Keith Miller at Literary Review:
In the years after the Second World War, during Dmitri Shostakovich’s second period of disfavour with the Soviet authorities, he wasn’t just humiliatingly wheeled out at the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in New York, a fellow travellers’ jamboree that just about snuck in under the McCarthyist wire. He was also packed off to Leipzig to judge a piano competition inaugurated to commemorate J S Bach on the bicentenary of his death. Hearing gold medallist Tatyana Nikolayeva rattle through The Well-Tempered Clavier, he went home and wrote his 24 Preludes and Fugues for her.
Opinions remain divided on how good Shostakovich was, or might have been but for the fear that hunched ogreishly over him from the morning in 1936 when Pravda published a damning editorial, ‘Sumbur vmesto muzyki’ (‘muddle instead of music’), about the up-to-then pretty successful and well-reviewed opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, to the last and, in a strange way, greatest humiliation: his enforced joining of the Party in 1960. But the 24 Preludes and Fugues, to put it one way, aren’t half bad for a composer with one ear perpetually cocked in the direction of the doorbell.
The New York episode constitutes the second of three sections – we might call them ‘movements’ – in Julian Barnes’s new novel. It’s a third-person account of Shostakovich’s tribulations at the hands of Stalin and his chief cultural muppet, Andrei Zhdanov, and the different challenges posed by his rehabilitation in the eyes of a regime that had stopped murdering people in industrial numbers but remained somewhat controlling in matters of artistic practice.