I became interested in Shostakovich just about the time he died -- summer of 1975, when I was 17. I had been an intent music listener since I was about 2, and especially classical music for several years before 1975. I had heard Shostakovich's first piano concerto years before, but didn't give it much notice. It was on the flip side of a Hindemith piece, and I lumped them together in my mind and regarded them both as modern works by minor composers and not likely to interest me. I also knew the Age of Gold Polka, so I categorized Shostakovich with Kabelevsky and Prokofiev, though of lower stature than the latter.
The day Shostakovich died I was at a garage sale and bought his Fifth Symphony. Later in the day my brother said "Guess who died" and for reasons I don't know I guessed Shostakovich. The brassy finale immediately impressed me -- it seemed so Soviet, so full of military power and so much more Russian sounding than American. Soon the third movement, especially section with flute and harp, impressed me with its depth and the special beauty of its orchestral color.
Another day around that time I had a headache (I seldom do), listened to the seventh symphony, and felt it gradually go away. So I listened to that a few more times, and it seemed comforting and easier to listen to than I expected. I no longer thought of Shostakovich as helplessly modern.
In November that year I got my first modern component stereo and was buying more records. I liked symphonies much more than quartets then but really liked the Borodin second quartet, so I got a record of it, played by the Borodin Quartet. On the flip side was Shostakovich Eighth, and after listening to the Borodin side a few times decided to try it. Usually (but for some reason I think less now than then) it takes me several listens to really get into a piece. I have never had such a strong emotional reaction to a piece as when I heard that the first time, and I've had it ever since. I think it is a devastatingly tragic and personal work, really incomparable. Now I know that despite its depth, many people have strong immediate responses to it. Soon I got the Hungarian Quartet's recordings of the "complete" quartets (actually the first 11) and found them all interesting, often with eastern flavor, rhythmically enticing, and harsh. When I heard the four remaining quartets, they seemed more strange, modern, and with feelings of approaching death.
Months later I made a tape copy of a library record of the first cello concerto (Ormandy/Rostropovich). It is austere in its melody but seems very direct, never beautiful but constantly interesting and rhythmically exciting. Near the end of the cadenza (third movement), the melody becomes cosmic, breaks down and then reaches for a universe beyond. The harshness of the abrupt cello bowing, the rhythms, the unadorned development of simple motifs were addictive for me. It got so I was biking faster than normal on my daily uphill commute home from college, racing so I could hear it again as soon as possible. I listened to it almost every day for a couple of months. I soon tried the second cello concerto, but it seemed more modern and weird. Now it does not, and I like it almost as much as the first. It has an animalistic wildness, primitive and mysterious. There is a horn section which makes me think of beasts and wild Africa. The other four concertos I think are among Shostakovich's better works. Several times I've used the second piano concerto, particularly the andante, to introduce people with to his music -- especially people with romantic-era tastes, since that movement may be the most romantic in style and spirit, and most lyrical, of anything Shostakovich wrote.
In December 1976 I went on a long bike ride and was cold in my room when I came back, and listened to the 15th Symphony with higher than normal concentration. It seemed slightly sick in its orchestral tone, something not quite right, but very interesting. I've associated its peculiar tone to Shostakovich's final illnesses since then.
In the late 1970s the only record I could get of the 24 Preludes and Fugues opus 87 was by Roger Woodward, and I thought it was good. I liked the pieces, they seemed evocative of pictures and moods. Now I think Shostakovich's own recordings of them are the best. He seems straightforward, steady in beat, with a view of the pieces whole and without ornamentation or short-term tempo changes. When I saw the movie "Shine" the part that makes fun of Roger Woodward angered me; he deserves better (the hero of the film, Helfgott, couldn't have played opus 87 as well).
Two other chamber works, the piano quintet and second piano trio, are particularly appealing, with the piano providing a fuller sound than strings alone, and with solid construction. The last movement of the trio is one of the great examples of Shostakovich's sardonic humor, with a dance them that is both lively and grotesque. My mother has attended the free Wednesday noon classical concerts at UC Berkeley for years, heard the trio played by students there last fall, and said no other piece she's ever hear there got as strong a reaction from the audience.
There are many light-hearted works that are very good: The Jazz Suites, Age of Gold, Tea for Two, Festive Overture, Cheryomushki. I think the humor in many of these is that they are deliberately clichéd -- some melodies and developments so strongly conform to normalcy that they are funny, and we know the composer isn't taking it very seriously, yet the works overall are masterful. It's like Willie Mays playing stickball -- it's all in fun, but the application of transcendent mastery to forms that don't really require it leads to appealing results. It says much about his versatility and humor that Shostakovich could write Cheryomushki, an opera in Gilbert and Sullivan style, and would risk writing such a satire on Soviet bureaucrats.
Generally, I think Shostakovich is bitter and harsh, but able to endure. He doesn't whine like Tchaikovsky. He isn't as morose as Mahler. There is sardonic humor, ambiguity, multiple levels, and double meanings, more than with any other composer. Despite the obsession of many with Shostakovich's relationship to communism, these multiplicities are not deliberate code or political commentary; they are the natural expression of the spirit of a person who learned to endure hardship from many sources.
I consider Rostropovich to be the best conductor of Shostakovich (and naturally the best player of cello pieces), the Borodins to be the best performers of the quartets, and the composer himself the best interpreter of the piano music .
I think the best works are the fifth, eighth and tenth symphonies, the concertos especially the cello ones, the eighth quartet and to a lesser extent the third and several others, the piano quintet and second piano trio. The 24 preludes and fugues and several other symphonies are special too. I have a bias against the human voice in classical music, but the 14th symphony is intriguing to me and I may grow to love it. When I made a survey of Shostakovich fans several years ago, the second piano trio and eighth string quartet tied for first. I think the respondents tended to rate pieces disliked by Soviet authorities higher than those liked by them; I don't think the fourth symphony deserves a higher ranking than the fifth (and I think Lady Macbeth is poor).
On Shostakovich books and academia:
As for Testimony, I think it portrays Shostakovich's attitudes reasonably well, but I believe the author Volkov has done a disservice by misrepresenting the way it was written. I think much of it is pilfered from other publications and not the result of direct interviews. I don't think it is "memoirs." The Ho and Feofanov book Shostakovich Reconsidered offers nothing to change my mind.
Further, it is tiresome that the question of that book's authenticity and the relationship between the composer's politics and music has become such a dominant topic in academia and in newspaper articles. The interpretations in Ian MacDonald's The New Shostakovich, focusing on hidden political meanings, are trite and silly.
I've read several other books on Shostakovich and think Elizabeth Wilson's A Life Remembered is the best. The other biographies are less complete. Additional more direct insight comes from reading Sollertinsky's Pages from the life of Dmitri Shostakovich and from Shostakovich's letters in Story of a Friendship. Fanning's collection of academic papers Shostakovich Studies I thought was boring; maybe it's just too technical for me. I have the feeling music academics have things they have to do to publish; it is a competitive business, and they are out of touch with what is important.
While he was alive, Westerners usually regarded Shostakovich as a loyal communist. Now in the one hundredth year since his birth, while many analysts view his music as a secret code commenting on politics, it continues its own expression. The harshness of life, repression and war, the love of family, fatherland, music and musicians, triumph, the fortitude to cope, humor and bitter irony are all present, touch the soul of the listener, and defy analysis.