Interview: conductor Donald Runnicles on tacking Shostakovich with the BBC SSO
'He witnessed the phenomenal happenings in Russia from the early 20th century through to his death'
What a title for a concert series: Shostakovich 5, 10, 15. There won’t be a 20 though, as Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his last symphony, ‘No 15’, in 1971, just a few years before his death. Taking the symphonies over the course of three stunning concert programmes, the BBC SSO focus on music written at critical times in the composer’s life. With chief conductor Donald Runnicles, the ‘Tenth Symphony’ opens the series in the company of fellow Russian composers, Mussorgsky and his popular ‘A Night on the Bare Mountain’, and the increasingly heard ‘Scriabin’, with Irish pianist Barry Douglas appearing as soloist in his piano concerto.
Intensely exciting, the ‘Tenth Symphony’ was written in 1953 following the death of Stalin, and has a sense of the freedom and relief that Shostakovich felt as political and artistic oppression was lifted. ‘I think that one of the most unique aspects of the symphonies of Shostakovich is the fact that he was an historical witness to the phenomenal happenings in Russia from the early 20th century through to when he died,’ says Runnicles.
The brutality of Stalin’s regime is felt most acutely in the loud and frenzied second movement. Shostakovich, like so many others, lived in fear under the Communist regime. His music didn’t always suit the authorities, and there was the ever present threat that he would suddenly disappear the same way as other artists because of it. ‘One can see some indication, that doesn’t have to be specific or an event but of how he related to the world in which he lived,’ says Runnicles. ‘There is a palpable feeling of relief and at the same time, what is going to change? But the symphony certainly ends triumphantly: an era has finally come to an end.’
City Halls, Glasgow, Thu 25 Sep; Aberdeen Music Hall, Fri 26 Sep; Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Sun 28 Sep.