Prokofiev and Shostakovich under Stalin – On Guard for Peace (16 March)

The Meeting of the Volga and the Don, Op.130
On Guard for Peace, Op.124
Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.77

Vadim Repin (violin)

Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo-soprano)
James Leveson (treble)
New London Children’s Choir
London Philharmonic Choir

Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 16 March, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

A joint tribute to Prokofiev and Shostakovich, against the backdrop the Soviet ruler who determined the course their mature music was to take, is an effective way of marking the deaths – 50 years ago on March 5 – of Prokofiev and Stalin. Certainly the four-language banners displayed against a lurid red backdrop on the Festival Hall platform set up an occasion whose mingling of tragedy and irony was embedded in the music itself.

It’s generally been agreed that Prokofiev’s last years of creativity, marred by ill-health and stylistic uncertainty in the wake of the ’Zhdanov decree’, are an anti-climax after the magnificent series of works from the war years and their aftermath. Vladimir Ashkenazy tackled the issue head on by including two of the most ’official’ works from the period. A Festive Poem marking the completion of a canal linking Russia’s European and Asian waterways (with massive ecological damage only belatedly acknowledged), The Meeting of the Volga and the Don (1951) is a well-crafted depiction of the forces of man conquering nature – marked by a suitably grandiloquent apotheosis, with a calculated degree of overkill in the repetitive closing bars. Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia pitched in enthusiastically, though one has the distinct impression that such music sounds better the worse that it is played.

The eulogising is made concrete in the oratorio On Guard for Peace (1950) – a paean for world peace, in which the courageous defenders of Russia in wartime are elided with the desire of youth to see peace in the world, or so Samuil Marshak’s intentionally servile text would have it (though the brickbats directed at the nation across the Atlantic may have struck a resonance in the minds of many listeners). Prokofiev responds with a loosely-connected sequence of episodes which often does little more than ’set’ the text in a blandly appropriate context. Contributions from mezzo-soprano and treble – ably taken by Lilli Paasikivi and James Leveson – are as attractively idiomatic as the writing for chorus and children’s choir. Yet there’s an underlying sense of going through the motions that not even the wistful ’Lullaby’ of the seventh movement can dispel. At least in the post-Soviet era the work can be aired without airbrushing-out its (now chilling) references to Stalin, making it a historical document worth revival in a commemoration such as this – though the release of several hundred white doves was needed to make the occasion truly authentic!

The disparity between reflecting the spirit of the times and accessing its deeper reality was confirmed by Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, which followed after the interval. Unorthodox programming, but the point could only be made thus, and the concerto has a symphonic formal and emotional breadth that make it a viable ’second half’ work. In any case, it would have been difficult to follow Vadim Repin’s magisterial assumption of the solo part – a further stage in his interpretation of a work which, in recent years, he has made his own.

True, the opening Nocturne had occasional thinness of string tone, but the chamber-like interaction of soloist and orchestra had a mesmerising intensity. Repin was mindful not to overplay the sarcasm of the Scherzo, nor to emote unnecessarily as the pathos of the Passacaglia builds to its apex of searing emotion. A powerful underlying rhythmic motion was evident in the lengthy Cadenza – the development section of the whole concerto – with Repin maintaining the closing Burlesca’s momentum with unflagging energy. With Ashkenazy an attentive and responsive accompanist (in a work he himself attended the premiere of in 1955), this was a performance poised on a knife-edge of tragedy and triumph.

Indeed, the programming of Prokofiev works in this series gives the unfortunate impression of his acquiescing to Soviet officialdom to a degree unfounded on the basis of his output after 1936 as a whole. A pity that the Russian Overture, a masterpiece of ’official’ music with integrity, could not have been programmed, while a concert juxtaposing wartime works such as The Year 1941 suite and Ode to the End of the War with the tragic masterpiece that is the Sixth Symphony would really have clarified the issue of Prokofiev’s ’outer’ and ’inner’ sensibilities. On its own terms, however, the present concert offered undeniable and far from comfortable food for thought.

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