Wall Street Journal
Edited from an interview by Rebecca Schmid
Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi on why he was eager to perform Shostakovich works criticized for their apparent support for Stalin.
WHEN PAAVO JÄRVI CONDUCTED two rarely performed Shostakovich cantatas in Tallinn, Estonia, three years ago, an outcry in the media forced him to hire a bodyguard. This episode highlighted both the ambiguity of the music, written in the shadow of Stalin,and the sensitivity that remains in the Baltic country, which gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
A recording of the performance, which included a boys’ choir from the Russian-speaking border city of Narva, was released Monday on the Erato label. And last month, the Pentatone label released Mr. Järvi’s recording of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, another ambiguous work, with the Russian National Orchestra.
A native of Estonia who emigrated with his family to the U.S. as a teenager, Mr. Järvi, 52, is currently musical director of the Orchestre de Paris and artistic director of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. In September, he will become chief conductor of the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo. We spoke with him about the recordings, Shostakovich and Stalin.
How would you explain the reaction in Tallinn to the Shostakovich cantatas?
We have a love-hate [relationship] with Russia.... During Soviet times there was a policy called Russification, where they tried to put as many Russian-speaking people into the [Soviet] republics in order to overpopulate them and legally change the language.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is a law against inciting anti-Estonian sentiment. Here comes an Estonian conductor with cantatas whose text says “Stalin is great, our country is run by a genius.” After Stalin’s death, all the lyrics containing his name were changed. I put it all back to the original. I had to sign a paper saying that the chorus wasn’t singing because of propaganda. It shows how recent the whole thing was.
To what extent are the two cantatas, “The Sun Shines over our Motherland” and “The Song of the Forests,” representative of Shostakovich as an artist?
It was a necessity to write them. Otherwise he literally would have died [in the Gulag].Prokofiev wrote a cantata for the anniversary of the October Revolution; Khachaturian wrote a cantata praising Stalin—even Arvo Pärt has one which he withdrew.... If you want to survive in your own homeland, there are certain realities that you have to live with, or you have to leave. And then comes a very complicated moment: What if you can’t leave because it’s not your place? Why did Prokofiev go back to Russia? And he died like a dog. It’s important to show that Shostakovich has two faces. If you listen to these cantatas, you know that he didn’t believe one word. It’s so banal but so brilliant at the same time.
What was Shostakovich’s intention in the Seventh Symphony, which was taken up by both Russia and the West as a statement of their respective causes during World War II?
It was seen by everybody as a picture of the atrocities that happened to the city of Leningrad, which was immediately put into the context of Nazis and Russian suffering. It’s deliberately vague, so that the people who wanted to hear it a certain way heard it that way, and people who knew him knew what it was about. It bought him some time as well. I’m convinced it’s about fascism in general, especially Stalinist fascism.
Why do you think the symphony was criticized at the time by musical figures such as Bartók and Rachmaninoff?
Shostakovich’s music is deliberately trivial and banal in order to illustrate something very deep. But I suppose they felt it was opportunistic Soviet music. He was writing about the brutality, the absurdity. That’s why his music is still relevant.
Mr. Järvi, who is the musical director of the Orchestre de Paris, at the gala opening of the Philharmonie de Paris concert hall in January. PHOTO: SIPA/REX SHUTTERSTOCK