This new offering from Naxos is an unusual addition to a growing Shostakovich discography: it offers an overview of the composer's life and work in a 92-page (booklet-size, of course) biographical essay, illustrated by 26 tracks of listening examples supplied by an accompanying two-CD set. One of several similar projects recently undertaken by Naxos (others include the "portraits" of John Taverner and Arvo Pärt), Dmitri Shostakovich: A Portrait presents an overwhelming and emotionally exhausting journey through the composer's life and creative work.
The list of compositions includes sample movements from symphonies nos. 1, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 13, 14, and 15; the passacaglia from the 1st violin concerto, and the Andante from the 2nd piano concerto. Chamber music is represented by a movement each from the string quartets nos. 8 and 12; a scherzo from the piano quintet in G-minor; 2nd movement from the 2nd piano trio in E-minor, and the 1st movement of the viola sonata. Among examples of the solo piano repertoire, there is one of the early Fantastic Dances, and excerpts from piano preludes op. 34 and from the 24 preludes and fugues op. 87 - the latter in the composer's own rendition. Film and theater music is represented by excerpts from the ballet suites Bolt and The Golden Age, and the film suites Gadfly and Hamlet. Finally, a brief 1941 radio address in which the composer mentions his work on the "Leningrad" symphony acknowledges, if you will, his "public persona."
The biographical essay penned by Richard Whitehouse is the centerpiece of the experience (the reader may choose to see this project as a compact version of a music appreciation-style textbook with accompanying CDs). Based on material provided by the Shostakovich Society of the United Kingdom, the essay offers a discussion of an enormous number of compositions (some - but not the majority - of which are included on the CDs). It also aims to present an overview of historical and social conditions that shaped the composer's life and informed his work. A Russiannist (or a Russian) may notice quite a few factual inaccuracies in this overview, as well as some questionable interpretations of historical events - some misrepresented, others dismissed or omitted; for instance, one may find it hard to forgive a glib, perfunctory reference to the premiere of the 7th symphony by starving musicians in blockaded Leningrad. Yet overall, Whitehouse's essay is an admirable attempt at a balanced "portrait" of Dmitri Shostakovich that, while acknowledging the competing one-dimensional views of the composer as either a loyal puppet or a closet dissident, thankfully subscribes to neither.
The musical selections included on the two CDs may raise a few eyebrows. Many choices are obviously informed by space limitations and a desire to cast the broadest net possible. Yet, some decisions still seem questionable - for instance, including one of the op. 34 piano preludes instead of the 1st piano concerto arguably much more representative of Shostakovich's style during the same time period. Perhaps the most glaring omission - as I am sure, any subscriber to Opera Today would agree - is vocal music. There are no excerpts from either operas or art songs (even though both genres are discussed at length in the essay); in fact, the composer's contribution to vocal repertoire is represented only by a movement each from the 13th and 14th symphonies, both of which include voices. Another weakness of the recordings - unfortunately a common complaint for Naxos - is the sometimes questionable quality of performances. While the selections by the New Zealand Symphony and much chamber music are very nicely done, and the composer's own performance of excerpts from the op. 87 preludes and fugues that frame the recording is a welcome addition, performances of the symphonies by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra are frequently problematic with respect to their basic quality as well as interpretation (particularly of the 1st and 15th symphonies).
Overall, the way one approaches Dmitri Shostakovich: A Portrait will determine the quality of the experience. Do not buy the recording if you are looking exclusively for a listening experience - the fragmentary nature, as well as the quality of the selections would ultimately leave one unsatisfied. Meanwhile, approaching the packet in the spirit in which it was created - that is, reading the essay along with the listening examples that are cued to the text - is a surprisingly powerful experience, even for a true Shostakovich devotee. For a Shostakovich novice - the kind of listener Dmitri Shostakovich: A Portrait appears primarily to address - it will provide an eye-opening introduction to the great composer's life and work.
University of Maryland — College Park