Menace, music in the old Soviet Union

Solomon Volkov chronicled the fear and defiance in Shostakovich

Classical Music

February 16, 2003|By Tim Smith | By Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Twenty-three stories above Broadway, on New York's upper West Side, Solomon Volkov and his wife, Marianna, occupy a small flat crammed with neatly arranged books, recordings, mementos. Floor space is at a minimum, what with a baby grand piano and a bed in the living room.

Something about the space suggests the kind of tight quarters that people have long been used to in Russia. Something about the lack of contemporary amenities specifically suggests the old Soviet days -- a single telephone, of 1970s vintage; no answering machine, no fax, no computer. It suits the Volkovs just fine.

"Coming to New York [in 1976] was the most fortunate move in my life," says Solomon Volkov, author of St. Petersburg: A Cultural History; books of conversations with Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky, ballet legend George Balanchine and brilliant violinist Nathan Milstein; and, very controversially, Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich ("as related to and edited by" Volkov).

"We didn't have any friends here," he says, "but we became immersed in a Russian community of painters and poets who created a very special realm. Brodsky characterized it as sitting on a slope where you can see both sides -- Russian culture and American culture."

From his perch, Volkov, 58, continues to observe those cultures intently. His interests and insights have made him important friends, many of whom have indulged his request for self-portraits that adorn the few walls in his apartment not covered by bookcases. Yuri Temirkanov's witty caricature of himself is there, along with drawings by Brodsky, Allen Ginsberg, Yehudi Menuhin (he wouldn't try drawing himself, so drew a violin), and many others.

Temirkanov a defender

Such charming responses tell only part of the Volkov story since he emigrated -- more specifically since the bombshell-like publication of Testimony in 1979, based on private conversations he had with the composer. Nearly 25 years later, arguments about its authenticity still rage. If he were plugged into the Internet, the author could read such Web pages as "How Volkov Faked Testimony," which compares the book to the infamous "Hitler Diaries."

Volkov, who will join Temirkanov in a private discussion with visiting critics about Shostakovich and St. Peters-burg this week in conjunction with Baltimore's Vivat! festival, takes the dispute in stride. "I am not keen to get involved with it," he says. "The fact that my book is still in print speaks for itself."

Temirkanov, who knew Shostakovich well, is one of those who came down squarely on the side of Testimony, even when Maxim Shostakovich, the composer's son, disavowed it. "I can't understand why Maxim said it wasn't true," the conductor says. "Initially, I knew it was genuine; I heard some of the same stories from Shostakovich himself. If you try to imagine Volkov making up the whole book, then you would have to credit him with being a genius of the 20th century. I've known Volkov since he was young. He's an honest man. Naturally, the first people who wanted to deny that the book was true were the communists, because Shostakovich destroys them in this book."

The portrait of the composer that emerges from these memoirs is one filled with internal pain and fear, as well as defiance in the form of hidden (and not-so-hidden) messages in his music. The anti-Soviet sentiments in the book seem to have sparked some of the criticism, which doesn't surprise Volkov at all. "Everything in the world is connected to politics," he says. "When someone says that culture is not politics, that's political, too. The biggest cliche in the world -- that music unites all people -- is not true. It all depends on your politics. Music by Shostakovich is so politically engaged; it speaks in a loud, connecting way to the public.

"I've seen New Yorkers running out of a concert hall after 30-second pieces by [Anton] Webern, but I can't remember seeing anyone walking out on Shostakovich in 26 years here. There is something in this music that appeals to hidden fears and experiences in all of us. After Sept. 11, Shostakovich is more and more relevant. The whole idea of an evil that attacks from an unknown side, that is sneaking up behind you, breathing down your neck -- that's all expressed in Shostakovich's music, much more than anyone else."

Temirkanov views the composer's work in a similar light. "His life was much more complicated than any Westerner can imagine," Temirkanov says. "It's very dangerous to judge his life by some acts he committed while he lived in a country like a prisoner, where people next to him were being destroyed all the time. If he signed letters against dissidents or joined the Communist Party [Shosta-kovich did in 1960], it is idiocy to hold that against him. He was a genius, but he was frightened. Inside his music is a testimony to what was going on; his music is like a testimony from the Nuremberg trials. Listening to Shostakovich's music is proof that [Volkov's] book is right."

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