BSO Concert Hall


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Vassily Sinaisky

Kirill Gerstein

Romeo & Juliet Suite

Symphony No.5

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

In 1937, at the height of Stalin’s purges, the Communist Party strongly denounced Shostakovich’s most recent works. Fearing for his life, he wrote a symphony ending with a rousing march. But to many, the triumph rang hollow. Even today, people wonder just what he was trying to say. Was the symphony meant to celebrate Stalin’s regime? Or did it contain hidden messages protesting the very system it seemed to support? Years later Shostakovich commented “I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing …’” Rostropovich reportedly believed that the piece would have gotten Shostakovich killed if not for the thunderous response of the listeners.

Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody, a brilliant showpiece for virtuoso pianist, is a set of 24 variations. It opens with an introduction, based on the principal motif from the Paganini theme which itself is not introduced fully until after the first variation. What follows is an exercise of both compositional and pianistic prowess. After moments of Romantic outpourings the music hurtles toward a typical grandiose conclusion, but at the last moment it wittily becomes a whisper and ends impishly with an echo of the introduction. Equally as passionate and abounding with yearning melodies and unbridled drama, Prokofiev’s ballet music for Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers shows his mastery of orchestral colour at its most brilliant. It too was a response to state criticism of his music.

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