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With one online retailer currently listing 600 available biographies and memoirs of Shostakovich, finding something new to say about the Soviet Union’s most famous musical son – and its most stubbornly private – presents a not inconsiderable challenge.

But here Wendy Lesser, novelist, author of books on literature, art and theatre, and editor of the American Literary Journal The Threepenny Review, has managed to find a unique avenue of exploration that reveals much about how the music – specifically the 15 string quartets – derives from significant moments in Shostakovich’s life and can offer tantalising insights into his shrouded personality.

It is a novel approach in both senses of the word: Lesser is the first to examine the quartets as a looking glass for the life, and her interrogation serves to illuminate both the music and the man by providing a narrative that is both cogent and compelling. Dealt with in chronological order, the book weaves together original analysis of the quartets with revealing interviews with Shostakovich’s family, friends and colleagues, who lend pertinence and poignancy in equal measure to the discussion, and with musicians from the Emerson, Alexander and Vertigo String Quartets, who contribute often incisive commentaries on the music from, as it were, the inside out.

Lesser writes with a novelist’s keen grasp of storytelling, her extended opening paragraph an exemplary enumeration of the many, still largely unresolvable contradictions that continue to excite such intrigue and nagging interest about the music and its enigmatic creator. she also brings to bear a forensic scientist’s eye for detail and a psychiatrist’s grasp of nuance and what is left unsaid, worrying away at the fidelity to meaning and motive claimed by contemporary commentary.

Written with the general reader in mind, it is an altogether remarkable book; a deeply serious and scholarly yet astutely accessible and rewarding portrait of a man caught and confined within a murderous maelstrom whose response was music in which the personal and the political are indelibly, and perhaps intractably, intertwined.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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