Dmitri Shostakovich. Photograph: Alamy
Conductor Paavo Järvi is forced to hire a bodyguard after decision to perform pro-Soviet pieces as composer Dimitry Shostakovich originally wrote them.
He is one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, whose stirring symphonies and dark and tormented quartets have echoed around the world’s stages and concert halls for over 50 years.
Yet Dmitry Shostakovich had a complex and troubled relationship with the Soviet regime under which he lived most of his life. Despite writing many pieces praising the greatness of Stalin and the Soviet regime, it is widely acknowledged the compositions were simply a means to ensure his survival at a time when non-compliance meant a prison sentence or worse.
Since the end of the cold war, most performances of his pro-Soviet compositions and cantatas use modified version of his texts, removing the Stalinist references out of a sensitivity to the brutality of the past and the millions who died.
But now, a world-renowned conductor, who escaped communist Estonia as a child, has embarked on a highly controversial project to perform them as Shostakovich originally wrote them.
Paavo Järvi’s recording of two pro-Soviet cantatas - The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland and The Songs of the Forests, both written in the 1940s in overt praise of Stalin - are released this week ahead of the conductor’s appearance with the Berlin Philharmonic at the weekend.
Dmitri Shostakovich with the Glazunov Quartet in 1940. Photograph: Alamy
The performance in Estonia in 2011 from which the recordings were made caused an outcry: a homage to Stalin in one of the ex-Soviet republics that suffered most under his rule, and which has now removed itself as far as politically possible from the closed, repressive society he embodied.
“Paavo Järvi pays homage to Stalin” the national press shrieked at the time. Järvi was forced to hire a bodyguard after receiving several threats.
Yet the politically outspoken conductor says he has no regrets about the performance or recordings, which also include one anti-regime piece, The Execution of Stepan Razin, which Shostakovtch wrote after the death of Stalin.
“My original thinking was that it would be a very interesting project to show the two sides of a great composer and the reality of this great person under the dictatorship,” he told the Guardian.
“I have grouped these three of Shostakovich’s cantatas together on one disk which has never been done before - two of them are very pro-Soviet and one is very critical of the Soviet system. Through these pieces, Shostakovich’s music tells the terrifying story of that time and I think that story is only truly effective if it is honest and not modified according to the fashions and political waves of the time. People should confront this uncomfortable part of history.”
Yet as well as dealing honestly with the past, the project is also rooted in the present, and Järvi believes Shostakovich’s cantatas are as relevant and chilling today in the context of Putin’s regime.
A soldier buys a ticket to a performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in front a billboard advertising the event, Leningrad, 1942. Photograph: Sovfoto/Getty Images
“What I didn’t realise when I first began the project is that we would now be dealing with the same situation with Russia as we were after communism collapsed,” said Järvi.
“Right now we are witnessing something that nobody expected which is the rise of a totalitarian regime again,” he said. “So I think the biggest mistake is not to acknowledge and not to deal with the past. Changing Shostakovich’s texts does not change or erase what happened. If we ignore it, history will repeat itself again, as we are already seeing happen.”
The decision to perform the works in his home country of Estonia, a country still haunted by the relatively recent wounds of communist rule and where Russian military ambition has once again become omnipresent was a difficult one, said Järvi, but one he believes was vitally important in coming to terms with history.
“At that particular concert in Estonia, the house was completely packed and everybody who sat in that audience probably had a father or grandfather or uncle or aunt, or somebody close who died in Stalin’s gulags. So when they heard the texts which glorified the communists, that must have been a nightmare. I completely understand that. I was afraid and a little uncomfortable looking at the audience and the orchestra for that matter because I identify exactly what they were feeling. But it was also very important and I stand by it.”
The performance had been deliberately provocative, Järvi said, but it was absurd to say it was a sympathetic to the communists or Russians.
“I would be the last person to do something glorifying the Soviet system, I mean we left Estonia because we wouldn’t stand the system,” he said.
Paavo Järvi. Photograph: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images
The recording of the three cantatas at the concert in Tallin released this week was also held back because the Shostakovich estate refused to allow the original texts of the pro-Soviet cantatas, translated in English and German as well as Russian, to be printed on the sleeve notes of the disk for fear they would be too inflammatory.
It was a decision that Järvi said he understood and had even expected.
“Shostakovich is well known for being critical of the Soviet regime and this is rightly the way the estate want the world to remember him,” he said. “Particularly because the estate is still based in Russia, printing and translating these pro-Stalin texts is not an easy decision for them and they could end up being misinterpreted both in Russia and around the world.”
Despite the aggressive threats to his life, Järvi said he would willingly return to Estonia to perform the cantatas in their original controversial form once again. “This a very worrying time for Estonia and Russia but it is important that people know this is an artistic project, not a politically motivated project,” he said. “I have put these three pieces of music back to back but everybody will make up their own minds about the music and about the history.”