Back in the USSR

Red All Over: The not-so-great dictator hovers above Carnegie Hall.Photo: Chris Lee

Vladimir Ashkenazy brought the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra to Carnegie Hall not long ago and bravely confronted his past—literally so—in the first program. The music was by Shostakovich and Prokofiev, and the concert included clips from Soviet films glorifying Stalin, scenes that would surely bring back painful memories for any musician who grew up in Russia during the forties. There was the murderous dictator himself, played by a glamorized look-alike actor, welcoming the troops, beaming at a worshipful populace, and shamelessly manipulating the myth. To make matters worse, two of Russia’s greatest composers provided the musical soundtrack, and, to judge from the soaring strains and tub-thumping bravura, they did so with unabashed enthusiasm.

Well, not quite. In an ingenious stroke of creative programming, Ashkenazy arranged the first concert to show two sides of Shostakovich and Prokofiev: in their official capacities as good Soviet artist-citizens turning out poster art in the service of the state, and then, after intermission, as secret protesters writing the music that expressed what they really felt.

The Czech Philharmonic played this concert—all three concerts, in fact—with unfailing brilliance and commitment, even when the music was less than deathless. Both as pianist and conductor, Ashkenazy can seem blandly impersonal, for all his musicianship and grasp of style, but on this occasion he seemed like a man possessed, closely in touch with a musical period of his life that he obviously cares about very deeply.

Shostakovich mostly put his private thoughts into chamber music, a safe genre that was of no particular concern to the Soviet power structure, and his most open indictments of the regime came only during the latter part of his life, after Stalin’s death in 1953. Prokofiev, on the other hand, did not have the good fortune to outlive Stalin—they died on the same day. The best music of his last years shows him struggling to reconcile the world of his creative fantasy and the cruel reality of the times, especially after the infamous Party Decree of 1948 that censored virtually every Soviet composer of any real prominence or artistic independence.

Shostakovich’s musical duality is rather more complex, and what his music really signifies is debated to this day. In most cases, his official Soviet music is so appallingly bad that some believe he must have made it sound that way on purpose. The pseudo-Tchaikovsky piano concerto he wrote in 1951 for the film The Unforgettable Year 1919, positively hilarious in its astounding banality, is a classic example. We heard that on the opening program, but also on the blistering satirical Antiformalist Rayok of 1948 for solo bass and chorus, an indictment of Soviet policy so mordant and dissonant that Shostakovich dared put the piece on paper only a decade later. That dangerous statement was followed by a score that delves even deeper and more poignantly into the composer’s private world: the chamber-symphony version of the Eighth String Quartet, an autobiographical confession that quotes passages from many of his censored earlier works.

Prokofiev may have hated and feared Stalin as much as Shostakovich did, but at the same time there were certain aspects of Soviet Realism that apparently appealed to him. The pageantry and epic scale of Sergei Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible certainly stirred his imagination and taste for instrumental splendor, as a half-hour sampling amply demonstrated. He even managed to endow the sycophantic verses of the brief 1939 cantata Hail to Stalin with so much musical wit and compositional ingenuity that one feels rather guilty at enjoying the work. Even at that, nothing by Prokofiev on Ashkenazy’s three programs compared with his Sixth Symphony. This brooding score may never exert the popular appeal of its immediate predecessor, but the stabbing strains of grim tragedy that color every page proclaim it the greater piece.

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Music and Dictatorship: Russia Under Stalin
Music by Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy at Carnegie Hall.

Back in the USSR