Music and Tyranny: The Rest is Silence – by C J Schuler

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At last Friday’s Prom at the Royal Albert Hall, the Warsaw Philharmonic, brilliantly conducted by Antoni Wit, presented a powerful programme of Polish and Russian music written under the shadow of Nazism and Stalinism: Lutosławski’s propulsive Concerto for Orchestra, Shostakovich’s lyrical Second Piano Concerto, glitteringly played by Alexander Melnikov, and Panufnik’s Tragic Overture (a dark and powerful response to the occupation of Poland) and eerie Lullaby.

The concert culminated in Shostakovich’s odd and often neglected Symphony No. 6 in B minor, a work I had never heard in performance before and which left me wondering what the composer was trying to say – or perhaps, what he was trying not to say. Odd, because of its strange, seemingly lop-sided construction: the intense, Mahlerian opening movement is marked largo – very slow – and lasts more than twice as long as the two fast movements that follow put together, an edgy, skittish scherzo and upbeat music-hall finale that do nothing to resolve the despairing impasse of the first movement, but simply bypass it.

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