This symphony holds a special place for you, I believe…
This is the symphony that made me become a conductor. When I was 11 or 12 I was really fascinated by orchestral sound and colour. I had an old LP at home with Kirill Kondrashin conducting, and I remember I listened a thousand times to that fugato in the middle of the symphony. This is something that seriously made me like the orchestra, so it was a very special piece for me.
It has been dubbed a ‘film-score without the film’ – do you agree?
In general I don’t like to describe music like this – here the soldiers are coming, and at this rehearsal number they start to shoot, and here they finish. There are of course moments when you imagine certain things, especially in this symphony where every movement has a name. But I don’t think music should be described like that. That’s actually the difference between a symphony and a film. In a symphony you can imagine for yourself and it might be different – music gives you the space for imagination and that has more value than describing in which bar who is doing what. Because I’m sure Shostakovich didn’t think like that.
Soviet propaganda about the events of 1905, or a secret anti-Soviet work sparked by the 1956 Hungarian uprising – what's your take on the piece's political theme?
For me the statement that Shostakovich is making is not propaganda. I’m convinced that if you read the story about the symphony and the things that are described then you might think it’s a political symphony, but if you listen to the music then you know that he was suffering, that a lot of people were killed but he believed in humanity and that war is not necessarily the best thing. You feel it. For me that’s the real reason for the symphony, not the political theme.
What are the challenges of conducting this piece?
The challenge is that you have to create an atmosphere from the very beginning. Shostakovich is famous for his long, slow introductions, and in this symphony that’s the case. The very long, slow first movement puts a stamp on the whole piece; atmosphere is most important for me. It’s how you create the energy in the hall that you will be judged by, not by the orchestral playing. Technically, it’s not the most difficult symphony to perform but its climaxes, explosions and silences, these create a special atmosphere.
Interview by Rebecca Franks
Audio clip: Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 – Eternal Memory: Adagio