Father Figure: Maxim Shostakovich Speaks

Maxim Shostakovich still recalls the awe of hearing, when he was just four years old, the first performance of his father Dmitri’s Leningrad Symphony. Here, he explains how the experience sparked his desire to follow in his father’s musical footsteps.

He may have spent much of his musical life in the US but, on meeting Maxim Shostakovich, you’re instantly aware that he’s Russian to the marrow. Unlike his father, Dmitri – the great composer whose centenary falls this year – Maxim was able to pursue much of his career outside the former Soviet Union. His successful years on the far side of the Atlantic mean that his command of English is filtered through an accent which, like everything about him, is powerfully Russian. 

We meet at Maida Vale studios, where he is rehearsing a recording of his father’s music with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (and, in the two violin concertos, soloist Daniel Hope). He is strikingly tall, strong, bearded, genial and voluble – you sense that he’s easily able to summon the fearsome reserves of strength that life on the podium demands. A glimpse of Maxim in action shows him relishing the cracking pace and energy of the Second Concerto’s finale.

Later, we find a side room to talk about his life and that of his famous father, with whose music he’s as proud as ever to be connected. “It’s something in my blood,” he says. 

Maxim was born in 1938 in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), and was only a little boy when Hitler’s invading armies surrounded the city in a siege that was to last 900 days. There, his father had already begun working on his epic Seventh Symphony, the “Leningrad”. Eventually, he and his family were flown out, and the new symphony was completed and premiered in the town of Kuibyshev. 

In the audience at that first performance was the four-year-old Maxim. “It’s a long time ago, and I was so young,” he says. “But some things I do remember: the taste of the candy my mother gave me so that I’d keep still and behave myself; and also that huge crescendo in the first movement, which grows and grows, with the drumbeat getting louder and louder. Even then, I understood that this was like a nightmare approaching.

“The symphony is about people’s resistance to tyranny everywhere. This is the greatest theme of all for an artist, isn’t it? The struggle between good and evil. You hear it in Mahler, too, and in Beethoven.” 

Growing up in the Shostakovich household, Maxim soon showed serious talent as a pianist, but he already knew he wanted to be a conductor. “So I asked my father about this. He said, ‘That’s fine. But other things must come first.’ He was always kind and helpful. I used to play two-piano music with him, and I got to know a lot of works that way. Then I went to the Moscow Conservatory and studied conducting there.” 

In 1957, Maxim played the first performance of his father’s Second Piano Concerto. I asked him whose idea that was, his father’s or his own? Maxim grins. “Very much mine! I kept on and on asking him to compose something for me. He didn’t for quite a while. And then suddenly, he told me he’d written the Concerto.” Coincidentally, Maxim has since conducted and recorded “his” piano concerto, with his own son Dmitri as soloist.

In 1981, Maxim was granted asylum to live with his family in the US. 

“Under Brezhnev, life in the Soviet Union was very difficult,” he says, shuddering at the memory. “My children were aged 14 and 10 at the time. I needed to think of their future, too.” 

He has since moved back to St Petersburg. 

"There is less state subsidy than before, so for orchestras now, it’s more difficult. But there is still a great demand for classical music in Russia, with big audiences." And given his father’s lifetime of harassment by the Soviet secret police, what would Dmitri senior have made of today’s Russia?

“I’m sure he would have liked the freedom. Although he would have found it hard to believe,” says Maxim. “In Russia now, everyone criticises everyone all the time – Putin, the Government, everything. I think it’s a reaction to all those years when it was never safe to say anything at all. That was the world he knew. But he would never have left, I’m sure of this. He was a friend of Anna Akhmatova, the great Russian  poet who wrote Requiem. Can I quote it to you? 

No foreign skies protected me,
No stranger’s wing for a shield:
I stand as witness to my whole people –
There, where my nation’s tragedy was.

“Those could have been his words, too.”