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If ever a piece of music cried out to be made the subject of a film, it would be Shostakovich’s seventh symphony. Adding to the clamour is this novel, a fictionalised account of the events surrounding its composition and first performance, against harsh odds, in the city to which it is dedicated: Leningrad.

Although the Leningrad Philharmonic had anticipated premiering the piece, the orchestra had been evacuated when the German siege of 1941-1944 really began to bite. In the event, the work was premiered in Kuibyshev (now Samara) by the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra in spring 1942, then in Moscow and in the West.

The contrast between those performances and the Leningrad premiere, given by order of government authorities by the Leningrad Radio Orchestra in summer 1942, can only be imagined. Quigley describes an orchestra reduced to its bare bones – its players too, more or less – supplemented by musicians from wherever else they can be dredged up, urged on by its unsympathetic conductor, the title character Karl Eliasberg.

The authorities, who set up loudspeakers to broadcast the performance to the blockading army, believe staging the concert will send a message that Leningrad is defiant. In this moody, deadpan account (the narrative never gets much lighter in tone than one of rueful resignation), it also provides Eliasberg with the opportunity to confront a number of demons: the fact that he and his orchestra are overshadowed by the Philharmonic and Mravinksy, that he has a tetchy relationship with his players, that he is gauche with women (he still lives with his mother) and uncomfortable around celebrity, not least Shostakovich.

Quigley’s habit of referring to Shostakovich by surname alone, unlike the other characters, lends him a pre-eminence among them that I am not sure, given the book’s title, she intended. But she has an eye for descriptive detail and the (motion-)picturesque possibilities of the story: the Russian winter, a majestic city brought low by war, a selection of interiors both domestic and institutional and in increasing states of degradation, and a varied cast (Daniel Radcliffe for Shostakovich?) with a couple of poignant side-stories. And imagine the soundtrack…

TOBY DELLER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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