Prokofiev and Shostakovich under Stalin – Hail to Stalin (20 March)

Zdravista, Op.85
Ivan the Terrible (Scenes)
The Unforgettable Year 1919 – The Assault on Red Hill
The Fall of Berlin – Final Scene
Chamber Symphony, Op.110a (String Quartet No.8 arr. Barshai)

Lukas Vondracek (piano)

Philharmonia Chorus
Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 20 March, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

On this particular date, music by Prokofiev and Shostakovich eulogising the achievements and personal qualities of a tyrannical leader (in this case, of course, Stalin) made for decidedly uncomfortable listening. The over-riding thought was one of regret and sadness at the notion that these two men had to expend their time and talent on what were essentially ephemeral tasks.

Equally, one has to acknowledge that both composers had to be seen to be ’towing the party line’ for reasons of earning a living and, perhaps, providing some measure of comparative safety and security for themselves and their families.

By way of introduction, Vladimir Ashkenazy spoke most movingly of how he is still coming to terms with the history of the times when people he knew were persecuted and killed, and reflected on the unease he felt at hearing the music he was about to conduct. Specifically, the idea of Prokofiev ’glorifying’ Stalin and the ’anodyne’ music Shostakovich wrote for The Fall of Berlin clearly made him uncomfortable.

The programme opened with Prokofiev’s Zdravista – A Toast to Stalin. What is immediately apparent is that Prokofiev’s inventiveness had certainly not been left behind in what must have been a tasteless – and thankless – task in setting a text whose sentiments can only be described as nauseating. Yet the opening melody, later to re-appear in different guises and finally sung by the full chorus, can only be described as ’beautiful’. The scoring is inventive and imaginative and illustrative of the text. More lyrical passages alternate with march-like declamatory moments – and the preponderance of military-sounding music was a notable feature of the pieces heard in the first half of this concert. It was impossible to discern from ’Hail to Stalin’ whether or not Prokofiev was anything other than sincere in hymning ’our dear Josef Stalin’, as the folk-based text puts it. And this factor alone made hearing it all the more disquieting. I suppose a full-blooded rendition of this work is probably nowadays out of the question for obvious ideological reasons. The Philharmonia played persuasively, enjoying Prokofiev’s alternately piquant and opulent scoring, but the chorus was less than ideally robust. Ashkenazy directed an efficient performance and if conviction was not apparent, that was understandable.

Music from Prokofiev’s score to Eisenstein’s film “Ivan Grozny” (Ivan the Terrible) was presented alongside screened excerpts from the film itself. I’m not sure that this was entirely successful, as there were several places where the screen went blank and the music continued, and I am not convinced that the extracts which were played were originally intended to directly accompany the images which were shown. Be that as it may, it gave an opportunity to relish the atmospheric moods – especially in the coronation and battle scenes – which Prokofiev created.

Ecclesiastical singing (including the melody also used by Tchaikovsky for the opening of his 1812 Overture) was pitted against some quite graphic and violent orchestral imagery. It was not hard to imagine that the composer might have had a tyrant other than Ivan in mind when creating this darkly brooding music which is remarkable for its alternating moods of stillness and frenetic activity.

The ghost of Tchaikovsky loomed large in the scene ’The Assault on the Red Hill’ from Shostakovich’s score for “The Unforgettable Year 1919”. This, and “The Fall of Berlin”, comes from what must have been the nadir of Shostakovich’s creative (and personal?) life which saw him, like Prokofiev, dutifully turning out scores of almost unbelievable banality such as the oratorio The Song of the Forests and the cantata The Sun shines over our Motherland. For The Assault on the Red Hill, Shostakovich composed what is in effect a concerto-movement for piano and orchestra. The solo part was taken with aplomb by the young Czech Lukas Vondracek who was, unfortunately, rather drowned out at times by the orchestra who played the lush melody for all it is worth – and more. This is surely an echo of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, with a strong dose of Rachmaninov thrown in for good measure and, as such, uncharacteristic of Shostakovich. Quite what this passionate music has to do with a troop assault is difficult to know, as a planned projection of the scene was not possible. Instead, various stills of Stalin were shown.

The man himself (or a reasonably convincing double) appeared in person for the final, ludicrous scene of “The Fall of Berlin” where director Mikhail Chiaureli has Stalin arrive to liberate Berlin and receive the acknowledgement of the cheering crowds. Shostakovich manfully provides appropriately tub-thumping music whose triteness must have been distressing for him to write. And yet the music is expertly scored (as one might expect) and the melodies irritatingly memorable. One was reminded of Noel Coward’s comment about “the potency of cheap music”. Again, there is a quibble about the presentation – the final scene of the film was shown, but a composite of various movements from a suite of the music was played; this allowed one to sample the score as a whole, but of course music and image were mismatched. Chorus and orchestra were as convincing as it was decently possible for them to be.

Following the interval, it was the turn of the ’real’ Shostakovich to speak or, at least, Shostakovich at one removed. Although Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement for string orchestra of the Eighth String Quartet was authorised by the composer, I have never felt that this essentially private music – almost painfully so at times – is as successful on the larger orchestral canvass as it is on the medium for which it was composed. These personal utterances, replete with self-quotations and pervaded with DSCH (Shostakovich’s musical epigram) seem to demand an intimate delivery and a hushed concentration which a string quartet can provide.

However, it was sobering to ponder this music following on from “The Fall of Berlin” and a more graphic demonstration of the ’public’ and ’private’ composer is difficult to imagine. If this performance was not ideally poised, then perhaps the excesses of the first part of the evening were responsible. There were some moments of dubious intonation and ensemble, but the solo violin and cello were most expressive and eloquent.

Altogether, this was a provocative evening and whilst one might not necessarily be anxious to hear Zdravitsa or “The Fall of Berlin” again in a hurry, it was important that they were included in this series as examples of what Prokofiev and Shostakovich had to produce ’under Stalin’

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