The Great Russian Music Trail (Part 2/2)

The ultimate romantic
Tchaikovsky is usually set apart from The Five on account of his more cosmopolitan style. But you can’t make such generalisations. The last movement of his underrated and very lovely Second Symphony (1872/80) is entirely in the Kamarinskaya mould, right down to the use of folksong, and the Russian spirit invigorates the superb finale of the First Piano Concerto (1875) and many of his operas. Drawing on such diverse influences as Mozart, Schumann and Liszt, Tchaikovsky went beyond the relatively simple symphonic ideas of Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov to produce some of the finest orchestral music of the nineteenth century, especially in his Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique (1893). His ballets are the finest examples of the genre in existence.

The twentieth century
Far from declining after so much creative talent in the nineteenth century, Russia went on to produce one of the two seminal musical geniuses of the twentieth century, Igor Stravinsky – the other was Schoenberg – and one of the most-played composers of our time, Dmitri Shostakovich.

Stravinsky was a Rimsky-Korsakov pupil. His first works recall the exquisite orchestral plumage of his teacher, but in just a few years he progressed from the nationalist strains of The Firebird, through the bitonality and rhythmic liberation of Petruschka, to the awesome might of The Rite of Spring with its atonal harmonies and additive rhythmic structures. No greater genius has graced the century, and although he distanced himself from Russia in his later works, the influence of his homeland burns brightly in the early masterpieces and is recalled in the later music as well.

A few years before Stravinsky was upsetting the musical establishment, Sergei Rachmaninov was embarking on a career that embraced the most voluptuous, exquisite strains of the tonal system that Alexander Scriabin and Stravinsky had supplanted. While Scriabin found new chords to base his music on, culminating in the celebrated mystic chord, Rachmaninov drew ever sweeter nuances from the triad in his piano concertos and symphonies.

It was clear that after the 1917 revolution, Russian music would never be the same again. Some composers left, while others welcomed Lenin’s New Economic Policy established in 1921, which allowed artistic freedom unimaginable later on in the 1930s. Sergei Prokofiev and Shostakovich both experimented with harmony and form at this time. Prokofiev’s Third Symphony (1928) positively batters one over the head with its noisy dissonances and vast array of orchestral effects.

Given an absolute dictator utterly devoid of musical discrimination, it is hardly any surprise that after 1932 Stalin forced composers away from their ‘formalist’ experiments towards works expressive of ‘Socialist Realism’. The amazing thing is that in spite of all this, composers didn’t devote all their energy to C major cantatas in praise of the local collective farm: creativity flourished. In 1937 Shostakovich silenced criticism in his inspired Fifth Symphony after a nasty run-in with Stalin over his opera Lady Macbeth (1932). The secret, evidently, was to bury one’s real thoughts in musical invention which he didn’t understand.

Since the war there have been many changes. For a long time the progressive strains in Soviet music, the avant garde, remained underground. Then in the late 1970s concerts in Cologne and elsewhere gave us some of the first glimpses of what was going on behind the crumbling façade of Socialist Realism: Schnittke, Denisov and Gubaidulina had not only learnt the avant garde techniques of the west, they had managed to revitalise them with all the profundity, sense of colour and lyrical imperative of Russian music.

Classic CD magazine, 1995


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