps do some background reading before he next passes ex cathedra comment on matters relating to Shostakovich's life and work. Hyperion Records, too, might care to vet their sleevenotes more closely: Matthew-Walker's "serious-minded" booklet contains two more factual inaccuracies and the barely believable claim that "From time to time during Shostakovich's life, the totalitarian Communist rule in Russia impinged directly upon his work..." Impinged?? From time to time?? Good grief.

--Ian MacDonald

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